The Manic Pixie Dream Girl Problem

maniaque fille lutin de rêve illustration

It has come to my attention recently that, when I’m not making portraits of surrogate father figures (about which the less said the better), I’m making portraits of Manic Pixie Dream Girls. So I drew the thing above, and then I felt like looking into the term a little bit closer. To begin with, here's a brief history of the term:

Manic Pixie Dream Girl – A Brief History

  • In 2007 Nathan Rabin wrote an article for The AV Club about Cameron Crowe’s “fiasco” of a movie Elizabethtown that follows the travails of a celebrity shoe-designer played by Orlando Bloom. In his article Rabin coined the phrase “Manic Pixie Dream Girl” to describe Kirsten Dunst’s flighty flight attendant and other characters like her. She “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”.
  • In 2008 The AV Club featured the list Wild things: 16 films featuring Manic Pixie Dream Girls where the term was retroactively used to describe female characters as diverse as Diane Keaton’s Annie Hall and the Hepburns, Katharine and Audrey (for Bringing up Baby and Breakfast at Tiffany’s respectively).
  • The term gained traction, and it appeared in an article for Jezabel that called the MPDG the "scourge of modern cinema" and specifically stuck the boot into the annoying waif played by Natalie Portman who uplifts lithium-addled Zach Braff in Garden State. (This piece also tried to coin the term “new bromantics” for the fellas who are in need of an emotional uplift from the MPDG).
  • Zooey Deschannel starred in Yes Man (2008) and 500 Days of Summer (2009) becoming the unofficial face of The Manic Pixie Dream Girl.
  • In 2011 the phrase really exploded onto the internet, as evidenced by this graph showing the popularity of the search term on Google “Manic Pixie Dream Girl” since its creation in 2008.
  • From the above graph you can also see that the phrase reached peak popularity in 2013, at which point the number of articles deconstructing, criticising and defending the term burst forth from the arid landscape of the web like a ukulele playing geyser, culminating with Nathan Rubin’s public apology for creating the term in an article for Salon in July 2014.

It’s kind of settled down now. This could be due to the fact that the trope is now less common in cinema or, far more likely, writers on the internet have moved onto something new to discuss (present company excepted).

But why did the term need to exist in the first place?

The reason the MPDG became popular shorthand is, at least in part, because it identified something that was crying out for definition. The term took hold as a way to shine a spotlight on the insidious practice of female characters in cinema existing only as an agent of change for the (generally white middle-class) male protagonist, without realised objectives and motivations of their own. This practice is not just insultingly sexist, it's bad storytelling.

Kurt Vonnegut detailed a number of semi-serious ideas about story structure and how they could be graphed (see the video above). The diagram below shows his chart for one of the simplest and most enduring story structures “Man in Hole”.

Mapping Good Fortune and Ill Fortune on the Y-Axis and time on the X-Axis we can see that, at the beginning of the story, the status quo is disrupted causing ill fortune, and then a new (and often better) equilibrium is achieved by the story’s close. This basic plot is most simply served by two agents of change (or one acting in two different ways) – one to disrupt the equilibrium and one to aid our protagonist in the quest to achieve success. This agent of change can take many forms – a teacher, a lover, a parent or some combination of these… but hopefully not all three.

If we consider the Freudian idea that all humanity is primarily concerned with the impulses of sex and death, then it follows that one of the simplest agents of change in any story will be a romantic interest.

And if we consider a hypothetical world where the majority of (produced) screenplays are written by uptight white males unable to engage with the world on a satisfactory level then (in this purely hypothetical world) it would be reasonable to assume that the agent of change in a high number of films would be a female who is not uptight, and able to open the door to a new (and better) existence for our protagonist.

Laura Mulvey pointed out a problem endemic of film in her landmark 1975 essay Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema that is still very applicable today. The “male gaze” of narrative cinema classes “Woman as image and man as bearer of the look”. In a patriarchal art form, the female character becomes secondary to the male character, and (when acting as an agent of change) can all-to-often become an object that serves the plot and the protagonist without herself being developed or explored.

