Tropes vs. Women: #1 The Manic Pixie Dream Girl

March 24, 2011

This is the first of a six part series created for Bitch Magazine.  Tropes vs. Women explores the reoccurring stories, themes and representations of women in Hollywood films and TV shows.

The Manic Pixie Dream Girl is a cute, bubbly, young (usually white) woman who has recently entered the life of our brooding hero to teach him how to loosen up and enjoy life.  While that might sound all well and good for the man, this trope leaves women as simply there to support the star on his journey of self discovery with no real life of her own.

Related Links and Articles:

** This video is available to be translated into other languages by volunteers like you. Please visit the subtitling page on Universal Subtitles and click TRANSLATE to get started.

Update: Just a note, in the video clip of (500) Days of Summer there is an abilist joke that is offensively played for laughs. I apologize for not pointing that out in the video itself.

 

Transcript

A trope is a common pattern in a story or a recognizable attribute in a character that conveys
information to the audience. A trope becomes a cliche when it’s overused. Sadly, some of these tropes often perpetuate offensive stereotypes.

In the world according to Hollywood men are often written as the great protectors, the heroes,
the creators and the inventors, but sometimes all that pressure of running the entire world really gets them down. Enter the Manic Pixie Dream Girl, the shining beacon of child like joy that will rejuvenate our fallen hero.

The Manic Pixie Dream Girl is a term coined by Nathan Rabin to describe the female character
whose written to help the usually white, and definitely straight male hero loosen up and enjoy life.
Rabin writes, “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.”

The Manic Pixie Dream Girl is a supporting character used to further the storyline of the male hero.
She really has no life of her own, she has no family or interests or much of job that we ever see.
She is as the AVclub describes, “On hand to lift a gloomy male protagonist out of the doldrums,
not to pursue her own happiness.”

All of these male characters find a Manic Pixie to help them out of their depressed, uptight and doom and gloom state so that they can be happy functioning members of society again.

Let’s start with Kirsten Dunst’s character from Elizabethtown who is the catalyst for Rabin naming this trope. Drew Baylor played by Orlando Bloom has just lost his job, his girlfriend and he decides he wants to kill himself. So just at that very moment he gets a call from his sister saying his father died and he needs to go handle the family affair. Drew gets on a plane and meets Claire, a flight attendant who talks to him throughout the whole flight even though he’s clearly not interested in interacting with her. Claire eventually guides Drew on a personal journey of self exploration, growth and embracing fun.

CLIP: Elizabethtown

“I’m checking out this cute guy.”
“Why are you telling me that?”
“How could I leave you in distress?”
“I’m taking you out.”

You might remember Zooey Deschanel in 500 days of Summer, the non-committing love interest of the film’s star Tom Hansen played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt. The story follows Tom on his journey of falling in and out of love with Summer Finn. They have the classic Manic Pixie Dream Girl scene where they are frolicking around in the world and the Manic Pixie teaches the uptight star how to embrace his inner child.

CLIP: 500 Days of Summer

“Penis”
“Penis”
“Penis”
“Penis”
“There’s kids around.”
“There are no kids around.”
“Penis”
“Penis”
“Are you having fun?”
“Ya”
“This is the kind of thing you did with the Puma?”
“No… we rarely left the room.”
“Penis!”
“Sorry tourettes, you know how it is.”
“Penis”
“She has it too.”
“Penis”
“Peeeennnniiiisssss!”
“Shhhhhh….”

And this list would not be complete without an appearance from Natalie Portman. Her young and bubbly child like character in Garden State just might be the quintessential Manic Pixie Dream Girl. She’s here to guide angsty, emo Andrew Largeman played by Zach Braff out of his depressed state and general gloominess all with traditional Manic Pixie child like glee.

CLIP: Garden State

“Any way… ah… I’m talking too much, you gotta fill out your forms.”
“What are you listening to?”
“The Shins, you know em?”
“No”
“You gotta hear this one song, it’ll change your life I swear.”
“Oh I’m sorry, you have to, ah, fill out your forms.  Conundrum. Think you could uh, maybe listen while
you fill out-” “Ya I think I can handle that” “Ya?”

