The Trope of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl and Why It’s the Actual Worst

-by Dkeama Alexis, student volunteer

On one level or another, we are all familiar with the ways women are overtly objectified and dehumanized in various forms of media, but this practice has evolved to be disseminated in less obvious manners. One of these methods is the use of the ever-popular trope of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl, a form of characterization that essentially robs the female character of any personality whatsoever.

This term was coined by film critic Nathan Rabin during his review of Elizabethtown (not super on board with the title), the quintessential example of a film that makes use of this trope. He describes this role as a woman who “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” but who also doesn’t have her own personality fleshed out in the slightest during the entirety of the movie. Since his partner has been constructed as a blank slate that serves to inspire his self-development, the usually boring, exceedingly insufferable, always stuck-in-a-rut male protagonist can then foist his fantasies and desires onto his partner and find fulfillment, happiness, and/or success in that way, a practice that essentially robs the woman of her own personhood.

Now that I’ve established a basic definition of what this trope is, it’s now time to see the nonsense in practice! I have a few examples of films that I have seen that display the Manic Pixie Dream Girl trope, and I will analyze them using four different quote-based criteria:

1)   Sad Sack Rating – a completely arbitrary measure of how and why the male protagonist is so pathetic and unable to save himself from his own inadequacy

2)   Manic Pixie Dreaming – how the female character embodies characteristics of an MPDG and/or how the male protagonist relegates his partner to this dark realm of MPDG-dom

3)   Thinly Veiled Misogyny – the ways the male protagonist displays his deeply rooted distaste for women even though he has put his female counterpart up on a pedestal

and last but not least

4)   The Voice of Reason – the character that calls the male protagonist on his whiny bullshit (aka the best person ever)

Let’s get this pity party started.

(500) Days of Summer

500

This movie follows the journey of Tom, a young aspiring architect who has found himself working a day job for a greeting card company, and he falls in love with ever-so-quirky-and-adorkable Summer, the beautiful new assistant. Though Summer warns him that she doesn’t believe in love before they get involved, Tom immediately slates her as the object of his affection because she likes the same music he does, encourages him to play the “penis game” in public places, and takes him on a whimsical field trip through an IKEA. Unsurprisingly—or at least it is for those of us not suffering from a romantically inspired case of myopia—Summer breaks it off with Tom BECAUSE SHE WAS NOT IN LOVE WITH HIM, which completely shatters the pedestal on which he placed her. He pisses and moans and eats his feelings until he finally gets his shit together, quits his job, and lands an interview at a prestigious architecture firm but then the movie ends with him finding a girl named Autumn because who cares about learning a lesson am I right? So frustrating.

There are folks out there that argue 500DoS is not a perpetuation but a deconstruction of the trope since Summer makes the conscious decision to leave Tom, but I’m not completely convinced. When things don’t go his way, Tom is painted like the victim of the circumstances when he should be viewed as the main instigator of his unhappiness. Summer’s supposed emotional arc near the end of the film isn’t adequately developed, and it tries to persuade the viewer to demonize her for breaking Tom’s heart instead of show her evolution as a character. Finally, the glaring lack of a lesson learned really debunks that argument for me. Like, really? He really found another girl with a seasonal name?

Sad Sack Rating:

The main problem is that he is incredibly underemployed but remains really complacent about the fact that he’s in a dead-end job.

Summer: Tom could be a really great architect if he wanted to be.

Partygoer: That’s unusual, I mean, what made you go from one to the other?

Tom: I guess I just figured, why make something disposable like a building when you can make something that lasts forever, like a greeting card.

3.5 out of 5 Sad Sacks

Manic Pixie Dreaming:

Tom falls in love with Summer because their music tastes align. This is literally a 30-second-long conversation.

Summer: [Tom is listening to headphones in an elevator with Summer. She notices the music] I love the Smiths.

Tom: Sorry?

Summer: I said I love the Smiths.

Summer: [they stare at each other for a moment] You… You have good taste in music.

Tom: [repeating after her] You… like the Smiths?

Summer: [singing] To die by your side, such a heavenly way to die.

[speaking]

Summer: I love em.

Tom: [elevator stops, Summer leaves while Tom remains dumbfounded] Holy shit.

The intermittent mentions of Summer’s irresistible idiosyncrasies.

