Sometimes we come up with an idea that says something True. And we all get excited about it. Because, duh, True Thing Alert. But then sometimes we take our true thing and parade it around, and we start trying to make it a Universally True Thing of All Time, when really it was just a Sorta True Thing of a Moment, thereby taking it so ridiculously far that it threatens to lose all meaning, to collapse in on itself, to fog up the very true thing it was so good at clarifying. That has officially happened with the term Manic Pixie Dream Girl, which now apparently represents every female character ever written by a man since the dawn of time who was whimsical, offbeat, "not like other girls," ethereally sexy, bookish, different, unique, angular, fucked up, bipolar, flirty, you name it. So grab yourself a lollipop, an impish grin and slap on an obscure jaunty record — we are all Manic Pixie Dream Girls now, ladiez.
The Manic Pixie Dream Girl thing started in True Year 2007, when AV Club writer Nathan Rabin noticed a real thing: a type of female character written by a dude who is basically a batshit/whimsical fairy lady on a mission to zip into your headspace and give you a boner for life. Along the way she imparts something of value to your understanding of the universe, like, maybe that it's better to marry someone who remembers at least some of her appointments.
No existential quandary is so great that it can't be solved by the perfect combination of pop song and dream girl, a world of giddy pop epiphanies and gentle humanism unencumbered by protective irony or sneering cynicism. […] Dunst embodies a character type I like to call The Manic Pixie Dream Girl (see Natalie Portman in Garden State for another prime example). 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.
In a really thoughtful Girls on Film piece over at The Week, Monika Bartyzel takes this notion of "idiosyncratic muses" who basically exist to help a dude figure out his own boredom as a "once-useful piece of critical shorthand that has devolved into laziness and sexism."
But wait! Remember when we first heard about Manic Pixie Dream Girls as a concept, and we were like YEAH! Exactly! That's what they're like! Because it is. And it was. It was such a satisfying term because it encapsulated exactly what was so annoying about those characters — that they were not super well-written or real enough, but some kind of figment of the imagination of a grown man in need of a pick-me-up of quirky youth injections into his limp excuse for a life. But the problem is that the term started getting applied to every kind of female character who was even remotely unique. Says Bartyzel:
But what, exactly, makes a character a Manic Pixie Dream Girl has always been a fluid construct. Rabin's oft-quoted definition doesn't actually describe the girl; it describes the audience's experience of watching her. But with the references to Portman and Dunst's roles in Garden State and Elizabethtown, a rough list of attributes could be inferred: The MPDG lives life "differently" than the average girl. She loves indie music, whimsy, and any number of idiosyncratic hobbies, from barefoot tap dancing to driving on "gloriously confusing" roads.
Bartyzel goes on to discuss the zeitgeistiness of the zeit — this astute call-out came on the heels of Kate Winslet's brilliantly batty Eternal Sunshine character, just before Zooey Deschanel, master Manic Pixie Dream Girl of All Manic Pixie Dream Girls, delicately crashed onto the scene.
But then, like a criminal who must return to the scene of the crime, a year later we got an AV Club roundup of 16 MPDGs in movies, and it was usual suspects like Portman's character in Garden State and Kirsten Dunst in Elizabethtown. Only now there were heavyweights like Audrey Hepburn in Breakfast at Tiffany's, and Diane Keaton's Annie Hall on the list. ZOMG.
If a fully fleshed-out character like Annie Hall, who leaves a dude and does her own thing, reclaiming her own confidence and identity along the way as she learns to ditch a relationship that holds back her own growth, counts as some half-baked male projection, then WTF for all of us? I'd happily trade my actual personality for her fake one! I know, Keaton's character rambles a lot and has a kind of ditzy charm, but it ends up not being ditzy at all, and she ends up being a more together person than anyone else onscreen or probably even anyone standing around offscreen. How is that MPDG?
In its expansion, the Manic Pixie Dream Girl designation moved from putting a spotlight on questionably hollow female characters to marginalizing and dismissing all manner of diverse female characters on film. Pulp Fiction's Mrs. Mia Wallace was thrown into the mix for being impulsive and having bangs, though she never teaches Vincent Vega about life. Alyssa is a kind of muse in the oft-listed Chasing Amy, but her characterization is far from superficial. Even Belle from Disney's Beauty and the Beast has received the designation.
