Confessions of a Manic Pixie Dream Girl
Since Valentine’s Day is looming on the horizon yet again, I decided to reread several of my fave romance novels just like I did last year. But this time, I’m reading literary books rather than trashy ones to prove the point that romance can be written about in a literary way. That means you lucky people get to hear even more of my innermost thoughts on the subjects of love and romance, only classier.
Last year, the first book I wrote about was Twilight. You may recall that I believe Twilight to be the best example available of what romance novels are all about because the Twilight books hinge on the premise that an utterly unremarkable woman might be seen as remarkable, special, irreplaceable by the man who loves her.
You also may recall that furthermore I wrote about the concept of Mary Sue stating that women write Mary Sue characters because we have it drummed into our heads that we have to be the best of the best of the best, sir, at everything to earn anyone’s love. Twilight‘s Bella Swan, in all her averageness, while fun to read about, is not what women feel they need to bring to the table to get love. So it’s no wonder our ideal character, Mary Sue, is awesome at everything without much effort at all.
Some of these essays are getting to be like intricate Russian nesting dolls, aren’t they?
Anyhoo, in the comments section of the Mary Sue piece someone brought up the concept of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl as a romantic ideal for men. I quibbled with this notion, because I see the MPDG (as it’s been historically envisioned by writers, that is) as meant to appeal to women and I am here today to prove that to you.
That was a lot of explanation to get to the actual essay, wasn’t it? But we’re here finally, yay. Leave your seat backs and tray tables in the upright and locked position, wouldya?
What is a Manic Pixie Dream Girl, you may ask? Well, it’s a character trope in which a wacky and winsome disaster of a woman turns the life of a guy who is generally stuffy or uptight or repressed or depressed or oppressed by some bitchy highly-successful career woman who needs to be taken down a few pegs by having her boyfriend stolen right out from under her by a girl who can’t balance her checkbook and smells like Hubba Bubba Bubble gum, upside down and inside out, beating him about the face and neck with quirk till he realizes he’s in love with her.
People act as if this is a new thing, but the Manic Pixie Dream Girl is an old trope. Clara Bow, the “It Girl” of the 1920’s, has been deemed a MPDG. You can find Katharine Hepburn playing a MPDG in Bringing Up Baby and Shirley MacClaine playing one in The Apartment. You can see Barbra Streisand run her MPDG game in What’s Up Doc and Diane Keaton quirkily exclaiming “La-Di-Dah” in Annie Hall. You can see Audrey Hepburn in just about any movie she’s ever been in. You can even make a case for Juliet Capulet being a Manic Pixie Dream Girl. Contrary to popular belief, MPDG did not originate in the 2000’s spurting from the bowels, or some part of him anyway, of Cameron Crowe, the writer most notorious for producing them.
Some of the greatest characters in all of 20th century fiction are Manic Pixie Dream Girls.
This is not to say that MPDG is always or even usually done well. The absolute worst movie I have ever seen in my life, a movie so enragingly bad it caused me to get an account with both RogerEbert.com and Rotten Tomatoes for the sole purpose of giving it a negative review, was a movie called Are You Here and it featured the most Manically Pixieish Dream Girl in human history. This free spirited minx has sex with Zach Galifanakas for the sole purpose of cheering him up after his father’s death despite the inconvenient fact she was his stepmother, and then later hooks up with Owen Wilson cause he was kinda down in the dumps too. Do not watch this movie. Even though it was made by the Mad Men guy, do not watch this movie. To quote myself from the scathing review I left on Roger Ebert’s site 3 years ago, “It is among the most sexist movies I have ever seen and should be deconstructed in Women’s Studies classes from now till the end of time.”
Trust me, I am very well aware that the badly done MPDG exists and she’s freaking terrible. A LOT of MPDG-themed entertainment is trite and lousy and reduces women to 3D embodiments of male fantasy, but like with so many other things, bad execution, even when ubiquitous, does not equate to an idea that is flawed on the face of it.
The reason I am such an expert in ManicPixieDreamGirlism is because I am, in fact, a Manic Pixie Dream Girl. I know that I am, and I knew it for the first time when I saw myself in the character of Leora in Sinclair Lewis” Arrowsmith who is such a lovable disaster that she forgets to take her medicine while her husband was away meanly cheating on her with a much more serious person and succumbs to the plague as a result, even though the term “Manic Pixie Dream Girl” hadn’t even been invented yet. If my husband wouldn’t have snatched me up immediately upon my emerging from the sparkly polka-dotted egg from whence all MPDG are born, quickly locking me away to protect the world from my adorable shenanigans, I would have left a long line of cheered-up men with their ties askew frantically cleaning their glasses and clearing their throats, wondering what just hit them, in my wake.
Holy Magenta Hair, Batman, the legends are true! Manic Pixie Dream Girls are REAL. The character of Annie Hall played so convincingly by Diane Keaton was actually based on Diane Keaton. I think it’s pretty safe to assume that IRL, Goldie Hawn and Meg Ryan and Zoe Deschanel have some MPDG qualities emanating from them naturally like toadstools release spores just as I do. And even though mostly male authors have misused and abused our spazzy beloved girl for their own purposes, doesn’t make her any less real as a result. Like many fictional tropes, the MPDG has a pretty massive grain of truth at her core; if she didn’t, she wouldn’t be a good character.
Just like with the terrible saga of Mira Sue, the Manic Pixie Dream Girl trope has taken on a life of its own, growing exponentially not unlike the Blob That Ate Cleveland. The denizens of the Internet have taken an interesting observation about a particular type of female character that is based in real archetypes of human behavior and misapplied it everywhere, so much so that the originator of the term has disavowed it. MPDG has devolved to such an extent that any female character who is anything other than completely anodyne is almost immediately deemed either a Mary Sue or a MDPG by someone, thereby dismissing countless interesting female characters as being nothing more than fictional embodiments of somebody’s wish fulfillment when they’re really representing highly accomplished and/or offbeat women who actually exist IRL.
