What Manic Pixie Dream Girl?

There are few cinematic terms I despise as much as the phrase “Manic Pixie Dream Girl” (MPDG for short).  My problems with this term are legion, so first off let’s have a little history.  Nathan Rabin coined the term when describing Kirsten Dunst’s character ‘Claire’ in the Cameron Crowe film Elizabethtown.  According to Rabin, Dunst epitomizes the MPDG, a female character 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.”  These women are describes as bubbly, childlike muses who exist solely to inspire a male protagonist, encouraging him to embrace and enjoy life.

The MPDG is one of those cinematic terms that was assimilated as soon as it was uttered; a lot of people accepted its existence as fact immediately, as if Rabin’s term was absolute and not to be questioned.  No one seems to care if it’s a particularly useful or accurate term.  The AV Club (which originally featured Rabin’s Elizabethtown review) later published a list of “16 Films Featuring Manic Pixie Dream Girls.”

The problem is that I don’t think the MPDG even exists.  The AV Club and other websites have spent a lot of energy chasing rainbows, trying to chronicle a supposed Grand History of MPDGs in Cinema, supposedly proving this trope exists by shoehorning some of film history’s most notable female characters—from Diane Keaton’s eponymous Annie Hall and Kate Winslet’s Clementine (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind) to Katharine Hepburn’s Susan (Bringing Up Baby)–into this category.  I can’t possibly think what Claire in Elizabethtown has in common with Annie Hall, except perhaps that they’ve both fallen for neurotic men.  Indeed, if these women represent the MPDG, perhaps we could just as easily dub Orlando Bloom’s’Drew Baylor’ and Woody Allen’s ‘Alvy Singer’ the archetypal Neurotic Suicidal Boyfriends.  Or would that be reductive?

Yes, there are characters like Claire in Elizabethtown, who are childlike and irreverent.  However, not all of the characters considered MPDGs are as one-dimensional as Rabin would have you believe.  The MPDG is not an archetype, but is instead a failure by screenwriters to create multidimensional and realistic female characters.  She represents a lack of interest by screenwriters and directors to develop nuanced and complicated depictions of women on screen, when cardboard cutout women who merely stand, look pretty, and say compelling things would do just fine.  Because, lest we forget it, this is not our story: it’s the male protagonist’s story.  Elizabethtown, for example, is the story of how a suicidal man’s life is saved, not how one girl actively choses to do the saving.

 

The inclusion of so many complicated, strong female characters on these lists illustrate just how arbitrary and useless the definition of the MPDG really is, and how people eager to verify this term via example are actually misreading and/or oversimplifying complex female characters.  Many MPDG lists wrongly include Clementine from Eternal Sunshine, and Summer from 500 Days of Summer.  Clementine, for example, is explicitly not a MPDG: her character actually turns to the male protagonist of the film and says “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.”  She explicitly tells Joel (and the viewer) that she is just a girl—she is no MPDG–and yet here we are literally assigning to that character the very thing she makes a point of rejecting.

It’s the same problem with 500 Days of Summer—people imagine that Summer is some quirky girl meant to cheer up and reinvigorate the depressed male protagonist, Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s ‘Tom’.  In reality, the crux of the film is that Tom not only has to take control of his own life, but that he wrongly imagines Summer is his own personal MPDG.  In fact, director Marc Webb was asked specifically whether Summer was an MPDG and denied it, noting: “That is one of the codes of the movie. He falls in love not with her but the idea of her.”

It’s not bad enough that Hollywood chooses to make men the protagonists of most movies.  No, we as viewers have to oversimplify and quantify some of our most well-drawn, unique, and complicated portrayals of women on screen.  Labelling Annie Hall, Clementine, and other female characters as MPDGs serves as a means of dismissing them.  They are written off as manic (emotional) pixie (troublesome) dream (imaginary) girls (not women). In other words, the application of the term MPDG to a breadth of female characters serves as a means of highlighting the many one-note representations of women on screen, while simultaneously reducing any richer female characters to supposed one-dimensionality.  MPDG is a term used to turn women into girls, characters into quirks.  Ultimately, just as Tom did to Summer, American pop culture writers, theorists, and film viewers alike have fallen in love with the idea of the MPDG, when in reality she doesn’t exist.

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17 thoughts on “What Manic Pixie Dream Girl?

  1. I’m not going to go off on a rant here, because there’s a lot that I agree with in what you say above. It is, for instance, further evidence that the Hollywood movie machine is geared heavily toward a male audience as well as a male perception of a generalized female audience. With many of the MPDG characters (those drawn intentionally as such), there is a sense (at least from a male perspective) that this is the sort of woman that you–the female audience member–should want to be. That in some sense, the highest and noblest function you can fulfill is to lead a man to fulfillment. I disagree with this notion (as, I would guess, do you), but it certainly seems like that is a part of what is being broadcast here.

