Justice for the manic pixie dream girl

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An image of a handheld camera overlaid on an image of angel wings, with a yellow background.
What if you got to know the women who are portrayed as plot-devices to further men’s stories? Clker-Free-Vector-Images via pixabay, manipulated by lee lim

Leaning into stereotypes is lazy writing, and so is using people as props

The manic pixie dream girl is a well-established pop culture cliché and stereotype. The term was coined by Nathan Rabin in his review of Elizabethtown to describe the bubbly, charismatic flight attendant played by Kirsten Dunst.  

The manic pixie dream girl is not like the other girls! She’s fun-loving, free-spirited, and ethereal. She has bizarre and niche interests as well as an uncommon name like ‘Stargirl’ or ‘Water’ which she gave to herself. More importantly, the manic pixie dream girl is almost exclusively White, heterosexual, able-bodied, and beautiful (if a little unconventional in her style preferences).  

In John Green’s novel Looking for Alaska, she is the type of woman who works unknowingly in the service of men, making them “irretrievably different” by teaching them to let go and love life. Her character is one for men to put to use in weighing their measurements of logic and sensibility against those of mystery and wonder.  

In New Girl, Jessica Day – a character commonly associated with the manic pixie dream girl stereotype for her whimsy – says the following: “I brake for birds! I rock a lot of polka dots! I have touched glitter in the past 24 hours! I spent my entire day talking to children! And I find it fundamentally strange that you’re not a dessert person; that’s just weird and it freaks me out! And I’m sorry I don’t talk like Murphy Brown! And I hate your pantsuit. I wish it had ribbons on it or something to make it slightly cuter!” 

The manic pixie dream girl might have blue hair. She might have forgotten to wash her laundry this week – but it’s okay, she can wear mismatching socks and there is a sort of charm in that, isn’t there? Maybe she has a strange obsession with astrology. She’s weird and quirky. 

Olivia Gatwood wrote the following in her “Manic Pixie Dream Girl” poem: “You wanna know my name? You never call me by it anyway. / If I had to guess, it would probably be a season, or after a dead actress who you loved as a child. / But this isn’t about me! / This is about you, and your cubicle job, your white bedroom, your white Honda, your white mother. // Manic pixie dream girl says I’m going to save you. / Says, don’t worry, you are still the lead role. / This is your love story about the way I teach you to live.”  

Whatever it is that makes the manic pixie dream girl the character she is, we never get to see her internal monologue. The presence of internal dialogue would make her a real person, and this would defeat her purpose.  

We often don’t discover why manic pixie dream girl is compelled to do the things she does. However, in Finding Alaska, the manic pixie dream girl has a rare moment of self-realization where she tells the male protagonist, “You never get me. That’s the whole point.” 

Rabin explains, “The manic pixie dream girl exists solely in the fevered imagination of sensitive writer-directors to teach broodingly soulful young men to embrace life and its infinite mysteries and adventures.” As such, her character is never meant to be fully intelligible as more than one-dimensional. Rather, the contours that make a person dimensional are flattened.   

Manic pixie dream girl appeals to the male gaze. Her allure is her mystery, but the moment anything knowable is discovered, the illusion of her is destroyed. Manic pixie dream girl cannot be both a mystery and a knowable human woman. Because of this, she exists only in the male imagination that “taps into a particular male fantasy: of being saved from depression and ennui by a fantasy woman who sweeps in like a glittery breeze to save you from yourself, then disappears once her work is done,” says Rabin.  

Her stereotype is not real. Women are not some mysterious oddities whose purpose is to change men. This is a very harmful stereotype and one conditioned of women and femme-presenting people through patriarchal ideals of femininity.  

Where the manic pixie dream girl exists for the betterment of others, women and femmes – like all people – hold personal beliefs, fears, desires, and ambitions that make them dimensional and holistic beings.  

Unlike manic pixie dream girls, women and femmes are not passive characters in the stories of others, never the main character even when stories are about them. They have interesting stories too and are those who are best situated to tell them. What perhaps makes them the most interesting is not their mystery but the complexity of human experience – especially one riddled with navigating dominant systems.  

Since publishing his original critique of this character trope, Rabin has suggested, “I’d like to join Kazan and Green in calling for the death of the ‘Patriarchal Lie’ of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl trope. I would welcome its erasure from public discourse. I’d applaud an end to articles about its countless different permutations. Let’s all try to write better, more nuanced and multidimensional female characters: women with rich inner lives and complicated emotions and total autonomy, who might strum ukuleles or dance in the rain, even when there are no men around to marvel at their free-spiritedness.”  

Stereotype tropes like the manic pixie dream girl are tired, over done, and harmful. Although, I am not quite ready to do away with manic pixie dream girl. I don’t want to see her death; I want to know her.  

I suggest we allow her voice to be heard and get to know who she is – apart from who she makes other characters become. Who is the woman who brakes for birds in New Girl? Who is the femme who changes her hair colour everyday?  

More importantly, we need a diverse range of complex femme characters beyond the White, cis-het, able-bodied, manic pixie dream girl.  

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