John Green questions the trope of the MPDG
You recognize this girl. She sometimes has unconventional hair, dyeing it from blue to green to pink every week or so. She sings in public, frolics in the rain, and dances like no one’s watching. She has child-like charm and whimsy, but is also open and free about her sexuality. In the movie, or at least on the TV show, she will likely be played by Zooey Deschanel. She moves through the world like a daydream, leaving the men in her path awestruck and changed forever. This is the Manic Pixie Dream Girl.
We can see the Manic Pixie Dream Girl (MPDG for short) in books like The Perks of Being a Wallflower (Stephen Chbosky), The Silver Linings Playbook (Matthew Quick), The Bridge to Terabithia (Katherine Paterson), and Norwegian Wood (Haruki Murakami). In movies, she shows up in Elizabethtown, Garden State, 500 Days of Summer, Along Came Polly, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, and Scott Pilgrim vs. The World.
The term “Manic Pixie Dream Girl” was coined by writer Nathan Rabin in 2007 in a review for the movie Elizabethtown. In the review, he questions Kirsten Dunst’s character Claire’s determination to help Orlando Bloom’s character Drew:
Dunst embodies a character type I like to call The Manic Pixie Dream Girl (see Natalie Portman in Garden State for another prime example). 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.
As Rabin implies, the Manic Pixie Dream Girl is incomplete without her male lead. He is usually white, thin, awkward, and shy. He’s quiet, sometimes crippled by anxiety or depression. He’s not awful looking, but he’s not your typical male lead. He’s not brawny or macho. He’s not a man’s man, or even, to put it plainly, a ladies’ man. He’s afraid to put himself out there, whether it’s with love or with life itself. He needs the MPDG to save him, to help him change for the better. And she usually achieves this goal with excruciating patience and care, acting as his Sherpa for love and life.
There is nothing wrong with the character. There’s nothing wrong with dyeing your hair bright colours, listening to The Smiths, and dancing in the rain. In all honesty, these characters are objectively more interesting than the male leads that fall for them. I would rather hear about their lives than the stories of the pale sad guys that love them. The character isn’t a problem; the problem is the context that her character is always given. She is there to pander to the male lead’s fantastical ideal, pushing him out of his comfort zone, but not scaring him so much that he’s not interested in getting out of the box.
For example, many of the MPDGs are “free” with their sexuality, which is usually summed up by having the MPDG mention a previous relationship with a woman. In 500 Days of Summer, Summer talks about her past relationships, including one with a woman: “for a brief time in college there was Charlie, she was nice but …” Summer trails off, not finishing the thought. Either Tom stopped listening because he was too distracted by the idea that Summer had sex with a woman or the writers didn’t that think that it was important for her to have a reason to end a lesbian relationship. In the movie Scott Pilgrim vs. The World (the books get into Ramona’s sexuality more than the film), we find out that one of Ramona Flower’s exes is a woman named Roxy. Ramona dismisses her relationship with Roxy in front of the male lead Scott as “just a phase,” saying “it meant nothing, I didn’t think it would count.”
Bisexual experimentation is supposed to shock the male leads, but not enough to intimidate them. The relationships were brief and didn’t “count,” so that the male leads don’t feel too conflicted or jealous about the news, while also being titillated that their love interests had a “bicurious” experience. This is why the MPDG has a relationship with only one woman, instead of multiple women. Having sex with a woman that one time in college is a fact that makes her more interesting and mysterious—it is not a fundamental part of her character’s sexuality.
Breaking Down the MPDG
Rabin later wrote a piece for Salon saying he regretting coining the term because of the responses it received. Many of the responses missed the point of his criticism entirely and tried cashing in on the MPDG character. Others would accuse any rendition of a quirky female character as being a MPDG without looking into the context of the writing, brandishing the work as sexist and unoriginal without much thought.
