The Sunday Salon: Manic Pixie Dream Girl

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. The Manic Pixie Dream Girl is an all-or-nothing-proposition. Audiences either want to marry her instantly (despite The Manic Pixie Dream Girl being, you know, a fictional character) or they want to commit grievous bodily harm against them and their immediate family.

Nathan Rabin, “My Year Of Flops, Case File 1: Elizabethtown: The Bataan Death March of Whimsy”

While Mr. Rabin is a film critic, there are plenty of Manic Pixie Dream Girls in literature–the literary MPDGs are nearly identical to cinematic MPDGs, but are deconstructed more often than their cinematic counterparts. You’ve encountered them–sweetly perky and “quirky” (according to the alternate style of the moment; liking classic rock seems to be en vogue at the moment) girls who exist solely to better the lives of the male lead, and who either end up happily with him or die a meaningful death. While they can be executed well, they’re usually not. There are two reasons for that–they’re static and often live only for the male lead.

When I was in middle school, I thought I encountered a Manic Pixie Dream Girl in Jerry Spinelli’s Stargirl. Looking back on it now, I realize that the titular Stargirl isn’t a Manic Pixie Dream Girl at all. She’s not static–he’s a kid trying to work out her identity with very forgiving and supportive parents, and when she suffers backlash, she attempts to change herself. While it’s not much, it’s still enough to make her a dynamic character with a life outside of the male lead.

I still don’t like Stargirl, but that’s a matter for another time.

There’s nothing wrong with being a static character. Every character doesn’t need to change over the course of a story. For instance, Suki in Avatar: The Last Airbender is a static character, but it works because she’s already well-rounded enough–she doesn’t need to change. But should a static character figure so prominently as to be the female lead? (Incidentally, Suki is a minor character.) I don’t want to say that it can’t be done well, because in the right hands, it could. But I prefer to see dynamic main characters.

In any case, the bigger problem with the Manic Pixie Dream Girl is not her nature as a static character–there are plenty other stock characters who are. The bigger problem is that she doesn’t seem to exist as a whole character outside of the male lead.

Like the Magical Negro, the Manic Pixie Dream Girl archetype is largely defined by secondary status and lack of an inner life. She’s on hand to lift a gloomy male protagonist out of the doldrums, not to pursue her own happiness.

The A. V. Club, “Wild Things”

A lot of female love interests suffer from this, especially in young adult fiction, where the supposed quirkiness unique to Manic Pixie Dream Girls is especially emphasized. I have to admit, this is why I’m avoiding reading the works of John Green–while people whose opinion I trust gush about his novels, Looking for Alaska and Paper Towns appear to contain Manic Pixie Dream Girls. (They probably don’t, but that’s why I don’t read them.) Despite their supposed quirks (which are usually very mainstream), they don’t appear to exist as anything else but a love interest for the male lead, which makes them more of a love object.

This is why (500) Days of Summer works as a film–it subverts this trope. Tom, for whatever reason, doesn’t think Summer has a life outside of him, but she does. He doesn’t realize it until too late. Subversions and deconstructions like this are more common in literature (outside of young adult fiction). The Gargoyle‘s Marianne Engel puts the manic depression in Manic Pixie Dream Girl–while she’s static, she has a life outside of the name lead, but she also has a motive for her obsession with him. I like to see the Manic Pixie Dream Girl deconstructed, but, no matter how sweet, charming, and cute she is, she makes me frown when she’s played straight.

In other news, I’ve been sick for a few days, which means lying around the house, coughing out my lungs, and catching up on reading. I started A Game of Thrones on Friday, and it’s absolutely amazing so far. I thought 835 pages was pushing it, but I’m tearing through it. I hope the HBO series does it justice. I’ve started to sell some of my extra books on eBay, inspired by the usual late summer rush of people selling extraneous items in order to raise money for Dragon*Con–if you are so inclined, you may find my items here.

What’s your take on Manic Pixie Dream Girls?

18 thoughts on “The Sunday Salon: Manic Pixie Dream Girl

  1. That’s exactly what I loved about (500) Days of Summer! I thought it was fantastic how Tom never gets a sense of Summer’s interiority, because he’s so focused on what she means to him.

    I just read a book by one of my favorite authors (it’s an early book, but there’s really no excuse for this) with the most nauseating Manic Pixie Dream Girl you ever saw. I was hoping she’d die in the end, but no such luck.

    Re: Looking for Alaska–I don’t think of Alaska that way. It’s been a while since I read Looking for Alaska, but my recollection is that whatever the narrator thinks of Alaska, it’s clear to the reader that she’s a seriously screwed-up girl, and she definitely has an inner life which again, the reader can see even if the narrator can’t. I haven’t read Paper Towns yet.

    I am sorry you’re ill! Hope you feel better soon!