The list of Manic Pixies kind of goes on and on and on. There’s Kate Hudson’s character in Almost Famous,
Meg Ryan in Joe Versus the Volcano, Charlize Theron in Sweet November, and what about Winona Ryder in Autumn in New York, Rachel Bilson in The Last Kiss and Elisha Cuthbert in My Sassy Girl among others.

The Manic Pixie perpetuates the myth of women as caregivers at our very core, that we can go “fix” these lonely sad men, so that they can go “fix the world”. The Manic Pixie Dream Girl is really a muse who exists to be the inspiration for the troubled, tortured man.  In fact we should talk about this whole idea of a muse which is the foundation for this trope. For centuries male filmmakers, writers, painters, artists of all kinds have often cited women as the inspiration for their brilliant masterpieces.

I swear if I hear one more story like this I’m going to scream. Or puke. Or both.

Women are not here for men’s inspiration or celebration or whatever else. We are musicians and artists and writers with our own brilliant and creative endeavors. But you wouldn’t know that from the Manic Pixie Dream Girl trope.

Needless to say, the Manic Pixie, not so great for women’s representations.

So Hollywood writers, let me remind you that women are not here for your inspiration, celebration or to coax you out of your troubles. You might not know this but we’re full and complete human beings with our own troubles, interests and creative endeavors.

So how’s about your stop using us as your muse and start writing us as real people.

Related posts:

41 Responses to “Tropes vs. Women: #1 The Manic Pixie Dream Girl”

  1. While I would agree with most of the examples used in this video, and the general concept that women are not here to be used as Prozac for the brooding male protagonist, there are a few examples I would debate the use of. For example, Summer Finn in (500) Days of Summer, while displaying many Manic Pixie qualities, is mostly seen through the perceptions of Tom Hanson, as are all the other characters. The whole movie is his perception of her, the story of their life together. We see that she has a job, at the card company and that many of her psychological issues are due to a messy parental divorce in early adolescence, amongst other factors that contribute to an interesting back story. Any lack of focus Summer suffers is due to the structure of the movie itself: Tom, and the narrator, are both highly unreliable witnesses, and this is something the viewer is amply shown: we are not expected to accept Summer based solely on what Tom shows us. I would also argue that Clementine from Eternal Sunshine, while again appearing Manic Pixie-ish when they first meet, becomes a full and interesting character throughout the movie. She again has a life beyond Joel, the male hero, and becomes substantially less Pixie-ish as their relationship progresses. This is also another movie, like (500) Days, that takes place mostly within the head of the male protagonist. What we see of Clem outside of Joel’s memories shows a much less Manic Pixie-like character, with some real personal issues and problems. Patrick’s use of her as the Manic Pixie is part of why his attempt to date her goes so wrong, because he stereotypes her.

    However, I do agree that we women shouldn’t be pigeonholed as silent muses and anti-depressants. Women need to be shown on screen as fully as men are. My only point is that Summer and Clementine, in my opinion, are better examples of how fully women should be portrayed, rather than how they’re pushed to one side. I totally agree with the other examples… especially Elizabethtown.

    Iocane Reply:

    I’m going to second this. The message of 500 Days of Summer is that Tom’s perception is screwed up. It’s stated in the introduction:

    The boy, Tom Hansen of Margate, New Jersey, [b]grew up believing that he’d never truly be happy until the day he met the one.[/b] This belief stemmed from early exposure to sad British pop music and a total mis-reading of the movie ‘The Graduate’.

    Tom set Summer up as a manic pixie dream girl. Their relationship was recognized, in the film, as shallow. I don’t think 500 Days of Summer was a direct deconstruction of the MPDG, but it was made with an awareness of the trope, and a reading of the film should reveal some rejection of it. Summer’s world didn’t revolve around Tom.