Cutting out any trait with the faintest whiff of Mary Sue or Manic Pixie Dream Girl yields a character with all the dynamism of Bella Swan. No accomplishments, no personality, nothing to recommend her, she’s just SPECIAL for no apparent reason. Writers are so scared to make a Mary Sue or a MPDG they make a blank-faced, empty-brained nobody instead and let her be the star of the show. Her sole reason to exist is to receive the love of a guy, or maybe to beat them up in more #feminist-friendly fare.
Is that really any better than Manic Pixie Dream Girl?
The thing with Manic Pixie Dream Girls starting about 2000 on, versus the old school Hepburnian MPDGs, have not to do with a quirky and adorable female character that changes a man’s life for the better (which happens), but a quirky and adorable female character that changes a man’s life for the better while asking nothing in return (impossible outside of the Penthouse Forum). Maybe the problem is NOT Manic Pixie Dream Girl in and of herself, maybe the problem is viewing women as accessories to men, as a vector for men to have the life experiences they seem so damn convinced they deserve, as consumable resources who add joy to men’s lives without ever asking for, let alone getting, anything in return.
Because really, isn’t that the fundamental noxiousness of the MPDG trope?? She is the glittery nymph who exudes her lovely self into a guy’s life like a spritz of Febreeze to freshen everything up and then fades away again carrying off the staleness and ennui, leaving only happy memories and a lingering scent of lavender and eucalyptus behind. She has no needs, makes no demands, never asks for a thing because she wants nothing, she only gives and gives of herself and then leaves when the guy doesn’t need her any more.
It’s like Charlie Sheen once famously said about prostitutes, “I’m not paying women for sex, I’m paying them to leave after it’s done”. Writing a female character as a CameronCrowian MPDG is in essence creating a prostitute-slash-life coach who works for free so our hero doesn’t have to feel bad about himself in the morning. It’s all about the male side of the equation. And that’s why it’s a big fat sexist pig male wish-fulfillment fantasy to create a female character that way – not because she’s charming and weird and turns someone’s life upsidedown and inside out, because women are those things and do those things regularly. It is because the 2000’s-plus version of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl is all about the men and what the women can do to service them.
But relationships are a two-way street, not a cul-de-sac.
Relationships are this peculiar state of affairs in which sometimes one is the need-er and other times one is the need-ee. At times, in any healthy normal non-fictional relationship, the woman is the need-ee and the man is obligated to meet those needs. And you know, as I write that, I suspect that’s the appeal of the 2000’s iteration of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl. She’s a girl that makes all a man’s dreams come true and she doesn’t expect a house, some kids, for you to have a job, for you to do anything at all other than be happy. Once you are, she’ll leave and you can play Overwatch and go on Tinder still and leave half-drunk Mountain Dews and sacks of stale Flamin Hot Cheetos laying open everywhere and even eat out of them occasionally and no one will ever complain about it. And maybe you’ll think about her when you jack off now and then. MPDG are like the gift that keeps on giving!!
The Manic Pixie Dream Girl, 2000’s edition are basically a way for men to imagine having the best of a woman without having to do any work whatsoever – not to win her (since she chases you), not to keep her (since she was never gonna hang around anyway) and not to make her happy in the future (because she’s only a beautiful memory, my man). The relationship never gets all same old, same old, because it ends, thereby crystallizing the entire shebang at the moment of sheerest perfection, which is right at the very start before she finds out what a lazy goddamn dick you actually are. The hard stuff, the boring stuff, the compromises and disappointments that are sure to come, never happen; they never have time to happen because it’s over practically before it begins.
And that brings me to The Accidental Tourist.
The Accidental Tourist is, in my opinion, one of the most romantic books ever, and it’s also literature which means I can like it without having to get all embarrassed about it. It’s the story of Macon Leary, who is this uptight stuffed shirt New Englander who writes travel books for people who hate to travel because they’re also uptight stuffed shirts like he is. His son is sadly murdered, he sinks into depression, and as a result his marriage falls apart. Against his better judgement and his own will, he ends up in a relationship with a MPDG by the name of Muriel Pritchett, single mother, dog trainer, and general disaster in heels.
Now, The Accidental Tourist and the movie based upon it were made prior to 2000, so Muriel is not a MPDG in the simplified and trite sense of the word we’ve all come to know and hate. But she’s definitely a woman who comes flinging into a man’s life out of nowhere (well, actually a different socioeconomic strata, which is nowhere to people like Macon Leary) with an entirely different world view and set of aesthetics than Macon, has a lot of quirks – some of which are not terribly endearing, some of which the staid Macon finds bordering on repellent – and turns his life upside down and inside out in ways that help to snap him out of his despair and get him functioning again.
Muriel Pritchett IS a Manic Pixie Dream Girl. Fight me.
But here is what makes The Accidental Tourist different from a Cameron Crowe movie – Muriel makes demands of Macon. She has expectations. She has needs some of which Macon is willing, even eager to provide, such as helping care for Muriel’s sickly son and contributing financially to their survival. But Muriel also has other needs, inconvenient needs, needs which Macon is reluctant or downright unable to meet – for affection, for commitment, for respect, for Macon to treat her like a person rather than an intermission in his normal life. Muriel Pritchett has needs that make Macon Leary very, very uncomfortable.
Something that makes The Accidental Tourist one of my favorite love-ish-type stories ever – because it’s really not a love story the way most people imagine a love story to be – is that I can relate to Muriel so thoroughly. (Interestingly, I also relate to Macon’s ex-wife Sarah. There are no one-dimensional unsympathetic bad gals in The Accidental Tourist.) When I read about Muriel – her open, even at times overly forward demeanor, her wacky and original personal style based primarily around whatever clothes she can get her hands on, the ambitious way she marches out into the world despite having no marketable skills either professionally or romantically and by necessity makes things happen for herself, both professionally and romantically, the amount of noise she makes in a world telling women to shut up and know their place, and above all else that she’s a poor person who says (rather loudly) to rich people, “No, I matter, and you are not any better than me” – those are all qualities I see and and even sometimes kind of like in myself.
