IS SHE HERE TO STAY OR SIMPLY A PASSING SOCIAL CONSTRUCT?
By Jo Davies: Literature Columnist
Despite its omnipresence in fiction, the trope of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl was only given its name in 2007, by someone who now regrets it. In his review of the film Elizabethdown, film critic Nathan Rabin defined Kirsten Dunst’s “psychotically Chipper” air hostess as a phenomenon that “exists solely in the fevered imaginations of sensitive writer-directors to each broodingly soulful young men to embrace life and its infinite mysteries and adventures.”
Seven years later, Rabin wrote a eulogy for his creation, apologizing for coining the phrase, and proposing it be dismantled. Unfortunately, what’s done is done. He himself admits that “by giving an idea a name and funny definition, you apparently give it power”, and it only takes a few rom coms to see how pervasive this particular idea is. But while Rabin chastises himself for giving lexical life to the Manic Pixie Dream girl, she’s been alive and kicking for at least a century, a concept preceding its own definition.
The Hedonism of the Roaring Twenties gave birth to an original Manic Pixie Dream Girl: F.Scott Fitzgerald’s Daisy Buchanan. Her combination of libertinism and enigmatic charisma facilitate the male protagonist’s journey from naïve wallflower to shrewd social critic. The next few decades saw Susan (Bringing up Baby), Leslie (Bridge to Terabithia), and Alaska (Looking for Alaska) indulging sad and/or bored male characters. With whimsey and a melodic laugh, they introduce the men to a kaleidoscopic world of chaos and enlightenment, eventually abandoning their own ideals and aspirations.
These iridescent clichés are one of the most effective conduits through which writers explore their male characters, most because they demand no development of their own. Characterised by their endless charm and seemingly unfettered by the usual mundanities of life, these woman arguably have no place in the real and relatable world, yet are ubiquitous throughout genres and decades of modern fiction.
Many, including Rabin, have condemned the use of the trope as apathy towards female issues, bad writing, and misogyny. Mindy Kaling notes that this character “appears a lot in movies, but nowhere else”.
MACKAYAN: MANIC PIXIE DREAM GIRLSTweet
In her New Yorker article analysing depictions of women in film, she rebrands the Manic Pixie Dream Girl as “The Etheral Weirdo”, an ineffably – or impossibly, depending on your cynicism – charming kook. Who is also Hollywood-gorgeous. Obviously. Symbolically, she is a microcosm of the male gaze and the intersection of femininity where subversion and submission meet.
Undoubtedly, the Manic Pixie Dream Girl in its purest form is at Death’s door. Leaping from page to the screen, the trope dominated Rom-Coms of the 2000s, from Garden State to Almost Famous. However, as the 2010’s approached, these empty clichés were fleshed out with the beginnings of autonomy and complexity. 500 Days of Summer is a good example; its central female character technically fulfils the role of a Manic Pixie Dream Girl by instilling her male ounterpart with the confidence to start his career and embrace life.
Crucially though, her unwillingness to succumb to him and the prioritising of her own needs and happiness set her apart. Dianne Keaton’s depiction of Annie Hall embodies many of the same archetypal traits, yet Annie is complex, autonomous, and realistically flawed. What’s more is that the relationship between the protagonists has been confirmed by Keaton herself to be loosely based on her own romance with the writer-director Woody Allen. So, if the case is that the elements of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl not only develop female narrative but also exist in real life women, should we want the trope completely eradicated?
No one would blame you for saying yes. In a world that rightfully demands more diverse and relatable representation in culture, seeing these implausibly cheerful, sickeningly beautiful women being inexplicably interested in downright insufferable male characters is eye-roll inducing. But like it or not, they have become synonymous with romance and adventure, so we must ask ourselves whether we’re ready to say goodbye to the Manic Pixie Dream Girl for Good.
Rabin now corroborates John Green’s notion that, at its core, the trope is a “patriarchal lie”. Maybe this is what we need to move forward: the condemnation of a trope by the very men who have benefited from it, and their promise to do better. John Green attempted to rectify the shortcomings of Looking for Alaska, with Paper Towns, a more realistic homage to the Girl behind the Manic Pixie Dream. Still, we know that these characters aren’t going anywhere.
They are beautiful, impulsive mayflies living only to help everyone around them find what they’re looking for, before fading from existence. It is for this reason they have been such a pivotal part of modern fiction, but is that a good enough reason to keep them around? If you’re a man wondering where Zooey Deschnal is, or a woman waiting for your inner Alaska Young to take over, I’m afraid it will probably never happen. These woman are, by definition, a dream. Deconstructing the Manic Pixie Dream Girl must start with the merging of Real woman, their problems, flaws, interests, desires, happiness, with the magical, mystical.