For American Expatriate Writers, Paris was the Original Manic Pixie Dream Girl

Kirstin Dunst and Orlando Bloom in “Elizabethtown” (2005)

The Manic Pixie Dream Girl (MPDG) is a trope that has existed in media, art, and literature for a long time; however, the term was only coined in 2007 by film critic, Nathin Rabin. In his review of the Orlando Bloom film Elizabethtown, Rabin described Kirsten Dunst’s stewardess character as “a character type [he likes] to call the 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.” In a later article, Rabin laments his coining of the term because of its evolution and misogynistic misuse. Rabin clarifies what he meant by the term in his original review:

Dunst’s psychotically bubbly stewardess seemed to belong in some magical, otherworldly realm — hence the “pixie” — offering up her phone number to strangers and drawing whimsical maps to help her man find his way. And as Dunst cavorted across the screen, I thought also of Natalie Portman in “Garden State,” a similarly carefree nymphet who is the accessory to Zach Braff’s character development. It’s an archetype, I realized, that taps into a particular male fantasy: of being saved from depression and ennui by a fantasy woman who sweeps in like a glittery breeze to save you from yourself, then disappears once her work is done. (“Bataan Death March”)

The trope has also been compared to the Magical Negro trope, because the Manic Pixie Dream Girl exists only to help the protagonist achieve his goals while never having any herself (Rabin et al.). She has no inner life of her own, and no meaningful past or backstory, or at least, that’s how she’s portrayed. Her male counterpart is usually a failure in some way. He’s having a crisis of some kind, and it does not matter whether it’s related to his career, relationships, or his own feelings and masculinity. What matters is that there is a part of him that is unfulfilled that can only be completed by the Manic Pixie Dream Girl. It is also important that she make no demands of her own, or make the male character have any kind of commitment to her, so that she is completely available to help the male character with his problems.

Rabin originally coined the term “Manic Pixie Dream Girl” to mock writers that had little to no originality or creativity in writing their female characters. He was also mocking audiences for enjoying, and even desiring, this kind of character. Though he originally used it to describe characters, he also uses the term to describe real women who should not be the way that they are. In his book My Year of Flops: The A.V. Club Presents One Man’s Journey Deep Into the Heart of Cinematic Failure, Rabin says:

I once had a Manic Pixie Dream Girlfriend who induced terrifying Elizabethtown flashbacks…At the risk of waxing hyperbolic, it was the single most annoying thing in the history of the universe. It was as if she was trying to bully me into falling in love. That’s the essence of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl: She doesn’t ask for our love, she demands it. But love isn’t enough. She also needs to be romanticized, idealized, fetishized, worshipped, and adored. You know, all the stupid shit young men do. She glares impishly in our direction menacingly with a look that says, “You better fall in love with me, fuckface, or I will open up a big can of joy on that ass.” (qtd. in Solomon 4–5)

By joking in this way, Rabin, perhaps unintentionally, shows that the MPDG to be thought of intertextually and metatextually in real-life contexts. However, he has previously stated that the MPDG is “a means to an end, not a flesh-and blood human being” and that “once life lessons have been imparted, the Manic Pixie Dream Girl might as well disappear in a poof! For her life’s work is done” (qtd. in Solomon 5). As Claire Solomon states in her article “Anarcho-Feminist Melodrama and the Manic Pixie Dream Girl (1929–2016),” Rabin contradicting himself so easily shows that the Manic Pixie Dream Girl trope can be applied to real-life women as well (Solomon 5). Now that the groundwork for understanding the Manic Pixie Dream Girl trope has been laid, and an understanding of the intertextual and metatextual applications of the term has been reached, it can be applied to a location: Paris, France.

The Paris of the 1920s

Paris, France in the late 1800s and early 1900s was a kind of MPDG to many, though obviously the term did not exist yet. In tourist guides and much of the public consciousness outside of France, Paris was depicted and thought of as a woman. This comes after the French revolutions of the early 1800s, where Paris was portrayed as a masculine character. This shift in perception came about as a result of the public’s weariness of revolution and war, and so late 19th century depictions of the city instead focused on “Paris’s politically innocent daughters, extolled for their alluring looks and charming personalities, unthreatening in every way” (Rearick 34). In addition, according to Rearick, the Seine was another major reason Paris was feminized. Though the river was described as “seductive” and “charming” by outsiders, those living in Paris knew the ugly side of the Seine all too well; it was not uncommon to pull dead animals and people from the river (34).

