Manic Pixie Dream Girl
Manic Pixie Dream Girl (MPDG) is a stock character type in films. Film critic Nathan Rabin, who coined the term after observing Kirsten Dunst's character in Elizabethtown (2005), describes the MPDG as "that bubbly, shallow cinematic creature that 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." MPDGs are said to help their men without pursuing their own happiness, and such characters never grow up; thus, their men never grow up.
The "Manic Pixie Dream Girl" has been compared to another stock character, the "Magical Negro," a black character who seems to exist only to provide spiritual or mystical help to the white savior protagonist. In both cases, the stock character has no discernible inner life, and usually only exists to provide the protagonist some important life lessons.
MPDGs are usually static characters who have eccentric personality quirks and are unabashedly girlish. They invariably serve as the romantic interest for a (most often brooding or depressed) male protagonist. An example is Natalie Portman's character in the movie Garden State (2004), written and directed by Zach Braff. In his review of Garden State, Roger Ebert also described this kind of rather unbelievable "movie creature" as "completely available" and "absolutely desirable."
The A.V. Club points to Katharine Hepburn's character in Bringing Up Baby (1938) as one of the earliest examples of the archetype. Later examples include Audrey Hepburn in Breakfast at Tiffany's (1961), Goldie Hawn's characters in Cactus Flower (1969) and Butterflies Are Free (1972), and Barbra Streisand's in What's Up, Doc? (itself a remake of the aforementioned Bringing Up Baby). Zooey Deschanel's role in 500 Days of Summer (2009) has also typified the MPDG.
The Filmspotting podcast created a list of "Top Five Manic Pixie Dream Girls"; Nathan Rabin appeared as a guest and created his own, separate list of MPDGs. Among those included were Catherine (Jeanne Moreau) in Jules and Jim (1962), Jean (Barbara Stanwyck) in The Lady Eve (1941), Sugar (Marilyn Monroe) in Some Like It Hot (1959), and Gerry Jeffers (Claudette Colbert) in The Palm Beach Story (1942). Other examples of the MPDG the media has proposed include Jean Seberg's character in Breathless (1960), Belle in Disney's animated Beauty and the Beast (1991), Layla (Christina Ricci) in Buffalo '66 (1998) and Penny Lane (Kate Hudson) in Almost Famous (2000).
Kate Winslet's character Clementine in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004) acknowledges the trope of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl and rejects the type, in a remark to Jim Carrey's Joel: "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." The title character of Annie Hall is often called a MPDG but also arguably not one, as she has her own goals independent of the male lead.
Although Zooey Deschanel's Summer in 500 Days of Summer is often identified as a MPDG, the movie can be seen as a deconstruction of the trope because it shows the dangers of idealising women as things, rather than respecting them as real people with their own complex outlooks. Director Marc Webb stated that "Yes, Summer has elements of the manic pixie dream girl – she is an immature view of a woman. She's Tom's view of a woman. He doesn't see her complexity and the consequence for him is heartbreak. In Tom's eyes, Summer is perfection, but perfection has no depth. Summer's not a girl, she's a phase."
The lead character of Stuart Murdoch's 2014 musical God Help the Girl, Eve, has also been noted as a subversion of the trope, with actress Emily Browning approaching the character as "the anti-manic pixie dream girl" and describing her as having "her own inner life" and being "incredibly self-absorbed; [...] Olly wants her to be his muse and she's like, 'No, I'm not having that. I’m gonna go do my own shit.'"
Criticism and debate
In an interview with Vulture, the entertainment section of New York, about her film Ruby Sparks, actress and screenwriter Zoe Kazan criticized the term as reductive, diminutive, and misogynistic. She disagreed that Hepburn's character in Bringing Up Baby is a MPDG: "I think that to lump together all individual, original quirky women under that rubric is to erase all difference."
In a December 2012 video, AllMovie critic Cammila Collar embraced the term as an effective description of one-dimensional female characters who only seek the happiness of the male protagonist, and who do not deal with any complex issues of their own. The pejorative use of the term, then, is mainly directed at writers who do not give these female characters more to do than bolster the spirits of their male partners.
