Look, let’s put aside the fact that manic pixie dream girls are inherently irritating, because the purpose of a woman’s life is not to make a boring accountant realize that he should run around naked in traffic. Unless that is her job, somehow. Unless it’s some sort of life coaching thing. Then I guess… life coaching is a field that really exists, in the real world, that real people pay for. People make choices. But that is never the case with manic pixie dream girls in the movies or television, because they never seem to have calculated career paths. They don’t want career paths! They just want to live!
That’s fine. That trope has existed for a very, very long time. The problem is not that that trope exists, it’s that it’s getting worse.
The manic pixie dream girl didn’t originate when critic Nathan Rabin went to see Elizabethtown and realized that Hollywood liked to cast women as a kind of “bubbly, shallow cinematic creature that exists solely in the imaginations of writer-directors to teach broodingly soulful young men to embrace life and its infinite mysteries and adventures.” If you’d like more on the kind of manic pixie dream girl Rabin is referring to, take a second to watch this video:
Irritating, right? But not always so much! Let’s take a walk through manic pixie dream girl history and say that it begins with Katharine Hepburn in Holiday. For your viewing pleasure, here is a picture:
Now that you have essentially seen the movie, let’s reflect on the plot. Katharine Hepburn plays a wacky heiress who keeps trying different jobs (performing onstage! Becoming a nurse!) while trying to find herself. In her spare time, she hides from the rest of her reserved family in her attic annex filled with childhood toys. Cary Grant plays a man engaged to Hepburn’s refined sister. He wants to go off and travel and see the world, but Hepburn’s sister and father want him to run a bank. He’s willing to go along with that, until he meets Hepburn, who makes him realize that he should have more fun, and not run a bank, basically. Meanwhile, he makes Hepburn leave her attic and go out in the world and commit to something.
This all sounds like pretty typical MPDG stuff, but let’s think about the movie’s most famous line. Cary Grant mentions he used to be a gymnast and Katharine Hepburn replies “can you do a back flip-flop? Can you really? You’ll have to teach me. I can do everything else.” And you don’t doubt her. That is an incredibly empowered line. Hepburn’s character may be electing to hide in an attic with her stuffed giraffe (total manic pixie dream girl stuff), but she’s also smart, well dressed and able to carry on frighteningly fast paced witty conversations. You get the sense that if she’d never met Cary Grant, she still would have been just fine, because she could do anything. It was just slightly better – for both of them – that they did meet.
And then there was Holly Golightly. Remember her? Here’s a picture!
Look at what a manic pixie dream girl she is! And, to be fair, she is a lot closer to a typical, modern day manic pixie dream girl than Hepburn in Holiday. Because this Hepburn (Audrey) hangs out playing the ukulele and has a job that was purposefully ambiguous, because Hollywood at the time was not willing to let her be a call-girl (fun fact: the studio organized a campaign to popularize the word “kook!” to describe Holly’s existence, so badly did they want to detract from that whole “hey, guys, she’s a prostitute” thing.)
And Holly’s existence is more than a little designed to let the male hero see that it would be fun to hang out in Tiffany’s and go shoplifting with cat masks on. Holly Golightly seems more likely to throw up her hands and say “I don’t know how to do anything!” than claim she knows how to do everything except a back flip flop. But she’s still able to interact with most people socially. She lives on her own. She tries to take care of her mentally stunted brother. She was independent enough to leave her first marriage and move to New York on her own. She dresses beautifully and hosts parties. She seems to have the bearing and demeanor of a grown-up. I mean, to the extent that she could impress the future president of Brazil into wanting to marry her. Way to be somewhat competent and able to survive in society, Holly Golightly!
Now let’s jump forward for a while. Let’s jump all the way forward to Garden State, often cited as one of the quintessential Manic Pixie Dream Girl films. Here’s a picture of Natalie Portman‘s character in it:
Now we’ve moved forward to a place where the female heroine can definitely not do everything. She can’t even live on her own, because she is an epileptic and a compulsive liar. So she continues to live with her mother, and wears headgear, and breaks into little dances when asked about how she is. Now, from this description you might think “this doesn’t sound like a particularly appealing person, unless I am specifically seeking out people who will make me feel better about meeting the bare minimum requirements for adulthood.” But she has reasonable reasons for not being able to live alone or be a grown-up! She has legitimate mental conditions!
She’s being painted as an incredibly desirable woman despite the fact that she has mental problems that would, in real life, make her fairly difficult to deal with. But she sure is pretty. Still, fine. There are reasons she can’t function. They make sense. Little dances and traditional good looks are enough to change the protagonist’s worldview entirely. They make him feel alive inside. Don’t bother going out and getting a job, ladies. Ugh. Okay.
Which brings us to New Girl.
Zooey Deschanel plays a kindergarten teacher who brings light and love into the lives of her male roommates by periodically bursting into song for no particular reason. Loudly. And generally being so inept that, well into her 20’s, she thinks that you should wear overalls to a fancy restaurant until she is gently corrected. But wow, does she ever have a childlike sense of wonder that is cunningly disguised as idiocy.
Seriously, pretend you have to hang out with either Zooey Deschanel in New Girl or Katharine Hepburn in Holiday. When Katharine Hepburn hangs out in an attic trading witty banter with you and talking about her hilarious adventures in nursing, you would have fun. When Zooey Deschanel starts breaking into a loud song at a restaurant – in her 20’s – you would… cringe. I’m betting you would cringe.
In 60 years, we’ve gone from idolizing women who were absolutely certain that they could do everything but back-flip-flops and Hollywood assuming that those would be the women who would set you free, to idolizing women who somehow made it 27 years without realizing that you don’t wear overalls to fancy restaurants. This seems like… it should have gone the opposite way?
What happened to us? As women as a whole became more competent, does being a life-changing outsider now require one to be incompetent? [tagbox tag=”manic pixie dream girl”]
Maybe. Or maybe it’s mostly due to lowered expectations for the male protagonists, too. Because it’s worth noting that the male protagonists in these stories also seem progressively stupider. If Cary Grant’s character overshadowed Katharine Hepburn’s in some degrees of competence, well, he was Cary Grant. She was Katharine Hepburn. And their characters were both so high on the awesome scale that it was hard to tell. In Breakfast At Tiffany’s the protagonist isn’t a guy who could run a bank if he felt like it, he’s an extremely talented but penniless writer/kept man. He’s still slightly more competent than Holly Golightly, though, because he doesn’t hang out with mob bossses, and thus is able to take care of her. In Garden State Zach Braff may be a writer/actor who is detached from absolutely everything, but hey, he has his life more together than this epileptic, compulsive lying girl. And in New Girl the men may not have all that much going for them, and exist in some goofy bro-state most of the time, but they do know that you don’t break into songs at random intervals, presumably because none of them are 7 years old.
That at least makes some kind of sense, though not the kind that’s particularly good for people of either gender.
Now. Where can we learn how to do a back-flip flop?