It was not just Paris that was treated like and viewed as a MPDG, but the Paris women, the “Parisienne,” as they were called, who were also commodified in this way. The Parisienne were regarded as fun-loving, elegant, and free young women. They were the icon that was used to personify Paris to the rest of the world in the late 1800s and early 1900s. They were so tied to the identity of Paris that many journalists included them in their descriptions of the city. In a 1900 guidebook on the city, author Armand Silvestre said, “If you recognize the true Parisienne and can distinguish her from all other women, you will truly know Paris. For the Parisienne is the secret and ever-singing soul [of Paris], the ever-virant charm, the always dazzling grace” (Silvestre, qtd. in Rearick 35). A Parisienne woman was portrayed as one who “attracts men irresistibly, and laughs at her admirers, yet she is good-hearted and sympathetic” (Rearick 35). These descriptions completely ignored the many women who were impoverished, overworked, depressed, and had to resort to prostitution in order to survive. The downtrodden women of Paris were pushed aside in favor of these idealistic, misogynistic representations of Paris in order to entice foreigners to travel there.

A depiction of a Parisienne circa 1921

The complete disregard for any flaws, or even a portrayal completely lacking them, is one of the core part of the idea of the of the MPDG. This disregard or romanticization of flaws became a common theme among American expatriate writers who came to Paris looking for inspiration. For Ernest Hemingway, Gertrude Stein, and Henry Miller, among other American expatriate writers in the 1900s, Paris, France was a Manic Pixie Dream Girl, as they only used it for artistic inspiration, escape, and self-fulfillment.

Though the expatriate writers had distorted views about Paris that can be described by the Manic Pixie Dream Girl trope, they cannot be entirely blamed for it. Popular culture often falsely portrayed the average Paris, and the lives of the average Parisians. Many songs were written about “modest neighborhoods that were like villages, full of good humble working people” (Rearick 37). This version of Paris was nicknamed “Paname.” Paname was seen as the Paris of the “little people” (Rearick 37). This definition encompassed different types of craftsman, shopkeepers, seamstresses, and other workers. The songs depicted the people of Paname as people who “grew up poor and good-hearted, fell in love, and raised families of more good ordinary people, while coping from time to time with sickness, insolvency, and the death of loved ones. In the sadder songs called “realist,” some of the good women fell into prostitution, as a means of survival or after being abandoned by deceitful men, and died young” (Rearick 38–39). Time and time again, Paris’ flaws were romanticized and commodified.

This romanticization and commodification of Paname was dangerous. At its best, it ignored the large population of foreigners and marginal people that lived in Paris. At its worst, Paname revealed an open hostility towards those not deemed to be “true” Parisians, people like “foreigners, Jews, and the rich” (Rearick 39). It also portrayed a false Paris to outsiders, like the expatriate writers, who then arrived with preconceived, and potentially damaging, notions about what “true Paris” was.

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To begin, one must understand the relationships that these writers had with women, and what their opinions of women were. Ernest Hemingway was born to Grace Hemingway on July 21st, 1899. Being his mother, Grace was the first woman in Hemingway’s life, and the start of his troubles with them. When Hemingway’s father committed suicide in 1928, Hemingway blamed his mother’s spending of money and her selfishness. Because of this, he grew to despise her; his favorite epithet for her was “that bitch” (Kincheloe). In an essay on The Hemingway Women, author Henderson Kincheloe argues that Hemingway’s father’s suicide started in him a “continuing search for a villain…[and] he cast Grace in that role” (Kincheloe). He saw his mother as a selfish wife who demanded too much from her husband, and eventually drove him to suicide. This is likely the basis for his later beliefs about how wives should be.

Ernest Hemingway

Hemingway met his first wife, Hadley, in Chicago. They were married less than a year after they met, and using money that Hadley inherited from her uncle, they moved to Paris. Their marriage was happy for a while, with the Hemingways frequently taking trips to other European countries like Spain, and Germany. Even after the birth of their son, Bumby, they remained relatively happy, though Hadley found her freedom diminished. She accepted this because she understood that Hemingway needed to be able to continue his writing (Kincheloe).

In A Moveable Feast, Hemingway comes across different kinds of women while in Paris. He reacts differently to each of them; however, perhaps the most important one he met was Zelda Fitzgerald. Almost immediately, Hemingway was put off by Zelda. He felt that she had too much power over Scott, and that she distracted him from his work. This is in contrast with Hemingway, who is allowed a great deal of freedom by Hadley.

Hemingway believes that wives should allow their husbands to do their work without distracting them. This is his main issue with Zelda. He sees her as only existing to distract Scott from his writing. Hemingway’s disdain for her is clear when he portrays her as an almost demonic figure. He says, “On this day Zelda did not look her best. Her beautiful dark blonde hair had been ruined temporarily by a bad permanent she had gotten in Lyon, where the rain had made them abandon their car, and her eyes were tired and her face was too taut and drawn” (Hemingway 153–154). Hemingway dislikes when wives distract their husbands, and Zelda to him is the epitome of distraction.

