She’s effortlessly chic, she’s a wild child, she’s a walking sex magnet, and best of all...she’s not real! The manic pixie dream girl trope, although only coined fifteen years ago, has been a staple in cinema for decades. Why has this trope continued despite the prevalence of intersectional feminism, and how does it factor into our daily lives? Catherine is here to answer these questions and more
It’s one of those awful mornings where the day does not rise with you, but rather pushes you off a cliff. Your alarm didn’t go off because you dreamt you set it instead of actually doing so, your hair was personally tangled by someone with an eternal vendetta against you and all your kin, and you can’t find that one top you planned on wearing.
You start wildly sifting through drawers like you’re panning for gold, throwing jumpers and tank tops and that one t-shirt you can’t bear to donate from 2015 all over the gulf that is now your floor. You have mustered up the will to wear a different outfit, but when you throw it on you think:
“Is this too much cleavage?” “Is this skirt too short?” “Will I get catcalled in this outfit?”
Essentially, “Have I accommodated my entire day to fall in line with the patriarchal violence ingrained in me since childbirth?”
It was in Margaret Atwood’s Bride Robber that she hauntingly wrote: “You are a woman with a man inside of you. You are your own voyeur.” The internalised male gaze is something that, if one has identified as a woman for a period of time, is deep within all of us. Like a sleeping cobra in a wicker basket, it’s when one is rattled that it strikes. How did I become both my own jailer and my own prisoner?
Besides being socialised from birth to fall within the culturally appropriate imagination of what being a “woman” or a “man” should be, it is in specific cinematic tropes that one can see the reinforcement of damaging patriarchal values. The “Barbie Blonde”, the “nerd turned supermodel when she removes her glasses”, and most controversial: the “manic pixie dream girl” are all tropes for actresses that seem to never leave the silver screen.
So, what is the “manic pixie dream girl” trope? Where was she born, where can you find her, and why is her function as a prop to raise the male protagonist so desirable to audiences to this day?
A Rose Would Smell Just as Sweet by Any Other Name
The term “manic pixie dream girl” was officially coined by film critic Nathan Rabbin in his 2007 AV Club article, “The Bataan Death March of Whimsy Case File #1: Elizabethtown”. In discussing Kirstin Dunst’s character, Claire Colburn, Rabbin describes her as a “Manic Pixie Dream Girl”, where she “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.”
Ultimately, a Manic Pixie Dream Girl (MPDG from now on) has no other function except to help improve the character of the male protagonist. Other articles have often listed such examples as Natalie Portman in Garden State (2004), where her character Sam helps Zach Braff process the death of his father while dressing eccentrically and working as a paralegal (which we never see). Zooey Deschanel in Yes Man! (2008) has also been sighted as a MPDG in the wild, where her character Allison charms Jim Carrey with her “quirkiness” and helps him see that being spontaneous is not such a terrible thing. Kirsten Dunst’s character Claire in the now cult-classic Elizabethtown acts as a guiding angel for Orlando Bloom’s character Drew as he deals with his father’s death and his depression.
More popular examples of what the elusive MPDG is, such as Ramona Flowers in Scott Pilgrim versus The World (2010), Penny Lane in Almost Famous (2000), and Sarah Deever in Sweet November (2001) make the MPDG seem a recent,concocted trope of the millenium. However, many have cited the first MPDG to actually date much earlier, specifically noting Katharine Hepburn as Susan Vance in Bringing up Baby (1938). In this film, Hepburn plays a spontaneous heiress who teaches Cary Grant’s character, David Huxley, the serious and studious paleontologist, to live life to the fullest. On top of being a wild and rambunctious heiress, she takes Grant on a quest to find a place for her pet leopard, Baby, to live.
Combining examples of the MPDG in cinema, it seems like more films than not have used this trope as a crutch to not only move the plot along, but to redeem their sometimes poorly written or adapted male protagonists. Yet, what concerns me even more is the sheer amount of MPDG’s that are identifiable in films I’ve watched countless times. Julie Andrews’ Maria in The Sound of Music seemed so full of life and love to me, but now rewatching it I can’t help but notice that her character is emptier than I remember. Where is she from? What are her motives, her struggles? Is she only so fun loving and lively to contrast and therefore help Captain von Trapp see the errors of his parenting and process the death of his previous wife? All we know for sure is that she’s a “willow o wisp”, a “flibbertigibbet”, and a “clown”.
