The Manic Pixie Dream Girl: Manipulative or Unrealistic?
A good romance fiction is not just about two characters falling in love. The relationship should contribute to the positive development of at least one of the characters. Ideally, this positive development improves everyone involved, but sometimes a story only shows one of them evolving. The other character may seem to only exist to make this protagonist a better person. When it’s a woman making a man better, it is often offensive to proponents of female empowerment. They cry that it objectifies women, turning them into commodities for enhancing men’s lives.
A certain kind of character embodies this trend: the Manic Pixie Dream Girl. Some of the most fascinating examples of this trope are self-aware. They recognize that they are being treated as a Manic Pixie Dream Girl, and they try their best to avoid becoming a cliche, mostly by telling the men in their lives to stop being sexist. Other times, writers try to deconstruct the Manic Pixie Dream Girl trope by making a character who checks most of the boxes but then diverts from expectations.
Analyzing examples of Manic Pixie Dream Girls may help determine if they are harmless love interests, manipulative girls with loose morals, or poorly written characters created for a writer’s misogynistic agenda.
What Is a Manic Pixie Dream Girl, Anyway?
Girls fitting this archetype tend to be described as quirky and “different.” They read books instead of poring over shallow magazines. They listen to old music rather than obsessing over current trends. They pursue imaginative flights of fancy rather than focusing on “boring” realism. They defy conventional stereotypes of beauty by daring to dye their hair unnatural colors, yet they are still very beautiful, especially to the leading men of the stories they appear in.
These men, meanwhile, follow a pattern, as well. They tend to be sad, cynical, and lonely, often due to a recent breakup or similar loss. They could certainly benefit from an energetic and optimistic presence to brighten their lives, and they almost always do. Many of these men fall in love with the Manic Pixie Dream Girls (or MPDGs, for short). Even if the relationship doesn’t last, these men will be better off. But therein lies the issue.
The tragedy of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl is that she is often doomed to die or otherwise disappear after improving a man’s life. When this happens, it draws attention to the fact that the MPDG wasn’t doing much with her life – at least, nothing the audience was aware of – outside of her relationships. Her tragic end is only a true loss for the men who loved her. Perhaps she lacked ambition or gumption. Perhaps she was a mere plot device rather than a well-developed character.
The term Manic Pixie Dream Girl was coined in a 2007 AV Club article. The author cites the Elizabethtown character Claire (played by Kirsten Dunst) and the Garden State character Sam (played by Natalie Portman) as examples. “The Manic Pixie Dream Girl exists solely in the fevered imaginations of sensitive writer-directors to teach broodingly soulful young men to embrace life… Audiences either want to marry her instantly… or they want to commit grievous bodily harm against [her]…”
These opposite extreme reactions represent men who fantasize about finding a Manic Pixie Dream Girl in real life and women who hate these girls for creating impossible standards. In an ironic twist, the MPDG is intentionally different from overtly feminine supermodels, but she is just as unrealistic.
Beauty is in the Eye of the Man
The Script Lab describes the Manic Pixie Dream Girl as a 21st-century version of the “damsel in distress” trope “for young men in distress who… aren’t fully capable of rescuing the damsel”. This is part of the argument that MPDGs only exist for the man’s benefit. Every part of them seems curated specifically to match the man’s desires.
500 Days of Summer features Zooey Deschanel as Summer, one of the most well-known examples of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl. The main character, Tom, is hopelessly in love with Summer, but he fails to see her as a complex person. The audience almost exclusively sees Summer through Tom’s point of view, so audiences may also struggle to see her as more than a plot device.
From one perspective, this film is a critique of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl trope. Tom does not end up with Summer at the end of the movie. It is revealed that she does want her own path through life, and Tom is not part of that path. The problem is the audience does not see Summer having her own life because the movie focuses on Tom’s perspective.
Similar problems occur with other Manic Pixie Dream Girls. Most of the plot of The Endless Sunshine of the Spotless Mind takes place literally inside the mind of Joel, the leading man, so the character of Clementine, including her attractive qualities and her flaws, is hopelessly skewed by Joel’s perceptions.
In the movie Her, a man named Theodore has a relationship with an artificial intelligence named Samantha (voiced by Scarlett Johansson). Samantha doesn’t even have a body, and she almost never speaks to anyone other than Theodore onscreen. Everything about her character seems curated to satisfy Theodore’s fantasies. At the end of the movie, however, it is revealed that as a non-human entity, Samantha has a much deeper life than Theodore could possibly imagine. And yet, the audience never sees that life.
These are examples of the storytelling principle, “Showing is better than telling.” Simply telling the audience that the Manic Pixie Dream Girl has more going on in her life than her relationships does not equate to character development. If all we are shown is her impact on men, the argument that she is a mere plot device in men’s stories seems accurate.
Tragic Loss by Death or Breakup
A major reason the Manic Pixie Dream Girl is considered nothing but a plot device in men’s stories is the fact that, once she has improved a man’s life, she is usually killed off. Even this tragedy is seen as just another event in the man’s character development. It is a form of “fridging,” the popular but maligned trend of female characters being killed off to motivate male heroes.
One of the earliest examples of this is in Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451. In a post-literacy dystopia, Clarisse McClellan is one of the last remaining people who dares to be curious and free-thinking. She appears in the life of Montag, the book’s protagonist, and makes him realize how miserable his life really is. She motivates him to pursue change. And then she’s hit by a car and dies.
