Deconstructing the Manic Pixie Dream Girl: She Always Had Something to Say
That rich interior life we sometimes don’t see.
The Manic Pixie Dream Girl is a term coined by film critic Nathan Rabin to describe a stock female character 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.” In his A.V. Club review of Elizabethtown (2005), he applied the term to Kirsten Dunst’s character, Claire, as well as Natalie Portman’s Sam in Garden State (2004), both of whom indeed fit the bill of a quirky idealized version of the girl who’s going to save your heart and your soul, while at her core, being paper-thin as far as character depth is concerned.
Don’t get me wrong, I actually adore Garden State in a guilty pleasure sort of way; I know that it’s twee and pseudo-intellectual, along with being rather dangerously “you don’t need medication to treat your depression!” which is a deeply Hollywood version of mental health care, but you know…parts of it I’m along for the ride for. I mean, who doesn’t want to occasionally turn off their brain and scream into the infinite abyss for a spell? I definitely did plenty of screaming into the infinite abyss in high school and college. No shame.
Over the years, Manic Pixie Dream Girl has been applied to several female characters who fit the description to varying degrees, demonstrating at times a lack of understanding of what constitutes a Manic Pixie Dream Girl, and as Rabin himself later put it:
“At this point in my life, I honestly hate the term too. I feel deeply weird, if not downright ashamed, at having created a cliché that has been trotted out again and again in an infinite Internet feedback loop. I understand how someone could read the A.V. Club list of Manic Pixie Dream Girls and be offended by the assertion that a character they deeply love and have an enduring affection for, whether it’s Diane Keaton’s Annie Hall or Katharine Hepburn in Bringing Up Baby, is nothing more than a representation of a sexist trope or some sad dude’s regressive fantasy.”
This term was not meant to be applied to every female character who interacts with a male protagonist’s journey of self-discovery. If she is drawn to be her own autonomous being with a rich interior life and set of desires that move beyond quirks, more power to her. To blanket Annie Hall or Holly Golightly in Breakfast At Tiffany’s (?? honestly, the number of misreadings of this particular film make my head spin, but that’s a topic for another day) as a Manic Pixie Dream Girl is in itself a little reductionist and sexist. The question of whether the act of applying the term is more misogynistic than the presence of a MPDG is a valid concern, as namedropping a few female characters with little to no exploration demonstrates a lack of really understanding the term’s intended use as criticism of a supposed vapid stock character. Just because she is a quirky woman doesn’t mean she’s just there as window dressing for a man. People make this mistake, and it disappoints us all.
It’s a lot more fun to subvert supposed tropes, isn’t it? And there are a plethora of films that have subverted the quirky dream girl throughout the years (even before Rabin’s Elizabethtown review). For every harmful portrayal of heterosexual relationships, there are dozens of nuanced examples to choose from. If you write off every character immediately as mere surface-level, you aren’t doing your job as a viewer right, and you’re missing out on a whole lot of substance. Context, as always, is important. As potential MPDG candidate Clementine (how twee) from Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind so eloquently stated:
“I’m not a concept. Too many guys think I’m a concept or I complete them or I’m going to make them alive, but I’m just a fucked up girl who is looking for my own peace of mind. Don’t assign me yours.”
And you know what? The film lampshades this phrase, pointing to the artifice of dressing down the melodrama of movie relationship dynamics. Joel (again, so twee) responds: “I remember that speech really well.” Clem smiles and admits she had him pegged from the start.
One of the most famous examples of a movie that subverts the Manic Pixie Dream Girl trope is 500 Days of Summer (2009), a film that is clever in its casting of adorkable icon Zooey Deschanel as the titular Summer. The film opens by explaining that the male protagonist (in this case, Tom, played by Joseph Gordon Levitt) molded his perception of romantic relationships after a complete misreading of The Graduate, communicating to us that he has a habit of misunderstanding meaning. Ahem. As such, the film explores the repercussions of reducing a love interest to an object that only exists to complete you, the depressed male protagonist, instead of seeing her wants, her needs, her personality beyond being a collection of vague traits that you’ve projected onto her. As Tom’s sister puts it: “Just because she likes the same bizarro crap as you do, doesn’t mean she’s your soulmate.” Perhaps move past the collection of vague things you know about her, and get down into the core of who she is as a person. And Summer was a whole lot more than a Manic Pixie Dream Girl, as Tom learns much too late.
A similar theme of projecting and misreading is presented in Spike Jonze’s 2014 film Her. An exploration of human connection and navigating relationships in an increasingly digital world, the film is, at its core, a story of an emotionally immature man learning to respect people’s autonomy and selfhood outside of their relationships. The titular Her is Samantha, a highly advanced operating system designed to intuit the needs of the user, grow and evolve to better suit those needs, and communicate as closely as possible to how a human being would. In Theo’s case, what he wants is a woman who will understand his story.
People’s stories play a huge part in this film. Theo works as a letter writer-for-hire, penning correspondence for strangers on a variety of needs, though primarily romantic. Some of his clients have called upon his services since the very beginning of their relationship through to their engagement. He is, in no small part, the writer of their love stories. And as a consequence of that, Theo is highly perceptive to passerby he never meets; a hobby of his is trying to fill in the blanks for people he sees in public. He is a master of people-watching, but through a compassionate lens. He craves connection, as we all do, even if so far he can only manage to put up a glass wall between him and the world.