Muriel Pritchett is both a Manic Pixie Dream Girl and a fully actualized female character, and it seems a shame for modern writers to be so terrified of the MPDG label that they might unintentionally avoid writing a colorful, interesting character like Muriel for fear of getting pasted with the MPDG label.
At the start of this essay I mentioned that I thought Manic Pixie Dream Girl was a trope meant to appeal to women, and here’s why. It’s because while women read Twilight because they want to believe that a guy could love a gal even though she has no redeeming qualities whatsoever like Bella Swan, how much more satisfying might it be to believe that a guy could love you because you DO have redeeming qualities, because you’re amazing and unique and remarkable, because you came into his world and changed his life for the better? Not because you’re perfect and precious and buxom and scantily-clad and well-behaved, but you’re charming and weird and quirky and totally awesome and beautifully flawed just like that chick Muriel Pritchett over there.
It’s time for Manic Pixie Dream Girl to be used for good instead of evil again. She’s real, she’s spectacular, and just because some men tried to take her away from us, ladies, doesn’t mean they get to keep her. She belongs to us.
And read The Accidental Tourist, it’s really good.
If you want to read my attempt to write a character who is neither Mary Sue nor Manic Pixie Dream Girl while I flirt shamelessly with elements of both, please check out my (long) short story Supernatural: Manic Pixie God Girl (trigger warning: fan fic)
Good piece. (I probably need to re-read “The Accidental Tourist” some time. I remember I read it when I was in my early 20s and I liked it)
I always said “I hate the Manic Pixie Dream Girl” but you do make a case for her. I think I disliked the stereotype version of her – the complete flake, the person who literally can’t balance her own checkbook, who needs someone to take care of her.
I think I said I hated her for two real reasons:
1. In real life, someone who is helpless is EXHAUSTING. I have had friends who had that kind of helplessness in some areas of their lives and having to “rescue” someone when they, I don’t know, forget to gas up the car and run out of gas somewhere and call you to come get them – that gets old really fast when there’s no hope of reciprocity. And yes, I have probably been/stayed friends with people I should not have because of the lack of reciprocity, but that’s how I am – I can’t drop a friend, not over something like that
2. But moreso, I think I said I hated the trope because (a) it seems to appeal to men and (b) I know I’m not that kind of girl, even though I wish I could be – I am exactly the opposite of forward. I treat men like potential colleagues, not potential dates. I’m sure I project a rather self-contained demeanor and that’s probably why a couple times in my life I have heard “but gee, I didn’t think you were interested, that’s why I didn’t push him to ask you out.” I would like to be a bit more pixieish but it’s just not in my personality make-up….and so I wonder, are other people having more fun that I am incapable of?
And also, yes: sometimes I so so so so want just to be taken care of, to have someone go “look, I can handle this for you” but I tend to be the kind of person instead who gets told how “strong” she is and “you’ll figure this out” and I’m sitting there going “but that’s not really….the point?”
And yes, even as I know fictional characters are not the same as real humans, for me, the only way “inside” another person’s head is to read about them in fiction…
I also think that a lot of us as teenagers or young adults got exposed to really stereotypical portrayals of the MPDG. I would never thought of Muriel Pritchett as one but it does make sense.Report
I like to think that the MPDG friends can sometimes pay back in other ways, even though we’re huge dysfunctional flakes but I’m sure it’s super irritating for those around us. But there are absolutely people who use others up and take advantage and the Venn Diagrams likely intersect.
As you probably recall I am a big proponent of the “men who help” storyline because I think so many of us out there, even when we’re strong, reserved, etc just could use a shoulder to lean on and if it came in the package of a romantic interest, even better.
I love your insights as always, thanks for reading and commenting! 🙂Report
I don’t read romantic novels, however I have watched some romantic movies and I do understand the character types.
Being a man, I naturally identify with the male characters. I see myself as the stuffed shirt character. I believe Mr. Fitzwilliam Darcy from pride and prejudice is one. Excuse the geek in me but I think Captain Picard is also one.
I despise the male version of a Bella Swan, often played by the likes of Adam Sandler that, despite having no redeeming qualities or romantic skills, gets the smoking-hot, successful-at-life, got-it-together woman.
Would you agree that Jennifer Lawrence’s character Tiffany in Silver Linings Playbook is a classic (pre 2000s) MPDG? I feel that her character could blow through your life like a tornado, was all kinds of messed up, and most importantly, needed you as much as you needed her.Report
I really need to write about the Adam Sandler/Seth Rogan type of character vs. the Everyman because I think that’s a lot more like “creator wish fulfillment guy” than any kind of an actual viable character archetype.
I only ever watched SLP once but that makes sense. That was an interesting movie in that both of the characters were screwed up so it wasn’t as much of a one way street as it often is.
Thanks for reading!Report
Yeah. It strikes me that there’s a *HUGE* difference between the slacker/loser who is inspired to become a better man by the Manic Pixie Dream Girl and the Average Guy who is effectively a bird in a cage who is inspired to become a better man by the Manic Pixie Dream Girl.
The former story is kinda weird and creepy. (I remember hearing Katherine Heigl saying something about how Knocked Up was kinda sexist and… yeah. I don’t agree with all of this article, but I agree with 80ish percent of it.)
But a guy who is working hard, pulling his weight, following the rules, and so on and he has someone magical who turns his life into something wonderful?
SIGN ME THE HECK UP.Report
Yep this totally. It’s a story I myself greatly like, I can easily imagine men liking it too, sign me up!
