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.”

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.

Troy Farah

Column by Troy Farah

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 troyfarah.com where he mostly dreams about the apocalypse.

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Comments

bachunderground's picture
bachunderground from DC is reading tea leaves July 19, 2013 - 12:38pm

Great article. I admit I'm a little surprised you didn't mention John Green, who seems to have a love/hate relationship with this trope. Sometimes he fully indulges the fantasy (An Abundance of Katherines), while at other times presents it in such a way as to deconstruct and criticize it (Paper Towns.) The Fault in Our Stars suggests the idea of a Manic Pixie Dream Guy, but it falls away pretty quickly as it should. (He himself wrote about this tendency here: http://johngreenbooks.com/on-the-destruction-of-manic-pixie-dream-girls/)

YA loves this trope, especially bad YA, which is no surprise: it's all about the spontaneity and freedom of being young and immature, something that YA writers in their thirties may long for.

 

Mo Jacobs's picture
Mo Jacobs from San Diego is reading The Wrong Goodbye July 19, 2013 - 9:31am

Great article, but I'd argue that Ruby Sparks was not about being the embodiment of a MPDG, it was about showing the wrongness of the trope. He wrote her to be the perfect, adoring, never questioning, MPDG. The conflict came when she proved to have depth, opinions, ambitions and preferences that were wholly her own. His attempts to "fix" the issue of her individuality ended up just making their relationship worse and showing how much of a monster/tyrant he was by demanding her to behave in his prescribed manner.

Matt Attack's picture
Matt Attack from Richmond, Va. is reading As I Lay Dying, William Faulkner July 19, 2013 - 9:37am

Western culture is slowly raising more and more impassive males,"

This. 

Robbie Blair's picture
Robbie Blair from lots of places is reading a whole stack of books July 19, 2013 - 10:53am

I think you've missed the main feminist critique of the manic-pixie-dream-girl, and defined the MPDG in a way that would often veer from the problems it creates. What you seem to be saying is that the MPDG trope is okay as long as you're subverting the trope and its implications—but a subverted trope is a different beast than the original.

The main problem with the MPDG is not in her quirkiness, spontaneity, etc., but that these are characteristics that allow her to become a catalyst in the story of the male lead. The MPDG does not have, nor is she the protagonist of, her own story. Dorothy is not an MPDG just because she breathes life into people. Marla may well be a dark illustration of the MPDG because she is, quite clearly, little more than catalyst ("This isn't love. It's sport fucking.").

The dilemma isn't that "in real life men pursue women." That's true of our gender stereotypes, but I've been both pursued and pursuer at various points in my actual life. Women can be active pursuers, and that's a fantastic story too. That tendency alone certainly doesn't make her an MPDG. The question is whose story is really being told.

Dino Parenti's picture
Dino Parenti from Los Angeles is reading Everything He Gets His Hands On July 19, 2013 - 10:56am

To second Matt's observation...

 

Western culture is slowly raising more and more impassive males,"

This.

 

To which I would add coddled and unrealistic.

Colin Fels's picture
Colin Fels July 19, 2013 - 11:52am

(500) Days of Summer is a prime example I don't go for maniacal women. 

SammyB's picture
SammyB from Las Vegas is reading currently too many to list July 19, 2013 - 1:24pm

I'm with bachunderground. John Green uses the trope all the time. In fact, he is the only reason I had heard of this construction. His female characters annoy me pretty badly, but I still enjoy his books. Go figure :)

These girls do exist in real life, but sometimes the reality isn't very magical. My brother dated a MPDG. Her hair was always a bright Manic Panic color, she had a nose piercing, multiple ear piercings, talked in a high pitched/hyper voice, wore the stereotypical outfits (lots of skirts, bright tights, and hoodies), and her taste in music was sooo "unique". Her entire life revolved around him, which was not good at all. She turned out to be bi-polar, and would go from a really energetic, fun girl to someone who was downright scary to be around. Margo from John Green's book Paper Towns reminds me of my brother's ex. And if I were psychoanalyzing Margo I'd say she was possibly bi-polar as well. It would explain why she went from the girl leading the nerdy boy on an adventure, to the broken girl at the end.

