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The Manic Pixie Dream Girl trope

December 29, 2014

The manic pixie dream girl, a term coined by Nathan Rabin, was defined by him thus: “That bubbly, shallow cinematic creature that 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.”

Since having come up with it, Rabin himself has regretted doing so seemingly because its been used as a sort of badge of honour rather than the criticism it was supposed to be. I have long foreseen another problem with the term, however.

First of all, it’s the objection to a woman being responsible for helping an artiste of a pretentious fellow find himself in this cold, cruel world. Well, the idea of us all healing each other “find ourselves” (like we’re all hastily discarded hair rollers or something) is certainly a well-worn cliche, but one of the least gendered of the bunch – you can be a lost soul if you’re female or male. The tortured artist thing is newer, but I think rather than object to men thinking of women as being their “muse”, we should examine the possiblity that the problem is that we don’t as frequently paint women as artistic or complicated types as often as we should; if we did, it would be all too easy for them to have a muse, and consequently their very own manic pixie dream boys, as the logic goes.

Or… Not. Because, it isn’t only these tortured artist types who are involved in the manic pixie dream girl accusation. Often times, it’s men who never show themselves to have an artistic bone in their body. I know what the problem is here; when a male main character seems all introverted and stuff, if the film is a bit indie we assume the writer-director is superimposing himself into the film. We know he has an artistic job, so we reckon that the character must be an artiste as well, even if it is never indicated.

The interesting question is, when the director is female, and professes to be making a semi-autobiographical work, she may be called pretentious, but there is nary a mention of any manic pixie dream boy. See Tiny Furniture LINK or Me and You and Everyone We Know (both of which I highly recommend).

Though I have not watched the all the films cited as typical examples of dream girl trope, the two I have seen happen to be films that I enjoy for their female characters, and I have the feeling that I might find this to be true of many of the well-received films among the mix. Some may not be good, but we should discount them to some extent, because a poor film has many reasons why it is poor. It is always more useful to analyse good (or at least popular) films, so we can discuss whether or not they really are worthy of the praise they receive, or if in the future we will recognise them for the stinkers they are.

I watch a lot of films, but I do not watch many romances and romcoms. Instead, if I am to watch “light” films, I watch cop dramas, thrillers and action movies. Though I have always preferred them, frankly I am beginning to find them a little tiresome. Nearly always, the female characters are wives who exist pretty much to be battered by our frustrated tough-guys when they can’t catch their precious villain, and we the audience are somehow supposed to continue liking and empathising with this man – a scary thought in itself. Even when women are included as main characters (make that “supporting” characters) they are invariably the sex interest.

You’d think that if they are supposed to be fully fledged members of the police force, they’d be able to maintain and display some remnants of professionalism, but no, they can’t resist our main character’s animal magnetism. Ha! As far as I know, giving people the ol’ sexy eyebrow makes them think you’ve got a twitch, not a magical penis that shoots rainbows. And, if the women are not the sex interest, they must be gay. And then, shortly afterwards, dead: Internal Affairs. Well, I’m sorry, but I thought she was an special agent who knew how to fire a gun and avoid being shot. Why is it that he can dodge bullets and she can’t, exactly?

I suppose when I am exposed to such teeth-itchingly terrible representations of women as accessories in a man’s world, any film which offers some kind of character to their female support seems like a step up. This includes any film which allows a female character to be faulted without being the stereotypically annoying wife who gets-what’s-coming-to-her for “interfering” in her husband’s life, by asking unreasonable questions like “Where are you going at this hour with a loaded gun, blood all over your shirt and half your skin hanging off?”

If such a thing is too much to ask, then we could at least have interactive dialogue which involves incidents where the female character dominates or leads the conversation. Two examples of these respectively, both of which are often identified as dream girl tropes, are Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and Garden State. I got the feeling that Anita Sarkeesian considered the latter to be one of the worst examples. Let’s take them in turn.

