Manic Pixie Dream Girlfriends

magicalpixiegiirlfriend.png

From AV Club:

Ah, the Manic Pixie Dream Girl, that sentient ray of sunshine sent from heaven to warm the heart and readjust the attitude of even the broodiest, most uptight male protagonist. In his My Year Of Flops entry on Elizabethtown, Nathan Rabin coined the phrase “Manic Pixie Dream Girl” to describe 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.” [...]

Like the Magical Negro, the Manic Pixie Dream Girl archetype is largely defined by secondary status and lack of an inner life. She’s on hand to lift a gloomy male protagonist out of the doldrums, not to pursue her own happiness.

See as well a post on PopPolitics, quoting an article by JiJi Lee:

At the heart of these films is the implication that women have the desire and energy to devote themselves to their troubled male counterparts, further ossifying the traditional roles that men and women are supposed to play. While the progressive twist depicts men as the ones in distress, women are still meant to cosset them. [...] She brandishes a bottle of scotch instead of an apron, but the quirky girlfriend is the modern version of Donna Reed or the flashy new sports car, serving as an antidote for the man’s emotional ailment.

Some of the examples given on AV Club: Natalie Portman in Garden State, Meg Ryan in Joe Versus the Volcano, Hepburn in Bringing Up Baby, Melanie Griffith in Something Wild.

I can think of some other examples: Mimi from Rent, Mary from Something About Mary (although that’s partly a satire of the form, so including Mary may be unfair), Charlotte from Lost in Translation, Geena Davis’ character in The Accidental Tourist, and definitely Ana from Stranger Than Fiction. And maybe Clementine from Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, although maybe not.

I really like most of these films — and I’ve found the stock MPDG character attractive lots of times — but the critique seems spot-on to me. It’s lazy and shallow filmmaking, and sexist to boot.

So are there Manic Pixie Dream Boyfriends? Maybe — someone in the AV Club thread suggested Benny from Benny and Joon– but I don’t think these guys are nearly as common, because that’s not the slot movies shove male characters into. I do think there are sexist tropes for male characters, but “manic pixie” isn’t one of them.

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31 Responses to Manic Pixie Dream Girlfriends

  1. 1
    Mike says:

    The male character in 50 First Dates?

    I think I also disagree about Mimi in Rent. She was a character who knew exactly what she wanted, and didn’t get it. Now I might argue that Angel in rent was the character that always put everyone else first.

  2. 2
    kira_dancing says:

    I was complaining about this very phenomenon the other night, then read that article. And now there’s a name for it!

    Seriously, though, the MPDG always baffles me, because I usually like her, and would far, far rather see a movie about her inner life and self-discovery than that of whatever schlump of a man she’s decided to rescue from boredom. I just never understand why she doesn’t go do something more interesting.

    :0)

  3. 3
    Jake Squid says:

    I’d like to nominate Jordan from Real Genius as another example.

  4. 4
    Robert says:

    Hmm, I don’t know, Jordan was actually manic, not cute-manic, and seemed to have her own life going on.

    I’d nominate the princess from “Enchanted”. What did she see in lawyer boy anyway?

  5. 5
    Ragtime says:

    While I completely agree with the concept, I want to take issue with the icon.

    As anyone who has read the current “Disney Fairies” books (or who has read them to their daughters), Tinker Bell certainly does NOT fit in the MPDG characterization. (She doesn’t in Disney’s “Peter Pan” either, unless Peter counts as “Brooding and Soulful.”)

    Actually, Disney Fairies are great at combatting the MPDG phenomenon, where “Terrence,” a soulful, brooding Sparrow Man is deeply in love with Tinker Bell, but TB continues to ignore him for her pursuing her manic-pixie lifestyle — which generally involves either going on quests to save Fairy Land or else staying at home and repairing broken metallic items (as she is, of course, a Tinkerer.)

  6. 6
    Ampersand says:

    Jordon was the ultimate in cute-manic, which is probably why every geek-boy I knew at the time had a crush on her (me too). I meant to include her in my post, but then forgot.

    As long as the “manic” never becomes a barrier to her being the perfect girlfriend, I don’t think “manic” and “cute-manic” are mutually exclusive categories for girlfriend characters in movies.

    I was bewildered by that aspect of “Enchanted,” too. I still loved the cockroaches and rats cleaning up song, though.

  7. 7
    Ampersand says:

    Seriously, though, the MPDG always baffles me, because I usually like her, and would far, far rather see a movie about her inner life and self-discovery than that of whatever schlump of a man she’s decided to rescue from boredom.

    Have you seen Amelie?

  8. 8
    Genevieve says:

    Yeah, this is an annoying trope…but it’s sadly the least of all evils in male-centered movies which include romance. I’d much rather see a Clementine Kruczynski or a Sam from Garden State than another Wonderful Sacrificing Wife character or another Awful Castrating Bitch character. At least Clementine and Sam have a personality besides “all for the husband” or “mean.”