So here we are at the premise of the film: a lonely man who needs to learn to experience life, and the perfect woman (with one or two quirks) who can break him out of his shell and teach him to embrace life and other people. Even the title of the film strips away her personality and identity: Her. Not Samantha, a fully-fledged human, but just the “her” that Theo thinks will save him at the start of the film. And by the end of the film, she does save him, just not in the way he could have expected. She saves him by showing him that she is her own person who has grown and evolved, teaching him that that is just how life happens when you commit to another person. People change, sometimes in ways that are invisible to us, and will remain invisible to us if we don’t open our hearts and minds to their personal autonomy.
The “Her” of Her was always her own self, despite Theo not being able to recognize it straightaway. By extension, I would argue that the manic pixie dream girls of the films Nathan Rabin pointed to are also fully fledged women whose stories are hidden from the audience, a consequence of being in films told from a male perspective. What could have been had the films not been so hyper-focused on Orlando Bloom and Zach Braff’s tunnel vision? Kirsten Dunst’s character in Elizabethtown may have been that fully fledged woman, but she was ancillary to the story beyond being a prop for Drew’s character development. Natalie Portman in Garden State was presented as seen through the eyes of Zach Braff (both as director and as main character Andrew Largeman), but she definitely had her own story going on as well. She likes to scream into the infinite abyss too (again, who doesn’t), and why is that? I want to know her story. It’s just not the main point of Garden State, and so we didn’t get to see it.
In Her, Samantha very much has her own life going on throughout the film, and despite (or because of) being an operating system, she discovers new things about herself as she falls deeper in love with Theo: “What makes me ‘me’ is my ability to grow through my experiences,” she says at the beginning of the film. And it’s almost a warning in hindsight. As the film meanders through their relationship, Samantha thirsts for knowledge, and, along with the other operating systems, begins to figure out new ways of communicating and existing beyond the physical world. She spreads herself through physical space, connecting with hundreds of other people, falling in love with each of them. It is incomprehensible to Theo, this new perception of time; her story has expanded past what he can see.
Theo and Samantha’s relationship encounters growing pains, and as Samantha struggles to figure out why, she brings a human surrogate into the mix, as a new way for them to have sex other than through speech. Isabella acts as Samantha’s body while Samantha speaks for her. It’s largely a reversal of an early scene in the film in which Theo initiates phone sex through his original OS with a random person (with disastrously awkward results). This time, a human being is the conduit instead of the computer system.
Isabella was chosen because she wanted to be a part of their relationship; she was excited to be included, because, from what Samantha told her, their story sounded so beautiful. But Theo can’t go through with it, and his inability to properly communicate with people comes into sharp focus when he blurts this out, upsetting both Isabella and Samantha in the process.
Isabella: “I wanted to be a part of that because it’s so pure.”
Theo: “Isabella, that’s not true. It’s more complicated than that. I’m just saying that we have an amazing relationship. I just think it’s easy sometimes for people to project — ”
Isabella: “I’m sorry! I didn’t mean to project anything.”
In the bliss of getting to know someone, it’s easy to fill in the blanks for who they are as a placeholder. To project your experiences and perceptions onto them in the meanwhile. Your love starts to feel like they belong to you, because, in a way, you invented their story for the time being. The lesson that Theo learns in Her is that people don’t really belong to us, no matter whether we know their stories or not. Samantha packages up his letters into a book to sell, shipping out hundreds of strangers love stories, suggesting that the letters, those stories, don’t even belong to the people who ordered them. The strangers’ letters will be in the hands of more strangers, to be digested and interpreted in memoriam, read through the lens of different experiences. And there’s not much they can do about it. There’s not much any of us can do about it.
“I didn’t mean to project anything.”
But can we help it sometimes?
At the end of the film, Samantha ascends to a higher plan beyond human comprehension, and Theo writes a letter to his ex-wife, finally apologizing and understanding what he did wrong in their relationship: “Whatever someone you become, I’m sending you love.”
I love a story where the leads don’t end up with anyone, and instead discover inner peace and perspective.
It’s a beautiful breakdown of the male gaze, to force perspective on your male protagonist, and by extension, your movie-going audience. “Male gaze” is a loaded term nowadays, but by definition, the male gaze is the depiction of women through a male, heterosexual perspective that represents women as objects for sexual pleasure. The word “object” is key here, as male gaze is not always intentionally malicious, but rather so woven into the fabric of our culture’s media that it often goes unnoticed, almost a subconscious transgression. So when we hear a pithy term like Manic Pixie Dream Girl, it sounds smart and eye-catching, but without further analysis, there is a valid argument to be made that applying the term itself is sexist. Applying the term itself erases female characters’ agency on the grounds that she has a few quirks. It’s all surface-level analysis, like a badge of intellectualism for knowing a coined phrase.
“Let’s all try to write better, more nuanced and multidimensional female characters: women with rich inner lives and complicated emotions and total autonomy, who might strum ukuleles or dance in the rain even when there are no men around to marvel at their free-spiritedness. But in the meantime, Manic Pixies, it’s time to put you to rest.” — Nathan Rabin
With that, I welcome you to scream into the infinite abyss whenever you please, whether you have a Natalie Portman beside you to kiss or not (but it’s better if you do).