    On the other hand, there is a sense of a sort of mythology at work here in the sort of Joseph Cambpell “Hero with 1,000 Faces” sense. (I’ve been reading a lot of Campbell lately, so word of warning.) If we look at some of these films, Elizabethtown is a fair example, and we presume that the male is the focus, the female role does have a touch of the mythological. From her comes knowledge and wisdom–she in many ways becomes the mother of the man in question, leading him into fuller life because that life is hers to give. All life comes from woman, and so all meaningful life, and meaning itself, derives from the woman, too.

    Of course, that particular reading is giving a whole hell of a lot of credit to a whole hell of a lot of films that probably don’t deserve it. The truth in most cases is almost certainly much closer to your reading. The MPDG is to men as the “magical Negro” is to whites. It is a way to assuage male/white guilt by projecting the ability to teach to the other group and simultaneously solidify that power position by using the lessons of those unable to do so. In truth, it’s easier to categorize the “other” as a monolithic block than to take each one as an individual, which simply perpetuates the entire thing all over again.

    • Steve, what a great comment. You seriously gave me some important things to think about to continue flushing out my concepts.

      You make an important point about the mythology of the female muse. There is definitely a mythos in literature, art, etc. that sets up women as the saviors of men. That’s perhaps why I also think the MPDG doesn’t exist–if anything, these women are just plot-based evolutions and reiterations of a centuries old concept. Muses are now young coquettes, whether they’re quirky or not.

  2. “The MPDG is not an archetype, but is instead a failure by screenwriters to create multidimensional and realistic female characters.”

    You lost me. Are screenwriters creating MPDG characters or not? Is there a new term you would like to use to describe unrealistic female characters?

    • Hi Aaron! My thoughts on the MPDG are a work in progress, but what I meant to say (hopefully more articulately this time!) is that screenwriters aren’t really writing full women/characters, they’re writing women-who-function-as-plot-devices. That some of them happen to be “quirky” is merely a side effect of attempting to give them some sort of dimension quickly, without having to create real, dimensional characters. The women we call MPDGs are designated as such simply because of how they function, not how they ARE.

      • If I had to come up with names for them, I would call characters like Claire (who have little backstory or character development) something like Woman-As-Plot-Device, but women like Clementine don’t fit into this puzzle, because they’re complete, flushed-out characters.

  3. 100% with you here, Joanna, and I’m glad to hear about others bothered by this term. I’m not wildly offended by it, but it is reductive and, if you think about it like you’ve done here, a bit insulting as it takes women, who already have a disproportionate role on screen, and molds them into an even smaller piece of pie.

    What you didn’t bring up but which bothers me is that it’s more than the supposed traits or motives that Rabin sets out – it clearly applies to a type of woman, physically, as well. The “girl” part implies youth, but virtually all of the women the label is applied to could be lumped into a “cute but not hot” (I know – here we go – but stay with me) category. You’ll never here the MPDG label thrown onto a bombshell type or (god forbid) a minority. It’s always just white girl-next-door types that happen to be quirky. That’s the extent of their similarities.

    The inclusion of Clementine, given the facts about who that character is, is just so sad it’s funny.

    Great piece.

  4. Great piece. I didn’t know the term but left theaters after films like 500 Days of Summer feeling manipulated and disappointed. I had a professor who called these characters the “remedial dame.”

  5. Reblogged this on Mixed Media and commented:
    Here’s a good post on the term Manic Pixie Dream Girl. I’m not sure I’m as bothered by the term as the writer is, but these characters seem so flat and leave me cold. It’s like the writer equates quirkiness with dynamic.

    • Well thanks for coming by! What’s making you uncomfortable? The great thing about that picture is it sorta looks like he’s going to slit her wrists and she’s apathetic. Awkward!

      • I didn’t get a wrist slashing vibe off of it; his eyes are too adoring. Her disinterest in contrast is just a bit much in the larger context of the film.

  6. Pingback: This Week in Links 6/1/12 | Paracinema

  7. Are you familiar with the term Mary Sue? It has some of the same problems as the Manic Pixie Dream Girl term. Let me say first that I find the MPDG term helpful to use as a short term phrase for: character that exists for main male character to wank about without any life of their own apart from the intersection with the main male character’s journey – i.e. lazy writing and poor characterization. I don’t agree that all quirky female characters embody it – using it that way is, in some ways, doing the same thing that the lazy writers do. The term Mary Sue is used in fanfic to denote a clear self insert character that has little to no characterization and magically saves the day and runs off with the main lead character romantically. It’s been used to refer to pretty much any original female character and particularly any female character who is bad ass. I personally the problem is not in the term, but in the use of the term. Using it as another way to denigrate interesting female characters is the opposite of correct or helpful, but used to denote lazy writing and characterization is okay by me. Of course you run into the problem of the masses using it too often so that the initial intended meaning is obscured and then it may be safer to stop using it all together, but I don’t think either original term is inherently bad when used correctly.

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