• Fri, Jan 20 2012

In Defense Of (Some Of The Ideas Behind) The Manic Pixie Dream Girl

There’s no love lost in the feminist blogosphere (or anywhere, really) on the cinematic trope known as the “manic pixie dream girl.” And with good reason! As she appears in most movies today, the MPDG is, as Jennifer said, one-dimensional, idealized, and non-threatening if not downright incompetent. I’m not going to try to defend most specific MPDGs, because I agree that they perpetuate a limiting view of women in our culture.

I know this unpleasant phenomenon well, actually, as over the course of my life as a young, creative-leaning female with brown hair and bangs, I’ve occasionally experienced the unpleasant realization that a guy is trying to cast me as the MPDG in the Woody Allen movie he’s convinced himself he’s living in. Although it was initially flattering–Aaw, he thinks I’m free spirited, I would think. Now allow me to artificially magnify that aspect of my personality–I quickly realized that for a guy to cast me as his MPDG was to reduce me to a caricature of myself and guarantee he would never really understand me in the way it’s necessary to understand someone if you’re going to have a real relationship with them.

I mean, sure, I like skinny dipping where I shouldn’t and going on vision quests in the woods and staying up all night talking about everything. But I’m also a multifaceted person who has figured out how to channel my weirdness into a semi-productive activity I’m passionate about. (Or, as Jennifer would call it, “a career.”) I’m not all happy and “whee!” all the time; sometimes I get PMS and need to stay in and watch episodes of Party Down. Sometimes I feel like a huge loser. Sometimes my hair lacks shine. No one who thinks you are his own personal Zooey Deschanel character is going to stick around for long once he realizes those things about you. (Also, I’ll save you some time and tell you he is probably cheating on his girlfriend with you. His girlfriend who just doesn’t understand him, a crime for which she deserves to be lied to, horribly and often.)

The MPDG has also created a culture in which any seemingly “quirky” female is derided, often by other women, for seeming to conform to some male fantasy. Sorry, but I’m not going to change who I am because you are dumb enough to mistake certain aspects of me for my entire raison d’etre. The MPDG trope is partially (though not completely) to blame for this.

So really, I should hate the MPDG more than most. And I do. But the main reason I hate her is this: there are actually some good intentions behind her, which her anti-feminist execution completely undermines and devalues.

Take the idea of living life to the fullest. I would argue that this is an important idea to keep in mind if you don’t want to feel like a zombie all the time. I’m not ashamed to admit that I’m always chasing the feeling of being truly amazed by something, truly connected to others, etc. That’s why I see so many bands; I’m looking for something that will knock me over with its greatness. That’s why I’ve engaged in all kinds of sexual/romantic relationships and maybe occasionally dabbled in controlled substances. That’s why I go on retreats to the woods with my friends. Figuring out who you are and retaining your sense of wonder about the world is an important endeavor. That statement is not any less true for the number of times it’s been repeated by everyone, ever. [tagbox tag="manic pixie dream girl"]

But at no point in time should you stop being the protagonist in your own story. The true crime of the MPDG is not her failure to adhere to social codes or function in capitalist society, but her lack of agency. She exists solely to help the male character actualize himself. The muse can’t keep any of her inspiration for herself, and that’s a damn shame, because I bet she could make something pretty cool if she tried.

So basically, I dislike the MPDG because she takes ideas I value and makes them seem trite and easily mocked. Which is a shame, because with a little feminist tweaking, a lot of the MPDG characters could’ve been truly interesting instead of just “quirky.” And that’s why I feel simultaneously protective of, and enraged by, the concept of the manic pixie dream girl.

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  • LaLa

    I’ve always thought this was the entire point of the movie (500) Days of Summer. That’s why Summer doesn’t end up with Tom in the end. He’s painted all his own expectations on her just because she has bangs and wears dresses. He never really sees her as a real person. Yes, I know Summer acts very MPDG during most of the movie but you have to remember it’s all told from Tom’s point of view. (He also has a dance number so I think it‘s pretty clear he has his own version of reality) There’s a whole scene where he looks back on all these perfect (in his opinion) moments in the relationship and realizes that she was unhappy or bored the whole time. Also, let me say I hate the MPDG stereotype. New Girl makes me want to shoot myself in the face. But I loved (500) Days of Summer because, like the character of Summer (and like you), I’ve had a guy project the MPDG thing onto me just because I’m a little eccentric and like to wear sundresses. I always feel like I have to defend Summer. I’m like, “NO! You’re supposed to feel bad for her! He’s being shitty to her!” I just feel like everybody missed the point of the movie. Which is the same point you’ve been making in your article.