In December 2012, Slate’s Aisha Harris posited that "critiques of the MPDG may have become more common than the archetype itself," suggesting that filmmakers had been forced to become "self-aware about such characters" in the years since Rabin’s coining of the phrase and that the trope had largely disappeared from film.
In July 2013, Kat Stoeffel, for The Cut, argued that the term itself had become sexist, citing her opinion that "it was levied, criminally at Diane Keaton in Annie Hall and Zooey Deschanel, the actual person. How could a real person’s defining trait be a lack of interior life?"
Similar sentiments were elucidated by Monika Bartyzel for The Week in April of 2013, who wrote "this once-useful piece of critical shorthand has devolved into laziness and sexism." Bartyzel argues that "[The term] ‘Manic Pixie Dream Girl’ was useful when it commented on the superficiality of female characterizations in male dominated journeys, but it has since devolved into a pejorative way to deride unique women in fiction and reality."
Retraction of the term
On the July 14th, 2014, for Salon, Rabin prompted a retraction of the term "Manic Pixie Dream Girl." He argued that in "giving an idea a fuzzy definition," he inadvertently gave the phrase power it was not intended to have. The trope’s popularity, Rabin suggested, led to discussions of a more precise definition, a reduction of the critic’s all-encompassing classification of MPDG. While he coined the term to expose the sexist implications in modern culture, the "phrase was increasingly accused of being sexist itself." Backlash occurred when many well-loved female characters were placed under this trope. In response, Rabin suggested that nuanced characters cannot be classified in such a restricted nature, and thus he apologized to pop culture for "creating this unstoppable monster."
The "male gaze"
One possible explanation for the lack of professional women in films may have to do with the male gaze, as described by Budd Boetticher which is used in film so that the heroine is one who exists for the hero. He says, "What counts is what the heroine provokes, or rather what she represents. She is the one, or rather the love or fear she inspires in the hero, or else the concern he feels for her, who makes him act the way he does. In herself the woman has not the slightest importance." In this way, the male gaze plays a role in the creation of the MPDG, as the way it is put here makes it appear as if she would not exist without the male gaze.
Manic Pixie Dream Boy
Recently there has been discussion of a male version of this trope, the Manic Pixie Dream Boy or Manic Pixie Dream Guy. Augustus Waters from the film version of The Fault in Our Stars (2014) was given this title in a 2014 Vulture.com article, in which Matt Patches stated "he’s a bad boy, he’s a sweetheart, he’s a dumb jock, he’s a nerd, he’s a philosopher, he’s a poet, he’s a victim, he’s a survivor, he’s everything everyone wants in their lives, and he’s a fallacious notion of what we can actually have in our lives."
The Manic Pixie Dream Boy trope has also been pointed out in sitcoms such as Parks and Recreation and 30 Rock. The female protagonists of these shows are married to men (Adam Scott’s Ben Wyatt and James Marsden’s Criss Cross, respectively), who, according to a 2012 Grantland article, "patiently [tamp] down her stubbornness and temper while appreciating her quirks, helping her to become her best possible self."
The character "Jesse" played by Skylar Astin in the 2012 film Pitch Perfect embodies the Manic Pixie Dream Boy trope. His role in the film appears to be to coax the very serious character "Becca" played by Anna Kendrick out of her gloom and embrace life to the fullest. He has no backstory of his own, and no major goals of his own in the context of the film. According to an article on Ohio State's Entertainment News site, "Jesse, the male protagonist, never fails to break my heart. His character is seemingly flawless: he is sweet, charming, funny, boyishly handsome, and talented, but in a self-deprecating way. The character radiates youthful appeal in a way that makes me want to sit close to him and watch John Hughes movies with him. He takes on the selfless task of cracking open the stony girl protagonist by showing her The Breakfast Club and becomes a victim–Jesse is unusual. Jesse is a background story-less charisma machine."
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