Columns > Published on July 19th, 2013

Dystropia: Examining the Trope of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl

Somewhere situated between Easter Island and Papua New Guinea, perfectly pinned on a straight line between the Great Pyramid and the Nazca Lines lies the Isle of Dystropia, the place where every cliché and worn-out convention sticks out like rubble in the sand. Pawing through the debris, you'll find the trope that may just make or break your story. Each installment, we'll explore a different literary platitude, examining it for its various strengths and weaknesses. Set sail for Dystropia, where you might just learn something about your writing and yourself.

You've likely been told that every story needs a love interest. And if your character hasn't stopped their post-adolescent moody brooding, they might be daydreaming of some special someone to whisk them away from the overwhelming task of being a misunderstood genius, reminding them of the hidden magic in life. Enter the Manic Pixie Dream Girl, the answer to every morose, neurotic male’s prayers!

Originally labeled by The A.V Club film critic Nathan Rabin to describe Kirsten Dunst in Elizabethtown, the trope encapsulates any female stock character whose only role is to inexplicitly cheer the protagonist up. Why she feels compelled to do this without pursuing her own goals or satisfaction is consistently lampshaded, but if done right, the MPDG might actually liven up your tale. Let’s see what makes this trope fail and succeed.

When To Steer Clear

The main problems with this character, especially in the views of feminists and anyone who desires multi-dimensional chicks in their lit, is the MPDG’s lack of ambition, her inability to deal with complex issues and her exhausting immaturity.

Additionally, the cutesy personality quirks, such as being in love with an indie band and spontaneously dancing for no reason, are often misguided attempts at creating depth and originality. Just like you shouldn’t date someone because they like the same karate movies as you, you shouldn’t just write a list of “hip” tastes for your dramatis personae to check off.

The most offensive and painfully obvious example of a disastrous MPDG (besides almost anything Zooey Deschanel falls into) must be the 2012 film Ruby Sparks, in which the trope literally manifests itself from the mind of the despondent novelist played by Paul Dano. The script was written by Zoe Kazan, who also starred  — how’s that for constructing yourself as nothing but a tool for man-pleasing? Not that there’s anything wrong with that.

In Kazan’s defense, she criticized the trope she embodied, telling Vulture, “I think that to lump together all individual, original quirky women under that rubric is to erase all difference.” But that’s not really what we’re getting at here — we’re saying that our characters need more than French lessons and purple tights to be interesting.

Where To Set Your Sights

Whenever this trope works, it’s subtle. Can we call Dorothy from The Wizard of Oz a Manic Pixie Dream Girl? Maybe — she does breathe life into every male character she meets, reminding them of the beauty of life and overcoming their fears. Yet, she’s a protagonist with her own goals and a personality undefined by counter-culture.

Or, to succeed, perhaps the MPDG will have some kind of dark secret or excuse for her behavior, such as Holly Golightly in Breakfast At Tiffany’s or Sugar in Some Like It Hot. Don’t confuse this with the all-too-common way these Dream Girls are disposed of — if she suddenly gets cancer or crushed in a fatal car accident or turns back into an angel and ascends into Heaven for absolutely no reason, you’re doing it wrong.

Marla Singer in Fight Club might just be the perfect Manic Pixie Dream Girl ever. First of all, she isn’t obnoxious, she is full of death rather than life, and she’s the driving force behind Tyler Durden’s self-destructive crusade against consumerism. Without Marla, we’d never have seen what Project Mayhem could do.

Other ways to subvert this trope: Make your MPDG more reluctant and self-centered, such as Clementine in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, where she bluntly explains, “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 lookin' for my own peace of mind; don't assign me yours.” Or you could go with Philip K. Dick, whose happy-go-lucky female in the short story "The World She Wanted" is shot down by the protagonist, who finds her irritating, like most people would.

Tropes like these, especially one so recently described, are also excellent sources for parody, as you’ll see in this Safe For Work video called “Manic Pixie Prostitute.”

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Real Life Application

All tropes are forgivable, but this one especially. Western culture is slowly raising more and more impassive males, so it’s hardly surprising that many, the creative-minded especially, would be more attracted to the idea of being a damsel in distress rather than a knight in shining armor. You can blame Zach Braff for mushrooming this trend with Garden State, which he wrote, directed and starred in. He must have felt somewhat like his main character and who can resent him?

The problem is, that’s not really how the world works. Many women prefer to be pursued, so if you’re a lonely, sensitive dude, it’s unlikely a girl will be sweeping you off your feet anytime soon. You gotta get out there, son!

And when you do find a nice girl that you can bring home to mom and dad, you’re likely going to be having those Manic Pixie Dream Girl feelings. I know I have. I may or may not have cried during Ruby Sparks because it was so familiar and the girl in the theater seat next to me had the same shade of tights.

In fact, with varying degrees, I’ve never had a romantic relationship that didn’t start out with overtones of this Manic Pixie Dream. It’s probably what is meant by the idiom “salad days.” It’s fun getting drunk in the afternoon and shoplifting from CVS and all that, but if your relationship is solely based on these chaotic, blissful instants, it’s not gonna last long.

Like it or not, the Manic Pixie Dream Girl doesn’t have her crap together. And in the real world, these types of girls have to learn to grow up the hard way, which often means callously disposing of you the same way she threw her cell phone in the river and said, “We’re off the grid now.”

Most important to realize, is that unlike in literature and film, the real MPDG has her own goals and isn’t one-dimensional. If you’re seeking someone to fulfill you in the way that MPDGs fulfill their male leads, you’re going to be sorely disappointed. And if that’s what you're translating to the page, unless you do it right, your readers are going to be sorely disappointed as well.

About the author

Born in the desert, Troy Farah is a journalist that likes to burn things. His reporting has spanned VICE, Phoenix New Times, Flag Live and others, with fiction published in Sleeping in a Torn Quilt and Every Day Fiction. His website is where he mostly dreams about the apocalypse.

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