Like it or not, the moniker “Manic Pixie Dream Girl” is probably here to stay.
Since its debut in Nathan Rabin’s 2007 review of the movie Elizabethtown, the term has taken pop culture by storm, capturing the imaginations—and the ire—of readers, critics, and culture warriors alike.
Articles like “My Week as a Manic Pixie Dream Girl” and “I Was a Manic Pixie Dream Girl” got written—and quickly dissected. Online roundups each claiming to be the “Definitive List of Manic Pixie Dream Girls in Fiction/Film/Comics/Whatever” cropped up and quickly grew to astonishing lengths. The term even lent its name to a YA novel by Tom Leveen in 2014, and in 2015, 10 years after the term’s inception, “Manic Pixie Dream Girl” joined the likes of “twerk” and “jiggy” as an official English language term in the Oxford English Dictionary:
Manic Pixie Dream Girl: (Especially in film) a type of female character depicted as vivacious and appealingly quirky, whose main purpose within the narrative is to inspire a greater appreciation for life in a male protagonist.
MPDGs had certainly hit the prime time…but with all that fame came a huge amount of backlash as well.
In fact, fan outcry against the cliché of quirky, bubbly female characters helping scruffy male leads find some kind of salvation got so loud and so quarrelsome that it nearly killed the trope off.
You just don’t see that many true Manic Pixie Dream Girls in film or fiction anymore—simply because it’s so dang hard to get away with it nowadays!
…and yet, here we are, still talking about it in 2018.
The De-Evolution of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl
The fact is, Manic Pixie Dream Girls never really went away. They didn’t leave, they changed—and not for the better.
Yes, like “Mary Sue” before it, the actual meaning of the phrase “Manic Pixie Dream Girl” quickly mutated once John and Jane Q. Public got their sticky mitts on it. Remember critic Nathan Rabin’s original definition of the concept:
“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.”
Rabin’s classification of the trope is flowery and sardonic, yes, but like all good definitions, it’s also quite precise.
MPDGs are defined not only by their eccentricities and energy and eclectic fashion sense, but also by their role in the male main character’s life—and by the fact that they’re entirely a figment of writers’ imaginations.
That’s what makes the Manic Pixie Dream Girl a “wish-fulfillment” character. Women willing to forgo their own identities and ambitions to “save” schlubby menfolk are rarer than unicorn poo, and the “Manic Pixie Dream Girl” nickname was chosen specifically to mock this unrealistic and rather silly fantasy.
But what started as a derogatory nickname for a specific type of clichéd movie character soon ballooned into a catchall term for all quirky, bubbly women—both in fiction and in real life.
While it’s difficult to pin down exactly when things went south for the Manic Pixie Dream Girl, sometime in the decade between Rabin’s original Elizabethtown review and today, audiences and critics alike developed a much shallower definition of the much-maligned MPDG.
Suddenly, all eccentric, energetic, polka-dot-wearing fictional women found themselves slapped with the Manic Pixie Dream Girl label, regardless of their character’s development or relationship to a male lead. Even if a woman in a story has flaws and goals and an arc all her own, the minute she weaves a dream-catcher, she’s thrown in the Pit of Harmful Stereotypes.
In short: Manic Pixie Dream Girls became to interesting female characters what Mary Sues are to strong female characters.
Manic Pixie Dream Girls vs. Sexism
This is where most of the accusations of sexism get leveled.
“Mary Sue” gets called misogynist because the term assumes that female characters—and by extension, real women—cannot realistically be expected to behave in stereotypically “heroic” fashion… to be strong, or skilled, or brave, or to leap into the fire and save her friends.
In that respect, “Manic Pixie Dream Girl” might be even more insidious. Some critics, like filmmaker Zoe Kazan, claim the phrase implies that women can’t be quirky or eccentric or strong-willed, that any attempt to stand or express themselves outside of certain traditional modes out will get slapped down by the MPDG label.
If “Mary Sue” denies women their strength, “Manic Pixie Dream Girl” denies them their personalities, and the effect of this is twofold.
On one hand, it encourages writers and filmmakers to downplay their female characters’ personalities, turning them into either bland “nice” girls or mere blank slates.
On the other hand, it discourages women with naturally bubbly personalities or eccentric tastes from fully expressing themselves.
It sounds loony, I know, but I’ve got close friends who’ve been accused of “doing the whole Manic Pixie Dream Girl thing” just for wearing a lot of frills and ribbons.
Just like the “Mary Sue” moniker, “Manic Pixie Dream Girl” started out as a helpful classification of a silly stereotype—but seems to have ended up as a weapon for those who would limit and control the expression of others.
Deconstructing the Manic Pixie Dream Girl
If the inception of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl had an impact on the national pop culture dialogue, the backlash had an equal effect.