OK, so I have a bit of a bias in favour of Eternal Sunshine. Quite apart from Jim Carrey being refreshingly un-Jim-Carrey-ish in it, it happens to be have been created by my favourite writer-director. Charlie Kaufman was responsible for Adaptation and Synecdoche, New York, which alongside Eternal Sunshine make up three of my firm favourite films. He is probably best known for Being John Malkovich, another master class in zany. That said, I do have some reasoned concerns about calling it an example of the dream girl trope, which I think hold true despite my penchant for watching Kaufman films in a darkened room wearing only my pants and drinking caffeinated drinks of all varieties.

Firstly, the dream girl trope is supposed to apply to “bubbly” personalities, people who, with their overpowering sunniness, bring our main character out of his slump. Well, not so in this film. You see, Carrey’s character Joel is not brought out of his slump by Kate Winselt’s character, Clementine. Quite the opposite, she sort of brings him down. No offence to the woman, but she’s no more of a picnic to be around than he is; she takes affront to silly things, storms off a lot, distances herself inexplicably, starts and perpetuates pointless arguments… In fact, all the things that regular failing couples do. She doesn’t exactly do her other love interest, Patrick (played by Elijah Wood) any great service by dating him either, and he’s exactly the kind of classic creep our dream girls are supposed to fall head over heels for.

This tale is not the simple tale of two people meeting for the first time and falling in love. This is the story of two people who already met and fell in love before it all promptly shat itself, and they started to hate each other as one does tend to hate tell-tale brown stains on the shagpile carpet.

It’s almost a warning against picking a manic pixie dream girl; if you go for the person who teaches you to “embrace life” and are drawn to them because they are flighty when you yourself are old-before-your-time and set in your ways, it will be great in the beginning but it will eventually all go to pot. You are fundamentally incompatible and are genetically bound to find such people profoundly irritating, regardless of what your love hormones are telling you. It was a weak reason to start a relationship and the only way to continue it was to literally erase both their memories of the entire relationship so that they could start afresh.

Also, it seems unfair to criticise this character the way dream girls are usually criticised by saying that she has no personality, no motivations. After all, she is literally a dream girl for most of the movie – a woman that is a construction of Joel’s subconscious. Inevitably then, she has missing pieces, and more go missing over time. We are supposed to only see his perspective, that’s the point. If she seems flat, isn’t it possible that she was supposed to?

Perhaps I give too much credit to Kaufman due to my bias, but I don’t think it so unlikely. There was another female character, played by Kirsten Dunst, who was a much more pro-active love interest for one of the other characters, and not a dream girl (not in this one movie, at least) – she’s not improving any tortured soul. She’s the tortured soul, chasing after someone she knows is spoken for without even knowing she’s already made that exact same mistake once before. From what I gather, our dream girls (where they truly exist) usually occupy a space all on their own, with nary another woman to be found.

Which brings us neatly onto the other example: Garden State. Garden State came as something as a surprise to me, since I never imagined that the bloke who played that dope from Scrubs could write such a quiet, unassuming little piece about a guy called Andrew (Zach Braff) returning back to his home in New Jersey for a funeral, around which time he meets a peculiar woman called Sam, with whom he strikes up a tentative relationship.

Sam, played by Natalie Portman, is the kind of weirdo that you would definitely avoid if you met her on the bus and I must say, particularly if she was male. Quirky is one thing, but I’d go as far to say she’s socially stunted and alienates people, not at all perfect like you might imagine your “dream girl” to be. I speak only for myself, but I’m a dreamer and rarely does my dream take the form of a pathological liar who advises me to kick dogs in the bollocks as a matter of course. Perhaps I lack imagination.

To me, this film felt less like Sam “fixing” Andrew, and more like two people who were equally weird finding each other at a time when they both needed each other, in the way we are led to believe happens in real life. OK, so she’s quirky weird and he’s lugubrious weird, but in all honesty I can imagine her having as much, if not more, trouble as him in finding a partner patient enough to put up with her bullshit.

Don’t get me wrong, I liked the character – I liked the character because I don’t think she was an offensive portrayal. I don’t think she was a blank page, or an empty stereotype, or someone with no life outside of her love interest (they did go round her house, and meet her mother and her brother and her dead hamster, after all). She seemed three dimensional, and perhaps in the hands of a worse actor this would not have been that case, but to my eyes Portman really brought Sam off the screen.

