The Manic Pixie Dream Case

Every once in a while on our show, we talk about a film concept. Today we are taking a look at a specific film trope that has existed since the screwball comedies of the 1930’s. It endured through generations, although nameless, until 2007 when a film critic coined the term: Manic Pixie Dream Girl (MPDG.)

Dictionary.com defines the term: “a type of female character depicted as vivacious and appealingly quirky, whose main purpose within the narrative is to inspire a greater appreciation for life in a male protagonist.” 

But, what exactly does this mean? Is it pointing out a sexist portrayal of women in film, or is the term itself sexist? Has the term gotten out of hand, and who exactly qualifies as a Manic Pixie Dream Girl? Today we’re taking a look at the creation of the term, and its influence on pop culture.

*Disclaimer* It’s okay to like any or all of the movies that we will mention in this episode. I (Marci) in fact have always loved watching many of these. As a viewer we must be aware that movies may, even if unintentionally, portray people in a way that could cause cultural harm by reinforcing certain stereotypes. 

WHO COINED THIS PHRASE AND WHAT DOES IT MEAN? 

  • Let’s go back to 2007, a time when flip phones, flared jeans, flash mobs, and popped collars were popular. At this time the AV Club website was still fairly small and not as well known as it is now. Nathan Rabin, one of their writers, wrote a review of the 2005 romance drama Elizabethtown. While his review did not shed a positive light on the movie, it narrowed in on one particular character that bothered him: Claire Colburn. Claire is the romantic love interest of Orlando Bloom’s character Drew Baylor. 
  • Drew Baylor is a down-on-his-luck shoe designer that recently cost his company almost a billion dollars on a failed shoe design. Just as Drew is fired from his job and contemplating suicide, he receives a call that his father has passed away. So, Drew hops on a plane to go take care of the funeral arrangements for his family. Enter Claire. 
  • When Nathan Rabin describes Claire he coins the phrase Manic Pixie Dream Girl:
    • Quote “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. The Manic Pixie Dream Girl is an all-or-nothing-proposition. Audiences either want to marry her instantly (despite The Manic Pixie Dream Girl being, you know, a fictional character) or they want to commit grievous bodily harm against them and their immediate family.”
Kirsten Dunst and Orlando Bloom in Elizabethtown
Kirsten Dunst and Orlando Bloom in Elizabethtown
  • Because the AV Club wasn’t well-known, the article received little attention. 
  • But, in 2008, Rabin and his colleagues published another article entitled, “Wild Things: 16 Films Featuring Manic Pixie Dream Girls.” 
    • Maybe it was a combination of a catchy name and a list of popular movie characters, but this article attracted much more attention when it was published.
    • The reactions were mixed, some believed that the term needed to be created to point out a misogynistic movie trope; others were upset to see characters they truly loved and identified with, presented as an unflattering example of a poorly written female character.
  • While a lot of characters throughout film history have some of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl attributes, the defining quality for MPDG is that they receive NO REAL TRANSFORMATION throughout the film. They have no story arc of their own and exist solely to progress the man’s transformation. 
  • Calling a character MPDG is more of a critique of the filmmakers than it is of the character itself. You might find yourself wondering: why would audiences identify with a character that represents a sexist movie trope? The answer is simple. 
    • First of all, people are complicated and they like what they like.
    • Second, let’s take a line from Who Framed Roger Rabbit: “I’m not bad, I’m just drawn that way.” These are not bad characters, but characters that weren’t treated fairly within the context of the story–not by other characters, but by the film itself.  

CHARACTERS DESCRIBED AS MPDG’S ACCORDING TO NATHAN RABIN AND COLLEAGUES

57ccc40cf7887c4f9d28776b988e4c94.jpg
Mary Winstead in Scott Pilgrim vs. the World as Ramona Flower
  • 16 Characters were named in the list, but we will point out just a few to discuss today, and whether or not we agree with assigning them this term.
    • Sam in Garden State played by Natalie Portman
    • Penny Lane in Almost Famous played by Kate Hudson
    • Annie Hall in Annie Hall played by Diane Keaton
    • Holly Golightly in Breakfast at Tiffany’s played by Audrey Hepburn
    • Sara Deever in Sweet November played by Charlize Theron
  • One character not mentioned in the article but who comes up often is Ramona Flowers in Scott Pilgrim vs. the World.
  • If you would like to hear our take on each of these characters be sure to take a listen to our episode!
Kate Hudson in Almost Famous
anniehall_070pyxurz-8338-44e2-52a1.jpg

MPDG MISS-CONCEPTIONS

As a term or phrase is used, there will always be times when it is misused or misunderstood. Two of the most common movies that get accused of the MPDG trope are Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and 500 Days of Summer. The female characters in these movies, however, have their own goals, arcs, and intentions and are not solely there for the man. If you have not seen these movies please do, they were really well done.

