By EMMA COURT
In the quest for equality, nothing is ever as simple as it first seems, and even the best of intentions often go awry. If not deeply entrenched in the actual problem and deeply thoughtful about what you’re trying to do, it is almost unfairly easy to circumvent, or even aggravate, inequity. We have many ways of referring to this phenomenon linguistically and in our idioms — the road to hell is paved with good intentions, for one — but in the film world, nowhere does this seem more true than with Nathan Rabin’s renunciation this summer of the trope he himself created: the Manic Pixie Dream Girl.
In Rabin’s words, “The Manic Pixie Dream Girl exists solely in the fevered imaginations of sensitive writer-directors to teach broodingly soulful young men to embrace life and its infinite mysteries and adventures.” Though he came up with the trope after watching Kirsten Dunst’s performance in Elizabethtown — one he describes as a “psychotically chipper waitress in the sky” — Rabin also pointed to Natalie Portman in Garden State as an example of this type of female character: an incredibly unrealistic and one-dimensional character that, as a result, provokes a love or hate reaction from an audience. Rabin tried to point out the patriarchal attitude inherent in the trope, the way it suggests that women only exist for the pleasure of men or to realize male potential, and that, as a result, any film that relies on such an outdated trope is crippled; it’s no coincidence Rabin’s 2007 post rated Elizabethtown a “fiasco.”
But despite Rabin’s intent, the Manic Pixie Dream Girl trope, like the magical creature it is partially named after, seemed to fly — and create mischief everywhere it went. The name was just so compelling; it captured the universal sense of being confronted with a character that’s just, frankly, hard to believe. For us as audience members, the MPDG moves a little too fast and talks a little too quickly. We are skeptical of her eccentricities, her casualness, her bangs, her constant desire to dance in the rain and her disinterest with the trappings of adult life. We don’t understand her or her motivations, probably because she is such a flat character that her actions and purposes don’t make much sense without the male protagonist in the picture. The MPDG trope resonates because we know women move all too autonomously and determinedly without men, because we understand it as a manifestation of paternalistic, downright egocentric creative impulses and because we know there is a marked difference between the women we see on screens and the women we see in our lives and around us.
It is, at first, counterintuitive to think that defining a phenomenon could do more harm than good. After all, we are a generation born and bred on the ideology of “naming and shaming.” Better the devil you know. This doesn’t hold true for the MPDG — and not because the archetype is untrue. Rather, naming the term has allowed it to be used en masse, often in ways that force a character, by virtue of her quirky or eccentric qualities, to fit the mold. A woman is not a MPDG just because she has big blue eyes, wears mismatched socks, plays the ukulele or because she is in any way different than what we expect women to be. And thus, in a strange twist of fate, a term conceived of as feminist became antifeminist in practice. In a July 2014 piece in Salon, Rabin renounced the trope he created. In “I’m sorry for coining the phrase ‘Manic Pixie Dream Girl’” — a piece it’s hard to imagine a clearer title for — Rabin explains, “I 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 I looked on queasily as the phrase was increasingly accused of being sexist itself.” He cites the branding of such characters as Holly Golightly in Breakfast at Tiffany’s, Maude in Harold and Maude and Summer in 500 Days of Summer as MPDGs as the first rumblings that the MPDG wasn’t doing what it was supposed to, and says it only got worse from there. Portraying female characters that were new and different had become a way to be accused of doing more of the same.
Let me be clear: Naming, or pointing to, sexist phenomena in our society are not inherently problematic. The trouble may have all started with the lack of characterization Rabin initially provided for this archetype. His initial January 2007 post was not even about Manic Pixie Dream Girls specifically; rather, it was an Elizabethtown review that created the trope in a tangential rant about unrealistic portrayals of women in films. In total, Rabin wrote maybe a paragraph describing the type, most of it devoted to denouncing, not defining, it. And perhaps there lies the rub. But in a larger sense, when you coin a stereotype, it becomes an entity as much shaped by its users as its creator. And you cannot train people to wield a trope with care; there is certainly no certification required to participate in the five-ringcircus that is online media today. Rabin did not give enough parameters for MPDGs, but even if he did, would that have been enough to prevent it from becoming the monster to his Victor Frankenstein?
Rabin may have issued an apology for the Manic Pixie Dream girl, but it is in fact society that must apologize for her. We have a shameful history of using certain language to dismiss women, and though the language has changed over the years — of late it’s the word “crazy” — the trend is as persistent as it is pernicious. MPDG has become a way to undermine out-of-the-ordinary portraits of women, and although there are certainly complex, nuanced female characters who would never be mistaken for the label, it’s also unfair to allow one term to dog certain female actresses for their entire careers, undermining what they do as antifeminist because they have bangs (think Zooey Deschanel) or have been typecast a certain way (think Zoe Kazan).
Ultimately, the MPDG isn’t the source of sexism in the media, it’s a symptom, and by putting the MPDG in the spotlight, issues of diversity, patriarchal control and more stay concealed in the dark and offstage. Thus, we bid adieu to the Manic Pixie Dream Girl. May she remind us that while language is the greatest tool we have to fight for equality, it is also our greatest hurdle.