    And as for Enchanted…yeah, the princess (Giselle?) definitely fit this, but the thing that impressed me the most about the movie was that Patrick Dempsey’s original girlfriend, Nancy, wasn’t made out to be a bitch-woman.

  9. 9
    Ampersand says:

    Ragtime, fair point. If I find myself using the icon regularly, I’ll draw a new image for it.

  10. 10
    Sara no h. says:

    I’d nominate the princess from “Enchanted”. What did she see in lawyer boy anyway?

    He looks way hotter in period clothing than Prince Edward?

    >.>

    *cough* Anyway. Wasn’t this pretty much the entire plot of that Along Came Polly flick? Perky quirky chick with ferret saves obnoxious, tightwad insurance salesman from himself … by doing exotic things like taking him out for Indian food … oh look out now, world!

    I don’t really care much for that guy’s movies anyway but that one was particularly awful.

  11. 11
    Decnavda says:

    So are there Manic Pixie Dream Boyfriends?

    I think the reversal cliche is the Uptown Girl and Downtown Guy, where the vulger and uncouth street-wise guy teaches Miss Uptight how to losen up. Moonlighting and Romancing the Stone come imediately to mind.

    I disagree about Meg Ryan’s character in Joe v. the Volcano. True, her purpose in the movie was primarily to further the male protaganist’s emotional growth, so take some points away for that, I just don’t think it fits this particular trope. She grew emotionally in the film as well – or rather, the film extenalized her character’s growth through having her play three different characters. And the character who “saved” Joe was not a shallow, flighty, funloving girl, but a more mature and thoughtful woman.

  12. 12
    Meowser says:

    Jon Cryer in Pretty in Pink might have counted, if they’d left the ending of the film the way it was (he and Molly Ringwald go off together, instead of the ending it wound up being with Ringwald and Andrew McCarthy going off together).

    How about Sam Shepard as the Dreamy Doctor who sweeps Diane Keaton off her feet in Baby Boom?

    Or, more recently, Keanu Reeves as another Dreamy Doctor doing likewise for a much older Keaton in Something’s Gotta Give? (I remember being completely bewildered that Keaton would get serious about Jack Nicholson’s character when she already had a guy who was SO PERFECT.)

    Oh, and another movie that depicts what might be, in other movies, a MPDG from her point of view: Liza Minnelli in The Sterile Cuckoo.

  13. 13
    Gar Lipow says:

    Emmy in Mannequin. Yeah she has been granted her wish by the gods to seek fulfillment in another time. And in turns out that what makes her truly happy is to be full time sex toy and muse for a window dresser.

  14. 14
    Sailorman says:

    Wish I knew more movies.. is there an actor or actress who tends towards manic pixies?

    For some reason I am thinking of drew barrymore. Doesn’t she end up in that role a lot?

  15. 15
    Thene says:

    Death from Sandman – manic pixie dream sister, in that case – and more so in The High Cost Of Living, which is still one of my favourite comic books in spite of that.

    There’s a great conversation going on at Punkass about stories that look at women’s relationships with other women, and the lack thereof. When we talk about these sexist tropes we’re usually talking about how women are positioned relative to men – that they’re rarely positioned homosocially at all is another problem. Where’s my manic pixie? Do I not get one because I’m a girl too?

  16. 16
    kira_dancing says:

    Amp: “Have you seen Amelie?”

    Yes, yes a thousand times yes! Awesome movie. I’m desperately in love with Audrey Tautou (which now makes me wonder if I’m wishing for a magic pixie dream girl of my own. Oops…) And I love it that the boy she ends up with is as nuts as she is.

  17. 17
    Z says:

    I don’t think Clementine from Eternal Sunshine fits the MPDG trope, because in one of Joel’s memories, she explicitly denies being that person: “Too many guys think I’m a concept, or I complete them, or I’m gonna make them alive. But I’m just a fucked-up girl who’s looking for my own peace of mind; don’t assign me yours.” Though Joel’s inner life is the focus of the film, Clementine has one of her own. She doesn’t only exist to complement him; she fights with him, she wants things he doesn’t want, she leaves him, and her use of the memory erasure technique is what prompts him to do the same thing and launch the plot.

    As for male equivalent characters, the otherwise charming film Saved! rewards Jena Malone’s pregnant teenager for her emotional growth by giving her a cute, skateboarding, personality-free boyfriend who doesn’t mind at all that she’s having a baby at 16. He’s more Prince Charming than Manic Pixie, but he’s definitely more Dream than reality.

  18. 18
    Ampersand says:

    Good points, both about Clementine and about Saved!

  19. I don’t think Clementine from Eternal Sunshine fits the MPDG trope, because in one of Joel’s memories, she explicitly denies being that person: “Too many guys think I’m a concept, or I complete them, or I’m gonna make them alive. But I’m just a fucked-up girl who’s looking for my own peace of mind; don’t assign me yours.”