  • Clementine, from Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, appears at first glance to be a pixie because she has colorful hair, her introduction to us is whimsical, and she is quirky. However this is all turned around on us with conversations within the movie and (spoilers) when we find out she chose to erase the male protagonist from her memory. What we thought was their first meeting was in fact technically their second. So when she seems to know him she doesn’t realize that it’s because she did. She just can’t remember.
    • There is a great scene in this movie where the male protagonist Joel, played by Jim Carrey, is talking to Clementine but it is made clear that it is a combination of a memory he has of them talking with added dialogue from his new perspective on the relationship that they had. It illustrates that Clementine makes decisions that are in her own interest and not to further his life.
      • Clementine: Too many guys think I’m a concept, or I complete them, or I’m gonna make them alive. But I’m just a fucked-up girl who’s lookin’ for my own peace of mind; don’t assign me yours.
      • Joel: I remember that speech really well.
      • Clementine: I had you pegged, didn’t I?
      • Joel: You had the whole human race pegged.
      • Clementine: Hmm. Probably.
      • Joel: I still thought you were gonna save my life… even after that.
      • Clementine: Ohhh… I know.
  • While 500 Days of Summer is told as most MPDG films are, through the male perspective, if you look a little closer you will see that throughout the entire film Summer (played by Zooey Deschanel) is not afraid to say what it is she wants and stand up for herself. She clearly from the beginning says that she does not believe in love and that she does not want a full relationship with Joseph Gordon Levitt’s character Tom. 
    • In a bar scene where he “defends her honor” after she is hit on by another man she chastises Tom saying “Oh, really? Was that for me? Was that for my benefit? Okay, well, next time don’t, ’cause I don’t need your help.”  
    • The biggest flip comes at the end of the movie. Remember when we talked about how a Manic Pixie Dream Girl has no transformation? Well with Summer, not only does she inadvertently teach Tom about life and love, she learns too. He has changed her. She is finally able to accept a marriage from someone else, something she thought she would never do. She does what she wants and what she believes will make her happy.

DOES THE CLASSIFICATION OF MPDG RELY ON WHICH PERSPECTIVE THE STORY IS SHOWN THROUGH, GUY VS. GIRL?

  • Elizabethtown is the first movie that Nathan Rabin called out as an MPDG movie. It is hard not to notice that this story is shown through the male perspective. If you look up examples of these movies you may even notice that the majority of them are in fact through the man’s viewpoint. Let’s look at the difference between two specific movies that were both made in 2001.
Charlize Theron in Sweet November
Charlize Theron in Sweet November
  • Example of a male perspective- Sweet November
    • In this movie, that Nathan Rabin listed in 2008, we are fed the story through the perspective of Keanu Reeves’s character Nelson. His love interest Sara is played by Charlize Theron. This movie is a “by the book” MPDG. Nelson is the classic workaholic that does not have time to appreciate life and the people around him. When we are introduced to Sara, she is a quirky eccentric character that wears colorful scarves and saves puppies from being experimented on. 
    • There are many times within this movie that she says all she wants to do is help Nelson, that he doesn’t need to understand her and she “has a special ability to help men with problems.” She is the excitement in his life and she gets him to treat others better. She refuses to talk about her family (we learn of one sister) or her life because it is her month to help him
Renée Zellweger in Bridget Jones’s Diary
Renée Zellweger in Bridget Jones’s Diary
  • Now let’s compare with an example of a female perspective- Bridget Jones’s Diary 
    • In this modern adaptation of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice we are introduced to Bridget Jones as the female protagonist. She is a woman with goals that she writes down in a diary. We get to hear her through voice-over narration talk about her career, family, friends, love, and self-image. These are all things that people struggle with in life, especially women. Her love life just so happens to be caught between the two men in the film Marc Darcy (played by Colin Firth) and Daniel Cleaver (played by Hugh Grant.)
    • Imagine Bridget’s character if the movie was told through Marc Darcy’s perspective? Bridget is quirky, awkward, and teaches a staunch and formal man to break his engagement with another woman that he does not love.    

Being that these movies tend to be from the male perspective it would suggest that the MPDG hinges on there being a male lead. Once a woman becomes the protagonist she is given goals and problems, which in turn creates a transformation to her character instead of focusing on his. 

HOW HAS IT AFFECTED POP CULTURE? IS IT DAMAGING TO YOUNG WOMEN TO VIEW?

