Someone is trying to give dimension to the Manic Pixie Dream Girl and it’s giving me a headache

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By Andrea Alarcón

I was watching the show New Girl and trying to figure out what about it was driving me so crazy. It’s supposed to be funny, but I don’t get it. I’m not laughing. I don’t relate… Honestly, it just makes me feel downright uncomfortable.

Then I finally figured it out. These nice people decided to bring our archetypal Manic Pixie Dream Girl Zooey Deschanel and try to give her character some…depth.

Sigh.

Zooey Deschanel posing with a flower.
Zooey Deschanel, with flower.

The MPDG tends to be a supporting character to a brooding, sad, young man, who needs to be reminded of the beauty and wistfulness of life. The MPDG is “unabashedly girly”, innocent, quirky, young, fresh and most-importantly, non-threatening. She blows bubbles in the wind while wearing a sundress in a park. MPDGs are said to help their men without pursuing their own happiness, and since they never grow up, neither do their men. Film critic Nathan Rabin coined the term after seeing Kirsten Dunst in Elizabethtown (2005). He described the character type 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.”

It’s Zooey Deschanel in every role she’s ever played, it’s Natalie Portman in Garden State and Kate Winslet in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. You don’t know what the true story behind these women is, what they want or what troubles them. They are mysterious dream-like creatures only supposed to sparkle, be a little “off” and listen to great indie music.

The whole thing had caught me off guard, usually because sexist archetypes tend to come in semi-naked packages. It seems like all women are stupid, vapid and shallow, so for a man, finding a MPDG is a relief. These girls are pretty, they dress cute, they are witty. They are mysterious and maybe troubled, but their troubles don’t really matter, since they are there for the sole purpose of supporting their man.

They are interchangeable. Switch any of the characters from one movie into the next one, and see that it wouldn’t make much of a difference.

I could call the MPDG sexism of the modern era. We are not used to it, so we don’t see it. But none of these women have a career, a dream or a decent job. They rescue men, but not through strength or making them feel valued, but through their need for them and the fact that they follow them around. I could see this as female equivalent of Prince Charming… the difference is Prince Charming is an old concept, and he tends to be powerful, strong and intelligent. No bubble-blowing for Prince Charming.

The New Girl is trying to expand this concept and make it into a series. Geez, they made Deschanel, who does not even attempt to not be pigeonholed as this, the main character! Oh oh… how can you have such a shallow idea drive the plot of a show?

6 thoughts on “Someone is trying to give dimension to the Manic Pixie Dream Girl and it’s giving me a headache

    [...] The whole thing had caught me off guard, usually because sexist archetypes tend to come in semi-naked packages. Why was this so annoying? [...]

    jennydevildoll said:
    January 4, 2012 at 9:08 pm

    Hi, saw this link through Feministing,

    I think the issue with the MPDG, at least for me, is that it seems to be a mainstream co-optation of unconventional/bohemian women – like some screenwriter had a thing for “eccentric” girls, but did they have to so darn confrontational/moody/wrapped up in their own art/music/writing/whatever? So they created this cliche character that’s basically a toothless non-threatening version of someone actually interesting.

    But I’ll tell you, the REAL fun doesn’t start until you get to these nerdy guys (usually with their own underlying hostilities about women) who’ve watched a bunch of movies with these character types so they glom on to some real-life woman artist etc. and expect them to fit into this one dimensional character stereotype. Oh, joy…

      femination responded:
      January 5, 2012 at 4:32 am

      Hey, thanks a lot for the comment! I agree, the most annoying of these archetypes is not only having to endure through trite dialogue in our occasional forays into movies, but having to deal with these expectations every day, in real life. Like surreally big boobs only get fun when it’s your mom convincing you of getting a boob job (true story). So yeah, some guys will have this expectation that an MPDG will come along and will make their lives interesting — actually, this happens to Kate Winslet’s character in Eternal Sunshine (of all MPDGs, I actually have few problems with this one, since she doesn’t follow in the other stereotypes, i.e. she and Jim Carrey’s character make each other lives equally miserable/wonderful, she has a bit of an alcohol problem, etc.) This is an exception though; we can except way less from mainstream TV/Hollywood.

    Andrea said:
    January 8, 2012 at 12:08 am

    I am so glad that somebody put a name to this because I didn’t hear the Manic Pixie Dream Girl acronym before even though I’ve always been aware of it. Is it not possible that she goes back even further to the 60s and 70s? By discussing recent characters I didn’t know if you were referencing it as a very recent phenomenon but it’s annoying nonetheless. I experience that expectation too, it’s just as bad as the porn star in bed expectation, but people don’t realize it. Men say things they think feminist women will like, “You’re so smart, creative, quirky, tough,” but the minute you actually act on that intelligence and/or strength they get turned off. What did you expect?

    femination responded:
    January 8, 2012 at 9:21 pm

    @Andrea thanks for commenting. You are right. It’s not a new concept, but the replication of it in all of these new indie type films is what’s bringing it to light for me now… also, in the old movies, I expect it. I expect more sexism coming from the 60s and 70s, but not from these supposed progressive, young directors.

    Some call Audrey Hepburn the original MPDG… this site compiled a list of movies, many old, in which the MPDG makes an appearance. http://www.avclub.com/articles/wild-things-16-films-featuring-manic-pixie-dream-g,2407/

    Don’t know if I agree with all of them, but certainly many fit the role.

    As for men getting turned off by these qualities, no news there. Many want you to have them, just as long as it doesn’t overshadow theirs.

    Lynn Malnekoff said:
    January 21, 2012 at 5:41 pm

    Have you seen “Bob and Carol and Ted and Alice” with Natalie Wood? A 1960s woman who has gone to a couples encounter group with her husband at the Eselon Institute in California and received enlightenment. Her job now is to share her enlightenment with the whole world. She goes into the kitchen at a restaurant to share her feelings with the chef, who is horrified. Another one of my favorite 1960s movie featuring this type of woman is “Semi Tough” with Jill Clayburgh. She is the love interest between two pro football players and gets involved in New Age self-help and “new” religions movements and inspires the men to do the same. Very quirky. The “Sterile Cuckoo” is another movie from the 1960s featuring this type of woman, featuring Liza Minelli as a very young star. How do I know about this New Age, women’s lib stuff? I lived it!

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