Friday, February 03, 2012

quirky girls — myth, real, endearing, or annoying?

You've seen them in the movies. The quirky girls, who wear mismatched prints in bright colors, hairdos that are always attractively unkempt, and have jobs that just manage to help them scrape by. Quirky girls have even been designated a trope. But do such girls really exist outside of a screenwriter's fantasies? Women are many-faceted, so we all have quirky girl elements in us, but levels of 100% quirk are usually pretty hard to find. But in movies and television the quirky girl is venerated and idealized.

Two celebrations of the quirky girl can be found in the film Happy-Go-Lucky and the sitcom New Girl. There are so many similarities between the girls in question that it makes one wonder how much the creators of New Girl's Jess borrowed from Mike Leigh's always sunny side up character of Poppy.

Whenever I see your smiling face: Sally Hawkins as Poppy in Happy-Go-Lucky
In Happy-Go-Lucky Poppy (Sally Hawkins) is a primary school teacher who always looks on the bright side of life. She can't help herself. Life gives her the giggles. Even when she is at the chiropractor's being manipulated for a painful back injury she is brimming over. She just can't help smiling or laughing. She tries to share her positive world view with everyone she meets. And like a magnet she seems drawn to people who could use a dose of happy — some of them depressed and even psychologically disturbed. Many of the subjects of her happiness pill also happen to be male.

Poppy is aggressively positive, but she is also quite sensitive to others' feelings. At times it seems she may even put herself at risk in order to help someone. She is always on the lookout for the good in people, whether they happen to be a young student bully, a homeless person, or her uptight driving instructor (played by a brilliant Eddie Marsan). She is 30 and single and wondering if she will always be that way, but she isn't torturing herself about it. She shares a flat with her acerbic best friend Zoe (Alexis Zegerman), who tries to talk her down from the clouds from time to time.

Poppy is also exhausting to watch. Some would find her absolutely maddening to be around. She is very childlike, eyes always wide open, just so thrilled to be alive. She has a very individual sense of style, reminiscent of a little girl at dress-up. Poppy may be an existentialist's nightmare, but Happy-Go-Lucky is a wonderful film. It is not manic, like its heroine. As Leigh has done before, he shows us regular people just living their lives and they are fascinating to watch. Although most of us can't or wouldn't want to be like quirky girl Poppy all the time, it might be nice to try to see the good side of things more often, to try to be as open to the world as she is.

Adorkable Zooey Deschanel as Jess in New Girl
One of the year's biggest television hits has been the Zooey Deschanel vehicle New Girl. Like Poppy, Jess is a quirky schoolteacher. After breaking up with her boyfriend she ends up sharing a large apartment with three male roommates — Nick (Jake Johnson), Schmidt (Max Greenfield) and Winston (Lamorne Morris). And also like Poppy, her unique take on things invariably helps the guys, cheers them up, or at the very least opens their eyes to the world of women. New Girl is a sitcom, so Jess is more overtly quirky, more goofy than Poppy, and the characters' problems don't cut quite so deeply as the loneliness and despair that hovers in the background of Happy-Go-Lucky. These two heroines can be annoying, as all that sunshine can get tiring after a while. But both Poppy and Jess are celebrations of women with personality.

Quirky girls in film and television are usually in their '20s and '30s. It easy to find such girls cute and adorkable. But the screen, big and small, usually shies away from such ladies when they hit their 40s and beyond. Or if they are portrayed, they have crossed over from quirky to wacky, eccentric, or full-on crazy. The middle-aged quirky woman is frequently styled with accessories like voluminous scarves, too much jewelry, and an outsized sex drive, a la Kathy Bates in About Schmidt. They become figures of fun, many steps past caricature.

Is that what we ladies have to look forward to as we age? That our personality quirks will become so outsized that we will cross over from arty fun girls to artistes who haunt adult education classes and wine parties? Actually that doesn't sound so bad. But it's not adorkable. The ladies depicted on the blog Advanced Style is a hint of the quirky girl's future. Women can continue to look fashion forward and fabulous. Individualism and style is not just for the young.

Photo by Ari Seth Cohen - Advanced Style
To return to my original question, do quirky girls really exist? Yes, they do. They may be idealized at times, or a little exaggerated. Quirky girls on film and television are an extreme version of what all gals are capable of — a particular style, quirky behavior, personality. We all may not be Poppys or Jesses, but we are all unique, and we should celebrate the quirk. And look what we have to look forward to — some very stylish golden years.

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