Here lies the Manic Pixie Dream Girl. She was written into this world without a care in the world, and now the majority of movie-goers, filmmakers, writers, and well, human beings, have decided maybe it’s time to put her to rest. Today, I am fortunate enough to be one of those individuals, and it is with little sorrow I say my goodbyes to this tired trope.
And I’m not alone. There might be more critiques of the pixie girl than there are actual pixie girls in film, but this only gives me a ton of wind for my cavalier sails. So let’s take a look at why that might be the case, examining this age old, albeit, completely sexist, character cliche that has reigned supreme in most romantic comedies, dramas, and other films in Hollywood.
Defining the MPDG
Who was the pixie girl and where did she come from?
It’s not always easy to let go of what is comfortable, for some of you, the Manic Pixie archetype might describe some of your favorite characters. If that’s the case, I’m here for you during this difficult time.
So let’s take a trip down memory lane and see where the pixie girl came from, and why she existed in the first place.
MANIC PIXIE DREAM GIRL DEFINITION
What is the Manic Pixie Dream Girl?
The Manic Pixie Dream Girl is a type of female character often depicted as a whimsical, quirky, sometimes eccentric, fantasy woman who saves the male protagonist from himself. She usually aides in his transformation without ever showing any real agency of her own. She is a vivacious character whose main purpose is to teach the male protagonist that life is worth embracing. Film critic Nathan Rabin writes in his original review of Elizabethtown that the MPDG “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.”
MANIC PIXIE DREAM GIRL EXAMPLES
- Claire Colburn (Kirsten Dunst) - Elizabethtown
- Sam Feehan (Natalie Portman) - Garden State
- Allison (Zooey Deschanel) - Yes Man
What the Manic Pixie Dream Girl is, comes from decades (really centuries in storytelling) of the same thing⏤male writers writing male characters...and/or male directors directing them.
And don’t get me wrong, I enjoy all perspectives, male included. And any person, regardless of gender, is capable of writing these characters. But looking back in Hollywood history, male-dominated perspective often left us with underdeveloped female characters that offered nothing more than the idea that women are there to help men change, and men need women in order to change. Yikes. Watch a bit more about this below.
Manic Pixie Dream Girl Explained
Of course there are other archetypes in film that are quite literally built on supporting the protagonist regardless of genders on either end.
But the real criticism of the MPDG is that the mere existence of having a female archetype to help a man change IS actually sexist.
Let’s take a look at some classic Manic Pixie Dream Girl examples, and maybe see why it’s time to say goodbye.
And then we can talk about a few other characters that are falsely mistaken as pixie dream girls...maybe they can live.
Manic Pixie Dream Girl Examples
Examples of the pixie girl in film
Cameron Crowe’s Elizabethtown gives us our first, labeled, MPDG.
Nathan Rabin made up the phrase to describe the sort of ridiculous-ness of Kirsten Dunst’s character. The fantastical, super bubbly, almost other-worldy character, hence “pixie” girl, who helps Orlando Bloom’s character, find his way.
Claire Colburn (Kirsten Dunst) in Elizabethtown
I’m a big believer in just enjoying films, and not over analyzing every little thing. Especially lately, with the current climate---so I’ll be the first to say, I love Garden State regardless of the fact that it employs one of the most obvious examples of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl.
Zach Braff writes the film, directs it, stars in it, and has a hand in producing it. So it’s not super surprising, though well-intentioned, that the love-interest, Sam Feehan, is there to serve him. Of course she serves the story, but the story is all about him. And I love Sam, she’s smart, funny, experiences her own pain and struggles, (is also a pathological liar)⏤she isn’t a flat character by any means. But there’s no real transformation for her. Hopefully she’ll stop lying...?
The plot shows the protagonist coming back home for his mother’s funeral; grappling more with his complete indifference towards her death than the pain of it. He meets quirky Sam and finally feels something again. So, thanks for that Sam.
Sam Feehan (Natalie Portman) in Garden State
Unorthodox, spontaneous, moped riding, Allison from Yes Man, is hilarious and almost fully developed, but still serves one purpose. Written by Jarrad Paul, Nicholas Stoller, Andrew Mogel, and directed by Peyton Reed, the film uses the trope to serve Jim Carrey’s natural ability to say “yes” to new things.
Deschanel expresses her frustration with the cliche by expressing on Slate: “When you get sent scripts and you see you’re always playing someone’s girlfriend when you want to be the central role, it’s so depressing.” She goes on to say that “...as a comedienne, it felt so frustrating to always be setting up someone else’s comedic moment.”
Not to mention, even these female characters that don’t appear to have any agency in the film, do have nuances, but are somehow still lumped into this one category.
