“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.”
- Nathan Rabin
A couple of years ago when I was new in Bangalore, I made a few interesting friends. But one, in particular, was distinctively etched in my memory. She reminded me of an interesting pop culture cliche - The Manic Pixie Dream Girl. As a teenager, if you have read young adult novels or watched enough rom-com movies then you must have already encountered this trope more than just once. The term is devised by critic Nathan Rabin while analyzing the painfully sexist rendition of one particular female character from a movie. As per Rabin, Clair Colburn played by Kirsten Dunst in Elizabethtown was an example of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl archetype. According to his definition this woman, "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."
A few more examples of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl (MPDG) archetype
1.) Based on movies: Audrey Hepburn in Breakfast at Tiffany’s, Kate Winslet in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Zooey Deschanel in 500 Days of Summer, and the Bollywood equivalent is Kareena Kapoor in Jab We Met.
2.) Based on literature: Daisy in The Great Gatsby, Alaska in Looking for Alaska, Sam in The Perks of Being a Wall Flower
She is often a whole spice being tossed around in the plot curry and then removed once the flavor is extracted out of her.
The MPDG is an animated, chirpy and expressive character who posses an imprudent appetite for adventure. She loves to read some obscure poet or philosopher, explores indie music, has an unusual and atypical fashion sense/hairstyle, and is always on her toes to drag an average man out of his miserable boring life. This literary archetype is an outcome of lousy character development usually done by male authors or directors. She is a bad excuse for a half-baked sweetheart who is romanticized for her lack of interest in the real world. She is often dreamy and lost, only appearing when the male protagonist needs to have a drunk conversation on the rooftop at 3 am. She is often a whole spice being tossed around in the plot curry and then removed once the flavor is extracted out of her. The MPDG’s character arc is almost always built upon a hollow unexplained, often traumatic past. From there she evolves into an emotionally unstable, adventurous, and unambitious person. MPDGs are mostly one-dimensional static female characters with little or no inner life, a total absence of any real-life pursuit, and an unreliable existence (because she might vanish quickly without an explanation). The only purpose of her existence in the story is to teach the male protagonist the real meaning of life and help him transcend his current mental state. He swims in the shallow monochromatic, while she goes skinny dipping in fluorescent and neon. She is an agent of transformation for the male protagonist who hardly cares about her vivid complexities because of how absorbed he is in his journey. He eventually falls in love with her because she helps him connect deeply to his potential greatness and once that is achieved she vanishes from his life. Whatever we know about her we know through him. Some MPDG characters are often so unimaginatively rendered in stories and movies that one cannot help but feel sorry for their flat, submissive, and exploitable nature.
Rabin’s intention while coining the term is to criticize the limited, sexist and underdeveloped female character tropes. However, with its excessive usage, the term itself has turned into derision towards quirky and unique women in both reel and real life. The muse-like character trope who lacks ambition for her journey and only prefers to fix a man’s life depicts the underlying problem with our misogynist cultural expectations from women. She is a sexist ideal of what an eccentric yet lovable woman should be like rather than a real-world woman who is much more complex. Our MPDG is a fragile, sacrificial lamb whose life is a mystery to be experienced through the perspective of our grey male protagonist.
When the creators of YA fiction romantically obsess over a female character who should probably seek mental help, they inadvertently romanticize mental health issues as well
There are several reasons why the MPDG trope is a problematic one. When I deconstructed the term MPDG, some disturbing patterns emerged out of an almost innocent trope. Let me show you why. Manic Pixie Dream Girl has three primary characteristic elements that rule the trope. She is manic which means she has frantic wild energy which is almost deranged and extreme. She is on the fringes of being reckless and sits by the edge of madness. The word ‘manic’ is an essential component of various personality disorders like bipolar disorder. The term pixie adds a body image that is appealing to the male protagonist. She is usually petite, her short hair fried with pink or blue dye, wears bohemian accessories, and experiments with sex. The term dream girl is associated with the ethereal and larger-than-life kind of quality of this archetype. She is mostly a fantastical idea of a woman who is flawed and volatile.
Pop culture deeply impacts young teens. It is an impressionable age where the right role models play a very important part in personality development. When the creators of YA fiction romantically obsess over a female character who should probably seek mental help, they inadvertently romanticize mental health issues as well. The young girls who grow up idealizing these characters, program themselves as per the following five fundamentally wrong conditioning:
1.) I cannot be the protagonist of my own life
2.) I exist to save a lonely man from himself.
