Paper Towns: John Green’s Deconstruction of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl
The trope of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl was created accidentally by film critic Nathan Rabin, in a review of Elizabethtown for The A.V. Club in 2007. Rabin used the term negatively to critique the one-dimensional, unrealistic character of Claire, portrayed by Kirsten Dunst. According to Rabin, in addition to being unbelievable and annoying, the character’s largest flaw is that, “The Manic Pixie Dream Girl exists solely in the fevered imaginations of sensitive writer-directors to teaching broodingly soulful young men to embrace life and its infinite mysteries and adventures” (Rabin, AV Club). Calling Claire a Manic Pixie Dream Girl was never supposed to be more than a scathing critique, however, the term evolved into a trope that crossed genres from movies to literature.
On July 15, 2014, almost exactly seven years after he first coined the term, Rabin released a statement in Salon Magazine apologizing for this inadvertent invention, saying that, “In 2007, I invented the term in a review. Then I watched in queasy disbelief as it seemed to take over pop culture,” (Rabin, Salon). Since its original reference to Kirsten Dunst in Elizabethtown, the term has expanded and has been used to describe Zooey Deschanel in (500) Days of Summer, Natalie Portman in Garden State, Kate Hudson in Almost Famous, Audrey Hepburn in Breakfast at Tiffany’s, and Diane Keaton in Annie Hall, just to name a few (Bowman).
The problem with the use of this trope in popular culture is that, according to Rabin and many other critics, the term is inherently sexist. Manic Pixie Dream Girls were created by the writers solely to help the male protagonist feel more fulfilled; therefore they have no life of their own and cannot exist without the mopey male. This leads to the blatant lack of dimension in these characters and explains why the characters are so unrealistic – there are no women in real life who are Manic Pixie Dream Girls. The “dream” in the name itself implies that it is not a character that can exist in reality, nor should it. At the end of his apologetic article in Salon, Rabin encourages writers to stop the spread of the tropes and to, “try to write better, more nuanced and multidimensional female characters” (Rabin, Salon).
John Green and the Manic Pixie Dream Girl
Many writers have sided with Rabin and taken a stance against the trope, including John Green. In his essay in Salon, Rabin acknowledges a statement from John Green who discussed how the Manic Pixie Dream Girl inspired him to write his novel, Paper Towns, which is currently being adapted into a film. The novel is told from the perspective from Quentin Jacobsen, who has been obsessed with his next door neighbor, Margo Roth Spiegelman, since they were kids. Although Quentin tries to place Margo into the category of Manic Pixie Dream Girl at the start of the novel, the more he learns about Margo, the more depth she acquires, and the less she fits that stereotype. John Green has declared that:
‘[Paper Towns] is devoted IN ITS ENTIRETY to destroying the lie of the manic pixie dream girl…I do not know how I could have been less ambiguous about this without calling [Paper Towns] The Patriarchal Lie of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl Must Be Stabbed in the Heart and Killed’ (Rabin, Salon).
Through the structure of the novel, and Quentin’s process of discovering Margo’s depth, John Green makes apparent the restricting nature of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl (MPDG) trope and the negative effects it has on people’s ability to understand each other.
The novel is divided into three parts – The Strings, The Grass, and The Vessel – which reflect the three different metaphors Quentin uses to describe how people are connected in life. In each new section, Quentin comes to a new understanding of Margo. In The Strings, he starts by believing that Margo falls into the one-dimensional MPDG trope, due to how much he romanticizes her, without truly knowing her. Margo is immediately introduced to us as a “miracle” (Green 3), which leads us to believe she is going to represent this fantastical female trope. This is only furthered by nine-year-old Quentin stating that Margo is, “the most fantastically gorgeous creature that God had ever created,” (4). In addition to her otherworldly beauty, Margo has the tendency of showing up outside Quentin’s windows to drag him on adventures, and has an innate understanding of life at just nine-years-old; therefore she is already displaying a quirky side that Manic Pixie Dream Girls inhibit.