I don't really like this type of character in books. Maybe it is because I am a feminisit. I don't know.
 

Dave's picture
Dave from a city near you is reading constantly July 19, 2013 - 1:40pm

Why is this such a hot topic lately?

Yeah, five other articles from late april to this month, and that's just what I selected from the first page of my Google search. 

Seriously, did I miss something?

Amanda Roberts-Anderson's picture
Amanda Roberts-... July 20, 2013 - 1:22am

@Dave, it's because of the Anna Sarkeesian controversy earlier this year. She is the creator of Feminist Frequency which explores misogyny in gaming culture. She was a huge hot topic because of her Kickstarter campaign back in February, so things she talked about even before that, like the MPDG video she did back in 2011, have all become hot topics. In fact I was a bit bothered by the fact that the author of this acticle didn't reference Sarkeesian's work.

Flaminia Ferina's picture
Flaminia Ferina from Umbria is reading stuff July 20, 2013 - 6:10am

"This is so demeaning"    <---- I laughed HARD.

Because it's true. Hardcore MPDGism gives sex work a whole new dignity. In real life and fiction as well.

 

bryanhowie's picture
bryanhowie from FW, ID is reading East of Eden. Steinbeck is FUCKING AMAZING. July 20, 2013 - 9:03am

Anna Sarkeesian is awesome.  I had only watched her video game tropes.  Thanks for that link.  I have a lot of watching to do.

Kaz I Lay Dying's picture
Kaz I Lay Dying from 'Mercuh is reading 1491 July 20, 2013 - 9:30am

@SammyB, I don't think MPDG as portrayed in literature/film actually exist. I think someone might externally look like an MPDG, but it turns out they have mental problems or maybe--just maybe--they're not interested in liberating a boring accountant from his mundane lifestyle, which is the sole reason an MPDG exists.

I think that might actually be the most harmful thing about the stereotype: there's this belief that pink-haired girls full of whimsy and nose piercings are just new and interesting things for a guy who's bored with his life to do. They're not actual people, just a way to shake things up for a while, so when they start acting like real people, it can get messy.

Jeff's picture
Jeff from Florida is reading Another Side of Bob Dylan by Victor Maymudes July 20, 2013 - 5:34pm

Wait, so the "Manic Pixie Dream Girl" doesn't really exist? 

*Reaches for a fusion proglide...

Murasaki_Ducky's picture
Murasaki_Ducky from Austin, Texas is reading Y: The Last Man by Brian K. Vaughan. July 23, 2013 - 12:34pm

I'll admit, I had never heard this term "Manic Pixie Dream Girl" until yesterday when I read this article. I then proceeded to read the articles mentioned by Dave and became enlightened. I never knew a term like this existed but man, I can look back now at all of the books and movies (and even some of the people I know) and point out almost every MPDG I've ever encountered.

I think Rob D Young has it right. Viewing a female character as an MPDG or not is dependent upon who is the protagonist. Whose story are we learning about? Whose mind and world are we exploring? If it's a lonely, brooding, dare I say "hipster" male (or at least a wannabe anyway) chances are yes, we will be introduced to the MPDG. While reading these articles and the comments associated with them, one character that kept coming to my mind was Romana Flowers from Scott Pilgram vs. The World. Now please correct me if I'm wrong, I've only seen the movie and some time has passed since then but she stands out in my memory as a character who fits the bill of a MPDG. Any thoughts?

 

gs's picture
gs August 15, 2013 - 6:23am

I'm sad that you write this article to men, as if only men are the ones writing. You talk about "find a nice girl that you can bring home to mom and dad," but what about women working on their own art? This is explicitly assuming either that only men will adopt this trope or as if men are the only ones writing... but it can't be the first one because you specifically accuse a woman director/writer as using it in her work...