By: Ashlyn Robinette
Oftentimes in film, women are reduced to objects of the male gaze, solely existing to serve the male narrative. The Manic Pixie Dream Girl (MPDG) archetype is no different. She is eccentric, mysterious, and effortlessly hot, but more importantly, she is a sexist character trope that needs to end.
An MPDG is “a type of female character depicted as vivacious and appealingly quirky, whose main purpose within the narrative is to inspire a greater appreciation for life in a male protagonist,” as defined by Oxford Dictionaries.
The MPDG was coined in 2007 by film critic Nathan Rabin after seeing Kristen Dunst’s character in “Elizabethtown,” whom he felt was the embodiment of a character type he liked 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,” Rabin said.
While Rabin apologized in 2014 for inventing the term as he watched the MPDG suddenly expand everywhere, his regret “for creating this unstoppable monster” has not killed off the cliche.
Characters like Mary Elizabeth Winstead’s Ramona Flowers in “Scott Pilgrim vs. the World,” Kate Winslet’s Clementine in “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind,” Natalie Portman’s Sam in “Garden State,” and Zooey Deschanel’s Summer in “500 Days of Summer” are widely recognized as MPDGs.
Some MPDGs are more complex than others, however, their primary role is all the same: to serve as a muse to the male protagonist and help him in his journey of self-discovery.
MPDGs are invariably the romantic interest of the brooding male lead. They function to transform him and fulfill his desires while their own story gets put on the back burner.
“The trope of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl is a fundamentally sexist one since it makes women seem less like autonomous, independent entities than appealing props to help mopey, sad white men self-actualize,” Rabin said.
The MPDG archetype is problematic for two reasons: (1) It promotes the idea that men need women in order to change and (2) that women exist to help men change.
Thus, the pervasiveness of the MPDG character has real-world implications and is not just an onscreen fantasy.
MPDG films send the message that men need women to teach and transform themselves, that women are to be used as vehicles for their story. In reality, a man can learn to embrace life and his own potential himself and doesn’t need to depend on a seemingly otherworldly “pixie” woman to save him from himself. Men do not need and are not entitled to a woman’s encouragement.
“Men grow up expecting to be the hero of their own story,” said author, journalist, and screenwriter Laurie Penny in an analysis of the MPDG. “Women grow up expecting to be the supporting actress in somebody else’s.”
Women are negatively impacted by the MPDG trope as it can serve as a template for how to live. They may look up to the female figures they see onscreen and model their actions or personality after them. Unfortunately, women are often limited to problematic archetypes such as the damsel in distress, drama queen, or sexy bimbo. If women don’t relate to any of those characters, then they may turn to the MPDG.
This character instills in women a desire to please without pursuing their own happiness. An MPDG’s life revolves around helping a man enjoy his when it should be a reciprocal relationship. Even though MPDGs are seen as desirable, carefree, and cool, their attractiveness and angsty attitude have misogynistic roots. An MPDG’s personality is typically based on emotional instability or glamorized mental illness, hence the term “manic.”
Penny herself identified as an MPDG once and said that “Fiction creates real life, particularly for those of us who grow up immersed in it. Women behave in ways that they find sanctioned in stories written by men.”
In becoming an MPDG, a woman’s wants and needs may not be fulfilled if she is overly concerned about fulfilling those of a man. An MPDG is “not like other girls” and may say or do profound things, but no one really knows them beyond the surface level.
A more recent example of someone who relates to the MPDG trope is UCLA film graduate and fashion influencer Ashley (aka “bestdressed”). In early March she shared the following poem she wrote entitled “Dream Girl” on TikTok in which she details her personal experience feeling like an MPDG:
I love the way you see me
As effortlessly hot
I love how you don’t know me,
Cause if you did you’d
Know I’m not
I love how you adore me
And put me on the highest shelf
I love the way you love me
The way I could never love myself
I love playing a character
Living up to your ideal
I love being your dream girl
Cause I sure hate being real
I love being an idea
Cause I’m perfect in your head
The manic pixie dream girl
In your bed
Ashley did not elaborate any further on her poem, but it appears as though being an MPDG has taken an emotional toll on her because it feels like “playing a character,” not a real person. It also seems that self-worth and love come from external validation as the man loves her in a way she “could never love” herself, highlighting the dangers of the MPDG.
Women should not be an accessory to men. It’s okay for a woman to help a man with his growth, but that cannot be all that she has to offer.
Women in media need to show agency of their own and inspire other women to do the same. Women are not one-dimensional.
They have personal goals and complex issues of their own. They do not exist to revolve their lives around the wants, happiness, and growth of men. To stop the MPDG trope, writers must embrace women for all they have to offer the world.
As Rabin said, “Let’s all try to write better, more nuanced and multidimensional female characters: women with rich inner lives and complicated emotions and total autonomy.”
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