Everything Wrong with the Manic Pixie Dream Girl

If people were rain, I was drizzle, and she was a hurricane.
— John Green, 'Looking for Alaska'

She exists as a channel for a man’s self expression. As a facilitator for his spiritual and emotional growth. A well of experience and imagination for him to draw from and consume, but never to develop herself. She remains stagnant: manic, a pixie, the dream.  

She is the manic pixie dream girl, a trope of film and literature. She exists to shed new light on a male protagonist’s experience of life.

A manic pixie dream girl is young, beautiful, free. She is wild and unattainable, uncontrollable, and raw with emotion and imagination. She is impulsive and pretty and eccentric. She may well (almost definitely) has a troubled past. Whatever the situation, she opens a whole new world up for a male protagonist, but exists solely for him, and has little to no agency of her own.

500 Days of Summer

500 Days of Summer

The term ‘Manic Pixie Dream Girl’ (MPDG) was first coined by Nathan Rabin when he described Kirsten Dunst’s character in Elizabethtown:

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.
— Nathan Rabin

MPDGs have since been identified in all kinds of popular media, for example

  • Sam (Natalie Portman) in Garden State

  • Daisy Buchanan in The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald

  • Summer (Zooey Deschanel) in 500 Days of Summer

  • Margo Roth Spiegelman in Papertowns by John Green

  • Alaska Young in Looking for Alaska by John Green

  • Tiffany in The Silver Linings Playbook by Matthew Quick

  • Penny Lane (Kate Hudson) in Almost Famous

  • Jill Tanner (Goldie Hawn) in Butterflies Are Free

  • Leslie Burke in Bridge to Terabithia by Katherine Paterson

  • Susan Vance (Katharine Hepburn) in Bringing Up Baby

  • Sam in The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky

  • Holly Golightly (Audrey Hepburn) in Breakfast at Tiffany’s

  • Sara Deever (Charlize Theron) in Sweet November

 

You get the idea. There are a million of them. There are also, to be fair, some manic pixie dream boys - for example Augustus Waters in The Fault in Our Stars by John Green (Green seems to be a fan of the MPDG/B cliche…) Overwhelmingly, though, the manic pixie dream is a girl.

And she exists as an alluring representation of freedom, emotional instability and vulnerability that makes her utterly captivating for her male counterpart. Through her mistakes, her thoughts and actions, he grows as a person.

 

Looking For Alaska, by John Green

Looking For Alaska, by John Green

There has been some criticism of the use of the term MPDG. In an interview, actor Zoe Kazan has called the term “reductive and diminutive, and I think basically misogynist”. Kazan argues that the term is applied to female characters who do not fit the trope, and who are then overlooked despite their complexities. This may well be true.

I would argue, for example, (although honestly I have only seen the film and not read the book), that Tiffany in Silver Linings Playbook exists for more than just to help Pat grow. Perhaps this is to do with the film’s frank exploration of mental illness. Indeed, it appears to me that MPDGs in their purest form flourish on overly romanticised conceptions of mental illness.

 

I suppose this is what truly makes the MPDG so wrong as a stock character in film and literature. She exhibits characteristics of existential crisis and emotional vulnerability so as to teach her nearest and dearest boy friend the basics, and allow him to explore a new, philosophical plane to his existence.

But the MPDG herself never finds resolution. The other, darker side to her existentialism and her vulnerability are not given a second thought, because the focus remains on what she provides for the male protagonist. As he progresses beyond her state and she remains stuck in her eccentricities, the narrative tells us to forget what she gave to get him there.

And doesn’t that sound familiar.

 

Article by Mairi Lubelska