    Quibbles over subject matter aside, excellent video.

    queenofzeegeeks Reply:

    Absolutely agree with the analysis of both 500 Days and Eternal Sunshine. Summer Finn almost serves as a counter-example to the Manic Pixie; she breaks down Tom’s unrealistic belief that a woman as a perfect object will complete his life, and what was supposed to be his MPDG actually becomes a catalyst to his own, independent self-realization. And as for Eternal Sunshine, Clementine even references the phenomenon of MPDGs. Let’s let Clem speak for herself:

    Clementine: Too many guys think I’m a concept, or I complete them, or I’m gonna make them alive. But I’m just a fucked-up girl who’s lookin’ for my own peace of mind; don’t assign me yours.
    Joel: I remember that speech really well.
    Clementine: I had you pegged, didn’t I?
    Joel: You had the whole human race pegged.
    Clementine: Hmm. Probably.
    Joel: I still thought you were gonna save my life… even after that.

  2. Also that one fish from Finding Nemo … think about it!

    Lisa Reply:

    lol

  3. I always felt like Summer, in (500) Days of Summer, didn’t quite fit the mold of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl. We never saw her story because it was told through the eyes of Tom, who tried to force her to be a MPDG, but we got hints of it from time to time. I suspect her story would make a very compelling movie, and more’s the pity we likely won’t be seeing it.

  4. Thank you for this piece. I’d be interested to see a list of films that incorporate elements of MPDG but don’t FAIL on a feminist level – in other words films that feature, in a meaningful way, an adult woman with whimsical, childlike, nurturing and creative aspects – while also rendering her fully human or possibly showcasing her with her own troubles, story arc, etc. – or, in the case of heterosexual romance, let’s us see what HE gives to her. I know there are movies like this but I think they are rare. I’d love a reminder.

    Thank you again!

  5. I am so glad that there are 5 more of these to come.

  6. Nice one. (:

  7. Hi,

    I love love LOVE this blog. I’ve showed it to everyone who would watch including my sister (a Victim’s Advocate) who loved the Twilight post and wants to give Bella her “on call” number in case she needs to finally escape Edward’s clutches and needs a safe place to hide :)

    Anyway, I also love films and was wondering if someone could point me in the direction some films in which women are shown as whole human beings and less as an accessory to the main male (lead) character.

  8. in a future installment please discuss the “exceptional woman” trope wherein a male hero is surprised by the appearance of a lone exceptional woman whose skill bests all other men (except his own, of course). she is intelligent, a warrior, self confident and skilled, sexy and unattainable to all other men except him. she is his peer and partner and perhaps more talented than him up until the climax, at which point she falls and must be saved from danger. the nonsensical turn of her character is particularly absurd when the trope includes a backstory that describes her as self-sufficient and capable on her own and only needs saving once she joins the protagonist’s storyline.

    see anything in the epic adventure or sci-fi genres for examples.

    Kelly Reply:

    OOOOH yes, discuss this one! It grates my nutmeg like anything. Good suggestion, @smapte.

    Susanne Reply:

    Yes, good suggestion! If you haven’t already discussed it, please do! Makes me furious every time!

    (I haven’t seen all the trope videos yet, I’m sorry if I missed it)

  9. Bravo and kudos too on the MPDG throwdown.

    As is so often the case, I started thinking Whedon characters, the way they own/subvert/redefine/own their pixieness/mania while somehow the whole muse thing becomes someone else’s *problem* (Spike/Buffy) or element of confusion (you name the pairing).

    If we get all academia-speak about it, Summer Glau’s characters’ become a really interesting/troubling discoursal location. Her look screams (long haired) pixie in deep need of male help but she always ends up kicking ass/exciting Comic-con fanboys before returning to some kind of girly softness. (I’m thinking her Reaver death ballet in Serenity which is of course followed by her watching Mal fly the ship in full-on need-a-Dad mode).

    Things get even more dicey in Sarah Connor Chronicles but I don’t want to overstay. Great blog, really! I’d read what you have to say about Twilight but that entire Vampire-Sarah-Palin-Would-Love phenomena gets me so pissed I need a roll of Tums. :)

  10. [...] just re-build her emotionally exhausted love interest and teach him to live again. (See: The Manic Pixie Dream Girl) This was probably just a totally personal reaction, though. However, it did seem an awful lot like [...]

  11. [...] Anita Sarkeesian from the awesome blog, Feminist Frequency is doing a series of vblogs called Tropes vs. Women that “[explore] the reoccurring stories, themes and representations of women in Hollywood films and TV shows.” Her first post is on the Manic Pixie Dream Girl. [...]