One of the main parts of the MPDG trope is that she not distract from the male character’s problems and development. She must not have issues of her own, or if she does have them, they must be either downplayed or ignored. It would seem that Hemingway almost expects every woman to be a MPDG. For him, no woman is more important for his work than Paris.

Hemingway and Hadley lived mildly impoverished in Paris. They moved there using Hadley’s inheritance money, and though Hemingway sometimes had to skip meals, he and Hadley regularly took trips to other countries. Because he lived a kind of “privileged poverty,” Hemingway seemed to romanticize hunger and poverty, and thought it essential for an artist.

To Hemingway, hunger is an essential discipline for any artist. Not only that, but it helps in appreciating art. He says:

When you were skipping meals at a time when you had given up journalism and were writing nothing that anyone in America would buy, explaining at home that you were lunching out with someone, the best place to do it was the Luxembourg gardens where you saw and smelled nothing to eat all the way from the Place de l’Observatoire to the rue de Vaugirard. There you could always go into the Luxembourg museum and all the paintings were heightened and clearer and more beautiful if you were belly-empty, hollow-hungry. I learned to understand Cezanne much better and to see truly how he made landscapes when I was hungry (Hemingway 65).

Being hungry and impoverished was necessary to be an artist for Hemingway. However, he could only feel like this because of his privileged position as a writer in Paris compared to impoverished Parisians.

Hemingway was not interested in actual Parisian poverty (although arguably, as someone who was not a French citizen, he should not have to have been). He was only interested in how Paris could help him improve and grow as a writer. As stated earlier, Hemingway believes a woman’s role in her husband’s life is to stay out of his way and allow him to achieve his goals, and he treats Paris in a similar way. Paris is a place where he can go be impoverished (albeit in a relatively privileged manner) in order to become a better writer.

Hemingway is not concerned about actual issues of poverty in Paris; he only wants to use it to become a better writer. Paris (and its issues) stays out of his way and makes no demands of him, much like the MPDG must not hinder the male protagonist’s growth by focusing on her own issues, or even having them at all. In addition, the MPDG must support the male protagonist and allow them to grow. In this way, Paris is a MPDG for Hemingway, because it makes no demands of him, and allows him to develop and grow as a writer, and Hemingway prefers it that way. In addition, Hemingway has no real commitment to Paris, and he regularly spends his time traveling to other places for inspiration. He does not need to be in Paris to feel the effects of it, just like how the MPDG’s influence remains long after the male protagonist has moved on from her and no longer requires her. He says that “If you are lucky enough to have lived in Paris as a young man, then wherever you go for the rest of your life, it stays with you, for Paris is a moveable feast” (Hemingway v). He has no obligation to Paris, and as such, he does not need to stay in Paris to feel its influence on him.

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Henry Miller was born on December 26th, 1891. Even early on in his life, Miller rebelled against his Lutheran parents’ devotion to work and their rather puritanical views on life. Miller married his first wife Beatrice in 1917, but they then divorced in 1923. However, while he was still married to Beatrice, he met a dancer by the name of June Mansfield. June would end up being one of the more influential women in Miller’s life.

Henry Miller

Before his divorce with Beatrice, Miller began an affair with June. Soon after his divorce, Miller and June married,and the couple moved to Paris not long after. It was in Paris that Miller and June became acquainted with erotic author Anaïs Nin. Nin would become another one of the most influential women in Miller’s life. Nin would take quite an interest in Miller, as well as June. June and Nin would soon begin a love affair, unconcealed from Miller, until June went back to America in 1932.

Soon after June left, Miller and Nin began a love affair. Not only was June a lover to Miller, she also funded most of his time in Paris, in addition to helping him get his novel Tropic of Cancer published. Likewise, Miller read Nin’s writing and offered critiques, much like he would to any male writer. Joyce Johnson in her article “BODY AND SOUL ANAIS NIN AND HENRY MILLER” writes:

He responded to Nin as a fellow writer with total generosity and unfeigned admiration, at a time when few men took women’s literary efforts seriously. He read her journals without a trace of lover’s jealousy, helped her edit and even type them and urged her to get them published. He identified them rightly as her best work, finding in them a power and directness absent from her novels, where the effort to cast veils over reality led her into vagueness and over-elaborate prose. He was the best kind of reader a writer could have — always on the side of the work, but never afraid to be critical (Johnson).