If they’re pretty, eccentric, or depart even just a little from the mainstream heroine, they must be the same!
Allison (Zooey Desschanel) - Yes Man
The Mistaken Manic Pixie
There are plenty of female characters that may have offbeat, or even vivacious personalities, but that doesn’t make them Manic Pixie Dream Girls. They serve a real purpose for the story. And regardless if they’re completely put together, completely screwed up, or somewhere in the middle, their significance doesn’t exist only in the mind of a male.
Luckily, many writers are getting it, and we’re seeing more robust characters and narratives because of it.
Summer in (500) Days of Summer
One example of this mistaken MPDG is Zooey Deschanel’s character in 500 Days of Summer. While she is often considered a Manic Pixie Dream Girl, here it’s a little more complicated.
She does technically, help the protagonist, Tom, Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s character, see something new. But it’s only because she is existing for herself, being true to herself and serving her own needs, shattering his fantasy of her, that he learns anything at all. This is a much more dynamic character that aids in the progression of the entire story rather than just Tom’s ideas.
In the beginning of the film, she is a free-spirit, an unwilling-to-settle- down-kind-of-girl. And when they get together, Tom can’t believe she’s picked him, and hopes to change her perspective on love. He’s inevitably crushed when she breaks it off. And even more so when he discovers that she’s engaged⏤he can’t believe it. Now, he knows for sure that love can’t be real. But she again shatters his belief system by telling him love does exist, it just wasn’t with him.
I just woke up one day and I knew⏤what I was never sure of with you.
So he does have a transformation because of her. But she doesn’t exist in his fantasy world.
She actually breaks it open.
I’m a big fan of this character, and this story. She’s real, and the film provides space for her to actually be who she is. Change her mind. And learn something new about herself, regardless of what the protagonist is doing.
Clementine in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
Aside from writing one of the greatest scripts of all time, Charlie Kaufman can also create a female lead that is dripping with eccentricity, weirdness, and charm, while not being a Manic Pixie Dream Girl at all.
Clementine (played by Kate Winslet) is the agent of change in her life. The inciting incident of the entire movie is Joel (Jim Carrey), finding out that she has erased him from her memory.
In fact, all of her decisions throughout the film are solely for herself⏤whether that’s staying out late when she’s bored with Joel, ignoring her new, occasionally annoying, boyfriend, Patrick (played by Elijah Wood), she does what she wants. She even screams, what is now a famous quote that explicitly excludes her from the MPDG trope:
I remember that speech really well
Kaufman’s scripts have some of the best lines, but it’s clear that it’s not just because they sound good, or read well. The character of Clementine is a fully realized human being, who doesn’t exist for the purpose of anyone else but herself.
More characters like her, please.
So Long to the Pixie Girl
Why we won’t miss pixie dream girl
Well, for starters, even Nathan Rabin wishes he could take it back.
He writes a letter of apology for creating the term. In it he reminisces how “[he] looked on queasily as the phrase was increasingly accused of being sexist itself.”
Just to be clear, Nathan Rabin is not responsible for this remissive categorization. He simply gave the pre-existing sexism a name.
In fact, “[he] coined the phrase to call out cultural sexism and to make it harder for male writers to posit reductive, condescending male fantasies of ideal women as realistic characters.”
But unfortunately, that’s not what happened.
Screenwriters create more pixies, and even novelists write books about them. (author, Tom Leveen writes“Manicpixiedreamgirl”).
In the years after Rabin’s Elizabethtown review, there was a ton of criticism for a well-intentioned critique. From Zoe Kazaan labeling the trope as pure misogyny to the actual rise of the trope, giving the idea a home, he consequently, gave it a whole lot of power.
He admits “...power [that] spun out of control.”
Rabin doesn’t want it, and most of the filmmaking community is over it.
Thankfully, contemporary culture has brought us new female writers and directors with varying perspectives that this cliche is at its end.
Writing Better Characters
Moving on from the MPDG trope
Nowadays, as film and television competes in complexity with great literature, writing female characters (or “Manic Pixie Boys” because yes, that is also unfortunately a thing), without any agency, is really just bad writing.
And this applies to films that include same-sex couples too.
We want fully fleshed out characters with their own agency, regardless of gender, who are in conflict with other characters based on who they are and what they want. Not so one dimensional that they only serve a single purpose.
So witty, quirky, women aren’t the problem. But making sure that their wittiness, their quirkiness, exist for some male fantasy, is dead.
How to Write a Meet Cute
Now that you understand how important it is to write stronger, less-predictable women characters, let’s read up on how to write that scene where she meets her partner for the first time. Do away with conventions and revitalize this plot point to make it less cringe-y.
Up Next: How to Write a Meet Cute →
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