What a treacherous thing to believe that a person is more than a person.
– Radar, Paper Towns
The term Manic Pixie Dream Girl was coined in 2007 by Nathan Rabin in his essay on Elizabethtown, and since then has come under a great deal of criticism for being sexist and reinforcing the misogynistic tendencies in film. In 2014, Rabin wrote a piece apologizing for creating the term which has taken on a life of its own and inherently deprives some great female characters of agency, turning them into props for the development of the male protagonist. Rabin also acknowledges that many of the characters that fall into this trope are much loved characters that many women relate to, citing Diane Keaton in Annie Hall, who was based in large part on Keaton herself and as Rabin says, “as far as he knows, Diane Keaton is a real person and not some ridiculous male fantasy.”
The real problem with the Manic Pixie Dream Girl trope is that it reduces every friendly, quirky, free-spirited woman who has an onscreen relationship with a man to nothing more than that relationship, lending credence to the idea that women only exist in relation to the men around them. The trope assumes that Natalie Portman’s Sam from Garden State does bizarre dances when she feels unoriginal specifically to cheer up her guy friend. It assumes that Zooey Deschanel’s Summer from (500) Days of Summer only wants to recreate scenes from porn films because she thinks her boyfriend would like it. It assumes that Kate Winslet’s Clementine from Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind regularly changes her hair colour because she thinks it’ll make men happy. These are women that exist beyond the prescribed role of wife/girlfriend, but the idea of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl reduces them to very specific, stereotypical roles and more importantly represents a complete lack of female subjectivity.
One of the people to take up the protest against the toxic nature of the trope of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl is John Green, who has stated that his book Paper Towns “is devoted IN ITS ENTIRETY to destroying the lie of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl.” I haven’t read the novel, but the film adaptation, which was released this weekend, is defiantly constructed to very obviously tackle the idea of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl. While the film itself suffers from boring white guy syndrome (seriously, what is it will the casting of so many male charisma vacuums in leading roles lately?), it also has some interesting moments that comment on how women are treated and portrayed in popular culture.
When I first saw the trailer for Paper Towns, I had zero faith in the film to be anything more than girl saves boy by teaching him how to live. I mean the trailer begins with the fact that our so-called hero’s miracle is living across from a girl named Margo. Add to that the line “Margo always loved mysteries. Maybe she loves them so much, she became one” doesn’t inspire much confidence in the film breaking from the tropes of woman as trophy. I was pleasantly surprised when I found the film itself does a reasonable job of treating Margo (the always fascinating Cara Delevingne) as her own person. The most admirable thing about the film is that it highlights that Margo is a legend because that’s what other people have chosen to make her.
When Quentin (dull as ever Nat Wolff) tells Margo that his life plan is to go to college, then med school, become a doctor, get married, have kids and then he’ll be happy, she refuses to accept that as a life plan. Margo might be the catalyst that sends Quentin on his quest for self discovery, which means that she can never truly escape the Manic Pixie Dream Girl label, but she is also absent for most of the film. She is the prize at the end, filling yet another female trope as the object that Quentin is positive will make his life perfect. This is a pretty standard plotline for a teenage coming-of-age film, but where Paper Towns deviates from that is in its final moments. This is where the film makes its attempt to destroy the lie of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl.
The problem is that even though we don’t get the typical or expected ending, the fact is that for the purpose of the film, Margo still exists to help Quentin grow as a person. She might not have wanted to be found, but her disappearance is the catalyst for the entire film. The fact that the lesson learned is that women are not concepts or ideas, they are people just like everyone else is nice, but it doesn’t change the fact that Margo still exists solely in relation to Quentin, even though she is the one who actually has a story to tell.
This is not the case with the film Ruby Sparks (2012) which also sets itself up to actively attack the tropeof the Manic Pixie Dream Girl. This film takes a more literal approach, giving us a woman, Ruby (Zoe Kazan), who is written by Calvin (Paul Dano) and miraculously comes to life. Ruby is the perfect embodiment of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl, a woman who literally exists to support a man and help him to achieve his goal of finishing his book.