(and wow, that was quite an article, the comments made about Katherine Heigl by both Seth Rogan and Apatow were kinda psychotic)Report
Strongly agree 🙂
The thing is, the MPDG trope was a piece of film criticism, which wasn’t about the (supposed) problems with cool, quirky women. It was about writers who put so much energy into her coolness and quirkiness that they forget to give her an inner life. It’s just bad writing.
Accidental Tourist is a great example. There is nothing wrong with having a cool women come along and change a man’s life, no more than there is a problem with the inverse. It’s that the woman needs to feel like a real person with her own hopes and dreams.Report
The trope that irritates me is that when a man is at his lowest (and least appealing) point, he’ll meet an amazing woman who will fall for him and rescue him. The only effort required on his point is to accept her help. E.g. Sideways.Report
Interesting point, I need to think on that more. Thanks.Report
Yes exactly, it’s curious how just like with the Mary Sue notion what was a criticism on bad writing ends up being a brickbat to limit the types of female characters we encounter on the screen.
Thanks for reading, I value your opinion.Report
That was me. I think that at least some versions of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl are aimed at men because the MPDG does a lot of the pursuit work that is traditionally done or depicted as being done by men. The guy she is interested in is usually depicted as at least being theoretically average in looks, not the most desirable catch. For men, having somebody pursue you rather than you having to do the leg work, especially if you aren’t’ a top tier guy is a big fantasy.Report
It was actually Pillsy I was thinking of at the time, but you and I have had similar conversations!!
Question – a lot of guys find it a huge turnoff when a girl chases them. So how do women know which guy to pursue and which one not to?Report
The same way we know which girls to pursue — trial and error.Report
all I’m saying is, they never taught us any of this in Seventeen MagazineReport
Yes, through the same painful method that we have to go to.Report
You can never know for sure. On the other hand, if you like a guy, and if he seems a bit shy, and if he doesn’t come across as an angry jackass, then it’s probably worth a shot.
A lot of girls like the extroverted guys, so if you’re the sort of women who wants to pursue, it’s a goldmine.Report
I just feel bad for the type of women who are more reticent about sticking it out there and then get their feelings hurt a couple times by a-holes, and draw a perpetual conclusion from that, when they actually should probably just regroup and try again.Report
*quietly raises hand*
I’ve asked guys out a couple times when I was younger and it didn’t go well. In retrospect, they were probably insufficiently mature for me. But still, it really cramped my style.
Then again, I’m bad enough at many social interactions that reading about the “use trial and error” thing above makes me go, “But I don’t LIKE trial and error because it means I wind up getting my spirit crushed much of the time”Report
How do you think it feels for men?
In the end, someone has to make the first move. It doesn’t matter who, but men have a lot more pressure in this area that women do.
That said, things don’t need to be all one way or all the other. In most of my relationships, it’s been kind of a back and forth. It feels a bit like two people orbiting around, both hoping to get closer, both testing the water, and then finally getting together.
Of course, all these relationships have been sapphic, so we don’t have the weird het asymmetry. On the other hand, I see no formal reason that str8s can’t do the same.Report
Thank for this. A lot of conventional dating advice for men is based on the idea that we can go through constant get up, get shot down, and get up again with our spirits intact. It’s really very crushing for many of us though.Report
See, I don’t think it’s you. I don’t think it’s you at all. If it was just those of us who were socially awkward then why is Sadie Hawkins a joke, right? Why do pickup artists make videos where they literally tell dudes not to go out with women who make the first move? Why does “The Rules” exist?
I think this is an actual thing, a lot of guys are put off by it, and whether it’s innate or as a result of toxic masculinity or patriarchy or misogyny or whatever, we’re not being fair to the position of women to say “just ask them out” because we’ve had it drummed into our heads not only by about 10000 sources over our lifetimes INCLUDING guys we’ve actually pursued, not to do it. Because not only might they say no, but they might end up being the butt of the joke too.
I’m sure it’s hard for men too. No one’s saying it isn’t. But there is a whole nother level of potential for hurt because men are “supposed” to ask girls out. Women who ask guys out are bucking a lot of rules we’ve learned along the way and risking rejection (and I believe a much higher possibility of rejection) than a man in the same place.Report
I’m sure you’re right. But darnit it’s such a huge lost opportunity for connection.Report
Nope, “certain men” are supposed to ask the girls out. The jocks, the “cool kids”, the artists, name your 80’s movie high school clique here. The socially awkward shy guys? Rejected by the girls AND mocked by all the other guys.
Why do pickup artists tell guys not to go out with the girl who makes the first move? Because that most likely leads to a lasting relationship, which means that guy is no longer is in the market for PUA products. Including the guys you persued? No disrespect intended to you, but did those guys fit into one of the “popular crowd” clichés I noted above? Being the one persued is only a role change if they’re already used to being successful in that role.
My advice? Find a nice guy who looks as shy as you feel. Ask him. My wife did, we’ve been married happily for more than 6 years now. It can happen for you too.Report
Generally, I would say, shy guys. I’ve only been in relationships where the women pursued me. My own pursuits were laughable failures. And my first gf was a bit of MPDG in some respects, which was very much what I need at the time. I was more repressed, introverted and averse than Fitzwilliam Darcy on quaaludes.Report
I only like shy guys so maybe I never had it burned out of me. But I know of several women (mostly in HS/college) who were humiliated by asking guys out and seeing it happen to someone else put the fear of God into me.Report
I think that the guys find being chased by a girl to be a huge turnoff is something of a romantic myth that people believe but might not exist in reality or at least not to the extent it is held to be true. I can’t speak for other men but at least some chase from the woman is a turn on because it means I’m desirable since they are taking some initiative to get me. I also find the “meet my challenge/impress me” confrontation mode of dating really tiresome. It makes dating seem like a long hard slog of work rather than something fun. Its a lot of pressure to have to thing of every little thing. So having a woman ask me out or propose a date idea makes everything seem more equal.Report
I’ve just been sitting here thinking this through and I have a theory.