Tom: It’s official. I’m in love with Summer.

[while Montage of Summer plays]

Tom: I love her smile. I love her hair. I love her knees. I love how she licks her lips before she talks. I love her heart-shaped birthmark on her neck. I love it when she sleeps.

Summer: I named my cat after Springsteen.

Tom: Cool… what was his name?

Summer: Bruce.

And:

Narrator: The quote in Summer Finns Yearbook was a line from one her favorite bands, Belle and Sebastian. It reads “Color my life with the chaos of trouble.”

This line.

Tom: I love how she makes me feel, like anything’s possible, or like life is worth it.

Thinly Veiled Misogyny:

Tom: Either she’s an evil, emotionless, miserable human being, or… she’s a robot.

Vance: [reading a card that Tom has written] Roses are red, violets are blue… Fuck you, whore!

The Voice of Reason:

Tom’s little sister Rachel rocks.

5001

Rachel Hansen: Look, I know you think she was the one, but I don’t. Now, I think you’re just remembering the good stuff. Next time you look back, I, uh, I really think you should look again.

Also, Joseph Gordon-Levitt had some wise words to say about the character he played. (The interview was with Playboy ironically enough so maybe clicking through is a little NSFW):

“I would encourage anyone who has a crush on my character to watch it again and examine how selfish he is. He develops a mildly delusional obsession over a girl onto whom he projects all these fantasies. He thinks she’ll give his life meaning because he doesn’t care about much else going on in his life…That’s not healthy. That’s falling in love with the idea of a person, not the actual person.”

Preach it, JGL.

Ruby Sparks

ruby

This movie is about a struggling young author who quite literally writes the girl of his dreams into existence. The idea is cute, but it soon goes bad when Calvin manipulates this magic to further perfect his “perfect” girl. Spoiler alert: the fantasy falls apart and everything goes to shit when Ruby starts to develop a life of her own.

 Sad Sack Rating:

Following his highly successful first novel, Calvin is pressured to write an equally as impressive second novel, which only arouses a severe case of writer’s block. Also his ex-girlfriend dumped him soon after his father passed away.

5 out of 5 Sad Sacks because yikes that last bit is pretty harsh.

Manic Pixie Dreaming:

Calvin’s entire monologue about what makes Ruby sooo mysterious and multifaceted.

Calvin Weir-Fields: Ruby’s first crushes were Humphrey Bogart and John Lennon. She cried the day she found out they were already dead. Ruby got kicked out of high school for sleeping with her art teacher… or maybe her Spanish teacher. I haven’t decided yet. Ruby can’t drive. She doesn’t own a computer. She hates her middle name, which is Tiffany. She always, always roots for the underdog. She’s complicated. That’s what I like best about her. Ruby’s not so good at life sometimes. She forgets to open bills or cash checks and… Her last boyfriend was 49. The one before that was an alcoholic. She can feel a change coming. She’s looking for it.

Ah, and I can’t forget this.

Calvin Weir-Fields: I have you. I don’t need anyone else.

Ruby Sparks: That’s a lot of pressure.

Thinly Veiled Misogyny:

Granted, breaking up with someone right after they experience an earth-shattering tragedy is good reason for acrimonious feelings, but Calvin really tapped into his hidden misogynistic tendencies when discussing the breakup with his therapist:

Calvin Weir-Fields: Who leaves someone after their father dies?

Dr. Rosenthal: Someone who couldn’t love you properly.

Calvin Weir-Fields: Someone who is a heartless slut.

Ouch.

The Voice of Reason:

A shining spot of intelligence comes in the form of Harry, Calvin’s best friend.

Harry: Quirky, messy women whose problems only make them endearing are not real.

This pretty much sums up why MPDGs shouldn’t even exist.

 

Elizabethtown

elizabeth town

Here’s the film that motivated Nathan Rabin to come up with a name for the trope. Drew Baylor, once lauded shoe designer, completely flops when his highly anticipated sneaker loses almost 1 billion dollars in revenue. He becomes suicidal and comes close to doing the deed when his estranged sister calls and delivers the news that his father has passed away. He must fly back to Elizabethtown with his father’s special blue suit for the funeral, and meets flight attendant Claire Colburn along the way, the woman who will change him for the better, open his eyes, and make him feel not so sad about royally fucking up.

