“It’s not my job to make you a better man and I don’t care if I’ve made you a better man. It’s not a woman’s job to be consumed and invaded and spat out so that some man can evolve.”- Jenny Schecter, The L Word
She is a ray of sunshine in the dull life of the hero. She walks in with a sprinkle of glitter, smiles all the time, is full of quirks and invests her vintage-clad self completely in changing the hero, and bringing colour into his life. Her name is irrelevant, because the story is never about her. Sometimes she can be named after a season, and sometimes a woman in the hero’s past he never got over. This is the Manic Pixie Dream Girl, one of the simultaneously most tiresome and most enduring tropes in cinema.
The Manic Pixie Dream Girl is essentially a free-spirited, positive character with a unique outlook on life, but has no interests or agency of her own, except to improve the hero’s life. The term was coined by film critic Nathan Rabin to describe Kirsten Dunst’s character in Elizabethtown. According to Rabin, “The Manic Pixie Dream Girl exists solely in the fevered imaginations of sensitive writer-directors to teach broodingly soulful young men to embrace life and its infinite mysteries and adventures.” This is the fundamental problem with this trope: she is never a real, fleshed-out person in the context of the film. She is always seen through the filtered perception of the hero, and the only parts of her personality that are highlighted are the ones that serve the hero’s purposes.
Though seemingly harmless, the MPDG is in some ways, a more harmful a stereotypification than the damsel in distress of action movies, because it recognises that women are intelligent, inspiring, have defined personality traits and ways of looking at life, but implies that all these qualities are best deployed in the service of “saving a man.” It places the woman’s life and interests at a position secondary to the man’s. It is also extremely reductive, because the only things the audience gets to know about these women apart from their affinity for hair dye, their penchant for painting birds on the hero’s grey walls, and their tendency to break into spontaneous dance routines. We don’t know about their hopes, fears, and issues, we don’t know what motivates them, and haunts them, in a nutshell, we don’t know what makes them human. And they aren’t meant to be human, with human failings and imperfections. They’re simply temporary stops on the hero’s journey to a better self, as is seen in 500 Days Of Summer : after Summer, comes Autumn. And the qualities the hero projects on to her are what eventually breaks him. “Yes, Summer has elements of the manic pixie dream girl – she is an immature view of a woman,” says director Webb. “She’s Tom’s view of a woman. He doesn’t see her complexity and the consequence for him is heartbreak.”
The trope has harmful real-world consequences too. The MPDG is an ideal distillation of every unique positive quality a woman must have. It creates, like all tropes do, unrealistic expectations that can be exhausting to live up to. The Manic Pixie Dream Girl is not just an onscreen fantasy–she’s a template for young women’s lives. Fiction creates real life, and women try to behave in ways that they find sanctioned in stories written by men. The constant pressure on women to be cheerful, bubbly and quirky, and to use these attributes to turn a man’s life around is damaging. The ideal urban woman is expected to smile all the time, and not have any issues of her own. While, both in art and in real life, the hero’s shortcomings and less-than-ideal state of life is almost glorified as a canvas on which to paint his tortured self, any signs of the messy puddles of human existence in the woman’s life is met with instant distaste. The MPDG doesn’t allow women to have problems with body image, mental health issues, or troubled pasts. Seeing the idealisation of this trope makes it seem as though women must go through life as a caricature of their happiest selves.
This is evident in the fact that women who don’t have a smile plastered on their faces all the time are questioned and labelled as unusual at best. This is an obviously ludicrous expectation when confronted logically – why on earth should anybody smile all the time? For women, it is a requirement. “Smiling is very much associated as a gender marker,” says Marianne LaFrance, Ph.D., a professor of women’s, gender, and sexuality studies at Yale University and author of the book Why Smile?. “It marks one’s femininity and a more communal stance toward life. Though smiling is generally a positive characteristic, it falls to women to do more of it because we want to make sure women are doing what we expect them to do, which is to care for others.” This productification of women extends to film personalities, politicians, and sports stars. Serena Williams rightly reacted with exasperation when she was asked during a press conference why she wasn’t smiling, “It’s 11:30. To be perfectly honest with you, I don’t want to be here. I just want to be in bed right now and I have to wake up early to practice and I don’t want to answer any of these questions. And you keep asking me the same questions. It’s not really … you’re not making it super enjoyable.”
By glorifying the need for women to “save” men, the MPDG plays into another toxic aspect of relationships – that a women must devote her whole life and being into improving a man, which is often proved to be an entirely sacrificial, thankless and useless undertaking. The concept is fundamentally flawed, because the end result is often an unfulfilling and harmful relationship for women, which ultimately proves futile.
The effect of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl is so pervasive that Rabin is now disowning the term. “I’m sorry for creating this unstoppable monster I feel deeply weird, if not downright ashamed, at having created a cliche that has been trotted out again and again in an infinite Internet feedback loop.” Zoe Kazan – a young actor who has no doubt been offered MPDG parts – has voiced her distaste with the term, calling it “reductive and diminutive, and I think basically misogynist”, and saying it gets applied to female characters who don’t actually fit the trope. The obvious effect of the creation of a trope is that it typecasts women who actually possess the traits of the MPDG, and labels them as unrealistic cliches. But the term need not be cast aside completely, because it points out the lazy and irresponsible typecasting that has had damaging consequences both on-screen and off screen.
The end of the MPDG would be beneficial, not just for women, but for men too. The Manic Pixie Dream Girl has only one purpose : as a catalyst for male transformation. Both in her real and fictional manifestations, she sends out the message, that the soulful and sensitive young man can only learn to appreciate life by falling in love with a woman who sees the bright colors and we need women who are lead characters and we as an audience deserve to see men who love these women for the complicated, and decidedly non-ethereal people they are. Clementine in Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind puts it best, “I’m not a concept. Too many guys think I’m a concept or I complete them or I’m going to ‘make them alive’…but I’m just a fucked up girl who’s looking for my own peace of mind. Don’t assign me yours.”
Photo Credit: Flickr (Mayumi Atanacio)