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(Credit: Fox Searchlight Pictures)

Film

Revisiting the movie concept of a 'Manic Pixie Dream Girl' 14 years later

@SamWKemp

To anyone who spent the bulk of their adolescence swimming through the murky cultural waters of the 2000s and 2010s, the concept of a ‘Manic Pixie Dream Girl’ (MPDG) will be very very familiar. Coined in 2005 by Nick Rabin after he observed Kirstin Dunst’s character in Elizabethtown, the term has been used to describe a type of female character who “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”.

In that seminal review, Rabin, who has since disowned the term, struck on something as old as the Golden Age of Hollywood but which for a long time nobody had had the linguistic capacity to identify. Once acknowledged, the MPDG quickly became a source of ridicule, and, in 2013, she was finally pronounced dead. Since then writers and directors – especially those seeking to undermine the all-pervasive male gaze on which cinema was built – have been heaping soil on her grave in an attempt to stop her from resurfacing. However, it would seem to me that she never truly left, rather she has simply transformed into something new but perhaps equally damaging.

To be quite honest, it was pretty ridiculous to declare the MPDG trope dead in the first place. The trope has always had remarkable staying power – adapting time and time again. Arguably, she’s simply a modern incarnation of the damsel in distress, or perhaps the gamine: a slim, elegant, and sexually mischievous woman – who has her roots in the early 19th century. Susan Vance (Katherine Hepburn) in Bringing Up Baby is perhaps the earliest example of the modern MPDG. But it wouldn’t be until the 1990s and 2000s that Hollywood writers’ obsession with this hollow version of femininity would reach its peak, with the films of the era spawning a host of two-dimensional female characters whose only purpose seems to be to teach lanky, emotionally-stunted men something about love. Summer, the character in 500 Days Of Summer, and Sam in Zach Braff’s Garden State are two of the most famous examples, both of whom are really little more than supporting artists to the male protagonist.

In subsequent years, it became apparent just how much this stale trope had wormed its way into the real world. As Laurie Penny wrote in The New Statesmen in 2013: “Fiction creates real life. Women behave in ways that they find sanctioned in stories written by men.” For countless women in their 20s, characters like Summer and Sam became models for how to behave, dress, and treat their romantic partners. Penny pointed to the danger of this reality, noting that women “deserve to be able to write [their] own stories rather than exist as supporting characters in the stories for men”.

It should be said that, while men have historically been offered a wider variety of character types to model themselves off, they have also suffered under the reign of the MPDG. The trope teaches young men that it is not they who are responsible for their own emotional development but women. It implies that, when they find their version of Summer, they will be transformed into well-rounded human beings with a firm grasp on what it means to love another person.

The truth is, of course, that this kind of outsourcing isn’t particularly healthy. One cannot be expected to grow without a willingness to make oneself vulnerable, and these invented tropes, when they make their way into real life, cut off any real intimacy before it has had the chance to bloom, the knock-on effect being that the male tendency to feel fearful of their own emotions is validated. Perhaps that’s why there has been so much talk of the most recent evolution of the MPDG trope: the Manic Pixie Dream Boy. Like the traditional MPDG, the MPDB is a quirky, free-spirited type – poetic, charming, and – more often than not – has a pretty tragic backstory Both of these character types restrict tour understanding of feminity and masculinity, with notable Manic Pixie Dream Boys, such as Jack Dawson from Titanic, enforcing the idea that emotions should be underpinned by sadness and tragedy. The same is true for the MPDG. Take Maeve Wiley from the Netflix series Sex Education, a character who is constantly defined by her mum’s heroin addiction. As we move into a new era of cinematic representation, it seems as though the Manic Pixie Dream Girl (and boy) are also moving with the times.