    As I’ve seen pointed out, you have to distinguish between Clemintine-as-she-is and Clemintine-as-Joel-sees-her. Since much of the movie is spent inside Joel’s head, what you’re seeing is not necessarily the real girl.

  20. 20
    Silenced is Foo says:

    Every romance follows variations on this trope, because in most romantic films the target of the romance is just a magical supporting character who exists solely as a target for the protagonist’s love. The Magic Pixie Dream Girl is only a slight variation on the theme in that she also furthers the hero’s emotional development.

    Either way, it’s a silly concept anyways, as any guy who tries to chase down magic pixie dream girls in real life will get burned by some really, really, really bad daddy issues, just like women who chase the studly outlaw biker will just get abused.

  21. 21
    Doug S. says:

    The TV Tropes Wiki now has an entry for this.

    http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/ManicPixieDreamGirl

  22. 22
    RonF says:

    Every romance follows variations on this trope, because in most romantic films the target of the romance is just a magical supporting character who exists solely as a target for the protagonist’s love.

    IIRC, that goes at least as far back as “courtly love” and the troubadors of the 14th and 15th centuries.

  23. 23
    Silenced is Foo says:

    @RonF

    My understanding is that most of the narrative of chivalry focused on the masculine perspective, while the modern narrative comes from both perspectives (but rarely includes both perspectives in a single work). For every Manic Pixie Dream Girl (or, the more vanilla romance-object, the blonde damsel in distress) there is some wonderful, stable, wealthy, heroic man waiting to give a woman exciting, expensive dates, a short courtship, a lavish wedding, and will take care of her and support her through all her trials and tribulations…. for no apparent reason.

    Sex and the City is the canonical example – Big is such an ideal man, but the show never actually explains what he sees in Carrie, who is perpetually broke, incessantly whiny, and emotionally destructive. That’s because his motives for being with Carrie aren’t important, he’s the subject, she’s the object. He exists to further her romantic narrative.

  24. 24
    Daran says:

    he’s the subject, she’s the object. He exists to further her romantic narrative.

    Doesn’t that make him the object and her the subject?

  25. 25
    Silenced is Foo says:

    Whoop, my bad. Yeah, that was quite the brain fart there.

  26. 26
    RonF says:

    I watched quite a few episodes of that show, as it happens; unusual for me, but at that time my daughter was in high school and for some reason she and her friends would come over to our house to watch it. I never did figure out what made Carrie supposedly so damn attractive. And I’m not talking physically, necessarily.

  27. 27
    Maze says:

    Since Keanu Reeves’ character in “Something’s Gotta Give” was mentioned, I thought of Diane Keaton in the same movie as MPDG for Jack Nicholson … but after a second of thinking, found that she does not really fit, since she does not save Jack from being brooding, but from being a womanizer. But then again, what about Nicole Kidman in “Batman Forever”?

    Considering boyfriends, there’s Kevin Kline’s character in “French Kiss”. A movie I haven’t seen, but which could apply: Robert Redford in “The Horse Whisperer”? Although he probably wouldn’t be manic, but then again, manic men don’t really have the same positive effect as manic women (in movies). But John Hannah’s character in “Sliding Doors” would certainly qualifiy as manic and “saving a woman from brooding”.

  28. 28
    Silenced is Foo says:

    {Proof} is a good case, as Gyllenhaal’s character does primarily exist for the emotional growth of the protagonist, even though the protagonist would probably be the “magic pixie dream girl” in any lesser film.

    That being said, I couldn’t stand in that movie how everyone was supposed to be these skeevy half-crazed mathematicians (at least one of whom didn’t supposedly bathe regularly), played by freakishly attractive, well-manicured, chiseled body-building actors.

  29. 29
    Anne says:

    For the female version: The Fifth Element, Leeloo. She’s pixie-ish, and is an actual element. But she also kicks ass, so…

    Date with an Angel, the angel. Yes, I’m old school, but I just watched it.

    Minutemen (disney channel movie), the girl who helps the time travelers. She literally is hot for this tiny 14-year-old boy who I thought was gay the whole movie, then remembered it was a Disney film.

  30. 30
    sylphhead says:

    For every Manic Pixie Dream Girl (or, the more vanilla romance-object, the blonde damsel in distress) there is some wonderful, stable, wealthy, heroic man waiting to give a woman exciting, expensive dates, a short courtship, a lavish wedding, and will take care of her and support her through all her trials and tribulations…. for no apparent reason.

    Indubitably.

    But is part of the criticism here, and correct if I’m completely misgauging the tenor of the OP, that the shallow male counterpart to MPDG would not himself be manic nor pixie? Because, you know, then it’d be gay.

  31. 31
    Chris says:

    I’m amazed no one has mentioned Penny from Dr. Horrible.