The internet has been absolute chaos in recent weeks. From sexist, albeit unsurprising, comments from a certain presidential candidate to coverage of a high-profile robbery, scattered amongst thoughts on these events was a short-lived trend – “three fictional characters I relate to.” These collages, full of Liz Lemons, “Game of Thrones” characters, and Barney Stinsons (by the bros who still haven’t seemed to catch on that this character is satirical) were harmless fun for the pop culture-obsessed, but there was also pattern that alarmed me: the inclusion of so many Manic Pixie Dream Girls.
The term, MPDG refers to a film trope that’s been exemplified for decades, but coined by writer Nathan Rabin, in his review of 2007’s “Elizabethtown.” He described the MPDG as a character in cinema, void of any actual substance, who “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.”
Though Rabin has since admitted to regretting giving such power to this cliché, the deed has been done. Sure, we all like a whimsical, carefree character like Sam in “Garden State,” or Penny Lane in “Almost Famous,” and every awkward emo boy wants his own “Ramona Flowers” or “Summer Finn,” but what every film that exemplifies this trope has in common is that it’s focused on the men whose lives are changed by this strange, charming girl.
Do we know anything about Summer, aside from the fact that she has an affinity for The Smiths and has good hair? What is Penny’s story outside of Stillwater, her awesome jackets and the fact that she takes nothing seriously? The lack of answers to these questions is why I found it so upsetting when so many intelligent women of substance posted that they identified with characters like this.
I’m no psychologist, and maybe these women found that they were IRL MPDGs because they live an actual life of whimsy. Perhaps they know how to play ukulele or some other quirky instrument, or legitimately dance in public to the music in their heads, but I find that the reasoning behind identifying with – or wanting to identify with – these types of characters isn’t stemmed from their own personalities and views on life, but the affect that these characters had on men.
Despite being a pathological liar, “Garden State’s” Sam is quirky and adorable – obviously, she’s played by Natalie Portman. She gets Andrew (Zach Braff) out of his depressive funk when he realizes that he can’t live without her. Despite being bogged down with seven evil exes who are trying to defeat Scott (Michael Cera), “Scott Pilgrim vs. The World’s” Ramona Flowers (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) made teenage boys all over the world realize that all they really need in life is a mysterious girl with fluorescent hair to prove their worth to.
“The Manic Pixie Dream Girl may serve as a catalyst for male transformation, but in both her real and fictional manifestations, she sends the message that a bright and sensitive young man can only learn to embrace life by falling in love with a woman who sees the dazzling colors and rich complexities he can’t,” wrote Hugo Schwyzer for the Atlantic. This trope isn’t just harmful for young women, but men as well; who may subconsciously believe that a woman’s purpose is to help him fulfill his own potential.
Of course, there are films that poke holes in the MPDG fantasy. There’s “Ruby Sparks,” in which introverted novelist, Calvin (Paul Dano) writes his ideal girl into reality and quickly learns that along with the superficial ideals that he pens, there are flaws that aspects to her personality that he hasn’t written about, that he has to come to terms with. And of course, there’s Clementine of “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind,” played by Kate Winslet. She tells her boyfriend early on that she isn’t going to complete him or “make him alive.”
Am I saying that it’s “un-feminist” to enjoy films that tell the story of the brooding young man and the girl of his dreams? Absolutely not. However, it’s important for women, especially young ones, to realize that they aren’t supporting characters. Thoughts, feelings and ideas of even the most manic of pixie dream girls have value.
`You’re capable of so much more than helping the lonely boy next door live up to his potential. You’re not a Manic Pixie Dream Girl, and you don’t want to be.