I’ll be honest, this post has been sitting in my drafts for a long time because I’m not exactly sure what to write. So much has been said about the Manic Pixie Dream Girl by people who know so much more about books and film then me, what more could I possibly have to add to the conversation? But ultimately I write my blog for myself, as writing and talking about ideas often helps me to process and understand them, so here we are.
For those of you who don’t know, the phrase “Manic Pixie Dream Girl” was coined by film critic (?) Nathan Rabin in response to Kurstin Dunst’s character in the movie Elizabethtown. He said 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.” She is adventurous, seductive, fun, probably hyperactive, and she has no story or purpose of her own, she exists solely to drive the hero’s character development.
In the years since Rabin’s article (geez, it’s been over a decade) the MPDG has started to be considered as a trope, often a negative one. Critics find her annoying, or sexist, or unrealistic. Well, of course she is sexist and unrealistic! That was Rubin’s point in writing the article, to draw attention to the superficial ways women are treated in film!
But I would like to take a moment to challenge the book community’s near unanimous rejection of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl.
First, because I think the trope is often misapplied. We’ve started to call any hyperactive, petite female character a MPDG. Take, for example, Alice in Twilight. She’s often referred to as a MPDG, but she has her own story and motivations (especially later in the series), and in no way teaches the female protagonist of the story to embrace living life to the fullest. Sure, she’s whimsical and definitely a bit, well, manic. But she has her own character arc, she exists more to move the plot forward than to serve some need of the protagonist, and she’s also a fierce friend.
Another well-known example is in John Green’s Paper Towns. Critics of the book complain that Margo serves no other function than to fulfill Q’s fantasies of a woman, but that’s a pretty shallow read of the book. The entire POINT of the book is to force Q (and the reader!) to see Margo as someone more than the MPDG. Green openly acknowledges the trope and uses it to show how wrong it can be. Margo’s purpose is to escape a life she hates, to live her own life. That Q is so obsessed with her as to make her journey about himself is a statement about the folly of seeing people one-dimensionally, of seeing someone as a MPDG.
As a continuation of John Green’s point, I would argue that the MPDG is a concept that can’t exist in literature. Because she exists solely to teach the broody main character to live and love, by definition she can’t have her own backstory or character arc. Those people … don’t exist. And any author worth their salt is going to strive to give central characters depth and nuance. When we label interesting characters like Daisy Jones (Daisy Jones and the Six) as a MPDG, we take away their autonomy and everything that makes them interesting. To argue Daisy Jones has no other purpose than to teach Billy Dunne to love ignores her tragic backstory, her growth, and eventually her triumph as she overcomes her addiction.
So I would argue that our disgust with the Manic Pixie Dream Girl is not a feminist rejection of one-dimensional female characters. At least, not in the book community and not anymore. Instead, I think we are “tired of the trope” because of our sexist rejection of bubbly hyperactive women.
Somewhere along the way we decided that eccentric women are unrealistic, that flighty women are flaky, and that excitable women are annoying. We’ve put a value judgement on a certain kind of women and said “that’s not what a woman should be.” Instead we’ve decided we prefer love interests who are down-to-earth, serious, independent, and reserved. But heaven forbid they be too down-to-earth, serious, independent, or reserved, because then they would be the stereotypical bitch.
Instead of taking the MPDG as a feminist call to write women with depth into movies, we’ve turned it into a sexist call to stop writing a certain type of women that we just don’t like.
As a person who has had to reign in my enthusiasm to be taken seriously in my career, who has had to tone down my energy so my peers wouldn’t think I was annoying, I reject your rejection of the manic pixie. I miss seeing these excitable, unique women in the books I read. I love seeing free-spirited ladies on screen, and I think it’s a shame we’ve written them off .
And, for the record, Rubin also dislikes the way his phrase has come to be used. You can read his follow-up piece, written in 2014, here.
11 thoughts on “Why did we cancel the Manic Pixie Dream Girl?”
This is an interesting post and I’m glad you wrote it! I would definitely not have thought of Daisy Jones as a MPDG, and it’s odd to me that people would write off her entire story because of that. I still think some side characters are written solely for the purpose of furthering the plot of teaching/helping the main character, including MPDG characters, but that’s bad writing.
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Exactly, the MPDG is bad writing, not a trope. It’s more the equivalent of the token black character than it is the equivalent of the anti-hero.
So that’s what the MPDG is! I never knew. I have seen her referenced only in images of story trope bingo boards, which tend to be kind of snarky anyway.
I do not have a lot of energy. (I have a big mouth, though, so there’s that …) Anyway, if you do have a lot of energy, I commend you.
I agree with you that in most stories, it’s nonsense to argue that any given character is there “only to advance the MC’s doot doot doot.” That’s a pretty shallow understanding of a story. And it explains too much. You could argue the villain is there only to give the MC a problem to solve, the friend group is there only a to provide a foil, the MC’s parents exist only to produce him or her, etc. It’s so shallow and reductionist. And if the MC happens to be male, presto! All this can be argued from a shallow, reductionist feminist perspective. Add this to our neverending list of shallow, reductionist interpretations that we get when we try to apply identity politics to literature.
Years ago, a friend created a MPDG type character, but she was just channeling an aspect of herself. And in my second novel, I just realized the female romantic lead is both petite, and uncomplicated and cheerful, but again, that was just the way she developed as I wrote it. I had to let her be her. We can’t all be serious, bookish girls (though I love those too).
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I agree, chalking any character up by their relationship to the main character is silly. You *could* do that to anyone, but most characters have more to them than that!
THANK YOU. I CONCUR.
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Thank you for your defense of Margo! I loved her in Paper Towns, I loved what her character said and every time I hear someone arguing oh she was a manic pixie dream girl I just want to scream did you read the book? Did you actually read it or are you quoting other people?
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RIGHT?! In general I think John Green’s books get overly critiqued because everyone wants to show off how sophisticated they are by bashing the most popular YA author from when they were a teen. Look how grown up I am! But any time I see people criticizing Paper Towns I get EXTRA up in arms because that book is SO IMPORTANT, especially as the social internet has grown.
What an interesting perspective. I agree that any quirky, spunky girl can now get slapped with a MPDG label and that it isn’t always applicable. As long as the character is fleshed out and believable, I don’t mind this “trope.” I have read books or seen movies where the trope is taken to painful extremes (Disney’s version of Stargirl comes to mind—I couldn’t finish the movie because the character was too ridiculously quirky for the sake of being so), but I’ve also read books with characters who have some of these traits but still feel very real!
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Yeah, the general impression I got from reading the original article is that it’s meant to be a criticism of film where female characters are often *not* fleshed out. But I agree, a lot of tropes comes down to shallow writing not that the trope is inherently problematic.