Is The "Manic Pixie Dream Girl" Really Dead?

Some say yes, but I bet she’ll stick around -- if not in name, then in character. At least until Hollywood starts writing better roles for women.
Publish date:
July 31, 2013
movies, Hollywood, tropes, actresses, MPDG, manic pixie dream girls, screenwriters

Is the Manic Pixie Dream Girl dead? At least one writer thinks so: The Cut just published a piece called, yes, “The Manic Pixie Dream Girl Has Died.” So what finally killed this ubiquitous character off? Part of it, writer Kat Stoeffel believes, was the Manic Pixie’s starring role in last Sunday’s New York Times’ Modern Love column, in which a male screenwriter bemoans the loss of his real-life MPDG-ish girlfriend. As Stoeffel explains, the Modern Love piece feels like the “nail in the coffin — and not just because once the Times 'Style' section gets to something, it’s so over.” The main cause of death for the Manic Pixie, Stoeffel writes, is how the “MPDG” label has become so played out -- flung here, there and everywhere at such a bizarrely broad range of female characters -- that it doesn’t mean anything anymore. I totally agree that the term's been wildly overused to describe almost any female character who’s cutely quirky.But I’m not sure the MPDG is dead yet; just because something isn’t considered cool anymore -- just because it’s “over” -- doesn’t mean it no longer exists. I think Manic Pixie characters (WATCH THIS VIDEO, IT IS AWESOME) are here to stay, even if we stop using that exact term to describe them ... At least until Hollywood gets its head out of its butt and realizes women are more than caricatures. Here's why I think that.

TROPES DON'T DIEEEEEEAs you probably know, Manic Pixie Dream Girls are a Hollywood trope, and they’ve been around longer than their silly but utterly appropriate name (conceived in 2007 by AV Club movie critic Nathan Rabin). Tropes don’t just disappear when we identify or expose them: Long-established ones like the “Magical Negro” are still in play today. As long as Hollywood keeps relegating its actresses to wispy, half-formed characters like Penny Lane of “Almost Famous” and Sam (no last name necessary, apparently) of “Garden State,” the Manic Pixie will live on.Which is sad, because the MPDG encapsulates so much of what’s wrong with Hollywood -- in all her whimsical, flouncy glory, she’s a clear example of film’s shortage of smart, strong female roles (STILL). With her colorful habits -- see Zooey Deschanel convincing Joseph Gordon-Levitt to scream “Penis!!!” in the park in “500 Days of Summer,” or Natalie Portman's ridiculously raucous, over-the-top laugh in "Garden State" -- she might be slightly weirder than some of her sister characters from Hollywood's old days, but she’s still a perfect example of the superficial screenwriting (much of it by dudes) that keeps promoting such narrow visions of women. Analyzing the top 100 films of 2009, USC's Annenberg School found that only 32.8 percent of speaking characters were female, and only a tiny number of those top 100 films had female directors (even though women bought most of the film tickets that year). In the small number of films that were directed by women, 47.7 percent of on-screen characters were female; but men directors featured less than one third of female characters. (Sorry for all the stats, but it’s kind of depressing, right?)


Another reason I don't think the MPDG is going anywhere is because men love a muse -- and writing movies about their Perfect Offbeat Glitter Princesses seems to be fun for them (why else would they keep doing it?). The MPDG is a total embodiment of that muse fantasy: the idea that mad love/passion/sex with a beautiful (but slightly disheveled, and NEVER overtly sexy) crazy lady can "wake a man up" and restore meaning to his otherwise sad, stunted existence (poor thing!).

They’re a certain kind of man’s vision of a certain kind of dream woman: a gorgeous but unthreatening creature who gives all of herself -- mind, body, soul -- yet expects nothing in return. As Sara (Charlize Theron) in “Sweet November” -- a ridiculously altruistic, “I’ll do anything for a guy” MPDG Supreme who is secretly stricken with terminal cancer -- helpfully explains to Nelson (Keanu Reeves), “Helping men is my gift.” Ugh.


But despite MPDGs’ overall annoyingness, these characters can also be pretty fun to watch -- another reason I don't think they'll be leaving us in the near future. They’re the movie equivalent of a 7-11 Slurpee: unnatural, artificial, and bad for you, but so sweet and colorful, they’re hard to resist. Lots of the films these ladies are in become huge hits; some even become classics. (Holly Golightly in “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” is sometimes called an early example of an MPDG, as is Annie Hall from the Woody Allen classic -- discuss!)

THEY'VE STRUCK A NERVEIf the idea of Annie Hall being dubbed a Manic Pixie Dream Girl makes you want to throw your plate across the room, you’re not alone. The MPDG has been a target of feminist scorn since she was first "named" back in '07 (xoJane and Jezebel have both weighed in plenty). As Virginia Pasley wrote on Slate's XX Factor last year, “These days, MPDG has come to mean every female role that’s comedic or even the smallest bit quirky... It’s starting to feel like an undeserved insult, tarnishing even the classics of comedy.” Zoe Kazan, the screenwriter and star of 2012's “Ruby Sparks,” unabashedly loathes the MPDG label and doesn’t equate her film with it in the slightest, even though her title character is a young novelist’s self-created Manic Pixie character literally come to life. As Kazan told TIME, “I am ‘offbeat’ and I’m not ‘conventional looking’ and I have unconventional tastes and I feel like if I was a character, people would be like: Manic Pixie Dream Girl! It seems crazy to me because I’m not manic, I’m not a pixie and I’m not a Dream Girl.”

WE'RE STILL NOT SURE WTF THEY EVEN AREPart of the public dissent about the Manic Pixie is, I think, because no one can agree on exactly what an MPDG is. As Kat Stoeffel and Virginia Pasley both note, the term has been broadening over time; suddenly critics are looking back at the past 20, 30, 40 decades of film and realizing, “Whoa, MPDGs are everywhere -- and they’ve been everywhere, for a long-ass time.” And they’ll still be around, I think, for many more years -- even if the lingo for them dies. Which it might. As Stoeffel writes on The Cut, “The Manic Pixie Dream Girl completed her life cycle when a male filmmaker [from the Modern Love column] realized that his own, real-life MPDG was more complicated than the girls in the movies that he watched and wrote.” So. Manic Pixie Dream Girls. Do you think they're dead? Dying? Here to stay? Somewhere in between? Hash it out.