    • Kacie

      Completely agree!!!!

    • Jamie Peck

      I realize this post is really old but I just want to say I agree with you! I don’t think Summer is an MPDG at all.

    • Jamie Peck

      Err, I meant to reply to this. I agree that Summer is not an MPDG.

  • Elaine

    The word “feminist” is used a lot in this article. Is feminism about forcing women to think that one lifestyle is right? Is feminism about judging other women for what they find endearing/ charming/ relatable in entertainment or perhaps even real life? I just think that hating on the manic pixie dream girl is a really tired cliche in journalism. It’s like a liberal-leaning blog posting articles nonstop about how partisan Bill O’Reilly is. Have we ever stopped to consider for just a second that the reason the MPDG seems two-dimensional is because she is in fact NOT the main character of most of these movies/ TV shows. They’re told from the guy’s perspective, probably written by mostly guys, and thus show how this one person was influenced by someone else. And really, we don’t often see people as multi-dimensional. We lable them as “that guy who one time stole my shoe after sex” or something like that. For the most part, people become anecdotes in our memories, and then are forgotten.

    and for the LOVE OF GOD can people stop throwing Zooey Deschanel up there just because the new girl is now popular? She is such an easy target because she looks the way she does and dresses in a way that most men really like. No where in the feminist manifesto (i.e. Gloria Steinem’s writings or, if you’re really wild, just about anything by camille paglia) does it say that dressing in a way that men like nor that being adorable goes against the feminist code. Zooey Deschanel’s character on New Girl is to the MPDG what Eliot reed on scrubs is to the neurotic new yorker in her 20′s who can’t settle on a romantic partner because of her volatile self-esteem/ mother issues…parody people! Embellishment is a key to comedy sometimes. There are a plethora of instances on The New Girl in which Jess comes off as strong, sarcastic, independent, and intelligent. The “Bad in Bed” episode was one of the funniest ways in which I’ve ever seen the awkwardness of new sexual experiences conquered. When Jess says to Nick, “Look at your hair. You look like someone who is bad at sex.” that’s a kind of humor and charm that has nothing to do with how free-spirited or quirky she is…it’s just funny. Lots of instances like that on that show. Seriously, if you’re going to throw the word “feminist” around that many times, I would very much like to hear how her character (since she is the picture up there and I assume you’re not talking about 500 days of summer in which she was kind of the sociopathic pixie dream girl) on New Girl is anti-feminist. I want lines from the show, and parts of her personality. If you can’t produce that, then you don’t have an argument, you have a vague intuition of something you’ve probably read somewhere else a billion times. And I don’t mean that disparagingly- dialogues encourage thought and it’s never a bad thing to have your mind opened with a good debate. So please, because as far as I can tell MPDG is dead. Again, don’t mean to make you angry or feel bad. You’re doing something here and that’s cool, but I feel like this is the way to progress, especially with an issue as important as feminism.

    • len132

      Seconded! I think that the MPDG trope says more about the man telling the story than about the women he is talking about. I’ve always thought that we shouldn’t be attacking the girl who is supposedly executing that fantasy, but more the mindset of the men that creates that fantasy.

  • Somnilee

    The second to last paragraph of this post was one of the best things I’ve ever read, and I might write it up to pin on my mirror (with the other aspirational stuff, because I’m cool like that). I won’t explain how it applies to me, but it does, so thank you :)

    • woo

      Agreed! Whether you love or hate the MPDG, that was one cool piece of writing!

  • Sienna

    I hadn’t heard of the MPDG until The Gloss started talking about it so much lately, god it’s a weird feeling to realise that my basic personality type in relationships thus far has a term and is also really irritating to a lot of people. I feel kind of bad…note to self: must focus on own career more and stop being a two dimensional muse with glossy hair.

  • L

    Um…I think you’re spending too much time on this.