Ugh, I LOVE bangs. Here, lemme move over so Bartyzel can take one last shot into the MPDG's adorable little gut:
"Manic Pixie Dream Girl" was useful when it commented on the superficiality of female characterizations in male-dominated journeys, but it has since devolved into a pejorative way to deride unique women in fiction and reality. It's no longer a call to arms for more well-rounded female characters in fiction, but a way to chastise difference from the norm. MPDG is now the catch-all term for unusual interests and style — a film-related off-shoot of the Hipster designation evolving from people who wear/use things ironically to anyone with retro interests.
And as a result, this catch-all now has authentically quirky women (MY GOD IS THAT EVEN REAL STILL) with offbeat interests everywhere thinking about way the MPDG moniker now renders jokey and false any attempt at cultivating what we used to call an interesting personality.
Ergo: Can I still sit around smoking Cloves listening to late 70s Swiss punk talking about weird Victorian etiquette trends and not feel like a complete and utter poser? NOPE. Thanks AV Club. Thanks a lot.
A Rookie piece mentioned wonders where the line between good old-fashioned quirky and "manic-pixie-ing yourself" really is, insisting that liking "cute stuff" doesn't make you shallow. A Grimes feminist rant on Tumblr recently bemoaned the curse of being adorable, which may as well be synonymous for "not taken as seriously as a dude." An XOJane post linked has the author attempting to justify that she really does like rompers and Hello Kitty, and wrestles with the notion that she is somehow responsible for the weight of the idea that the “quirky girl” aesthetic is designed to ensnare men by appearing weak.
Oh to ensnare them by appearing weak but in reality being actually strong. Isn't this basically the WHOLE requirement/paradox of femininity since nanosecond one on earth?
Look, the MPDG is a type like the vixen or the nerd or the oaf or the housewife, because it's a shorthand for how men, men making movies and directing in and even writing about movies, understand these kinds of women —any kind of butterfly woman a man can't pin down, at least not permanently. A generous reading is that these characters are symbols of hope for the men in the films and shows, that they might catch some of the infectious zeal for living these women symbolize. (MPDG Winnie Cooper is still doin' this for dudes, even today.) It wouldn't be the first time men looked to women for spiritual guidance of some kind.
These men exist, too though. That's right, Manic Pixie Dream GUYS. Adam Driver in GIRLS has some of that action going on, anything with Michael Cera. It's all summed up nicely in this Onion story from 2005 called "Woman Begins to Regret Dating Someone Spontaneous." That's pre-MPDG coinage, y'all. (Good piece wondering about the Manic Pixie Dream Guy here.)
Guys like that — cute, scruffy, immature, whimsical, charming, indie-music loving and weird factoid-knowing, no-job having dudes — are everywhere. The adorbs factor is high. The relationships are tenuous at best. There just aren't enough women writers/directors/film-makers to counter the avalanche.
Think we'll see them introduced in more and more films anytime soon? Anyone? Bueller? Come to think of it, Ferris Bueller fits this list, too. He's manic as fuck!
Bartzyel finishes with a plea to basically kill the MPDG dead. With good reason:
"Manic Pixie Dream Girl" once had its place as a clever way to describe female characters that were all quirk and no depth, existing solely for the benefit of a broody male lead — but now, it's a term more damaging than it is helpful. "Manic Pixie Dream Girl" is used too often to chastise the one thing that gives supporting women that little bit of oomph in marginalized roles — a personality that expands beyond basic gender stereotypes like boys, clothing, and gossip, seen so often in entertainment.
Seriously, don't take our personalities. It's what makes any character mesmerizing to watch. It's not our quirk-loving faults if most men aren't writing these women better. But I don't know if we need it to kill it with fire, I think we just need to recognize that this isn't exclusively female, and it has become a type like any type. And like all types, it has real limitations, for the characters, for the audience, for men, for women.
Case in point: Last night I happened to watch A Woman is a Woman, a French film by Jean-Luc Godard featuring his muse (and former wife) Anna Karina. She's whimsical, elusive, feminine, unknowable, needy, independent, and yes, she has BANGS — a mass of dreamy contradictions that has earned her the moniker the original MPDG. She's a fascinating and talented physical actor, and near impossible to look away from onscreen, even when paired next to hot French guys. But in real life, she eventually tired of the limitations inherent in working this same old role, and she also tired of Godard, the man who pinned her there. Like us, it ultimately left her unsatisfied, and also like us, off she went to get her real-life kicks elsewhere, leaving the fates of these MPDG-obsessed men in their own hands.