I first became involved with the formalized concept of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl in a comedy YouTube video my friends were sharing. I thought to myself ‘O dear, woman-hating is really everywhere’. In this video men could unload their Manic Pixie Dream Girlfriends to a special care hospital designed for them. Disturbing and tasteless. A bit later, I realised they were not sharing this video to fuel their disgust for it, but they seemed to find the video either funny or at least cathartic for some kind of hatred for Manic Pixie Dream Girls they shared.
At first, I thought it was ridiculous to think about it, because the films revolving around MPDG are generally terrible. And I ended up watching a lot of them. Power to the people who punish bad cinema. MPDG are sickening, they belong to the exact same category as Doctor Patch and Forrest Gump.
Using a trope such as the Manic Pixie Dream Girl is lazy and terrible writing, and they are annoyingly often the ‘muse’ of a male character (although not always), like is justly pointed out in the Feminist Frequency video.
The terrible lazy writing aspect is that the male character is entirely bland. MPDG movies are films written for women and the man is 1. cute 2. full of love to give. In Elizabethtown, Garden State and My Sassy Girl, he has just lost a relative and needs some good old mothering.
Is it sexist? Well, women’s role is not to help men through mourning, and MPDG does appeal to the part of women which sees themselves as caregivers. But then again, picture of kittens appeal to that side of us as well, and I do not find them sexist.
The truth is, the male ‘lead’ is as irrelevant as he is bland. The grief he wallows in is not what the film is about, it is the background for the MPDG’s charming quirkiness. The Elizabethtown girl has a terrible, boring job, an estranged boyfriend she does not love and is terribly lonely, the Garden State girl has mental health issues, in My Sassy Girl, she is herself dealing with grief, addiction and mental health issues. They are not exactly post-feminist ideals of strong independent women juggling careers, luxury consumerism and trophy boyfriends.
When I looked at the origin of the concept of MPDG, I started thinking there was a point in attacking it after all. I do not understand how people could rally behind an idea that is born from the fantasy of violence against women. When I said they were in the same category as Forrest Gump and Doctor Patch, I was anticipating this point. A lot of characters are terribly annoying. Jar-Jar Binkses are everywhere. What the creator of the concept of MPDG did though, is to take out a subsection of these annoying characters from bad movies on gender lines and on grounds of their hyper-femininity, and made them the annoying characters towards which we can direct our anger at bad cinema. I think that is sexist:
“The Manic Pixie Dream Girl is an all-or-nothing-proposition. Audiences either want to marry her instantly (despite The Manic Pixie Dream Girl being, you know, a fictional character) or they want to commit grievous bodily harm against them and their immediate family. As for me, well, let’s just say I’m not going to propose to Dunst’s psychotically chipper waitress in the sky any time soon.”
As a concept, the MPDG only makes sense if you count in our cultural propensity to fantasize about hurting women. The male ‘lead’ gets off lightly, but the MPDG is so annoying she has got to die. Ideally suffer a lot first. Or you know what, we could just lock them up in a mental hospital.
I am not saying hyper-femininity or child-like femininity are not annoying. I am generally annoyed by people with baby voices, a lot of people are. A lot of people are annoyed at camp men and wish they would ‘tone it down’. A lot of people cannot be bothered putting the extra effort in to understand a non-native English speaker, or just someone with a thick accent. Some people think American accents sound stupid. Some people cannot stand the way people from certain other races smell. Some people cannot be bothered learning that not all people from a different race look the same. That is true, but we need to be better than that. As long as they are women who feel most comfortable with their baby voices and their dainty clothes, portraying them in film will not be a sexist thing to do.
In many reviews about MPDG films, strangling is the preferred way of killing them, as their being annoying is associated with the noises they make. They do not speak, they chirp, they nag, their voices are too damn high-pitched. They are too needy, but they are also too independent.
500 Days of Summer is a film about a boy being rejected by a woman. It has strong sexist undertones, but not because of the female character who rejects the male lead and refuses to feel bad about it. In a film like Sweet November, the female character conducts a meaningful relationship with a man under her own terms, breaks it off when she wants to, without reason, as per previous agreement. The male character is confused and ends up finding out why she broke up: the female character is terminally ill and she cannot project herself in a long-term relationship. He confronts her about this and she maintains that these were the boundaries they had agreed on, that she has every right to stand by them and that she did not have any duty to disclose her illness. It’s a bad movie for other reasons, but that all story-arch is pretty good. Once analysed through the MPDG spectrum though, the female character is just another quirky misfit girl who is only interesting because of the influence she has on the hero, and, in the second case, is so disposable that she is conveniently terminally-ill.
Is this element of analysis helping feminism? Or is it making all female characters suspect. Not good enough. As some reviewers have noted, maybe to avoid being accused of sexism, films should just do away with the female annoying sidekick altogether, it would be much easier than to write a better script.
But the whole discussion of the MPDG avoids an issue altogether in those films, and that is the representation of women and mental illness in films. There is a pretty old cultural idea that being a woman is a mental illness. See Bergman’s Through A Glass Darkly, or Suddenly, Last Summer for depiction of insane women.
On the one hand, mental health is an issue that concerns a very large number of women. Statistics on anti-depressant prescriptions are frightening. And, a bit like the depiction of homosexual characters for a long time, there is the idea that any kind of depiction is good. Being able to see in a film a woman suffering from mental health (AND who does not hack anyone into pieces) is pretty amazing. On the other, like gay side-kicks helping their straight friends with their love-life, the MPDG’s (who almost always explicitly has some mental health condition or another, that is the ‘Manic’ part of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl) idiosyncracies (or symptoms) are charming and help the main character see life differently. There is no darkness attached to it, a bit like romanticized homeless ‘free’ people teaching rich people that there is more to life than work and money.
This representation of mental illness is not healthy by a long shot, but neither is the one proposed by anti-MPDG reviews. They demand independent post-feminist superwomen juggling careers and trophy boyfriends. Those barely functional Manic Pixie Dream Girls should just be locked back in the mental home where they belong.
And that is why I think we need to scrutinize our art and culture, but I think the phrase ‘Manic Pixie Dream Girl’ should be banned from our vocabulary. It is a lazy trendy concept that does not help study or change the depiction of women or mental health in films. Thankfully, like many concepts which do not lead to fruitful analyses, it has already mostly disappeared on its own.