With more examples than anyone would like to count, one must ask: what unites these characters under the umbrella of the MPDG?
She’s not a Person, She’s a Prop
Just by looking through the examples I have provided, there are several unifiers that make up the Manic Pixie Dream Girl. First of all, she is always white and conventionally attractive. This may seem inconsistent considering the stereotype that the MPDG is dressed quirky, often sporting brightly dyed hair and eccentric layered clothing. However, just as the MPDG is used to create a fuller version of the male protagonist in the film, so is her clothing used to flesh out her character without actually giving her complete anonymity or complete substance.
What do we really know about Sam in Garden State (2004) besides the fact that she wears a medically prescribed helmet to work due to her epilepsy? What identifies Ramona Flowers in Scott Pilgrim versus the World (2010) than her ever changing bright green, blue, and pink hair? The costuming and makeup of the MPDG is absolutely essential to identifying her, as she was created ultimately to be the opposite compliment to the male protagonist in need.
The MPDG, in being white, typically heteorsexual, and conventionally attractive, is more than anything, available. She’s created out of fantasy, she’s a dream come to life that can ultimately be controlled and manipulated because she is beyond the realm of real humanity. She is an idea, not a person. She’s desirable because she falls into the conventional standards of Western European beauty that dominate much of mainstream cinema, and yet she’s not “easy”. Instead, the male protagonist has to learn her ways of life to be with her, and then they can live happily ever after together.
Worst of all, she is innately a representation of the way in which women were taught to put each other down and step on each other to rise up the patriarchal ladder of “success” instead of raising each other up. She is for the male protagonist, with a presence as “quirky”, “eccentric”, and “wild” that drips with the infamous sentiment: “she’s not like other girls. She’s different.”
Tale of a Girl Who Wanted to be a Dream
Perhaps the most heartbreaking part of the MPDG is that even though it is fun to watch, I myself wanted to be the Manic Pixie Dream Girl at some point in my life. And, I can bet, at one point many of us wanted to be her or wanted to be with her.
The MPDG has not been as common in cinema in the last ten years, specifically because of the way this trope has become easier to identify (as well I would argue, the rise of intersectional feminism and its prevalence in mainstream media). However, growing up in the heyday of the MPDG as a young girl in the early 2000’s, I longed to be like these characters. I wanted to be cool, desirable, indifferent, eccentric, fun, alive. I put other girls down for being mainstream, for wanting to wear makeup and dresses when we were thirteen. I walked around thinking if I did this, boys would look at me. And all along, it was the internalised male gaze I have to this day watching me try to become a dream, not a person.
Who was I if I could not be a man’s fantasy? The MPDG is a fun loving character to watch and perhaps to draw outfit inspiration from next time you’re shopping at your local charity shop for early 2000’s outfits, but this trope is ultimately harmful.
Girls should not be taught that they need to be hollow and moldable to be accepted. The heterosexual and patriarchal male gaze is not the ultimate judge, jury, and executioner of our character, our worth, our talents, and our self, and yet, we are instituatilionised that it is. The Manic Pixie Dream Girl is a lover, mother, teacher, dreamer, and actress. And, worst of all, she is alone. She stands in the eye of the storm and is not allowed to act out of her own desires or merits, but rather in assistance to the protagonist.
In trying to become a MPDG myself in adolescence, I realised that I was isolating myself from the people around me, all in an effort to be more desirable to them. The MPDG is removed from her own humanness, she is flawed but only in ways that make her sexier, more fun, and ultimately more desirable to the male protagonist.
I don’t know if the MPDG will ever fade away. But, the more that girls are institutionalised that their worth and character is beyond that of the patriarchy, the more that cinema will reflect this. I should not have to sit here and ask that female characters are written as human beings. But, here I am.
A person, not a dream.