It’s incredibly difficult to actually enjoy something nowadays. There is always a level of criticism or scrutiny that can be applied to the culture we partake in. You can roll your eyes at anything if you try hard enough, and for the most part, it feels quite harmless.
For the past fifteen years society has hounded a particular archetype, seeking an excuse to live tweet or to whip up an Instagram graphic on how progressive our thinking is. People have built theory and practice around the degradation of this trope: she fills the Youtube algorithm and is blamed for all cultural ‘lowpoints,’ from TERF bangs to E-girls. She’s the essence of unattainable, the damaged darling of the romantic comedy: she is the Manic Pixie Dream Girl.
It’s likely you immediately visualised a doe-eyed brunette with pink tinged hair, fawning over an average white guy and scampering around a record shop. Aesthetically, you’re right on the money. Coined originally in 2007 by critic Nathan Rabin, these quirky sex kittens “exist solely in the fevered imaginations of sensitive writer-directors to teach broodingly soulful young men to embrace life and its infinite mysteries and adventures.” Rabin’s definition created a wave of self-made critics who have spent the past fifteen years slapping this label on any example of a woman speaking, laughing, dancing, eating… you get the idea. If a female character slightly exhibits a love of ‘quirky’ activities, if she dares to give a male protagonist advice, if she clashes prints or paints her nails something other than clear, there’s likely a violently angry individual who has created a blog post about her. Hatred of MPDG is nonexclusive; feminists detest her, misogonists exploit her, she provokes attacks and false approximations like a Doc Marten clad straw-man.
While originally cited with reference to the bubbly titular character of 2005 box office bomb, Elizabethtown, the trope to me evokes images of two particular women; Clementine of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004) and Summer of 500 Days of Summer (2009). Even their names are eye-roll worthy. Sweet, warm women who take names dripping in subtext and euphemism. I remember watching them as a child with my older sister and mom nearby, being simultaneously awed by their beauty and perplexed at their actions. Would I one day need to learn about The Smiths? (I did, I can’t stand them.) Should I dye my hair? (Never have.) How could I make a man’s life into a live-action musical? (Getting a theatre degree sure hasn’t helped.) But while my sister jibed at the girls for being pushovers, for lacking substance, for serving men… all I could think of was how much I wanted to be with them. I didn’t see them as shallow, I saw them as powerful.
When I heard the term “Manic Pixie Dream Girl ” I remember actually flushing with excitement. What an incredible thing to be! To be able to make a life better while retaining an otherworldly power would be the greatest gift in the world, especially because these women never actually got hurt. Or at least not that we saw.
In no way am I saying 11 year old me saw through a misogynist trope because of my budding sexuality. I fell in love with women outside the MPDG distinction regularly. In hindsight I realise my love for these MPDGs is so particular and strong because Summer, Clementine, and Ramona aren’t MPDGs. They’re subversions of the trope.
Clementine is regularly defined by the ‘first’ time she meets her male protagonist, in which she appears to be wild eyed and electric. A glance at Wikipedia would show that the scene is actually out of her chronology- while the scene is at the opening of the film, it takes place out of sequence as she had already met her lover and at this point is attempting to connect their tumultuous relationship through her fried neurons. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind written a year before the MPDG trope was invented, and stands in complete conceptual opposition to the idea of an elusive, hollow woman. Clemetine has thoughts, feelings, and backstory, all things that MPDGs are deprived of. She herself states, when her actions draw her nearer to those of an MPDG, “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.” In hindsight her comment is almost too on the nose, too real to be taken seriously, and it pains me to see how decades later, Clementine is still considered to be vapid or directionless by uncaring critics.