In this case Nin and Miller have a mutually beneficial relationship. Nin helps Miller get published, and Miller helps read over and fairly critique her work. Because of this, Nin, a real woman, would not be classified as a MPDG to Miller; however, the same cannot be said for Paris.

While living in Paris, Miller had very little money; however, he was funded while writing by Nin. Like Hemingway, he engaged in a kind of privileged poverty. In Tropic of Cancer, Miller states, “I have no money, no resources, no hopes. I am the happiest man alive.” It was in this state that he wrote Tropic of Cancer. Much like Hemingway, Miller was not concerned with the issues of Parisian poverty. He only cared how it could benefit him and his artistic endeavors. Again, this is the same kind of disregard for issues that a woman (in this case, Paris) may face that defines the male protagonist’s treatment of a MPDG.

Poverty was not the only issue that Miller ignored and glorified. Before the discovery of penicillin, syphilis and other venereal diseases were very common in Paris due to the thriving prostitution scene of the early 1900s (Tampa et al.). Miller displays a complete disregard for these diseases, and even seems to glorify them:

I was in a mood to take the first whore that came along. “I’ll take her, clap and all,” thought I. “Shit, a dose of clap is something, after all…If you’ve got it, there’s no great harm in getting it again,” I remarked cheerily. “Get a double dose and spread it abroad. Infect the whole continent! Better a good venereal disease than a moribund peace and quiet. Now I know what makes the world civilised: it’s vice, disease, thievery, mendacity,lechery. Shit, the French are a great people, even if they’re syphilitic. (Miller 28)

Miller does not worry about spreading around venereal diseases, and in fact, seems to encourage it. He is only concerned with his own sexual needs, and disregards all concerns that may come with excessive indulging in prostitution. Once again, there is a disregard for issues facing Paris in favor of the expatriate’s concerns.

Curiously, Miller could also be interpreted as feminist. Even though his novels are sexually explicit and describe his own sexual adventures, there is also a focus on the woman’s pleasure. Even in modern day, the pleasure a woman may get out of sex is ignored or downplayed. For Miller to be focusing on female pleasure in a time when the female orgasm was typically thought of as a myth was very progressive, and was likely one of the reasons his works were banned (in addition to the explicit sex, of course). It could even be argued that Miller is progressive even by today’s standards, as the female orgasm is still often forgotten or disregarded as a myth. Even though Miller treats Paris like a MPDG, and his writings could be construed as misogynistic, there are still progressive elements of his novels and his relationship with Anaïs Nin that are important to consider.

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Gertrude Stein was born on February 4th, 1874 to wealthy Parents in Pennsylvania. When she was 3, she and her family moved to Paris for a short time before returning to the United States. Stein seemed to have had a good relationship with her mother before her mother’s passing when Stein was 14 years old. Then when her brother left for London in 1902 Stein tagged along. The year after, she and her brother moved to Paris, where Stein would do most of her literary work.

Gertrude Stein

On her first day in Paris, Stein met Alice B. Toklas, who would later become her partner. Their relationship was an interesting one. Despite being a same-sex couple, Stein and Toklas fulfilled rather traditional husband/wife roles for each other. Stein was the more masculine of the two, and filled the “husband” role. According to Hemingway in A Moveable Feast, “[Toklas] explained to me that she always talked to the wives. The wives, my wife and I felt, were tolerated” (Hemingway 24). It is because of her more masculine role that Stein is able to be seen as treating Paris like a MPDG like a male protagonist would.

For Stein, Paris was a place of unparalleled creative and expressionistic freedom. She was able to both write and live how she wanted without fear of harsh judgment. Stein did not live the impoverished Paris life that Miller and Hemingway did. She was wealthy, and used that wealth to maintain the salon that she housed her art collection in. She did not romanticize poverty in the way Hemingway and Miller did either. However, she was not free of harmful beliefs about Paris.

Stein, like other literary figures in the 1930s like Ezra Pound and T.S. Eliot, espoused seemingly pro-fascist views. In “The Strange Politics of Gertrude Stein,” author Barbara Will describes Stein as “a committed supporter of Philippe Pétain, head of state of the pro-Nazi collaborationist Vichy regime in France during the Second World War” (Will). Stein was not only a supporter of Pétain, who was a Nazi puppet leader who deported thousands of people in France who were Jewish, but she also volunteered to be a propagandist for him. She spent a lot of time translating his speeches into English in the hope that they would be published in the United States, though they never were (Will).