I know from seeing it happen to people that chasing guys is in many cases a surefire way to get rejected (in fact now that I stop to think about it, it has happened to me, not so much chasing but everyone knew I was into a guy and he was like “hard pass” and told a lot of people that, which was rather humiliating even though I never chased him chased him)
But that having been said, that was high school and college, and it very well may be that there is a dynamic in play in adulthood where a guy has to prove himself more and make all this effort. I haven’t ever experienced that firsthand so I can’t comment on that. Things change, but the problem is it’s really hard to unlearn those early lessons.
I wonder how many gals like me are out there and either got burned or saw others get burned during their formative years and now would never ever ever take the risk??? It very well may be keeping women from pursuing guys who would be receptive to them.Report
That theory makes sense. My dating history didn’t really start until my late twenties and it was always less than stellar with the vast majority of dates ending with some variety of I didn’t feel any chemistry. My second to last date was with a divorced woman. During the pre-date stages of communication she mentioned a lot about what went wrong with her marriage from her perspective at least. Not wanting a repeat performance of previous experiences, I decided to do things differently including call her and speak to her over the phone rathe than just texting. And we met and had a three hour date in the middle of week and I felt rather good about this.
Afterwards we had post date communication and I thought things were going well, but she eventually told me that I’m an amazing, kind, and interesting person but she didn’t feel the spark or any chemistry despite the fact that she seemed to have a lot of fun on the date. I decided to be forward and say that I get this a lot and what does she mean by chemistry or the spark.
To her credit she thought about it and answered the question. She gave a long response that chemistry is the feeling of being wanted and desired and that a guy would do things he normally wouldn’t do to get you. Its also about feeling safe and protected with a guy and that he puts you first and doesn’t even think about himself or what he wants. Her response was a bit longer but I’m working from memory and deleted her text.
And I think this response kind of broke me because this is what she wants to feel after a first date. I’m guessing that the other women who gave me the I didn’t feel anything chemistry response want something similar. And it just is too much because how can I possibly provide all this when he just met online and communicated a few times before meeting? The entire do things that you normally wouldn’t do sounds suspiciously like “you need to know how to sexually harass me in the right way.” It’s a very meet my challenge mode of dating that isn’t fun.
A lot of dating advice aimed at men takes this as given. “You need to go through the psycho period”, “you need to prove your value and fake it till you make it”, “you need to be a real man and show that you will be the world’s best step-dad before you get any affection in response” etc. Even allegedly feminist dating advice is along this line. So with the MPDG you get somebody who is romancing you as you are rather than putting you through what seems like a series of extractions and tests.Report
Be careful, though. It’s pretty easy to overthink this stuff, and in turn to trap yourself in an intellectual tower of bullshit.
Attraction is pretty unconscious, so when people try to explain their attractions, it’s usually a lot of post hoc rationalization — which doesn’t mean you shouldn’t listen when people tell you what they like, but people vary regarding their insight and communication skills. Plus, no one gets to speak for anyone else. Each encounter is between two (or more) individuals with their own desires, boundaries, and needs. If there is mutual attractions, then it’s a matter of dancing around the social niceties until everyone involved reaches the needed comfort level. By contrast, if there isn’t mutual attraction, then it’s about dancing around that fact in a way that preserves everyone’s dignity.
Most non-sociopaths will want to preserve everyone’s dignity.
Regarding the “you need to know how to sexually harass me in the right way” — yeesh! That’s not a good direction to be heading. Big nope.Report
It’s very hard not to overthink this stuff when you, meaning me personally, are always on the romantic outs and the only advice people can give you is keep trying, get out there, and keep self-improving. It’s like having to support a party you are not invited to.Report
Something a lot of women of my acquaintance have noted when they rejoin the dating pool is that a lot of the people on the market are there for a reason (both men and women alike, this includes some lesbians) and so I wonder if people who are actively dating are bumping into more than their fair share of jerks. I wonder if this is happening to you as well.Report
In my little local pool, of the unattached guys I know, a couple are gay (and so while they’re nice guys and I love them for other reasons, I know there will never be able to be anything there) and several others are…mutiply divorced. One person someone offered to introduce me to, it was clear what he was REALLY looking for was someone to keep house for him and be a step mom to his kids, and while I would 100% not be averse to that being PART of the deal, for him, that was the whole deal, and…yeah…no. Fortunatley he seemed not-into-me so the let down was easy. Also am not quitting my job to take care of someone’s house and kids, ‘cos if it didn’t work out, where would I be? I don’t think it’s too much to ask that a guy in my age group accept that I’m going to keep working…
So yeah. I mean, I know I’m damaged in some very specific ways and am not the ideal “catch” or I’d have been “caught” decades ago, but at this point….it seems like remaining alone is preferable to the choices that seem to present themselves.
I suspect once you’re past 30 the dating pool is less a fun pool party and more an alligator swamp with lots of mosquitoes. Maybe that’s overly pessimistic but that seems to be my experience.Report
I’d put off the cut off date in mid to late thirties, although this might be because I’ve always lived in major metropolitan areas, but dating gets less fun the older I get. This is especially true when your luck has been non-existent besides getting first dates. You see people in your peer group raising families or even being on their second spouse and you are wondering when you will get your first girlfriend and get to do all the stuff you missed out on or whether you will have to go straight to “instant family, add daddy/mommy.” Bleh.Report
At this point I just think I come off as non-partner material to nearly everybody. There are women who like me and have female friends in real life but they are unavailable because they are with somebody else and/or big age differences or something else.
I find that a lot of men and women find me something of an acquired taste and hard to grasp. They aren’t that hostile but even people who seem to like me seem to find me hard to understand. This does not make finding a romantic partner very easy. There are some women who seem turned off from me by instinct despite having no social interaction like I have the plague or something.Report
I think my mother has many of the qualities of an MPDG. Bright, vivacious, dripping with personality. Kathy Popcorn! as her HS yearbook related. But, when she started her business she was driven and very successful, not unlike a MarySue. But you can’t have everything, and what she wasn’t was maternal.