3.) It is okay to romanticize trauma and develop an unhealthy coping mechanism
4.) Blame it all on my quirkiness and eccentric role models.
5.) Derive my identity from a damaged past and avoid any opportunity to evolve.
The muse-like character who constantly lives her life on the extreme edges of neuroticism needs to be reasoned with both within our literature and real lives. We need to admit that it is no longer okay if women are presented as an adventure to be embarked on rather than full and flawed human beings with desires of their own.
I could see in her depth, flaws, brokenness, the gravity of past wounds, and the potential to heal.
We make stories and stories in turn make us. I would have probably let go of the MPDG trope without scrutiny had I not closely experienced its dangerous psychological impact. I knew a woman, who seems to have meticulously designed her whole life to fit the MPDG definition. One day, she decided that regular was boring, so she dyed her hair red and started wearing revealing clothes to work. She was a bubbly, funny, and extroverted woman who had a long untreated eating disorder. She was a harmless woman, almost beautiful if only not so agonizing to look at. The only harm she intended was upon herself. She was a well-educated woman with a knack for music composition. However, she was not serious about building a career. Even though there were a lot of problems that she needed to deal with maturity, she often decided to fix them with jokes. Her problematic coping mechanism is practically making jokes when overwhelmed with emotions. Her childlike energy was disarming and endearing. It was hard to dislike her, she had a quality of gullible innocence about her. She was the life of the party, a madonna deserving of celebration.
I noticed that the only thing which constantly bothered her was not her but someone else's problem. This exceptionally capable woman who had enough talent to engineer her best life was wasting her time waiting around the corner to become a worthy muse. Her singular most important purpose in life was to help a man experience her madness and change in the process. However, in real life frogs never turn into princes. I regret to have known her well only to see her slowly descend from irrationality to complete psychosis. Her unrealized dreams like a slow poison killed her one day at a time.
Although my life principles were very distinct from hers, I felt a sense of attachment to her. I often felt the need to direct her energy into a useful pursuit. We would talk for hours post-work and with every conversation, she became less ethereal and more human. I could see in her depth, flaws, brokenness, the gravity of past wounds, and the potential to heal. She knew that I know her more than any man ever would, she knew I cared. But she was too addicted to toxic men and their vague validations, to listen to my suggestions. She craved for permanence and yet remained volatile. She blamed her inconsistency on her promiscuity. She was a child sexual abuse survivor and never went to therapy, which explains the instability. She had a complex mind which plotted escape whenever relationships started to lose their sheen. Her quirky special snowflake lifestyle was inspired by her favorite character Alaska Young, John Green’s best-loved MPDG. Looking for Alaska was her favorite book (Spoiler alert! If you want to read the book, don’t read any further). She would spend hours drawing the similarities between Alaska and herself. She started projecting her manic dreams inspired by the character’s well-known romanticism of victimhood. And like Alaska’s unguided actions, my friend also met some bitter consequences. Although for her the labyrinth of suffering didn’t end so easily as it did for Alaska (who conveniently died halfway through the book).
Women should also be deliberately resistant to any trope that demands them to put others first.
Life is not a movie or a novel. There is nothing romantic about death, nothing glorious about suffering from mental health issues. There will be mourning perhaps if you were important to someone. But eventually, you will fade away from existence as if you never existed. Time vengefully wipes out those in death who in life disrespected the gift of time. Except for people who have created a significant body of work, everyone else will disappear. That is why one shouldn’t want to fix someone else at the cost of their own identity. Your life’s greatest work is hidden beneath layers of addiction to toxicity, procrastination, and extraneous distractions.
The MPDG’s flare and quirk are desirable but not when she lacks depth and story of her own. The ultra-feminine and brazen Manic Pixie Dream Girl is an archetype that confirms the old sexist adage that one exceptional brilliant woman who can see life differently is responsible to save the man she loves. As if that is all that her brilliance accounts for. The dissolution of the archetype is necessary to ensure that both teenage boys and girls don’t grow up with the expectations that someone you love is going to save you. It will give men enough freedom to seek their inspiration beyond the shadow of the woman they love. Women should also be deliberately resistant to any trope that demands them to put others first.
You are a magical woman whose magic should not be wasted for anyone else’s convenience. Wield the magic, keep it safe, make it stable. And then, when the time is right, cast your spells, and send the destiny whirling on your whims. You don’t have to be a slave to someone else’s destiny anymore. Wake up dream girl, click your heels thrice, the dream is over.
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