Laurie Penny’s great new piece about Manic Pixie Dream Girls (MPDGs) has me thinking about the role of women/femininity in the compositional structure of music, film, and other media. Penny uses a narrative metaphor to explain the subordinate role of MPDGs in contemporary patriarchy: patriarchy expects and encourages women to ghostwrite or be, as Penny puts it, “supporting actresses” in men’s stories. When women (such as Penny) craft their own autobiographies with themselves as the protagonist, this upsets both patriarchal conventions, and our aesthetic sensibilities, which have been trained to expect and enjoy these conventions.
But, especially in light of the finale of this past season’s Doctor Who (so, uh, need I say it: spoilers) I think the MPDG supports men’s/masculinity’s centrality–in other words, patriarchy–in specific ways, ways that are uniquely appropriate to the compositional logic of contemporary media.
Feminist theorists of music, film, literature, and visual culture have identified several specific ways that conventional media formulas—like classic Hollywood narratives, sonatas, European operas, and so on—subordinate female characters and feminized compositional elements. Their subordination isn’t accidental or incidental; the logical coherence of the artwork depends on it. Cinematic narrative, sonata form, and tonality (the system used to compose the score for works like Carmen or Madama Butterfly) are all methods for constructing coherent works of art—works that logically and systematic develop through conflict/dissonance and resolve into coherent, consonant wholes. Often women/femininity is used to generate the conflict that makes a story interesting (e.g.: “Boy meets girl; boy loses girl…”); she is the “problem” the story has to solve. The solution usually takes the form of either marriage—this is the answer to The Sound of Music’s question, “How Do You Solve a Problem Like Maria?”—or death—both Carmen and Madama Butterfly end this way. In these styles of storytelling, women/femininity are the “irrational” elements that must be resolved to preserve the centrality and rationality of men/masculinity.
But the MPDG, though certainly a problem, doesn’t get resolved in either of these ways…because, I think, MPDG is part of a different media ecology. MPDGs, especially as depicted by the Doctor’s companion(s) Clara [Oswin], don’t get married and don’t die because the “illogical” logic of contemporary media forms do not require the assimilation or elimination of femininity. We’ve abandoned the linear teleology of narrative form and tonal harmony for the “wibbly-wobbly/timey-wimey” logic of what Steven Shaviro calls “post-cinematic” media, or the shock-and-awe pastiche of contemporary EDM (Electronic Dance Music). “Wibbly-wobbly/timey-wimey” media are generally organized as modular composites—there is no grand narrative or goal, just interchangeable parts. These parts are juxtaposed to produce maximum sensory/affective impact, usually in the form of “dissonance” (overdriven volume, speed, intensity, etc.). Wibbly-wobbly/timey-wimey upheaval and irrationality is the whole point of the story.
Men/masculinity are still the primary, orienting factor in such stories (and in the universe, real or fictive), even if the stories seem otherwise illogical and even if women’s “irrationality” gets a lot of play. MPDGs make their own noise—they do stuff, that’s why they’re “manic”. In older styles of film/music composition, this mania was corrosive and had to be eliminated. In wibbly-wobbly/timey-wimey contemporary media, this mania is generative of and for patriarchy.
Just think about what happens to Clara in the season finale: to save the Doctor, and thus time, the universe, and everything, Clara jumps into the time vortex. She doesn’t get married off (like River Song, Amy Pond, or even Martha Jones and Rose Tyler), and she doesn’t die. Instead, she goes viral (talk about manic), infecting space-time itself. A version of her inhabits each possible past and future moment. Her self-sacrifice is what maintains the time vortex at an optimal level of wibbly-wobbly/timey-wimey-ness, because it allows her to support the Doctor in every possible and actual moment in space-time.
Contrast this to Madama Butterfly’s suicide; she supports her Lieutenant Pinkerton by eliminating herself as a factor—i.e., a problem—in his life. The elimination of the problem gives the work/his life logical coherence. But the Doctor doesn’t need coherence; he requires a wibbly-wobbly/timey-wimey universe, after all. Clara supports that type of universe by making herself omnipresent (or at least potentially omnipresent). Her feminized mania (her “impossibility”) is what generates the wibbly-wobbly/timey-wimeyness that fuels the Doctor’s exploits and supports his lifestyle as wandering hero/antihero. (We can also consider the differences between Butterfly’s 19th-century colonial conquest and Doctor Who’s timey-wimey white savorism, but that’s a topic for another post.)