This support is said to be a result of her close friendship with Bernard Faÿ. Faÿ helped Stein translate her work into French, and was instrumental in Stein’s American tour following the publishing of The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas. Once Pétain’s Vichy regime grew to power, Faÿ was appointed the director of France’s Bibliothèque Nationale. According to Will, however, “Secretly, he was also made chief henchman in charge of the repression of French Freemasons” (Will). Faÿ was to find and expose groups that were considered undesirable by the Vichy regime, such as people with left-leaning political views, and people who were Jewish. These people were then interrogated, and sometimes shipped off to concentration camps, where many were killed.

Faÿ’s involvement with the Vichy regime undoubtedly played a role in Stein’s survival of World War II. Will says that, “According to Faÿ himself, he prevailed upon Pétain to protect Stein and Toklas and to give them special dispensation to be left undisturbed during the war” (Will). However, Faÿ’s intervention would not have been necessary had Stein left Paris before WWII. Stein explains in her essay “The Winner Loses” that she did not leave, even though family and American officials urged to, because of assurances from her neighbors. She also writes, “it would be awfully uncomfortable and I am fussy about my food” (qtd. in Will). While this was likely snark on Stein’s part, the fact remains that Paris was very important for Stein’s art and way of life. She was loath to give either of those up, even if it meant cooperating with a fascist regime and supporting Faÿ, even after he had been tried, found guilty of, and sentenced to lifelong forced labor for treason after WWII.

This all paints a very negative picture of Stein during WWII; however, in her article “Was Gertrude Stein a Collaborator,” Renate Stendhal says that “three quarters of the Jewish population survived in the same way Stein and Toklas did, with the help of friends and neighbors, and often with the help of local French officials who quietly resisted German orders.” Despite this, Stein never definitively stated her stance on Fascism in France, so all scholars are able to analyze are her actions during the war. This highlights the issue with being silent in times of fascism. Silence is not support, but it is not denial either. As such, it can be misinterpreted as support. While Stein should not have put herself in danger during WWII to decry fascism in France, she certainly could have done more to clarify her position after the danger had passed.

It is difficult to apply a relatively innocuous trope like the MPDG to Stein’s complicated relationship with Paris. While the male protagonist treats the MPDG poorly, he is rarely abusive towards her. It could be argued that Stein’s seeming enthusiastic support for and possible assisting of a fascist regime in her non-native country for her own gain is abusive; however, she may not have been acting for personal gain. She could have been simply trying to survive, and so her relationship with Paris difficult to fit into the trope of the MPDG.

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While there is plenty of scholarship about the female characters in the writing of American expatriate writers in Paris, there is not much about their relationships with women in real life. In addition, Manic Pixie Dream Girl is a relatively new term, though the trope has existed for decades, so there is no scholarship analyzing the expatriate writers’ relationships with Paris in relation to it. Some of the core traits of the MPDG are that the male main character, in this case, the American expatriate author, does not have a commitment to a girl whose only purpose is to help him grow and develop. Usually, the male character is down-on-his-luck and in need of someone to introduce some quirky fun into his life. Paris as a city has all of these traits for the American expatriate writers of the 1900s.

Paris in the 1920s

Works Cited

Hemingway, Ernest. A Moveable Feast. New York. Charles

Scribner’s Sons. 1964.

Johnson, Joyce. “BODY AND SOUL ANAIS NIN AND HENRY MILLER.” The

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https://www.washingtonpost.com/archive/entertainment/books/1987/12/20/body-and-soul-anais-nin-and-henry-miller/0fcbb41b-11ee-4fb1-9803-56f83d34a9c4/?utm_term=.7d9852b28fda.

Kincheloe, Henderson. “The Hemingway Women.” Magill’s Literary

Annual 1984, June 1984, pp. 1–4.

Miller, Henry. Quiet Days in Clichy. Grove Press, 1987.

Rabin, et al. “Wild things: 16 films featuring Manic Pixie Dream

Girls.” AV Film. 4 Aug. 2008.

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Elizabethtown.” AV Film. 1 Jan. 2007.

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Dream Girl.” Salon. 16 July 2014.

https://www.salon.com/2014/07/15/im_sorry_for_coining_the_phrase_manic_pixie_dream_girl/.

Rearick, Charles. Paris Dreams, Paris Memories the City and Its

Mystique. Stanford University Press, 2011.

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Angeles Review of Books. 17 Dec. 2011.

https://lareviewofbooks.org/article/was-gertrude-stein-a-co

llaborator/.

Tampa, M. et al. “Brief history of syphilis” Journal of medicine

and life vol. 7, no. 1, 2014, pp. 4–10.

Will, Barbara. Unlikely Collaboration: Gertrude Stein, Bernard

Faÿ, and the Vichy Dilemma. Columbia University Press,

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