Anne Tyler, the author of Accidental, was on the forefront of a revival of literary romance back in the ’80s-’90s, and so tended to be more literary than what followed.Report
Thank you so much for reading and commenting, Aaron.Report
The Manic Pixie Dream Girl is one of those interesting things because she has traits that a lot of people might see as flaws. Other folks might argue with whether or not they’re flaws. Dude, no! Those traits are virtues! No! They make her weird! No! They make her wonderful!
And the fact that she has Schrödinger’s Flaws make her interesting.
Have you ever heard of “The Galbrush Paradox”? I’ll copy and paste this from TV Tropes’s “Flawless Token” page:
The MPDG is interesting because her are-they-or-aren’t-they flaws allow her to avoid the Galbrush Paradox.Report
Weirdly, I was just thinking along these lines but didn’t have a word for it, thank you!Report
I suppose they earn a few points for naming the character Threepwood.Report
If you haven’t played it, you should. It’s full of little things like that. Like, you’ll be delighted by the little tricks the game plays with you and, as it does, it makes little references like that.Report
Well, there is Meg from Family Guy, but I’m not sure if that disproves your point.
This also reminds me of a quote from one of the Bojack Horseman guys:
[ https://web.archive.org/web/20150108215320/http://boringoldraphael.tumblr.com/post/107481385794/rewatching-s1-for-like-the-100th-time-at-what ]Report
Thanks for sharing that.Report
In a review of Avengers: Infinity War, Slate criticized how there is always a cat fight in superhero movies and you rarely get to see a villainous female character go against Tony Stark or Captain America. They always have to fight one of the female superheroes. A commentator pointed out that very few people want to see a male superhero beat up a female supervillain no matter how strong or evil she is. It will just never come across right to the audience because men don’t hit women or girls is heavily drilled into the psyche, so you need to have a woman to beat up another woman. A female superhero beating up a male is acceptable even if there is a big power differential though.
In a similar vein, a friend posted something an artist did on careers for Disney princesses on Facebook. The careers were all aspirational. Jasmin is a United Nations ambassador, Aurora is the head of a big coffee corporation, etc. Something me in kind of flipped and I pointed out that most women like most men are statistically going to get jobs and careers that they don’t like that much and it would be nice to see something more realistic or even a Disney princess being given a negative impact career.
So I think that we are still girl power phase of media because even not very ideologically feminist audiences want to see a Gailbrush. Things are changing though. You had Bridesmaids, which was a gross out comedy but with women rather than men. You also have more female villains in movies but in general its hard to get a really flawed female character because too many people don’t like it.Report
This is one of the reasons why Colossal felt so daring to me was because it had some man on woman violence that was explained because it was supernatural. Not a perfect movie but they did some interesting stuff in it.
Of course, John Wick 2 did end up with John beating up and eventually killing (I think) Ares.Report
and immediately the complainers complained “yeah but she didn’t get enough lines”
At some point we have to communally realize you can’t make everyone happy all the time and try telling great stories instead.Report
I realize that I would love to read the comments on a Slate essay that talked about how they’d like to see Captain America/Iron Man beat up a female supervillain.Report
@lee-ratner Did they acknowledge Thor Ragnarok in that Slate article at all?
I can’t find the article using Google, so I don’t remember.Report
Looking at this scene, I think the authors would say that it is different because it is a bunch of men fighting Hela and they never really lay a scratch on her. If this was one on one and a more direct hits, we might get more of a negative reaction.Report
@lee-ratner Look at the other clip I linked to too. She’s fighting Thor. They both take a shitload of hits. (I wanted to embed that one and not this one, but am not good with the embedding of youtube clips.)Report
For some reason the Japanese seem better at the flawed female main character than American and Europeans are. Manga and anime is filed with female leads that aren’t the brightest bulbs in the box, have flaws and weakness like being a glutton, lecherous, scared, etc. Miaka Yuki from FY, Usagi from Sailor Moon, etc. Western media seems more reluctant to create these types of female leads though.Report
Because every single female character reflects all women everywhere.
And the interesting, most paradoxical part about that is that the easiest solution is actually more, and more widely varied, female characters. When there are something approaching parity / “representational” amounts of gendered characters, it stops mattering which gender does what. And the paradoxes collapse.
Equality, man, it’s chicken and egg.Report
The founder of our feast, E.D. Kain, links to the following Jezebel essay with a handful of rhetorical questions:
I have mixed feelings about this for all the reasons we have already discussed.Report
I really love when Clementine loses her shit at Joel in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind for presuming she’s HIS MPDG … people often read that as a rejection of the trope, but to me it’s always read as a rejection of his assumptions of her purpose for existing. She just keeps going on being an MPDG, and not any more his than her own… and they are inexorably, desperately, always falling back in love with each other too.
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.
Clementine : Ohhh… I know.
Joel : It would be different, if we could just give it another go-round.
Clementine : Remember me. Try your best; maybe we can.
(As an aside, it always cracks me up that Jaybird and I think of that as one of the most romantic movies in the world and endlessly shmoop at each other every time we watch it … meanwhile pretty much everyone we’ve ever shown it too was like ARRRRRRRRGH so stress and one couple even broke up in reaction. (they got back together three weeks later. and stayed together. oh the dramatic irony.)
Thanks for writing such an excellent essay about what the real issue is, and for making it fun to read as well. This bit, especially, is a Keeper for me: “maybe the problem is viewing women as accessories to men, as a vector for men to have the life experiences they seem so damn convinced they deserve, as consumable resources who add joy to men’s lives without ever asking for, let alone getting, anything in return.”Report
*fistbump* great to see you, I’ve missed your wisdom
I love that movie and my husband does too. On a short list of the most romantic I’ve ever seen. I can’t imagine people disliking it or breaking up over it!
