The problem with Manic Pixie dream girls

Zoe Kazan as Ruby Sparks.

Zoe Kazan as Ruby Sparks.

If you’ve spent any time reading film commentary online in the past few years, no doubt you’ve seen the phrase “Manic Pixie Dream Girl” pop up whenever a male protagonist falls in love with a quirky young woman who likes indie music.

Here’s where it all started, in A.V. Club critic Nathan Rabin’s reassessment of Cameron Crowe’s Elizabethtown back in 2007: “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. As for me, well, let's just say I'm not going to propose to Dunst's psychotically chipper waitress in the sky any time soon.”

(Nice one, Rabin. Evidently we all missed that bit about wanting to inflict violence upon female characters and skipped straight to the feminist point. Which is... wait, I’ll get it...)

See, since the coining of the phrase - as the story usually goes in the internet groupthink game of one-downmanship - yelling “MANIC PIXIE DREAM GIRL!” (or MPDG, as everybody loves an acronym online) has become a handy way to dismiss female characters out-of-hand.

I’ll pay Rabin’s assertion that Elizabethtown represents writing that is lazy in the extreme, courtesy of Crowe on autopilot; I have in the past described it as a film that was seemingly the product of the Scary Movie team making Cameron Crowe Movie. I don’t love Garden State, or the fact that Ramona Flowers triumphs over the far realer Knives Chau in Scott Pilgrim vs. The World. There are other examples of the sort of character types his MPDG typifies that I agree were at the centre of dreadful films (though I don’t think anyone’s in danger of suggesting that Sweet November rivals It Happened One Night in the broader pantheon of great screen romance).

But I also wonder whether it’s time to put discussion of this character type to bed, and question the value in prolonging a line of criticism that has its genesis in a snark-ridden review, particularly if we’re going to apply it as some sort of feminist template for film criticism.

Humour me, and let’s just think for a moment about using a male critic’s guidelines in order to bury female-created content under a mountain of off-hand snark masquerading as genuine cineaste dialogue.

And if there was a kernel of feminist thought in the initial MPDG discussion (that is, the notion that male writer/directors were creating unrealistic characters), the point-blank dismissal of any eccentric female characters as MPDGs has dissolved into something closer to, at worst, sexism, and at best, incredibly lazy cultural commentary.

Here’s an example: before Valerie Faris and Jonathan Dayton’s Ruby Sparks had even been released, blogs were ablaze with the notion (based on the trailer alone) that it was the “ultimate Manic Pixie Dream Girl” film and, thus, worthy of little more than derision (and certainly not ticket sales).

(I am reminded of writer and former Man Booker Prize judge Rick Gekoski’s observation that, in the era of the blogosphere, “the notion that some opinions are better than others - fairer, deeper and more cogent - seems to be slipping from our grasp".)

In the lazy obsession with qualifying films by their apparent tropes, the hair-trigger dismissal of MPDGs has, I think, directly contributed to the slating of films written and directed by women. And the non-stop slating of films written and directed by women directly leads to Hollywood producers saying, “You know what? That one film written/directed by a woman this year didn’t go so well, so we’re going to pass."

(If you think the sudden glut of “raunchy” comedies with female leads isn’t linked to studios' having waited to see how Bridesmaids went, I also have some flying pigs you may be interested in purchasing.)

Two prime examples of all this are the response dealt to Seeking A Friend For The End Of The World, the directing debut of screenwriter Lorene Scafaria, and the aforementioned Ruby Sparks, which was written by its star, Zoe Kazan.

If you would like an example of how discussion of the MPDG has turned into something altogether more derailing, look no further than this Vulture interview with Kazan, seemingly determined to expose her as a peddler of the MPDG fantasy. Fortunately, Kazan KOs the notion in a blistering screed I’d quite like to nail to my wall: “That term is a term that was invented by a blogger, and I think it’s more of a term that applies in critical use than it does in creative use. It’s a way of describing female characters that’s reductive and diminutive, and I think basically misogynist. […] I think that to lump together all individual, original quirky women under that rubric is to erase all difference. Like, I’ve read pieces that describe Annie Hall as a manic pixie dream girl. Katharine Hepburn in Bringing Up Baby. To me, those are fully fledged characters that are being played by really smart actresses. I just think it’s misogynist. I don’t want that term to survive. I want it to die.”