Summer is more complicated, and for that reason I love her even more. Zooey Deschanel’s portrayal of a frustrated millennial’s ideal woman is synonymous with the hatred of Manic Pixie Dream Girls, despite the fact that her character was intended to bring awareness to the damage the trope can cause. We see Summer through the eyes of her male protagonist; she’s exciting, she’s different enough to be sexy, but familiar enough to be unthreatening, she likes his music and inspires him to take risks. We fall in love with her with him through a montage of sappy clips. But the narrative of the movie shifts when Summer refuses to conform to her protagonist’s whims. MPDGs are invented to acquiesce to their male counterparts, prompting them down healthy paths and disappearing in a haze of body glitter. But Summer is ambivalent. From the start of the film she is clear in her distaste for monogamy and is subsequently skittish around the man who proclaims his love for her. We fall out of love and learn to hate Summer with the male protagonist, but by the end of the film it is revealed that we hadn’t fallen in love with her at all, because we never bothered to really know her.
By projecting the male fantasy onto a real woman, the hero and the audience alike are set up to fail by their own expectations, “the end result of which, can only be heartbreak.” This delicately woven critique of MPDGs was unfortunately far ahead of its time, and rather than sympathising with the disenfranchised Summer, millions of viewers have incorrectly perceived her as the villain. The abuse of Deschanel’s character and the misconceptions of the film’s intentions went so far that co-star Joseph Gordon-Levitt spoke out, warning that his character, “develops a mildly delusional obsession over a girl onto whom he projects all these fantasies…That’s falling in love with the idea of a person, not the actual person.”
These two characters have been dragged through the mud due to their association with the very trope they sought to critique. But the misappropriation of the MPDG doesn’t stop there. Any woman enjoying anything can be easily considered an MPDG, which narrows the list of enjoyable movies to about 0. The trope has also been retroactively applied to characters who were groundbreaking for feminist presence in film, namely Katherine Hepburn in Bringing Up Baby and Shirley MacLaine in The Apartment. These women play enthused, powerful, playful creatures who serve their own interests exclusively. They exist next to men and prove to be formative in the lives of those men. But they also exist as individuals, they have histories and motives and sharp wits. They get hurt, they falter, and they grow.
But most vitally, Baby is a screwball comedy and The Apartment is a slice-of-life tragicomedy; the characters are limited to specific forms that restrict their perceptive autonomy, which is neither good nor bad, it’s simply the structure of the story. By being empowered, they are somehow manic. By being beautiful, they’re dreamy. By being wry and quick-witted, they’re akin to pixies. And of course, these women are diminutively referred to as girls, despite their vital presence as women within their respective stories.
The argument can of course be made to retire the term entirely. Rabin himself has pleaded for the world to forget his coining, stating that he deplored the term’s misogynistic, pervasive use in cinema. But alongside removing this trope from our lexicon, we must also reckon with why we hate the trope in the first place. Not the terminology, which of course possesses reductive, sexist notes, but the women themselves.
The first labelled Manic Pixie Dream Girl, Kirsten Dunst’s Elizabeth of Elizabethtown (2005) is categorically annoying, but why do we think this? Is it so hard to suspend our disbelief and imagine that a person could be selfless in an attempt to help a lost soul? I wish I could meet someone with that much empathy. Is it reductive to love Natalie Portman’s Sam from Garden State (2004) despite her quirks and cloying eccentricities? Despite the poor writing, the actress portraying her gives her life and passion that I wish I could share in. And of course Ramona Flowers, played by Mary Elizabeth Winsted in Scott Pilgrim vs.The World (2010). Sure, she’s a fantasy creature bred out of comic books and videogame tropes but that will never change the fact that I think she’s beautiful and brilliant and deserved better than what that Toronto suburb could give her.
We vilify women for enjoying things. We vilify them for abstaining from things. There is no way a female character can meet the vicious scrutiny of the modern cultural consumer, and consumers should not be judged for liking women who society has deemed unlikable. These women don’t have to be your problematic fave, they can just be your fave!
It’s ok to like the aesthetics of characters, to read them with appraisal instead of hatred, to sympathise with feelings of flightiness, eccentricity or quirk. A Manic Pixie Dream Girl would want you to. So the next time you pop in a ‘cringey’ romcom or a sleeper hit from the noughties, I propose falling in love with the women on screen for who their characters actually are, not how we’ve been taught to perceive them.
Julia Hegele, Arts and Culture Editor
cover image by Peggy Mitchell!