I wrote something once where a guy basically asks a woman “why are you dressing so quirky, are you trying to look younger” and she was like, “no, this is the first time in my life I can afford to buy my own clothes, so I’m gonna dress how I want” and then he has to wrap his head around that.
It’s really hard for some people to understand that some things we do primarily because it pleases us, because it interests us or we like it, and not as performance art, even if it is slightly as performance art, LOL.
Thanks for reading it! Really appreciate it.Report
I always thought that Eternal Sunshine was a horror film. I mean, look at what happens to Kristin Dunst’s character…Report
Ugh that was gutting, just absolutely gutting.Report
Interesting article… I always thought it was an 80’s/90’s thing not a 2000s thing.
Then again, this IMDB List suggests I have no idea what y’all were talking about… there are a lot of movies I’ve never heard of, and a few I thought were MPDG aren’t.
It is possible I’m one of the few men that have no interest in MPDGs… I dated a Sanguine. Once.Report
I prefer using a more broad definition of the MPDG because I think it’s much wider-spread than some sites make it out to be.
Honestly, I can’t believe anyone likes usReport
Oh, I can see why *everyone* likes y’all… just not I, romantically at least.Report
I have heard that when Mattel studied boys & girls play they discovered the following difference:
1) Boys want to be He-Man
2) Girls want Barbie to be them
Thus females prefer—and I imagine “prefer” to be some (possibly very small) distinction—characters who are ciphers, because the differences ruin the projection.
I do know the women very rarely seem to understand that men describe the women they love as angels, paragons, goddesses because that’s how we see you. (We see the other stuff, too, but that’s only important in reverse proportion to the current state of our ardency.)
I think what you see as the one-sidedness of MPDG in modern iterations echoes the one-sidedness of post-Nora Ephron romcoms: A woman who is an utter basketcase (usually Meg Ryan) saved from her own irrationality by an infinitely patient man (usually Tom Hanks).
RomComs like “Bringing Up Baby” used to appeal to men AND women. Now we have this weird dichotomy where both are just grossly pandered to.Report
Interesting point about the pandering. I wonder if all this boils down to “once upon a time, people used to make movies because they were telling stories and reflecting truth, but now they make movies to sell us things”. One of the ways they sell us things is by putting an aspirational lifestyle onscreen and no one wants to aspire to be an imperfect person, so the characters have gradually de-evolved into stereotype vs. archetype.
Thanks for reading!Report
“…now they make movies to sell us things…”
Just so. And they do this by narrowing the demographic and, absolutely, pandering to that demographic.
There’s a famous scene in “Sleepless in Seattle” where the girls are talking “An Affair To Remember” and the guys are sorta mocking it by talking about “The Dirty Dozen”. But while those earlier movies may appeal more to women and men respectively, they’re both really fine films that appeal to anyone who likes good stories.
“…the characters have gradually de-evolved into stereotype vs. archetype.”
That’s a very good phrasing. I’ll have to ruminate on that one.Report
People used to have less choice in movies. 2 screen theaters. To fill the seats they had to bring in both X and Y for nearly every X and Y (and sure, caveats abound when X has more power than Y for whatever reasons, too). But still.
Look no further than the VCR for the reasons why any kind of niche film exist in wide distribution….Report
Good points, although there have certainly been genres to cater to different demos. It does make the constant berating of men for not going to see movies targeted at women seem especially hypocritical.Report
Shirley MacLaine in The Apartment? Maybe a Depressive Pixie Dream Girl. The first quirky thing she does is try to kill herself. Maybe Jack Lemmon’s the Manic Pixie Dream Shrub in that flick. Neither of them are remotely cool and what’s quirky about the characters is they’re decent individuals in a cold mass society. It’s a fantastic movie, but I think there’s a pretty limited heuristic power to these internet tropes.Report
At the start, Miss Kubelik is unable to face the situation she’s been put in, but by the end of the film she learns to shut up and deal with it.Report
Sorry to do this, but it’s Jack Lemmon’s character Mr. Baxter who shuts up and deals. It’s maybe not the greatest last line of a film ever, but it’s definitely up there.Report
Baxter is being told to SUaD by someone’s who knows it’s best.Report
Her entire way of speaking, dressing, behaving, and body language is quirky, particularly for the time.
I didn’t make that up, it was on a long list of MPDG that people commonly agree upon.Report
I didn’t think you made it up. I just disagree.Report
A question: Are there any older women (say, over 40) in movies/books/tv who qualify as a MPDG, and how are they presented, as fun or as pathetic?
I have a suspicion that in some circles, the perception is if she’s kooky and fun and a little flakey and under 35 or so, that’s great, but over 35….well, why didn’t she grow up? (And it does seem at least in more “traditional” media: “grow up” for a woman = get married, have kids, presumably support and promote her husband’s career OR be wealthy enough to have “help” in the house)
I can’t think of any characters over 35 or so who fit the MPDG trope, but then I don’t consume all that much “grown up” media and I don’t do Netflix and the like.Report
Lily Tomlin is Jane Fonda’s MPDG in Grace & Frankie.
My hot take and I’m sticking to it.Report
For once I appreciate one of your hot takes. (Also Robert is totally Saul’s.)Report
There are MPDG over forty that are viewed as fun but they tend to be in a very special genre of movies.Report
Gilmore Girls probably has one. I think. (Judges?)Report
I always thought she wasn’t in her 40’s yet, having a teenager who was born while she was a teen.Report
Yep. Lauren Graham was ~33 when the show started and ~40 when it ended.
Not that genre of film.Report
I don’t know if “dream girl” applies.Report
Seems accurate enough to me.Report
Another four-letter acronym starting with M being involved in these, perhaps?Report
I got an email telling me “Tell her about Maude in Harold & Maude!”