Similarly, in these “illogical” styles of storytelling, none of the characters have to have “personality” or “interiority”–they just have to have, well, swag—spectacular, over-the-top, larger-than-life presence, what Penny calls “vaguely-offbeat” and “funky…eccentricities.” For example, Rick Ross doesn’t rap about how it feels to be a problem; he raps about excess and superfluity (excessive consumption, money, sex, bling, leisure, even words become excessive when they’re rhymed with themselves). He’s not performing a character with personality. Instead, he’s performing excess and superfluity itself; Rozay is not the “real” or “true” or even “fake” Ross—he’s Ross ad absurdum. Similarly, Rob Horning’s work on selfhood and subjectivity does a superb job of explaining how neoliberal values and social media tech reconfigure “authenticity” to be less about interiority and more about public performance of idiosyncratic uniqueness. So, the fact that the MPDG “isn’t understood from the inside” and “is permitted precisely no interiority” isn’t what differentiates her from her male/masculine counterpart. The difference is that she doesn’t get to benefit from her own wackiness, he does.
To contemporary patriarchy, MPDG’s mania isn’t a problem to be solved, but a resource to be exploited. That’s why she’s so gosh darn attractive. And in a post-feminist world, men can feel like nice guys who aren’t sexist because, after all, they aren’t killing women (either literally, or figuratively by usurping women’s legal personhood into a marriage contract) or demanding that they be passive or vanilla or whatever traditional “good girl” stereotype. We want our girls to be seen and heard . Poly Styrene’s maniacal scream in the beginning of “O Bondage, Up Yours!” isn’t disruptive or out of context in contemporary pop—just think of all the screaming on “Yeezus,” for example. MPDGs, as Penny notes, get to have a story, just not a very significant one; their stories have to feed back into and amplify a “really” important story.
So it’s not enough just to write one’s own story—that’s what, as Horning convincingly argues, neoliberal labor markets demand of everyone (or, at least with everyone with enough whiteness and other human capital to begin with). “The data self,” he argues, “no longer seeks meaning through action” such as writing; “it seeks to be processed into meanings. It’s available for audit and pliable to the incentive structures built into social-media platforms.” Active/passive and subject/object binaries–which conventionally separate active, male subjects from passive, female objects—aren’t applicable to the story that “data” composes. There’s no meaningful distinction between “writer” and “written”; the very activity of writing is a supporting activity . Facebook, hell, even Academia.edu (who won’t stop prodding me to upload my papers) want me to write, write, write. Because that’s how they make money. My writing supports their ‘story’. Privilege isn’t writing one’s story (authorship, active agency); it’s being taken up by the algorithms and molded into the blingiest “Google Alert” (to use Horning’s term) out there. Is there any greater sign of success these days than being made into a meme or Twitter parody?
So in addition to worrying about who’s writing who’s stories, and who’s being made the supporting cast, we need also to worry about how our writing and data-generating gets fed back into the system, and for whose benefit. Patriarchy manifests not just in storytelling, but in “the momentum of sharing” (Horning) of these stories. So, to address this issue of momentum, we need to care about things like the citation rate of female authors (e.g., in philosophy journals or literary reviews)–how women’s work is or is not fed back into the algorithm. Because that feedback matters: YouTube, Spotify, Amazon, Google–what I type in the search box (my ‘writing’) feeds back into and shapes the search and recommendation algorithms. We need to be teaching or adapting the algorithm to take work by women and other traditionally “underrepresented” groups seriously, or developing alternative algorithms that work better for us, that allow us to support one another instead of “The Man.” Feminists need to intervene both at the level of momentum and at the level of benefit or profit…because, in the feedback loop that organizes the the irrational, wibbly-wobbly/timey-wimey “story” of contemporary life, these are inextricably related. How do we write stories that, when amplified, boost everyone’s signal, not just those of the most privileged members of society?