As the film progresses, Ruby moves away from the parameters of her creation and starts developing into her own, independent person, leading to Calvin to tighten his hold on her because he literally can make her do anything he wants. In the end, the perfect Manic Pixie Dream Girl doesn’t save Calvin, she destroys him. Ruby might have been created to be nothing more than Calvin’s girlfriend, but within the context of the film, she exists to find herself and to grow into more than what she was created to be.
This difference between the two films might steam from the fact that Paper Towns, for all it’s good intentions, was written from a man’s perspective and men, particularly in Hollywood, have difficulty giving us women who are completely separate from their male counterpoints. Ruby Sparks, on the other hand, was written by Kazan and therefore, even though the film features a male protagonist, it takes on a female perspective with regards to the Manic Pixie Dream Girl. This is something that is very important that hardly ever gets mentioned around the discussion of dismantling harmful female tropes. It cannot come exclusively from a male perspective. The female voice is instrumental in changing expectations because we inherently understand the damage they can do.
The thing is, that many of the characters that get the Manic Pixie Dream Girl label are among some of the most interesting female characters we get onscreen. These women may have been conjured into existence for the sole purpose of having the male protagonist find himself, but unlike many other female tropes such as the dutiful wife/girlfriend or overly supportive mother, the Manic Pixie Dream Girl is usually just as damaged as her man–she’s just managed to cope with life better than he has. This doesn’t make the trope any less problematic, however, in some ways it makes these characters all the more frustrating because they clearly have a more interesting story to tell then we ever get to see.
I’m the first to admit that I am drawn to the women who fit into this trope because they are a lot like me. Two of my favourite films feature a woman who can be described as a Manic Pixie Dream Girl: Garden State and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. In both of these cases, it is the female leads, Sam (Natalie Portman) and Clementine (Kate Winslet) that I am not only drawn to, but that define these films for me. These women are weird man. They are full of ticks and quirks and insecurities and that is what makes them so relatable. It’s no wonder the male leads are drawn to them. Both these characters also carry their own demons. Sam has epilepsy and is a compulsive liar. Clementine drinks too much and swears like a sailor. Despite this, both women manage to face life as themselves, not letting themselves be defined by society at large, which is where films fail the Manic Pixie Dream Girl.
Too many guys think I’m a concept, or I complete them, or I’m going to make them alive. But I’m just a fucked up girl who’s just looking for my own piece of mind.
I love both of the aforementioned films, but the fact is that Sam and Clementine are not the heroes. Those roles fall to Andrew and Joel (Jim Carrey), the hapless, dysfunctional men of the films. There is a reason there isn’t a Manic Pixie Dream Boy and that’s because the film industry at large seems to feel that men are always interesting, but women must be attached to a man to have a story worth telling. The problem is less with the existence of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl than with the grouping of women with similar traits into a single category. More importantly, the problem stems from the fact that these women are always seen from the male perspective. Of course she only exists in relation to a man and is there to help him better himself; he’s the protagonist and every character is there to serve him.
Many of these Manic Pixie Dream Girls assert that they are their own person and not some guy’s personal saviour, but he refuses to listen. Clementine tells Joel when he asks her out, “Too many guys think I’m a concept, or I complete them, or I’m going to make them alive. But I’m just a fucked up girl who’s just looking for my own piece of mind.” But he doesn’t believe her. Of course she’s going to save him. If nothing else, this is what movies have taught us. Women exist to support men and help them along their personal journeys, not to have lives of their own. This is where the Manic Pixie Dream Girl differs from so many of the other female tropes on screen. Most of these women have clearly defined identities outside of their relationship with the male lead, even if we never see them. In many cases their lives are more interesting than his.
The problem isn’t with these characters, it’s that we only ever get to see them through a male perspective, which effectively reduces them to nothing more than a quirky, cute girlfriend who will teach our listless hero how to really live. The term Manic Pixie Dream Girl then is simply a product of the inability of the film industry to tell women’s stories. Even when they are the ones with the stories to tell and not our paper people, the male protagonists.