Manic pixie dream girls. You can’t go to the cinema or switch on to the telly without encountering a perfect little bundle of saccharine cutesiness in a floral frock, trotting out radio-friendly indie hits on a ukulele these days. From classic films like Bringing Up Baby, to recent indie hits like Garden State to our televisions in New Girl, the manic pixie dream girl is everywhere. Hollywood papers over the shallow vapour of its female leads with contrived quirkiness and we get to pretend that there’s no sexism because the character makes an impact on the plot and characters.
Of course, this isn’t right. The manic pixie dream girl (MPDG) trope is sexist as hell. The creeping, insipid nature of the sexism inherent in this character archetype is harder to put one’s finger on; the veneer makes it difficult to tease out exactly what is wrong.
It is best to start with the original definition of the MPDG from film reviewer Nathan Rabin:
The Manic Pixie Dream Girl 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.
Here, it becomes abundantly clear that the MPDG must exist only in relation to the male main character. The entire point of her presence is to bring a little bit of chirpy sunshine to the life of someone else. Without a man to mend, the MPDG simply cannot be: she will instead fall into other character archetypes. The MPDG is not a character with agency: she is a perky, pretty little plot device-cum-love interest. She serves the same function as the Magical Negro, with added sex.
The lack of agency of the MPDG is the most egregious problem with this character archetype, but it is far from the only issue. In its comprehensive collection of pop culture reference points, TV Tropes demonstrates two other characteristics common to the MPDG.
Firstly, the MPDG exhibits quirkiness in a very childlike manner. She is likely to be playful and carefree, climbing trees and bursting into inappropriate song. There is an innocence about the MPDG which enchants the male lead (and, presumably, is supposed to endear the audience to her, too). This childishness is infantilising, a fetishisation of youth. It turns an adult woman into a little girl, and it is intensely, tooth-grindingly patronising. While there is a wide spectrum of behaviour, and no woman should be expected to act in a certain way, it is telling that the media machine loves nothing more than to suggest to we women that we should never grow up.
Secondly, the MPDG is almost always meets the hegemonic Western “beauty standards”. We do not get to see a wide spread of ways in which a woman can be beautiful with a MPDG present. Can you think of a MPDG that is not Hollywood thin? A MPDG who is not white? A MPDG who is butch? My own mind is drawing a blank here. What we get is the standard leading lady that is perpetually shoved down our throats, but perhaps she will have blue hair to make this less immediately noticeable.
These two attributes are not unproblematic on their own, but taken with the existence only in relation to a man, the MPDG becomes a very unpleasant portrayal of women. The MPDG is the avatar of benevolent sexism: a portrayal of fragile femininity from which good stems. The MPDG completes her man, she is pure, she is a thing to be worshipped and is better than the man. Almost every item on the measure for benevolent sexism applies to the MPDG very strongly. This is why it is so much harder to decry the MPDG as sexist: many are not yet ready to admit the existence of benevolent sexism.
Even when subverted, the problems of the MPDG apply. There are instances, such as in 500 Days of Summer or Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind where the MPDG exists as salvation only in the mind of the male main character. Here, she still completely lacks independence: if anything, it becomes more of another tedious story about men than the trope played straight. In other instances, the MPDG will turn out to be some shade of crazy: perhaps she’s a psycho bunny boiler, or pretending to be sweet so she can get something from the male main character. In these cases, the trope slips from benevolent sexism towards its more recognisable, hostile cousin.
There is nothing that can be done to save the manic pixie dream girl archetype. It is sexist from top to bottom. The monotonous drone of narrative sterotypes reflects and magnifies attitudes towards–and resultant treatment of–women. The MPDG does not exist in a vacuum, but, rather in a world where benevolent sexism is still seen to be all right, giving men false hope that a tiny tornado of quirkiness will fix their lives, while suggesting to women that perhaps if they were prettier and completely subsumed themselves to the will of a man, they might get laid more. The MPDG is a fantasy, and not a very nice one for anyone involved.
This is not to say it is impossible to make a good film involving a MPDG. Many cinematic works considered brilliant contain Magical Negroes: consider much of Morgan Freeman’s body of work. Likewise, MPDGs can be done well: arguably, Marilyn Monroe’s character in Some Like it Hot is a MPDG. This does not mean we cannot critique these tropes: indeed we must, so that eventually, the fantasy of the manic pixie dream girl will die.
In this post, I might have criticised a TV show or a film that you like. Before you leave a comment telling me I’m wrong on the internet, please read this and this so you don’t look like a proper tit in the comments.