Recently I became aware of a character type: the Manic Pixie Dream Girl. She can be found in movies, TV, and even literature. Many sources converged to make me aware of this phenomenon at approximately the same time. First it was this post on John Green’s Tumblr. That led to the TV Tropes article on the subject. And finally, TV Tropes referred me to a Feminist Frequency video.
I should pause here to tell you exactly what a Manic Pixie Dream Girl is. TV Tropes defines the MPDG as a quirky female character who breezes into the hero’s life and breaks him out of his humdrum existence. The trope is often linked to characters played by Zooey Deschanel. I was intrigued to find that many of my favorite movies have examples of Manic Pixie Dream Girl characters: Clementine (Kate Winslet) in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Penny Lane (Kate Hudson) in Almost Famous, and Summer (Zooey Deschanel) in (500) Days of Summer.
To make it clear that the Manic Pixie Dream Girl definition is still up for grabs, there are arguments for all three of these characters being imperfect or subverted examples of the MPDG. Still, when three of my favorite movies are mentioned in discussions of the same character type, I start to ask questions. Apparently this is an idea that I find appealing, however subconsciously. Does that mean that I aspire to be a Manic Pixie Dream Girl? Or do I desire to date some male equivalent?
You may wonder why I find this a bit troubling. Well, Feminist Frequency is happy to explain. From a feminist standpoint, the MPDG has some problematic implications for women. Most notably, the MPDG is rarely the central focus of the story. Instead she serves as a catalyst for the male protagonist’s growth. It’s “woman as muse,” and I think we can all agree that women have more to offer to the world than just inspiration for men. Additionally, the MPDG’s quirks are often disguising a very two-dimensional character.
One night my friend Jenny and I were discussing the Manic Pixie Dream Girl. By some coincidence of the universe, we had both become aware of it in the preceding week. On this same evening, I also showed her a blog that I like called A Beautiful Mess. The blog features a lot of cute fashion and do-it-yourself projects. Jenny’s first comment was “This is basically the Manic Pixie Dream Girl blog.” I hadn’t made the connection until then, but she was absolutely right! Yet another example of my subconscious Manic Pixie Dream Girl fixation!
I found this photo on A Beautiful Mess that I think sums up MPDG in a single image:
That’s Elsie Larson, the creator of the blog, and her husband. Observe his stoic but amused attitude toward her. Observe her colored tights and quirky umbrella. Even her pose says, “I am here to bring whimsy into your life!”
But here’s the thing. Elsie Larson may don the MPDG persona, but she’s also an intensely creative and successful businesswoman. In short, she’s a three-dimensional human being. And so am I, as it turns out.
Tropes are not inherently bad; they help us tell stories. Even when storytellers utilize tropes, they must tweak them to fit the needs of their story. That’s why none of the three characters I mentioned can perfectly fit the MPDG definition. They meet some of the criteria but not all. Arguing over definitions is much less interesting, I think, than considering why a trope exists. What purpose does it serve in our collective imagination? And what does it say about us as people?