  • In a NewsStatesMen article by a woman named Laurie Penny, she identifies herself as an “MPDG” and says she grew into that personality because of the rise of the stereotype in the media. 
    • “Manic Pixies, like other female archetypes, crop up in real life partly because fiction creates real life, particularly for those of us who grow up immersed in it.” — Laurie Penny
    • She goes on to later say, “Men grow up expecting to be the hero of their own story, women grow up expecting to be the supporting actress in somebody else’s.”
  • In an Atlantic article, writer Hugo Schwyzer uses Penny’s piece, but from the male perspective. He explains how the trope can cause men to have a skewed view of women in real life. Schwyzer explains, “As unstable as she may be, the Manic Pixie Dream Girl not only senses a young man’s potential in a way he can’t, she intuitively knows how to lead him to his destiny. She knows him better than he knows himself, or so he believes. That convenient assumption allows the young man both to adore the MPDG and to avoid any responsibility for reciprocity. How can he be expected to give anything back when she has this magical intuition about the world that so vastly exceeds his own?”
  • Schwyzer describes how he played the role of the male to the MPDG in real life with a woman. He explains that the relationship they had was one-sided, and after knowing each other for years, she committed suicide. He was shocked. He knew nothing about her mental illness, and he realized that he never asked. 
    • This is an extreme example of how dangerous the archetype can be, but it shows that these ideas can cause real world issues in relationships.
    • While Laurie Penny said, “For me, Manic Pixie Dream Girl was the story that fit,” writes Laurie Penny, admitting that she had the “basic physical and personality traits… the raw materials” to live into the part; Hugo Schwyzer said, “I, on the other hand, had the requisite qualities to be the boy who fell in love with MPDGs”–Hugo Schwyzer
  • It’s bad for both men and women, which ends being just doubly bad for women. Women are expected to be supporting actors in life’s movies for men, and then men are expected to use women for their own self-discovery while never helping or challenging their female counterparts to grow. 
  • There are also examples of media that inadvertently perpetuate the stereotype, even while trying to destroy it. 
    • For example, writer John Greene, author of the popular Young Adult books “The Fault in Our Stars” and “Paper Towns.” 
    • Green explained that, “Paper Towns is devoted IN ITS ENTIRETY to destroying the lie of the manic pixie dream girl… I do not know how I could have been less ambiguous about this without calling the novel The Patriarchal Lie of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl Must Be Stabbed in the Heart and Killed.”
      • Others argue that as much as John Greene claims that it is a destruction of the phrase it actually feeds right into the trope. The main reason being that at the end of the book and movie we are left with only the mystery of who Margo is because she exits Quentin’s (the male protagonist) story having changed him. In the end of the movie Quentin says “Because whatever Margo is doing, wherever she is now, I’m sure it’s something special. But hey… That’s her story to tell.” On a surface level this is good, we know that she has her own life and story but also shows that for this movie she was still just an MPDG elevating Quentin’s story line. 

HAS THE TERM SPUN OUT OF CONTROL? 

In recent years there has been a call to lay the phrase to rest and cancel it. When Nathan Rabin first released this phrase into the world he meant no harm. He was simply trying to point out that there are movies (especially like Elizabethtown) where the female characters are left underdeveloped by writers and directors.  

Nathan Rabin in a July 2014 Salon article apologized for coining the phrase. He said, “I remember thinking, even back then, that a whole list of Manic Pixie Dream Girls might be stretching the conceit too far. The archetype of the free-spirited life-lover who cheers up a male sad-sack had existed in the culture for ages. But by giving an idea a name and a fuzzy definition, you apparently also give it power. And in my case, that power spun out of control.”

Unfortunately it has now become a kind of catch all for any girl that is slightly different or quirky. 

There are examples of the term being used to describe actual people. Based on the definition, this is inherently as incorrect as it is hurtful. The MPDG qualification relies on the idea that the female character doesn’t have an arc of her own. How could we look at any real woman and determine that she doesn’t have her own goals and life journey? 

One such example is a Bulwark article calling Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, “the left’s manic pixie dream girl.” The case could be made that the phrase is reaching a point where it is causing some measure of harm, and it all started from a movie review.

HAS THE INVENTION OF THIS PHRASE ENDED UP BEING A GOOD THING?

In recent years there has been a greater focus on how women are represented in movies. We see this with the Bechdel test and the pointing out of harmful stereotypes. It can be as simple as when a woman, to become a bombshell, removes their “geeky” glasses and takes down their hair. In a Washington Post Article Sonia Rao said that “The Manic Pixie Dream Girl trope demonstrates our culture’s compulsive need to categorize people.” The question is, does categorizing these characters help or hurt our society?

  • Some would argue that the term has been used to subvert audience expectations. 500 Days of Summer is a good example of subverting this trope.
    • As opposed to John Greene who tried but was ultimately unsuccessful.
  • In recent years, there has been a movement to take back the term, but the term itself is largely viewed as negative. 
  • But is it inherently negative? Defenders of the term claim that it actually ISN’T bad, it’s the fact that the MPDG’s are not the protagonists of the story. Writer Akilah Hughes, in her HelloGiggles article, lists some characters that she thinks are MPDG’s but are also protagonists: Zenon, Pippi Longstockings, and Ellie in Up.
    • Hughes says that she “shows up unannounced all spritely and cute and gets Carl to come out of his shell.”

So, even though the term may be misused, and in some cases could be harmful, what’s more harmful is what Nathan Rabin was trying to pin down. Women are not magic (well, not all of them anyway). They do not appear only for the purpose of others, especially not men. And, if your favorite female characters have been called a Manic Pixie Dream Girl, don’t get too upset. It doesn’t mean the character–or even the movie is bad. It means that this woman wasn’t shot with the correct metaphorical lens. It means that she wasn’t given her due. 


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