Boots Riley Explains Why Sorry to Bother You's Detroit Isn't a Manic Pixie Dream Girl

Illustration for article titled Boots Riley Explains Why Sorry to Bother You's Detroit Isn't a Manic Pixie Dream Girl
Screenshot: YouTube

To be or not to be a Manic Pixie Dream Girl?

On Tuesday, Bitch magazine published an essay by writer Jourdain Searles on Tessa Thompson’s character Detroit in Sorry to Bother You. In the film, Detroit is a performance artist who wears shirts like “THE FUTURE IS FEMALE EJACULATION” and eccentric homemade jewelry, and gets by spinning signs on street corners for various businesses. When her boyfriend, the film’s lead Cassius (Lakeith Stanfield), gets a nice gig as a telemarketer, she gets a job there, too, but their relationship becomes fraught when the office decides to unionize for better pay and Cassius keeps going to work across the picket line like a freakin’ SCAB.


In the Bitch essay, Searles argues that Detroit is not fleshed out enough and is simply a figurehead for “collections of radical Black iconography, symbolism, and buzzwords all signaling vaguely to rich concepts on which we never see them build.” Searles writes that it’s disappointing that Detroit is constantly taking a “backseat” to men in the movie and that we apparently don’t learn what her politics are (though I’ll argue that in the film she’s super into unionizing and seems explicitly interested in dismantling capitalism by joining the protest group The Left Eye.) “What does Detroit stand for? Is she a feminist? Womanist? Communist? Socialist? A combination?,” Searles writes. “It’s almost like the film would prefer that Detroit’s ‘political’ fashion do all the talking.”

Other critics have outright characterized Detroit as a “Manic Pixie Dream Girl” for some of the same reasons Searles highlights (though Searles does not use that term in her piece, nor does she accuse the character of being one.) Thompson subtly addressed the label in a recent GQ profile of her and Lakeith Stanfield:

Now, as Detroit, the film’s Technicolor-haired, activist-artist moral compass and Stanfield’s romantic partner, Thompson is deconstructing yet another role usually reserved for the white and doe-eyed actress: the manic pixie dream girl. “Does my character buck that convention?” Thompson asks, with a smirk and an eyebrow raise. “Or am I just the first black one?”

Others have pointed out that Sorry to Bother You fails the Bechdel test. Given the mounting criticism, Boots Riley addressed it all on Wednesday in a three-page response on Twitter. *Takes deep breath* He argues that: 1) she’s not a Manic Pixie because she has her own narrative aside from Cassius; 2) her politics are visualized rather than vocalized in the movie; 3) all of his characters come from a part of himself and thus Detroit comes from a “human place”; and 4) YES the film fails the Bechdel test, but he’s not sure that’s the best metric for a “feminist film.”

Illustration for article titled Boots Riley Explains Why Sorry to Bother You's Detroit Isn't a Manic Pixie Dream Girl

The verdict? No, Detroit is NOT a Manic Pixie Dream Girl. I tend to go to the original definition of the character, a dreamy girl whose entire purpose in the film is to get the lead to open up and explore the world and all its magical possibilities, as if she were a small, whimsical child. In Sorry to Bother You, Detroit arguably does the opposite. She turns away from Cassius because of his politics and he lets their relationship rot because of how trapped he is in the claws of capitalism.

Next up: but are the monstrous horse men Manic Pixie Dream Girls?????????

Update, 9:32 a.m.: And Tessa Thompson responded to Riley’s essay:

Hazel Cills is the Pop Culture Reporter at Jezebel. Her writing has been published by outlets including The Los Angeles Times, Pitchfork, Rolling Stone, The New York Times Magazine, ELLE, and more.


The Noble Renard

I tend to agree with Boots Riley on this one; I didn’t read Detroit as a Manic Pixie Dream Girl. In fact, I think her own character arc was itself a pretty savage look at the ways in which even the hardcore Leftist has to conform to capitalism in order to survive; hell, she has her own damn “white voice,” and it’s British! For me, the MPDG archetype is a female character that doesn’t exist for any purpose other than to support the male lead and basically doesn’t get any of her own character development. Here, Detroit existed to support the film’s message. Sure, she supports the lead, but at the same time I think she is actually a lot better developed than the critics are making her out to be. It’s just that her character is not spelled out, you have to fill in some of the blanks yourself, but the film provides literal signs to help you fill in those blanks.

Regardless, I loved the movie. One of the best films in years.