For example, critics have gone after author John Green for his YA novels, like Looking for Alaska and Paper Towns. In a piece by Mary Jo Tewes Cramb in the LA Review of Books, she describes Looking for Alaska’s resident MPDG:
… she’s quirky, damaged, self-destructive, creative, flirty, and (of course) gorgeous. She makes narrator Miles’s life at their boarding school a lot of fun: they play pranks, sneak alcohol, and have long late-night talks. Before long he’s a little in love with her, but, alas, she has a (older, long-distance) boyfriend. Alaska encourages Miles to experiment sexually with his first girlfriend, explaining how oral sex works. Miles feels for the first time like he’s really living, thanks to Alaska’s influence—until (spoiler alert!) about a third of the way through the book, she dies in a car accident that may have been a suicide. Miles spends the rest of the story questing and questioning to solve the mystery of her death and what it means for him.
In the book and now movie Paper Towns, Green introduces another MPDG, Margo, who takes the narrator Q on a night of pranks and fun, only to disappear the next day. As much as Green is at fault for creating these characters to match the trope, he also should be credited for trying to break them down. In Looking for Alaska, the protagonist Miles finds out that his view of Alaska is a self-serving illusion. In Paper Towns, Green goes even further by having Q meet with Margo again, where he learns that she has a life entirely separate from his vision of her: “The fundamental mistake I had always made—and that she had, in fairness, always led me to make—was this: Margo was not a miracle. She was not an adventure. She was not a fine and precious thing. She was a girl.”
Green even went so far as to defend his deconstruction in a Tumblr post, after a reader asked him how he could heavily depend on the trope while being such a forward-thinking and progressive writer:
Have the people who constantly accuse me of this stuff read my books? Paper Towns is devoted IN ITS ENTIRETY to destroying the lie of the manic pixie dream girl; the novel ends (this is not really a spoiler) with a young woman essentially saying, “Do you really still live in this fantasy land where boys can save girls by being romantically interested in them?” I do not know how I could have been less ambiguous about this without calling the novel The Patriarchal Lie of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl Must Be Stabbed in the Heart and Killed.
Local Toronto MPDG
There will always be the potential for people to misread Green’s characters as MPDGs. He uses the trope in order to break it down. Meanwhile, other stories have confronted and dismantled the trope of the MPDG in their works, only to resuscitate it. For example, in 500 Days of Summer Tom continues to have expectations that she is his lover even after she tells him she doesn’t want to have a romantic relationship with him. Even the actor Joseph Gordon Levitt believed that Tom wasn’t a romantic role model, describing him as mildly delusional and selfish.
In what seems to be turning point in the movie, the screen frames Tom’s expectations against the uncomfortable reality of attending a party at Summer’s apartment. The reality eventually pushes his expectations away and he is devastated by the truth. Summer is engaged to someone else. Not only does she not want him as her romantic partner, she chose someone else. We could hope that this brutal revelation teaches him to listen and to avoid placing impossible expectations on his love interests. Unfortunately, the end of the movie preempts this possibility for character development. He meets a woman before a job interview, and even though they are going for the same job and though she has hinted she might be romantically unavailable, they agree to go out for coffee. Her name is Autumn, a signal that Tom is only restarting his romantic pattern. Of course, the opportunity to fix the trope was squandered; the MPDG is replaced and continues on.
I think Rabin shouldn’t back down for creating the term, because pointing out the lazy writing and the sexist pandering to the male fantasy is important in breaking the trope down. It is necessary to call out the offensive and frankly boring writing that makes women secondary characters that exist to only make the male lead’s life more fulfilling. It is good to peel back the layers of these well-meaning YA novels, romances, and indie flicks to show that just because the soundtrack has The Shins instead of Robin Thicke, or the romantic interest is Emma Watson instead of Megan Fox, or the lead is played by Zach Braff instead of Channing Tatum, it doesn’t mean that the story is free of sexism. The style may appear more sophisticated or twee, but the bottom line is that it’s still sexist to use women as props to hold up male stories.