    • Thanks, Jenny! I’m feeling better today.

      Tsk; they’re perfect cannon fodder, aren’t they?

      I think I will give John Greene a chance, but maybe with something with a different plot- Will Grayson, will grayson perhaps. (Although not capitalizing reminds me of sixth grade and drives me up the wall.)

  2. Ah, the MPDG. This trope was my main issue with John Green’s first two novels – Looking for Alaska and An Abundance of Katherines. She’s less manic & pixie in Abundance, but still exists mainly to aide the male character’s evolution. Paper Towns, however, managed to deconstruct the idea of this “female saviour” a little bit more.

    Now I’m wondering, is there a male equivalent of the MPDG?

    • If I give John Greene a go, I think I might go for a later work like Paper Towns or Will Grayson, will grayson.

      While I haven’t encountered him in the wild, it is, of course, possible- he needs only be static, possess a shallow inner life, and be “quirky”. The tropers at TVTropes claim that Sidney Fife in I Love You, Man is this, and possibly Christian in Moulin Rouge– but Sidney does have, mostly, a life outside of the lead, and Christian is the main character in Moulin Rouge. It says something about young adult fiction that the Manic Pixie Dream Guy is quite elusive.

  3. Wow. I would really be interested in your take on the main character in my Angela series. Only the first book is out now, but two more are coming. Angela is unusually mature for her age (15) but that doesn’t mean she still doesn’t have a lot to learn. I think she is a strong lead character, but she is so different from what is mostly out there that people may not know what to think. You can find out more on my blog.

    • If Angela is the lead character, then she can’t qualify as a Manic Pixie Dream Girl; a lead character, by their very nature, usually isn’t static, especially young characters, as they still need to grow and learn.

  4. I think Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind also does a beautiful job of deconstructing the Manic Pixie Dream Girl. (I actually prefer it to (500) Days of Summer, but eh, this isn’t a competition).

    Clementine (the female lead) has qualities of the MPDG, but her quirkiness is partially the result of emotional damage , and she definitely has a life outside Jim Carrey’s character.

    This is also an interesting article: http://thepetitesophisticate.blogspot.com/2007/12/soapbox.html although it then goes into a rant about “real people,” which I didn’t appreciate so much.

    • This is a good quote from the film:

      Too many guys think I’m a concept, or I complete them, or I’m gonna make them alive. But I’m just a fucked-up girl who’s lookin’ for my own peace of mind; don’t assign me yours. – Clementine

      A neat way to summarize the issues with the MPDG.

  5. Loved this post, and it definitely put into words why I enjoyed 500 Days of Summer so much!

    I completely understand your hesitation about John Green, and it’s definitely something I had before I read him. As someone who doesn’t read a ton of YA fiction, it felt like Green definitely was aware of that stereotype and transcended it. The narrators are male, and they’re definitely enchanted with the quirky girls, but both stories revolve around the fact that these girls have personalities outside of the guys’ perception. In fact, I found them both to be quite similar to 500 Days of Summer in that regard. Not that I want to push the books on your or anything! As it is, all I can say is that I really hope you read one of his novels (I’ve read Looking for Alaska and Paper Towns) so I can find out what you think. 😉

    Also: liking classic rock is quirky now?! Alright: I’m on my way to MPDG status! lol

  6. I don’t feel like Alaska was totally MPDG. She was definitely portrayed in a MPDG-ish way but I’m not sure if that is just because that’s the way Pudge sees her, but she could’ve just been was also a super screwed up person. At least we get to see that she is screwed up – at least she’s not totally one dimensional… John Green explained the similarities between Looking for Alaska and Paper Towns on his blog fishingboatproceeds.tumblr.com. He basically said that PT and LfA were intentionally very superficially similar. PT was a response to LfA and what he felt were the insufficiencies of LfA, as well as how women were portrayed at the time (MPDG).

  7. This was a really good read. I was looking for your input on Stargirl, most of all. I’ve been trying to figure out what exactly she is. I’m going to scroll through your writing to see if you have anything else on her hahaha

    Also, at 5:40, Green answers an interview question about Paper Towns that I think you would appreciate.

  8. More people need to know this about Summer, all too often people call her a MPDG and she’s not! I really don’t get how people don’t see the film as a subversion. John Green’s works are also subversions of the trope. Both Looking for Alaska and Paper Towns are about the problems with seeing girls as nothing more than love interests. The ending of Paper Towns (*spoiler*) is about how a girl can’t be saved just ’cause a guy likes her. I will admit, while I love John Green I feel (500) Days does a lot better job at subverting the trope than he does. I woud recommend The Fault in Our Stars though, very good (and very sad). Gus does attempt to be a Manic pixie dream boy but Hazel falls for the real him, not the silly metaphorical him he tries to portray.

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