  12. [...] Link to full transcript over here. [...]

  13. This sounds like a really interesting series, and I can’t wait to watch the rest. This is definitely a trope I have noticed, and I think it’s well worth pointing out, but I think you missed a bit on your way from A (manic pixie girl appears and interests the male protagonist) to B (this shows how women are often portrayed as caretakers). I believe both points, but I’m not sure that one proved the other, and I think you missed out on pointing out other things the manic pixie dream girl functions as, like how she represents an individual who doesn’t follow normal social rules and encourages the man to do the same, which often leads to him realizing that nonconformity is the route to the creativity or other fulfillment that he seeks. I think there is interesting stuff to look at there as well. I have to agree that Summer doesn’t really fit this bill, because she does have backstory. I think you’re working with two different tropes here and combining them when you could elaborate more on the caretaker trope and the manic muse trope. To me, they’re very different.

  14. I am just asking myself: Isn’t the “Magic Pixie Dream Girl” not the analog of “Prince Charming”?
    And if it isn’t, where would you see the major difference between the role of these two tropes?

    Iocane Reply:

    Prince Charming saves the day. MPDG makes Prince Charming feel better so he can save the day.

  15. I am excited to see that there are translations of your videos! That should reach a wider audience. I am feeling inspired to volunteer to translate your subtitles into Russian (my native language), although it might need to wait until some free time opens up. Still, Russian women need to hear these messages, too, especially with the influx of Western movies and media coming into post-Soviet Russia currently.

  16. Like this vid as I do all you videos but I have to say I don’t think Eternal SUnshine fits this category at all. Yes, Clem is manic and impulsive etc but she is a very full, complex, and flawed character. She’s not just there to merly pull Joel out of a funk, she herself even says:

    “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”

    Neptuny Reply:

    Absolutely agree. That was the quote I was going to mention. Clementine doesn’t exist solely to yank Jim Carey out of the doldrums. That quote says it all, she might as well say, “I’m not going to be your Manic Pixie Dream Girl.”

  17. [...] – Source: Feminist Frequency’s “Manic Pixie Dream Girl” [...]

  18. Garden State came out when I was in college & everyone *loved* it. When I finally watched it, something about it bugged me. Thank you for finally clearing it up for me.

  19. [...] out the Women in Refrigerators trope and the Manic Pixie Dream Girl trope videos. Possibly related posts: (automatically generated)Gender in FictionWriting Meme, Day 2The [...]

  20. What about Maude from Harold and Maude?

  21. I’d exclude Summer of ‘(500) Days’ because the key thing about the MPDG is that she’s STATIC. In this film, though, it’s made explicit that Tom or John or whatever his name was (forgot!) changed her life as well. He taught her some such about commitment and that settling down and sticking with one person isn’t so bad. (Remember the bar scene where she believe the exact opposite?)

    So it’s important to realize that dynamic female characters who superficially fit the MPDG mold don’t conform to the MPDG spirit.

  22. I personally can’t stand this trope, which invariably feels like the product of some narcissistic male director who wants an embodyment of the attention and adoration they’re author-avatar desires.

    However, there is one exception. BRINGING UP BABY. This screwball comedy practically defined the trope, but at the same time, subverts it in some significant and refreshing ways. Catherine Hepburn’s character (notably wearing trousers) isn’t obsessed with the male lead because she feels some duty to fix his life. She’s fixated because she has fallen in love with him, and wants to get that reciprocation. Before then, movies like TOP HAT were always about the happy go lucky guy, trying to win over some girl with wacky hijinx. Here, the role are reversed, as Catherine will do practically anything to get the guy (including kidnapping and car theft). That probably comes across as a bit stalkerish in this day and age, but in classic cinema, harrassing objects of your desire is a-okay. It just makes a nice change from seeing stories in which a woman is invariably an objective for the man to reach. This time, the man is the objective, and it is she who is coming to the rescue. Even in most manic-pixie-dream-girl stories, (like always November), there comes a point towards the end where the guy steps back in as the hero, who has to rescue the girl who is dying of cancer/going through a black spot/depressed. So the guy geets it both ways: he gets his ego stroked by a woman who takes extreme interest in him, and then gets to be the big hero when it suits him. BRINGING UP BABY neatly avoids this by not giving Catherine Hepburn’s character cancer. She stays in the driving scene up until the end. The second he finally reciprocates, the movie ends.