That said, it is not enough for one character simply to be liked or likable. In a two-character story, if only one (the female counterpart) is engaging, then it plays right into the dream girl trope. I mentioned earlier that I was not immediately sold on the concept of the trope at all. I came round to it later on and immediately wondered why this individual hadn’t made it into the mix:

snow white

I mean, she seems pretty damned weird to me, not least because she’s indefatigably cheery for someone who knows that THE QUEEN of all people, the most powerful person in the Kingdom (/ Queendom), wants her dead. And she’s fixing seven blokes, not just the one.

I’m kidding, but a good example I did come across recently was a little film known as Buffalo ’66. This, to my mind, is a much better example of what dream girl theorisers are talking about. It isn’t a giant great blockbuster of a film nor does it have a cult following that stretches round the block as far as I know, so I’ll guess it’s been left of the list of worst offenders.

In any case, I like the movie and I like the female lead played by Christina Ricci, but what makes it such a good example of the trope is that the main male character is such an amazing bore . I mean, I have never come across such a contemptible pissant in all my life. He never stops whining, he’s aggressive, he’s constantly glum, he snaps, he’s moody, his behaviour in general is absolutely appalling – and yet this reasonably good-humoured, even tempered, interesting woman, who is literally kidnapped by him, actually gives him the time of day and ends up becoming his girlfriend.

Man alive! There’s a lesson for the kids: just go ahead and grab her, force her into your car and make her do your bidding and she’s bound to like you eventually. That’s what I can recognise as a damaging trope. Ricci’s not playing a prancing, quirky, “bubbly” manic pixie dream girl, but that isn’t the point. The point is that the male character gets to behave however he wants and he still “gets the girl”, even though any reasonable person would tell him to fuck right off and get a life. Then call the police.

If there is anything damaging about the dream girl trope, that’s it. You never see it the other way around and if you did it would still be obviously alarming, so there is no double standard. But I’ll bet, just like the ones I’ve seen, most of the dream girl films contain decent, balanced, sometimes cheerful men, even if they are a bit neurotic or uptight.

This portrayal of men as something other than the aggressive archetype is less offensive to men and therefore creates a less offensive portrayal of women; you can see why she, as an autonomous being, would be drawn to this “different” man who isn’t a complete arse. That’s saying something, considering that in Hollywood, you’re never more than 20 feet from a violent alcoholic who’s just been suspended from the LAPD.

If you interpret it the other way and suggest that no woman could ever be attracted to these Woody Allen-like men, then quite apart from offending all the men who genuinely think these characters reflect them in some way, you do the opposite of what you intend in regards to the woman; you remove some of the personality and autonomy from her by taking away the element of choice that was given to her by the film-makers, instead treating her like she is compelled by higher powers to behave as she does. Even if you, the viewer, don’t really understand her preference, it is striking that it does at least appear to be her choice, in a way that simply is not true of films displaying other types of tropes; why does Faceless Wife No.2 stay with the husband who slaps her around the face and calls her a whore? Who knows. It’s never explored.

This is the reality of the dream girl compared to other tropes. It puts the power of choice into the hands of the woman and not the man, rather than having all the women sitting around and fretting, waiting for him to call, for him to make the first move. In this sense, I rather think that the dream girl trope is a challenge to the traditional ideas of gender roles, particularly as our men are not dull alpha males – though admittedly, sometimes our women are dull ultra-femmes (I’d say “alpha female”, but that sounds altogether more positive than I meant it).

If those who employ the dream girl trope are mainly men, why assume that they are necessarily always idly fantasising? Perhaps they do have feministic intent, or perhaps the only reason this trope is typically written by men and not women is because men still make up the vast majority of current screenwriters / directors; a systemic problem, not a personal prejudice on the side of the individual writers. The point is that you can never know for sure what someone thinks about anything if you do not know them, and to assume misogyny or milder forms of sexism is sometimes an over-reading of the situation.

What if it was the other way around? What if the trope was exactly the same, only the man was the sickeningly sweet one (I think we’d call it “creepy”), and the one who “fixed” the woman? Indeed, I believe the latter case was more the expected order of things once upon a time; anyone remember Gone With The Wind ? They should probably just go ahead and retitle it I Will Fix You, Crazy Lady! And Then Leave You, Because You Are Still Crazy! [spoilers, I know sorry – but it has been out for decades, as have you, so there’s no excuse for your not having watched it yet.]