This is partly the reason that the term exists, and it is one reason that the term gets criticised. In an interview with Vulture, Zoe Kazan (very eloquently) expresses her distaste for the MPDG while discussing her film Ruby Sparks (which she wrote and starred in). She argues that the term is “a way of describing female characters that’s reductive and diminutive, and […] basically misogynist.” But the term was actually created to criticise movies that reduce and diminish the female characters within them.

The MPDG is an agent of change who exists for no other purpose than facilitating the male protagonist's journey, and the term exists as a way of criticising this view of women. But problems arise when any female agent of change (regardless of how well-defined she is as a character in her own right) is considered an MPDG. As a result of this confusion, characters such as Diane Keaton’s Annie Hall and Ruth Gordon's Maude are classed as MPDGs – lifeless objects existing purely to satisfy the needs of the male protagonist – when they are actually interesting and well-developed characters in their own right.

So, the term is overused, but that doesn’t mean to say that the trope itself isn’t too. It is when filmmakers are aware of this overuse that interesting things can happen. Kate Winslet’s Clementine in Charlie Kaufman’s Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind has brightly coloured hair, is prone to spontaneous flights of whimsy, and exhibits a startling unpredictability and disregard for societal conventions - all classic MPDG traits. She forcibly enters the life of Jim Carrey’s pessimistic and internally-fixated Joel Barrish (twice) with her MPDG charm and opens it up. But as time passes their relationship grows fraught and he tires of (what he perceives as) her affected eccentricity. It is only when he revisits their time spent together (while having his memories of her erased) that he realises he loves her for the human depth she actually has. He doesn’t need her to fix himself, they need to fix each other. 

This is starkly contrasted with Elijah Wood’s creepy stalker(ish) memory-technician, Patrick. Patrick falls for Clementine and creates a hollow reconstruction of the most MPDG-like aspects of her relationship with Joel – a reconstruction that is ultimately unfulfilling and distressing to Clementine despite Patrick’s satisfaction.

In the third season of Louie, the two-parter Daddy's Girlfriend takes on the structure of a romantic comedy, with Louie’s eponymous protagonist embarking on an adventurous and quirk-filled date with an effervescent bookstore clerk played by Parker Posey. But the idea of the anxious male protagonist having his outlook expanded by an adventurous female agent of change becomes an interrogation of what the MPDG means, what the White Male Protoganist (WMP) needs, and what is broken within that character that requires her. Posey’s character gradually reveals herself to the audience to be unstable, possibly alcoholic, damaged, a liar and almost certainly bi-polar. But Louie is unable to see any of this as she takes him by the hand through a series of winsome adventures in the city. She is a layered and complex person, but he sees only the dream. It is a dream that ends with an intensely melancholic coda as (the up to this point unnamed) Liz shuts down with unpredictable abruptness on a New York rooftop.  (Posey’s discussion of the character in this Salon interview is well worth a read).

In both these cases Clementine and Liz are viewed through the eyes of a male protagonist, but they are also complex characters in their own right. They aren't Manic Pixie Dream Girls, they are impassioned responses to the reductiveness of such an idea. A true Manic Pixie Dream Girl can only exist when the blinkered snorting stallion of the male gaze is ridden by the drunken jockey of bad screenwriting. Vonnegut's "Man in Hole" story is one of the most simple plots possible, and it is no excuse for undeveloped characters. So before we sell it to the glue factory (as numerous articles have suggested) we should consider the usefulness of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl as a term of derision pointing out bad screenwriting and outdated values.

So, this week I drew the thing way back at the start of this post. Inspired (perhaps a little too heavily) by the cover to Osamu Tezuka’s brilliant (probably) graphic novel La Femme Insecte:

I realised pretty early on in the conceptual stage that I was about to draw another MPDG, so I thought I'd try and excuse it with some lampshading. There’s no self-obsessed and uptight male protagonist in my images that requires an agent of change - but there is one lurking just outside the frame. And I'm probably not going to stop drawing them. Because I like to eat my cake, but that doesn’t mean I don’t want to have it.

There really is plenty more to say on this topic, but I’ve already gone on for way too long and I'm a year or two too late to add anything relevant to the discussion. There are loads of articles out there on he topic, but give this one a go if you want to read something by someone who has taken the whole thing a lot more seriously than I have.

1 comment:

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