    Catherine Hepburn’s character also gets equal screen time. In these sorts of pictures, the protagonist is invariably the male, whilst the female is someone “over-there”. In BRINGING UP BABY, we get to see Catherine thinking, strategising, and trying to flummox the male lead. That makes a lot of difference from the girls who just sort of drift in and out of the story when the male needs her to.

    Vida Starr Reply:

    Funny you mention that movie. I just saw that movie for the first time and I swear it was one of the worst movies I’ve ever seen.

    The woman that is helping him career wise calls him a name at the end and walks out and he ends up with this loony character? I guess I’m not really furthering the trope discussion but seriously thought this movie was very very badly done.

  23. Howdy Anita!

    I’ve recently become addicted to your excellent videos. As a writer, I’m always looking for ways to be original, so thank you for highlighting some tired (and sexist!) cliches.

    You might find this interesting. http://danhowescinephile.blogspot.com/2009/03/attack-of-manic-pixie-dream-girl.html

    Cheers and keep up the great work!

  24. [...] new series alert! Check out this first episode of Tropes vs. Women, a six-part series created for Bitch Magazine, a magazine that you should subscribe to STAT if you [...]

  25. [...] genesis of the MPDG trope, but what intrigues me more is the way it is critiqued.  These days, Anita Sarkeesian and others in the feminist and/or media blogosphere tend to take the trope to task (along with its [...]

  26. [...] Bitch Magazine puts it better: “The Manic Pixie perpetuates the myth of women as caregivers at our very core, that we can go “fix” these lonely sad men, so that they can go “fix the world”. The Manic Pixie Dream Girl is really a muse who exists to be the inspiration for the troubled, tortured man.  In fact we should talk about this whole idea of a muse which is the foundation for this trope. For centuries male filmmakers, writers, painters, artists of all kinds have often cited women as the inspiration for their brilliant masterpieces.” [...]

  27. [...] не сте запознати с термина Manic Pixie Dream Girl, това е героиня от романтична комедия, която е [...]

  28. [...] Fist part was on “The Manic Pixie Dream Girl”. [...]

  29. I like this post because I’ve never thought of the mpdg as derogatory before, but as a huge 500 days of summer fan who has watched the movie some 30 times i think it’s completely out of context here. The point is not even that summer has a back story and hence is not a mpdg: the only reason why she’s an mpdg is because tom thinks so, and the fact that she dumped him at the end showed that she’s not. the producers have said that summer is merely tom’s idea of a woman, and not the full woman herself. this is perfectly encapsulated in his sister Rachel’s comment right at the start: just because some cute girl likes the same bizarro crap you do, doesn’t mean she’s your soulmate. It’s more subversive than anything else, because it plays to the idea of the perfect nurturing mpdg, who at the end says: ‘it wasn’t me you were right about.’

  30. [...] when it’s not falling into the tropes of you must choose your love life over your job, it’s the quirky girl’s job to save the emotionally stunted man – it’s kind of everything, isn’t it?  Our lives, no matter how eventful they are, no [...]

  31. [...] The Manic Pixie Dream Girl is a cute, bubbly, young (usually white) woman who has recently entered the life of our brooding hero to teach him how to loosen up and enjoy life.  While that might sound all well and good for the man, this trope leaves women as simply there to support the star on his journey of self-discovery with no real life of her own. [...]

  32. [...] The first female lead is  Zooey Deshanel who often seems to play the part of the manic-pixie dream girl such as in 500 days of summer, but in Elf she is more cynical. Indeed it seems that Buddy the Elf [...]

  33. I’m a fan of romance novels, but I too often come across a book where the female lead has no career to speak of and hardly any or no family members. I do like stories of women helping their boyfriends or husbands through something difficult that they’ve struggling with, but why are the female protagonists created with no lives of their own?! They are boring characters.