The Nightmares of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl
She isn’t like other girls. She’s wild, enigmatic, flighty, and quirky. She listens to “The Shins” on her Crosley record player and wears vibrant clothing because she doesn’t care what people think about her. She’s been in a series of toxic and abusive relationships that have rendered her disillusioned by love and unable to believe it even exists. She’ll come into your world like a storm, completely alter your state of existence, and then disappear from your life as quickly as she entered it. She is the Manic Pixie Dream Girl.
The Manic Pixie Dream Girl, as coined by The A.V. Club writer Nathan Rabin in a 2007 essay of Elizabethtown, is a female character trope 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,” says Rabin. While she is a seemingly ideal character in the eyes of male filmmakers, the Manic Pixie Dream Girl (MPDG) is a trite and dangerous stereotype.
The MPDG, although a seemingly complex and dysfunctional person, is actually surface-level and one-dimensional. In movies her main purpose is to inspire a greater appreciation in life for the male protagonist, who is suffering from an identity crisis or an artistic rut or financial disarray or anything else that a ~tortured~ man might suffer from. The MPDG is the epitome of the male fantasy.
Even though the MPDG was invented for film, it has many real-life consequences. The trope perpetuates the idea that women should serve simply as a tool for male transformation. If a stereotype is depicted in cinema as often as the MPDG is, then soon enough people begin to believe in it. This reinforces the idea that women should be second-class characters in someone’s real life story, and in their own life.
The Manic Pixie Dream Girl isn’t entirely new, either. Similar characters have existed in film for years and years: Penny Lane in Almost Famous, Sam in Garden State, Maggie Murdock in Love & Other Drugs, among many others.
While it’s important to call out the clichéd characterization of the MPDG, it’s also vital to recognize that the definition itself has its flaws. Rabin, who coined the term, has since retracted his definition. Some writers have deemed the generalization as misogynistic, like Ruby Sparks writer Zoe Kazan.
Others film writers have even created movies that counter this definition, like Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, in which Jim Carrey’s brooding, depressed Joel falls in love with Kate Winslet’s wild and charismatic Clementine. But Clementine warns him, telling him too many guys think she’s a concept, or say that she completes them, or that she’s going to make them alive. But really, she’s just “a fucked-up girl who's lookin' for [her] own peace of mind,” she says.
So, how do we end this vicious cycle of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl? Hire female writers. Support films created by women. Create characters that help narrate the daily struggles faced by all marginalized women. Call out one-dimensional characterization of women in films. Write dynamic and deep and layered and complex female characters, whose main purpose isn’t to be a love interest.
Some good examples to add to your watchlist are Lady Bird, Juno, The Edge of Seventeen, Frances Ha, Tiny Furniture, Mistress America, Diary of a Teenage Girl, and The Virgin Suicides. In the words of writer Laurie Penny, women aren’t fantasies, and they weren’t made to save you.