Ruby Sparks - inspired by the myth of Pygmalion, the sculptor who fell in love with his work - is terrific, and it would be terrifically sad were it to be ignored purely because it was apparently just another entry in the post-Garden State oeuvre. If anything, it’s a caustic exploration of how hurtful male constructs of ideal womanhood can be (and also, courtesy of Paul Dano’s performance of exquisitely sustained anxiety, that writers are generally nightmares to live with).

Scafaria’s lovely, melancholy Seeking A Friend - to me, the cautiously optimistic (even in the face of certain doom) counterpoint to Melancholia - was immediately dismissed as MPDG fodder because... I guess because Keira Knightley’s character Penny collected vintage vinyl?

I don’t know about you, but I sure as hell would rather watch a movie featuring an alleged MPDG than the utter shite served up to us as the 21st century slant on “women’s pictures”, featuring duelling brides and shrill harridans who ruin men’s fun (generally also featuring Katherine Heigl); I don’t know any women like that in real life. And yet somehow a female character who is interested in music or dresses idiosyncratically or has seen a black-and-white movie is the unrealistic one?

(When it comes down to tropes worthy of dismantling, surely the ‘quirky terminal illness girl’ - Mia Wasikowska in Restless being the most recent example - is far more troubling? At least the MPDG doesn’t have to die to teach men a lesson about love/life. You know, if we’re going to get our hands dirty arguing about lazy misogyny in screenwriting then I’d be inclined to say the occasions when female characters get offed to make a point are the problematic ones.)

There is evidence that the tide may be turning against the lazy use of the MPDG as a go-to criticism; Joseph Gordon-Levitt, star of 500 Days Of Summer (another film decried as MPDG in excelsis) recently attempted to set the record straight, insisting that the film was less about a magical dream girl than it was one man’s unrealistic fantasies: “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.”

I think it’s time to wonder whether, in our (definitely “not healthy”) drive to use a questionably “feminist” critical theory to fight this imagined glut of unrealistic characters, we might be doing damage to the career trajectories of the very real women who are writing, directing and starring in these films.

4 comments

  • Interesting that you say that 500 days of summer runs contrary to this social trend, when the point of that movie is to demonstrate how unrealistic the MPDG character is.

    The MPDG character is much like the eternally-male monomythic hero character, except far diminished and functioning purely for the entertainment of the male audience as an object of desire. I don't consider myself knowledgeable enough to call myself a feminist, but isn't that pretty close to the definition of misogynistic representation of women?

    Whether or not having such characters in films provides work opportunities for female actors, directors etc is another issue altogether. Not precisely the same thing, but so does the porn industry.

    Commenter
    Christian
    Date and time
    September 19, 2012, 10:26AM
    • Clem, this is one of the best articles on film and women I've read, and definitely one of your best.
      *high five!*

      Commenter
      awayfromhome
      Location
      Budapest
      Date and time
      September 20, 2012, 7:01AM
      • I've been enjoying a lot of the articles on Daily Life but mostly because they articulate opinions and points of view I already agree with.
        This is the first DL article that has changed my mind on an issue. Thank you Clem Bastow for having such a terrific brain.

        Commenter
        AMG
        Date and time
        September 20, 2012, 1:44PM
        • Perhaps the real problem with a film like Ruby Sparks is the woeful trailer. Clem, I'll accept your expertise and recommendation and give it a shot but only because I trust your opinion. Perhaps instead of critiquing lazy stereotyping, Kazan should be looking at who's marketing her film.

          I find the gallery above interesting though. I wouldn't classify half of those characters as MPDG - Clementine in Eternal Sunshine, Juno, Holly Golightly, Penny Lane - these characters are, to me, very full and interesting and 'quirky' in a realistic way. I appreciate the JGL wants to distance himself from the utter dreck that was 500 Days, but Summer was classic MPDG through and through. By the film's end, I wanted to throw something through the screen.

          I have no issue with different, individual, 'quirky' women on screen. But I think you can tell the difference between women written with some kind of third dimension (even Penny Lane has this) and women constructed solely from the template of a soulful male director and who relies solely on the inclusion of quirks to continue the pretence that she's been written with some thought and consideration.

          I will say that, when watching the trailer for Ruby Sparks, I was intrigued to note that Kazan wasn't the typical fey kind of frail bird you normally find in these films. Perhaps one of the other jarring things about these characters is their unnatural, ethereal beauty. It's hard not to see such creatures as being the projected fantasy of a male director who'd like to believe his muse's fondness for Italian disco makes up for the fact that, in the end, he just really likes how good she looks in a pair of white knickers.

          Commenter
          Clementine Ford
          Location
          Melbourne
          Date and time
          September 21, 2012, 12:01PM
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