Most notably, Nathan Rabin actually publicly apologized for creating the term. In a 2014 Salon article, Rabin stated that:
“The trope of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl is a fundamentally sexist one, since it makes women seem less like autonomous, independent entities than appealing props to help mopey, sad white men self-actualize.”
He describes his “queasy disbelief” at the nickname’s popularity, regretting that by giving the cliché a name, he gave it power—a power that quickly spiraled out of control. He’s asked that society stop using a term he deems so harmful…not that it’s had any effect on folks’ behavior, of course.
And while Rabin isn’t the only public figure who’s called for an all-out ban on the Manic Pixie Dream Girl name, others have taken a different approach to handling the MPDG issue—and in the process, they’ve given us some of the decade’s most interesting stories.
For example, novelist John Green has dedicated the bulk of his writing to systematically demolishing the Manic Pixie Dream Girl cliché through a literary technique called deconstruction.
Deconstruction, as its name implies, refers to taking apart tropes in fiction and examining their relevance to real life.
Specifically, Green deconstructs the Manic Pixie Dream Girl by creating female characters who appear at first to meet the standards of the trope, but over the course of the story reveal hidden depths and flaws, becoming more three-dimensional in the eyes of Green’s protagonists.
Perhaps the best example of this comes from Green’s 2008 novel Paper Towns. Protagonist Quentin “Q” Jacobsen spends the majority of the story trying to unravel the mystery that is resident strange girl Margo Roth Spiegelman. She’s an enigma wrapped in a riddle wrapped in a burrito, a mischievous and adventuresome girl who always plays it cool, and he’s been in love with her “for as long as he can remember.”
Margo’s set up as a prime slice of MPDG loaf, but by the end of the story, Q realizes that her eccentric personality was a front hiding deep emptiness, a purposeful Manic Pixie Dream Girl façade—a façade that Q was complicit in helping to maintain.
Q comes to this conclusion:
“And all at once I knew how Margo Roth Spiegelman felt when she wasn’t being Margo Roth Spiegelman: she felt empty. She felt the unscaleable wall surrounding her. I thought of her asleep on the carpet with only that jagged sliver of sky above her. Maybe Margo felt comfortable there because Margo the person lived like that all the time: in an abandoned room with blocked-out windows, the only light pouring in through holes in the roof. Yes. 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.”
And even if all that’s a bit on the nose, it does effectively subvert the Manic Pixie Dream Girl trope, exposing not only Margo’s humanity, but also the inherent selfishness of the male hero in stories like this. Q expected Margo to play the role of the “fine and precious thing” in his life forever—and is redeemed when he admits his “sins.”
But perhaps the best example of a deconstruction of this trope comes in the form of my favorite movie of 2012, the deceptively sinister Ruby Sparks.
In the film, Paul Dano plays Calvin, a young novelist struggling in both his career and his love life. After dreaming of a mysterious woman who draws a picture of his dog, Calvin begins writing about the titular Ruby Sparks—only to have her miraculously spring to life, just as in love with him as she was on the page.
The two begin a strange romance—Calvin is unsure if Ruby (played by the film’s screenwriter, Zoe Kazan) is human or even real, while Ruby herself is completely unaware of her fictional origins—but at first, the two seem well-suited, even happy in their peculiar relationship.
However, as Ruby begins to develop her own character and personality outside of Calvin’s writing, Calvin continually adds to her story to “correct” her, until Ruby finally discovers Calvin’s machinations and manages to escape him.
Ruby Sparks is a fascinating subversion of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl trope in that it actually features a Manic Pixie Dream Girl protagonist. Yeah, that’s right—while Calvin starts the film as the main character, he ultimately serves as the story’s antagonist once Ruby wrests control of the narrative from him.
Despite literally being written to be the perfect MPDG, Ruby refuses to be one-dimensional, becoming independent from both the male “lead” and the conventions of the film she’s in through sheer force of will—an empowering act if I’ve ever seen one.
The Future of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl
The Manic Pixie Dream Girl has already led a strange and complicated life in our popular culture. She’s been admired, reviled, condemned, and repurposed—and her story is far from over.
Examples like these prove that deconstructing even the silliest tropes can yield surprisingly sincere results, and that even harmful stereotypes can be used to create new and engaging stories when placed in the right hands.
Dear reader… maybe those hands are your own.
For now, I’ll leave you with a quotation from another would-be Manic Pixie Dream Girl, Kate Winslet’s Clementine from Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind:
“Too many guys think I’m a concept, or I complete them, or I’m gonna make them alive. But I’m just a [censored]-up girl who’s looking for my own peace of mind. Don’t assign me yours.”
And if you’re looking for more information about creating well-rounded characters, we’ve got you covered:
- The Problem with Perfect Characters: Mary Sues, Gary Stus, and Other Abominations
- Exploring the Monomyth: 6 Lessons from Joseph Campbell’s Theory of “The Hero’s Journey”