I feel certain that if the trope was this way round, feminists the developed world over would still cry sexism. And I think they would be more justified in doing so, since it’s inherently offensive to suggest that someone needs to be, or indeed can be, fixed. Last time I checked “leaky tap” was not an establish byword for a woman.

This smacks as a double standard. If men can’t be the fixers and they can’t the fixees, who can they be? Oh, yes, I agree, no one should be “fixed”. But let’s be realistic about this; in a romantic film, it’s the number one story-telling device for introducing drama and lots of lovey-dovey scenes. I mean, face it, even Brokeback Mountain had one guy attempting to fix the other, and Lost In Translation contained more mutual unblocking than a lengthily co-session of colonic irrigation.

What makes those movies so good is that a) in Brokeback, the attempt didn’t work because it was an impossible situation that had nothing to do with individuals and everything to do with society; b) in Translation, it sort of worked but it was still an impossible situation and they had to part ways. Basically, the film-makers dealt you the realism card, in a way that escapist fantasies usually do not – which is what makes them generally worse. “Happy ever after” is not a Thing That Exists. You still have bills to pay and socks to wash, and only Whistle While You Work up there ^ could possibly think that’s a good thing.

However, what led these films is not that they dealt you realism. This is not enough. The driving force was that you believed that those characters had an actual connection, not just gooeyness. The trope is the same; one, or both, of our characters is “damaged” in some way. When both are damaged, of course it doesn’t make sense to cry that one is an offensive portrayal and not the other. It doesn’t make sense to say one is fixing the other and that’s the end of that. And, when just one person is damaged, the complication lies in the fact that our perception of whether or not we believe we have seen an offensive trope is entirely reliant on whether or not we already like the feature.

If you like the characters, you are not immediately going to identify them as being an example of an offensive trope. This is only natural. If you like the characters, that means there was something about them that drew you in. In short, you considered them to be three-dimensional, fleshed out characters whose story you would want to follow.

One of the reasons we can largely agree which films are good and which are not so good is because we do not need to analyse them to the nth degree to figure out whether a character is engaging and unique. If they are engaging and unique, then they do not become cliché ridden, as cliché are essentially just ill-used tropes.

Tropes can be as tediously ubiquitous as they like; if handled by actors, scriptwriters and directors who know what they’re doing, to some extent they are not subject to the problems identified within the usual expression of the trope. “Trope” is a word that is used to describe any trend that occurs and you can’t have fiction without trends. There just aren’t enough topics. In short, it is never a trope that is offensive, but rather the expression of it. Any trope, no matter how old and tired it may seem, can be completely rejuvenated with a strong, character-driven story.

My slight issue with the dream girl evaluation is that it suggests that because our main character is male, the trope is automatically offensive to woman. Is it? I am having a hard time understanding the significance of the characters’ gender.

I’ve mentioned that I consider the dream girl to be a role reversal, and a potentially positive one; the female character takes on a clearly the dominant form.Just because our main character is male and the story is shown from his point of view, that by no means makes certain that he is the better drawn character. It’s hard to understand why one would decide that it is the women who are being portrayed badly here; the men are the losers and they vary from each other even less than the women do – doesn’t it sound more like the men are being poorly shown?

Of course, this is not sexism because what we are usually watching is someone’s projection of themselves as an individual. But as far as women are concerned, the writer-directors who use the dream girl trope are mostly guilty, not of condescension, but of putting women on pedestals, quite possibly because of their own insecurities and wish for guidance in their relationships.

As they are all heterosexual men, this guidance must then necessarily come from women, so women are elevated. Because the directors themselves are not women, this difference in representation tends to get noticed and significance is placed on the gender of the participants, rather than their sexuality, which is potentially more relevant. After all, sexual orientation can give you just as many silly ideas about people, whichever group you happen to be attracted to, even if they share your gender; the fact is that inaccurate perceptions on gender do not always stem from patriarchal constructs and misogyny. They can stem from good old fashioned hormonal stupidity.