As Margo grows, so does the hype around her. She is no longer a one-dimensional female trope only to Quentin; by her senior year in high school she has become a mythical creature, revered, and idolized by the entire school. This reflects that Margo has very little control over her own identity, one of the main aspects of a MPDG. Margo alludes to this lack of control during a late night adventure with Quentin that leads to them standing on the Sun Trust Building in downtown Orlando, staring out at the city in front of them. There is no substantiality in the world around Margo, just like she herself feels unsubstantial:
From here you can’t see the rust of the cracked paint or whatever, but you can tell what the place really is. You see how fake it all is. It’s not even hard enough to be made out of plastic. It’s a paper town. I mean look at it, Q: look at all those cul-de-sacs, those streets that turn in on themselves, all those houses that were built to fall apart. All those paper people living in those their paper houses, burning the future to stay warm (57).
Of course, Margo herself is one of these paper people, and refers to herself as “paper girl” (58), made of something physically one-dimensional to compare to the one-dimensional trope of the MPDG. Manic Pixie Dream Girls are paper girls – they look good in theory, but cannot exist in real life. She tells Quentin that, “The closer people get to me, the less hot they find me,” (38), because people believe that Margo is more perfect from farther away, just like the city of Orlando. People are attracted to the idea of her as a MPDG, opposed to the girl herself. Because the trope is so unrealistic, it can only exist when applied from a distance. Margo is no exception, and the day after making these observations to Quentin, she disappears, putting as much distance between herself and the people who view her as a paper girl as possible.
During this phase of the novel, Quentin uses the metaphor of the strings to explain the human experience. When a person breaks down, it is as if, “all the strings inside him broke” (301). Quentin likes the metaphor that we are all held together by strings and when we fall to pieces the strings simply snap, because it is a simple, direct metaphor. However, it oversimplifies life by, “imagining a world in which you can become irreparably broken,” because, “the strings make pain seem more fatal that it is” (302). The strings are a very simplified view of life – people are either broken or whole. With this metaphor, there is no in-between because breaking down is not a process, but something instantaneous. Just how Quentin uses this oversimplified view of life in the first section of the novel, he has a similarly oversimplified view of Margo, and has no problem believing in a fictionalized, romanticized version of her, despite the nuances missing from this imagined Margo.
After Margo’s disappearance, the novel starts its second section – The Grass – named primarily after Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass which Margo left behind for Quentin. Reading it for clues, Quentin begins an epic scavenger hunt thinking he will learn where Margo went. During this hunt, he discovers her as a real, multi-faceted person, through little facts about her that he had never considered in his romanticized version of her. For example, Margo used to camp out at an abandoned strip mall called The Osprey, read Walt Whitman, and had a vinyl record collection, including one of her favorite artists, Woody Guthrie.
Quentin learns more about Margo gradually and periodically, discovering little pieces of her at different times. There is no prophetic moment in which Quentin suddenly comes to understand the universal of Margo Roth Spiegelman because there is no one universal version of Margo Roth Spiegelman. This rejection of a universal truth, often called a metanarrative, is a common theme in deconstruction literary theory. In deconstruction theory, critics believe that because there are so many different facets to life and the human experience there is not just one story that can encompass all of those things at once; therefore they fragment narratives into concrete incidents. These incidents are a more accurate interpretation of specific aspects of the human experience, opposed to the generalized story that tries to capture the whole experience at once in an attempt to transcend narrative (Rivkin and Ryan).
The fragmentation of Quentin’s discovery of Margo is a way that John Green deconstructs the metanarrative of the MPDG. That literary trope presents women with certain overarching features that are not realistic and do not portray any truth about women – just an idea that writers have of them in their heads. By introducing Quentin to new information about Margo in such sporadic ways – sometimes with weeks passing before Quentin can connect clues – it prevents him from creating this transcendental version of her that has no grounding in real life.
During this stage of the novel, Quentin uses the metaphor of the grass to explain the ways people are interconnected and how he can still learn so much about Margo even though she is not physically with him, because their roots are so tangled together. Quentin tells Margo, “The grass got me to you, helped me to imagine you as an actual person. But we’re not different sprouts from the same plant. I can’t be you. You can’t be me. You can imagine another well – but never quite perfectly, you know?” (Green 302). Quentin recognizes that there is a certain extent to which he can know Margo – another argument made by deconstruction theorists. There is a limit to knowledge, and humans can never know something in its entirety. Although we can come infinitely close to knowing all there is about a person by accumulating knowledge and fragmented stories, there is always going to be pieces of people that no one gets to know (Rivkin and Ryan). Not only does this add depth to Margo as a character, but it destroys the trope of a Manic Pixie Dream Girl on a whole. It shows that every human being has many different levels – some which will remain completely unknown – thereby discrediting the one-dimensional MPDG. Even the heading on the back of the book, “Who is the real Margo?”, implies that Margo is multifaceted and that people have their own interpretations of her, opposed to being a one-dimensional figure who is everything to everyone, transcending description.