I completely forgot about that one but… yeah. Maude.Report
We are stretching the definition of “girl” at this point, but yeah, definitely Maude.Report
Maude is definitely a MPDG without a shadow of a doubt.Report
I need to think on this some, but if there aren’t it’s more representative of the lack of 40+ female leads in anything, MPDG or otherwise. Which I have always found exceedingly stupid because women of a certain age have disposable income and time to spend and a fair number of 40+ actresses are still quite popular and box office draws.
This is one of my personal pet peeves and I hope to finish some writing I’ve done on the subject and share it with you guys.
A couple that come to mind:
Catherine Keener’s character in the 40 year old Virgin wasn’t exactly a MPDG but had some elements that way.
Helen Hunt and Jack Nicholson in As Good As it Gets – had some elements, she def. needed help and turned his life upside down (but that was happening anyway)Report
Maybe Sara from “L.A. Story”? Or Ariel from “Grumpy Old Men” (and for chrissakes, they named her Ariel, that’s not just on the nose, that’s up it…)Report
Really interesting article. I have a bit of a like/dislike relationship with MPDG in literature. I like the strong, quirky character of the MPDG herself (when done well), but when paired with the “rigid guy who needs to loosen up” I’ve always found that portrayal a bit condescending toward the male lead, particularly since I can’t recall any examples of the opposite track (laid back guy need to buckle down and be serious).
I do think there’s another take on this you might consider:
“Writing a female character as a CameronCrowian MPDG is in essence creating a prostitute-slash-life coach who works for free so our hero doesn’t have to feel bad about himself in the morning. It’s all about the male side of the equation.”
I don’t have a clue who CameronCrowian is, but I assume I’ve seen enough examples of the “she fixes his entire life and then disappears without ever asking anything in return” genre to probably get the gist. I actually think it’s more about the female side of the equation though. It’s the gender-swap of “episodic damsel in distress” tropes, wish-fulfillment for the female audience who, much as so many men want to swoop in and heroically save women physically endangered, want to swoop in and heroically “fix” tragically broken or emotionally stunted men. That the MPDG is impossibly altruistic in bearing emotional burdens for unworthy strangers isn’t a flawed application of the archetype, it’s the counterpart to the male hero who is impossibly altruistic in bearing physical danger for unworthy strangers. The male being “fixed” isn’t the hero at all, he’s just the plot device used to show how heroic the MPDG is.Report
particularly since I can’t recall any examples of the opposite track (laid back guy need to buckle down and be serious).
The Manic Pixie Dream Girl, when a plot device to provide a solution to a problem, is a solution to a very particular problem.
A guy who floats through life all comfortable and carefree and hakuna matata is not a problem that can be fixed by a MPDG.Report
Yeah, “Knocked Up” is the first example that came to my mind as well, although as we’ve learned elsewhere in these threads, it’s also very sexist.
I mean, when I go to the movies, I like to think I’m seeing a story about individuals going through individual crises and handling them in their own ways, but apparently everything is about a demographic.
The “slacker meets put-together girl” is so common a trope that I remember getting sick of it actually right around the time “Knocked Out” came up. But part of the problem, per the Althouse Rule, is that you have to show the woman as “put together” where the man would be shown as “uptight”. The “free-spirited” woman is the “slacker” man, etc.Report
I’m trying to think about major “slacker improved by put-together girl” stories and none of jumping to mind… help me out. (I can think of a number of women-helping-women loosen up stories, though.)
The Althouse Rule makes sense because when you show an uptight woman loosening up, the thing that follows is puking and saying “man, was *THAT* a bad idea!” while a guy loosening up entails looking at art. Really looking at it. Seriously. We think “romantic” means “love” but it really means “emotion”. You see this portrait? It makes you feel something. It makes you remember something. Look at how the light plays!Report
The trope is probably more usually that the “put together” woman is about to leave (or leaves) the slacker dude, and if she leaves the new girl comes in that he’s going stop being a slacker for.
Just spitballing, these fit to various degrees: “Shaun of the Dead”, “Forgetting Sarah Marshall”, “Clerks”, assorted teen comedies, about 40% of Asian output for movies and TV as far as I can tell, “Airplane!” (heh)….Report
The usual movie routine is that a major slacker gets himself into shape to win the girl rather than the girl falls in love with him but sits about on an improvement project. I’m not sure that the later will come across as that romantic to either gender. Men will be angry at the implied message that they can’t do anything to improve without help and women will be insulted that the female lead fell for a loser. Slacker guy going on epic self-improvement to get the woman is a lot more inspirational for both genders.Report
Usually we don’t see the falling-in-love part. We see the end of the relationship (or threatened end) as she’s grown up and he hasn’t.Report
I tried to like Knocked up, but there is SO much wrong with that movie.
I do think that the more ditzy and disaster prone versions of the MPDG are a perfect foil for a hakuna matata kind of guy to finally accept responsibility and buckle down to be the stable, reliable person who’s always there to balance the MPDG out. Shrug, maybe I just find romance storylines more engaging when main arc is about partners becoming more complementary by the end, not just becoming more alike.Report
There are lots of movies where laid back guys need to buckle down and get serious. Knocked Up, previous mentioned is one example. There is also Run Fatboy Run with Simon Pegg, Failure to Launch, etc.Report
Haven’t seen Run Fatboy Run, but Failure to Launch isn’t what I’m looking for either. “Slacker man-boy who avoids emotional intimacy and commitment finally becomes a semi-functional adult to pursue a real relationship” is indeed a depressingly common plotline involving MPDGs, but NOT the inverse track of “rigid guy learns to loosen up some”.
Sadly, about the closest movies that come to mind for what I’m looking for are “Yes Man” and “Employee of the Month”.Report
Actually, I just saw an Israeli movie (recommended) called “Tel Aviv on Fire” which had this plot. The guy was slacker who had dumped the girl, realized he’d made a mistake, and then wooed her back via the soap opera he had lucked into writing.Report