The dream girl is not a very interesting trope, I grant you, nor a realistic one. You could certainly argue that it’s a lazy story-telling device, used to show people that they can be themselves, even if that self isn’t anything particularly special, and still be liked by someone halfway decent, albeit a little odd. Hence the quirkiness of the dream girl; it’s a compromise, since those of us who identify with guys like that know we can’t land a “normal” woman. Let’s face it, the dream girl trope is like Twilight for self-identified beta males. Oh, do please let us have our Twilight. At least ours doesn’t contain any possessive stalker vampires.

At the end of the day, you can poke at dream girl if you want, but it’s probably not going anywhere any time soon, it will only alter slightly and slowly to the better, the way that all tropes do. The thing about light romances and romcoms is that, as comfort food for the brain, they really aren’t very realistic, are often a bit shallow, are often predictable and thus, perhaps a bit boring. That does not mean that all tropes present in them are necessarily harmful. They vary.

Here’s a list of boring tropes that I am much more wary of than the dream girl: the good-natured but useless father; the wife of three short minutes, just long enough for us to establish that the male main character’s life is about to take a steep downhill drop; the cheating bastard husband who gets his comeuppance in an overblown / unrelated way that completely ruins his life, but it’s OK because he deserves it; and the ending with the woman that walks away from a house to victory music, wearing the expression that says “Look at this bastion of female power who walks boldly away after a mere 20 years of being constantly snapped at and treated like shit by her partner.”

The list goes on. You could legitimately criticise the whole romance genre, and particularly the romcom because it rarely deals with any serious issues. I would love to see more like Hope Springs , which is funny but addresses something people might actually experience or want to know about in a way that is respectful of all the characters being portrayed.

In factm, if anyone did want to criticise the entire romcom genre, I’d be right behind them, since it is a rare one that piques my interest and a common one that makes me groan in agony. However, I find the identification of this particular trope as offensive a bit confusing; what we’re looking at here is not a dream girl so much as a dream land, where people hang around in fields looking windswept and interesting, yelling / doing inane things because they are oh-so-happy. It’s all quite sickeningly sweet, but that’s escapism for you.

When the trope does apparently stem from idle fantasy, it’s best to remember that the lack of female driven storylines is not the direct fault of the scriptwriters / directors. When you start to write, the first thing that you are taught is to write about what you know. While I doubt that any of these men have ever met “dream girls”, they write stories and escapism from a male point of view. The reason that they don’t write from female perspectives as much is because they think that they can only write from a male one. Personally, I take issue with this idea, but that doesn’t change the fact that many people believe it.

The sheer number of male screenwriters means that what we end up with is a bombardment of these kinds of tropes. They aren’t paying attention to however many other people are doing it. They just want to tell their oh-so-unique version of the story – remember that if they are projecting themselves onto their characters, the story will feel unique to them because it will be personal, and we all think anything personal is unique. They don’t have any comprehension of the accumulative affect of following the trope, neither do they know that they are adhering to it; these “sensitive” writers live to be original, so take it from me, if they knew, they would stop. That’s if you could ever convince them of it, the stubborn bastards.

They don’t make the connection because tropes are hard to spot. If you take person X and person Y and put them in situation Z, then even if person X and Y are much the same in the next feature, if situation Z is slightly different (i.e., located at the airport rather than the bus station), the person writing it may miss the fact that what they are doing has been done hundreds of times before. It’s a shame, but there it is. This is why we need trope spotters and critics to point out the tropes. The problem comes when we take personal affront, as if we think that tropes like the dream girl come from a standpoint of sexism. I disagree, I think they come from a standpoint of insular self-indulgence and nothing more insidious.

What really matters is not tropes, or words, or adherence / inversions of them. What matters is who is doing solid work where and when; writing off entire names because they speak of muses, or entire tropes because of a couple of stinky examples, is not an especially effective way of going about analysing something as complex and varied film. You can recognise trends, but when they start making you so angry that you can’t watch or hear one more example of them, it’s time to examine if your hatred has become irrational. Very few tropes, or indeed directors, are objectionable across the board. Being open to another chance often renders surprising results and inverts your ideas about what or who is and isn’t offensive.


From → Media Analysis

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