What do Holly Golightly, Summer Finn, Ramona Flowers, Kate Winslet’s character in Eternal Sunshine and Natalie Portman in Garden State all have in common? According to film critic Nathan Rabin, they are all exactly the same character. A Manic Pixie Dream Girl.
Since literature began, stories have always had stock characters: The Christ figure, Ivan The Fool, the mad scientist, the loveable rogue… all of which can be applied to almost any fictitious tale in one way or another. As film’s become increasingly mass produced it is also so much easier to throw a few of these stock characters in there rather than develop your own and usually without realising you end up conforming to the blueprint anyway.
As genres have evolved we’ve seen a number of ‘character trends in result’, particularly with female characters. Of course these female roles have always been up for debate in most feminist circles and media theories as being positive; progressing from the ‘girl tied to train tracks’ all the way into Ripley from Alien and Beatrix Kiddo ass-kicking heroine territory. No complaint’s there.
Women in cinema have adapted from playing submissive supporting roles to blowing up things in space. Neat.
However, there still exists a general theory that most female characters are seen through the eyes of a man and therefore, are not always full developed. The Mary Sue (that girl from Twilight much?), The Damsel In Distress (Wendy ‘screamer’ Torrance) The Femme Fatale (Hello, Basic Instinct!) and probably most irritating and infuriating of all, the Manic Pixie Dream Girl, are all examples of the so-called one-dimensional female character.
Although its nice that women aren’t just viewed within limited range any more, without sounding like some kind of crazy neo-feminist, I think its safe to say that these examples all have the potential to serve as fodder for some teenage boys’ fantasy. Well, apart from Wendy.
The Manic Pixie Dream Girl herself is one of cinema’s more post-modern creations. Existing as a character who appears as a beautiful, charming, girlish woman with an endearing and neurotic personality, child-like amazement for the world and character flaws that somehow still seem sexy, the MPDG embodies that ridiculous ‘white knight’ delusion we see in chick flicks; except this time the gender roles are reversed.
Nathan Rabin originally coined the term to describe Kirsten Dunst’s role of Claire Colburn in Elizabethtown, who, with her bubbly optimism and carefree nature, seemed like a fresh break from the usual female stereotyping of ‘smoking hot love interest’ or ‘caring mother figures’ we’ve seen throughout history. But as other similar whimsical characters emerged, Rabin soon realised…The MPDG was just another irritating stock character.
Placed within the narrative as ‘a little ray of sunshine’ whose purpose is solely to enlighten the sensitive male lead and allow him to realise all the wonderful things in life (usually things like tatty hair, singing for no reason, doing recreational drugs, self-harming, no-strings attached sex and Ikea); Rabin described the Manic Pixie Dream Girl as ‘that bubbly, shallow cinematic creature that 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 short, she is Tom Hanks in You’ve Got Mail… but with breasts! Obvious signs of Manic Pixie Dreaminess are that she probably has a huge tattoo of a butterfly on her back and dyed blue hair. She’ll listen to acoustic indie music and will have a cat named after some obscure Russian author like Anton Chekhov. She will be amazing in bed but she will probably encourage you to make a suicide pact with her when she loses one of her flowery hair slides.
The idea itself was practically taken directly from a Woody Allen movie (Annie Hall, if we’re going to be specific) before it was mutated and then applied to every post-90’s romantic melancholy drama. Usually this will be starring an art-house actress who is unthreateningly beautiful and yet is still deemed too unsexy to play a bond girl or a bikini wearing girlfriend in the Transformers movie.
What is actually beautiful and attractive about the MPDG is that she isn’t afraid to embrace her faults, share her darkest secrets and bare her soul to the male protagonist, which in turn would send him on a spiritual journey of self-discovery, aiding the plot towards some pseudo-philosophical breakthrough. Profound, poignant quote. Cinematic shot of some trees. Roll credits. It all seems so familiar…
Granted, the MPDG is not as modern as we may think. Rabin also believed Marilyn Monroe’s role as Sugar in Some Like I Hot was a perfect example ; and who better to play her than Hollywood’s greatest yet troubled fantasy woman, Marilyn? Similarly, (500) Days of Summer director Marc Webb even suggested that Eve was, in theory, the MPDG catalyst to Adam whilst Beatrice behaved in a similar manner towards Dante in The Divine Comedy.
Whilst some may feel that having an unconventional, beautiful, philosophical and seemingly intelligent woman to guide the main character suggests that cinema is moving away from the mother/daughter/siren stereotypes, others think that displaying signs of emotional trauma, peddling prescription drugs and discussing a few classic novels is not enough. Surely she must be more realistic than any other example of a woman in a movie but that doesn’t make her anything like a ‘real woman’.
The truth is, the MPDG isn’t some liberating icon of modern feminism, though exceptions do exist. The MPDG is just as shallow and dull as the Mary Sue; that wonderful ‘special’ girl whose positive attributes always seem to outweigh the ‘crazy’ making her loathsomely one-dimensional and predictable. The only difference is that Mary Sue probably shops at Gap and the MPDG shops at some back-alley thrift store. They are the cinematic equivalent to that girl on Facebook who constantly uploads photos of her terrible photography, deliberately quotes lyrics to obscure bands and publicises their so-called weirdness and individuality despite not being very interesting at all.
The MPDG is depth-less. Essentially, it could be argued that she is just another aspect of male fantasy; the whole girl-next-door ideal meets the ‘crazy girls are hot’ thing. She exists not to find her own destiny but to quell the sorrow of some sensitive art type who has lost his way. Unfortunately, this particular fantasy is here to stay and as long as we’re assured that women like this are out there, nice guy-types like Zach Braff and starry eyed women can dream.
Floppy haired bookworms and guy’s in alt-rock bands will always have a place in their hearts for the Manic Pixie and the Manic Pixie will and have always had a place in cinema.