In the third section of the novel, Quentin and his friends start on an epic, twenty-one hour road trip from Orlando, Florida to Agloe, New York – a town that used to exist only on paper where Margo has been living since her disappearance. Agloe is a “paper town” that existed solely on paper as a protection against copy-right infringement. However, since people continued to search for this paper town, someone finally put up a store where the town would have been, making Agloe real.
When Quentin asks why Margo chose Agloe, of all places, to go, Margo’s response shows exactly how direct John Green is in his dislike of the MPDG. Margo explains that when she stood on top of the Sun Trust building with Quentin, she was not thinking about how Orlando was made of paper but herself as well:
I looked down and thought about how I was made of paper. I was the flimsy-foldable person, not everyone else. And here’s the thing about it. People love the idea of a paper girl. They always have. And the worst thing is that I loved it too. I cultivated it, you know? Because it’s kind of great, being an idea that everybody likes. But I could never be the idea to myself, not all the way. And Agloe is a place where a paper creation became real (Green 293-294).
Although, in this passage, John Green alludes to the appeal of the MPDG, he shows what a negative affect that the image has on Margo. She recognizes herself as flat, and one-dimensional in the eyes of others, and wants to grow into someone more substantial – something she feels she cannot accomplish in a paper town like Orlando, which is why she felt she had to disappear. When Quentin and his friends reunite with Margo, they call her selfish for disappearing without any warning. However, it is this selfishness that helps Margo start to break out of the trope of the MPDG. Since Manic Pixie Dream Girls exist solely for the purpose of the male protagonist, by leaving the male protagonist behind, Margo establishes her own sense of self which continues to grow in her time in Agloe.
This concept of the perceived person opposed to the person’s individual identity leads to Quentin’s discovery of his metaphor of the vessel. According to this metaphor, every person starts off as an airtight vessel that gets cracked and battered over time. He asks Margo, “When did we see each other face-to-face? Not until you saw into my cracks and I saw into yours. Before that we were just looking at ideas of each other…But once the vessel cracks, the light can get in. The light can get out” (302). By admitting that he has flaws and that Margo has flaws, Quentin is able to have the deepest understanding of Margo he achieves in the novel, because by seeing her weaknesses, he sees her for herself. He acknowledges that, at one point, she was just an idea to him – his own Manic Pixie Dream Girl.
As Quentin discards the version of Margo he invented for the real Margo, John Green discards the Manic Pixie Dream Girl from literature. The readers have discovered Margo in the same way that Quentin has, and have realized her depth over time. After discovering the power behind a character as multi-dimensional as Margo, Quentin and the readers feel a sense of shame for having originally viewed her with such a narrow and limited perception. John Green makes his audience acutely aware that characters like Margo, who has depth and a sense of self is the more effective in communicating the human experience, opposed to a quirky, ukulele-playing, fairy princess who likes to dance in the rain.
Bowman, Donna, Amelie Gillette, Steven Hyden, Noel Murray, Leonard Pierce, and Nathan Rabin. “Wild things: 16 films featuring Manic Pixie Dream Girls.” A.V.Club.com. Onion Inc., 4 Aug. 2008. Web. 10 Nov. 2014.
Green, John. Paper Towns. New York: Speak, 2008. Print.
Rabin, Nathan. “The Bataan Death March of Whimsy Case File #1: Elizabethtown.” A.V.Club.com. Onion Inc., 25 Jan. 2007. Web. 10 Nov. 2014.
Rabin, Nathan. “I’m Sorry for Coining the Phrase ‘Manic Pixie Dream Girl’.” Salon.com. Salon Media Group, 15 Jul. 2014. Web. 10 Nov. 2014.
Rivkin, Julie, and Michael Ryan. “Introductory Deconstruction.” Literary Theory: An Anthology. 2nd ed. Ed. Rivkin, Julie and Michael Ryan. Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2004. 257-261. Print.
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