 Sad Sack Rating:

Drew’s dad died and he singlehandedly brought ruin upon a successful shoe conglomerate. He gets all of the sad sacks.

5 out of 5 Sad Sacks

Manic Pixie Dreaming:

Claire’s character is just wholly unreal. Literally no one speaks this way. She Manic Pixies herself, I’m sad to say.

Claire Colburn: I want you to get into the deep beautiful melancholy of everything that’s happened.

Claire Colburn: Never met a Mitch I didn’t like. Fun, full of life. Like… everyone wants to be a part of Mitch’s club.

Claire Colburn: We are intrepid. We carry on.

And she does quite well in her job to be Drew’s swift kick in the ass.

Claire Colburn: So you failed. Alright you really failed. You failed. You failed. You failed. You failed. You failed. You failed. You failed. You failed. You failed. You failed. You failed. You failed. You think I care about that? I do understand. You wanna be really great? Then have the courage to fail big and stick around. Make them wonder why you’re still smiling.

Thinly Veiled Misogyny:

I have no examples of these on deck (it’s been a while since I’ve watched the movie due to its grating nature), so I’ll give you the benefit of the doubt, Drew. Congratulations on not being completely awful.

The Voice of Reason:

There isn’t one of these either. Claire sprinkles her Manic Pixie dust all over the place with no one to tell her no.

I know this post is long, y’all, but I have just one more example. This one, however, shows the realistic play-out of what will happen when a man tries to Manic Pixie a woman. (That sounds oddly like a weird sex thing, but that’s just me trying to make verbs out of nouns…)

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind

sunshine

Finally, a film that does it right. Joel Barrish, a man whose lack of satisfaction with life emanates from the screen, meets the complex Clementine Kruczynski. They begin a relationship together, but Clementine’s unpredictability and unorthodox way of viewing life (typical MPDG characteristics) and Joel’s boring, middle-aged-man-ness prove to be incompatible, and they erase memories of each other in an innovative brain surgery. Their end was inevitable, but there were also hopeful new beginnings that were on the horizon for the deconstructed MPDG and the male protagonist.

Sad Sack Rating:

I don’t know why Joel is so pitiful. He just is.

2/5 Sad Sacks because he just really needs to pull it together.

Manic Pixie Dreaming:

Joel says this after Clementine takes him out to a frozen river for a late-night stargazing adventure:

Joel: I could die right now, Clem. I’m just… happy. I’ve never felt that before. I’m just exactly where I want to be.

This line is pretty symbolic for all MPDGs out there:

Clementine: [after discussing the names for all the different hair colors there must be] I apply my personality into paste.

Thinly Veiled Misogyny:

When the cracks in their relationship turn into crevasses:

Clementine: And in your little brain. You try to figure out, “Did she fuck someone tonight?”

Joel: No, see Clem. I assume you fucked someone tonight. Isn’t that how you get people to like you?

The Voice of Reason:

Clementine, in her partial deconstruction of the MPDG, takes on the role of the voice of reason as well. In the scene depicted below, she shits on all of the guys who have tried to make her their personal MPDG and explains that she does have her own thoughts and personality characteristics, a revolutionary declaration to a guy who is looking to her for salvation from his own mundanity.

reason

She also reiterates this point later on in the movie:

Joel: I can’t see anything that I don’t like about you.

Clementine: But you will! But you will. You know, you will think of things. And I’ll get bored with you and feel trapped because that’s what happens with me.

Clementine shows that it is possible to dialogue with the existence of the trope while also fulfilling some of its minor aspects, which makes this film more realistic and her character more multidimensional, and ultimately much better.

Nothing is difficult about making female characters with actual feelings and actual thoughts and actual desires of her own, so romanticizing relationships wherein the female only has purpose when helping her man find his only feeds into the culture that tells women they aren’t worth much at all and augments the ever-growing pervasiveness of the degradation of women.

[Garden State and Almost Famous are also really good examples of movies that utilize this trope, but I’m not so familiar with them. Check ‘em out if you have the time to hate how unimaginative Hollywood can be sometimes!]

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One thought on “The Trope of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl and Why It’s the Actual Worst

  1. This article has been such a huge pleasure to read. It’s insightful, honest and funny. I only wish articles of this quality were more easy to come by! Thank you lots, it really brightened my day.

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