“I Have a Problem with Quirk”: How the Manic Pixie Dream Girl Trope is Detrimental to Young Girls and Women // Meredith A. Martyr
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It is a character that we have come to know quite well. From Jess on New Girl to Sam in Garden State, the Manic Pixie Dream Girl (MPDG) is a character trope that has captivated the Millennial generation. Not only has it catapulted itself to being a commonly acknowledged character in many popular films and television shows, it is now an identity with which many young girls and women hope to become. But, I have to wonder, at what cost?
Nathan Rabin coined the term MPDG in 2007 when writing one of his first movie reviews for Elizabethtown. He initially created the term in response to his strong reactions towards Claire, played by Kristen Dunst. He described her as a “fantasy figure who existed solely in the fevered imaginations of sensitive writer-directors to teach broodingly soulful young men to embrace life and its infinite mysteries and adventures” (Rabin, 2007). This description didn’t sound completely unique to a patriarchal-filled movie industry. I mean, what movie did not create a storyline where a woman taught a man more about himself and the audience was left apathetic towards the female love interest? Very few. Characters like Audrey Hepburn from Breakfast at Tiffany’s to Diane Keaton in Annie Hall captured the love and longing many young men possessed in previous generations. The Millennial generation was not doing anything new, but now the evolvement of feminism into mainstream culture would create a heightened awareness around what these characters do in real life to young girls and women.
Men who identified themselves with an unconventional form of masculinity (i.e. sensitive emotional nature, a variety of non-gender normative interests/hobbies, etc.) were drawn towards the films where they felt they could relate to the male lead characters struggling with similar identity development concerns. Zach Braff in Garden State, Joseph Gorden Levitt in 500 Days of Summer, and Jim Carey in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, these were men who exemplified emotional growth and depth to Millennials. Masculinity in films had carved out a space that challenged the status quo, but at what cost? What each of these men in these films possesses as the critical stepping stone on a path to self-actualization is a woman. This woman stays both strategically in the foreground and the background. The woman keeps the viewer intrigued into the magic she possesses to somehow invoke emotional depth and progression, however she also wears a muzzle that mutes her own narrative, evolving identity, and emotional complexity. In 500 Days of Summer, Summer (Zooey Deschanel) is Tom’s (Joseph Gorden Levitt) love interest and provides a creative motivation and push for self-actuality through her quirky hobbies, freedom from adult responsibilities, and present-focused attitudes about love and relationships. Eventually Summer ends the relationship stating she is not longer in love with Tom, which throws him into an emotional renaissance of realizing for the first time in his life that the only person that can make him fulfilled is himself. Although the film presents a storyline that is uplifting for many individuals, young men in particular, the viewers often forget about the perspective of Summer. We do not hear the complexities behind Summer and the perspectives she brings to the relationship. She stays in the foreground and background, waiting patiently to be included in the story as we follow Tom’s individual story.
Rabin has responded recently with an apology for creating the term MPDG (2014), but not for reasons that many people understand. Rabin states that “the trope of the [MPDG] is a fundamentally sexist one, since it make women seem less like autonomous, independent entities than appealing props to help mopey, sad white men self-actualize”, he later states that “the response to [his MPDG label] was pretty positive, but relatively sleep” (Rabin, 2015). The MPDG fits perfectly within a patriarchal structure that has permeated the Millennial generation into not fully realizing the detrimental effect it has on young girls and women. How can it be so hurtful to include an independent and quirky female character in a featured film alongside an untraditional male lead? Patriarchy is an ever-evolving movement that crafts itself to the changing culture, in this case by creating a physical space for these women, yet still creating and maintaining how she presents (i.e. a prop for the male lead character). Rabin provided a term that provides a liberation for women and men who could not explain fully why they didn’t connect with these female characters. These women felt hollow, shallow, and not quite autonomous. Although this term explains the emotional disconnect between many viewers and these supposed-to-be-loved female characters, the MPDG has slowly turned into a trope that women should aim to become. We need to keep our wits about us and we need to continue to check-in with the motivations behind why these characters were created. Was this character created to stand independently or are they acting as a post of a footstool meant for a male lead? I love the movie 500 Days of Summer more than anybody else, however every time I stand up for Summer I often receive a pushback from my many people. Why is that? I think Rabin and I both know why, and that is because we are trying to respect the independent narrative that Summer possess, whether people want to acknowledge it or not.
Rabin, N. (2007, January 25). The bataan death march of whimsy case file #1: Elizabethtown. A.V. Club. Retrieved from http://www.avclub.com/article/the-bataan-death-march-of-whimsy-case-file-1-emeli-15577
Rabin, N. (2014, July 15). I’m sorry for coining the phrase “Manic Pixie Dream Girl”. Salon. Retrieved from http://www.salon.com/2014/07/15/im_sorry_for_coining_the_phrase_manic_pixie_dream_girl/
Written by Meredith A. Martyr