This is tragic not only because a girl is dead but also because it suggests she was only useful for motivating a man, not for any purpose of her own. It risks teaching readers that girls and women in the real world also lack purpose apart from helping men pursue their own purposes.
Young Adult novelist John Green has written multiple books about Manic Pixie Dream Girls (as well as Augustus Waters, who could be called a Manic Pixie Dream Guy). Green has claimed he tries to deconstruct the trope, show how harmful it can be, and promote a healthier perception of women, love interests, and people in general. However, his stories fall prey to pitfalls very similar to other MPDG stories.
John Green’s Looking for Alaska follows main character Miles as he meets and falls in love with the beautiful, well-read, and rebellious Alaska Young. In an early climax, Alaska’s impulsive nature leads to her dying in a car crash. For the rest of the book, Miles tries to learn the truth of what happened to Alaska, which requires him learning details about her that he either missed or ignored before. The book’s true climax is Miles realizing that his perception of Alaska was flawed.
Alaska Young’s death is not exactly “fridging,” but it means that her depth of character can only be told to the audience, not shown. A similar problem occurs with Green’s Paper Towns. The main man, Q, has a crush on Manic Pixie Dream Girl Margo Roth Spiegelman. Margo mysteriously disappears, and Q spends the novel trying to find her.
As with Miles and Alaska, Q struggles to see Margo as a real person. He sees her as a mystery to be solved, and assumes her disappearance is a quest for him to complete, like a fairy tale hero pursuing a princess. In reality, Margo ran away because she felt misunderstood by people like Q. The book ends shortly after Margo explains her deep inner life. Once again, readers never see Margo outside of Q’s perspective, so the argument that she is more than a Manic Pixie Dream Girl lacks concrete evidence.
These stories do achieve John Green’s goal of showing readers how harmful the Manic Pixie Dream Girl stereotype can be. But these girls are still Manic Pixie Dream Girls. They may have depth of character, but young female readers do not get to see it. Thus, these female characters are not good role models for female audiences.
The Cure for MPDG Syndrome
The critic who coined the term Manic Pixie Dream Girl later regretted it because the term is sometimes applied to female characters who do not deserve it. There are many female characters that are quirky and fun but still well-written and not just plot devices in men’s stories. Some of these women may seem like Manic Pixie Dream Girls at first, but then they break out of the stereotype.
The TV show New Girl is one story that defies stereotypes. The main character, Jess (another Zooey Deschanel performance), seems to fit the Manic Pixie Dream Girl formula, but unlike most MPDGs, Jess is the main character of her show. She is allowed to display depth of character while also filling the role of “ray of sunshine in men’s lives.” Jess is one of the few exceptions that proves the rule. If some other MPDGs were given the same amount of attention from writers and audiences as Jess, they would have opportunities to be better characters.
The movie Juno is about a teenage girl named Juno who has become pregnant and plans to let a married couple adopt her baby. The husband of the couple, Mark, develops an infatuation with her because he finds her more interesting than his wife – he and Juno have similar taste in music, for example, despite their generational gap. From Mark’s perspective, Juno is a Manic Pixie Dream Girl, but the audience sees the whole story from Juno’s perspective.
Juno’s “quirks” are largely a result of her simply being a teenager and wanting to live a fun, unfiltered life. Her unplanned pregnancy seems to be the first thing to challenge this lifestyle. In other stories, facing such a “consequence” would be a dramatic twist; in this movie, it’s the premise. This perspective shift is what makes Juno less of a Manic Pixie Dream Girl.
The Sound of Music is a classic story of a fun, cheery woman improving a grumpy man’s life. Again, the movie/play focuses on the perspective of the woman, Maria. Audiences see her struggling. Her free-spirited nature contrasts with her desire to be a nun, and her impact on Captain von Trapp and his family is outside of her job description. But in the end, she finds new purpose in helping them.
Once again, Maria could have been seen as a Manic Pixie Dream Girl if the story had focused on Captain von Trapp’s perspective. But when the perspective shifts, audiences barely register her as an example of the trope. The same could be said of Juno and various other female characters who get to be the main characters of their stories.
When we see these stories from the girl’s perspectives, it is easy to see that they are not trying to manipulate the men who inevitably fall in love with them. This makes it easier to understand and appreciate the perspectives of Manic Pixie Dream Girls who are not given as much depth.
Manic Pixie Dream Girls are a shortcut for authors to make a female character easy for a male protagonist to fall in love with. It’s easy to think less of a story for relying on a shortcut. The more familiar we are with well-written characters, the harder it is to enjoy characters who lack depth.
On the other hand, MPDGs have some good perspectives on life. They value imagination and optimism over superficial realism. This can be useful in helping the men in their lives and even encouraging the audience. Manic Pixie Dream Girls do not need to be eliminated altogether.
Also, Scott Pilgrim vs the World, a comic/movie featuring famous MPDG Ramona Flowers, will soon be getting an animated adaptation. Whether it showcases Ramona’s depth or not, it suggests Manic Pixie Dream Girls and their stories are here to stay.
As John Green’s protagonists have learned, the best thing we can do with Manic Pixie Dream Girls is trying to understand them as real people and see their perspectives, ideally before they die or disappear. Writers can do this by writing the woman’s perspective. Readers can do this by practicing empathy. Of course, the same lesson applies to anyone, boy or girl, love interest or platonic friend, dream or reality.
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