Feminist Frequency‘s Anita Sarkeesian has released the first of her series of short videos examining the roles women are often assigned in movies and television. In this one she goes after the “manic pixie dream girl,” or the female side character who helps the male main character find himself, love life again, or overcome some obstacle. This character, Sarkeeisan argues, is problematic because she “perpetuates the myth of women as caregivers at our very core”; her main role is to “‘fix’ these lonely sad men, so that they can go ‘fix the world.'” The women themselves? They’re too busy being adorable.
(Transcript after the jump.)
A trope is a common pattern in a story or a recognizable attribute in a character that conveys information to the audience. A trope becomes a cliche when it’s overused. Sadly, some of these tropes often perpetuate offensive stereotypes.
In the world according to Hollywood men are often written as the great protectors, the heroes, the creators and the inventors, but sometimes all that pressure of running the entire world really gets them down. Enter the Manic Pixie Dream Girl, the shining beacon of child like joy that will rejuvenate our fallen hero.
The Manic Pixie Dream Girl is a term coined by Nathan Rabin to describe the female character whose written to help the usually white, and definitely straight male hero loosen up and enjoy life. Rabin writes, “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.”
The Manic Pixie Dream Girl is a supporting character used to further the storyline of the male hero.
She really has no life of her own, she has no family or interests or much of job that we ever see.
She is as the AVclub describes, “On hand to lift a gloomy male protagonist out of the doldrums,
not to pursue her own happiness.”
All of these male characters find a Manic Pixie to help them out of their depressed, uptight and doom and gloom state so that they can be happy functioning members of society again.
Let’s start with Kirsten Dunst’s character from Elizabethtown who is the catalyst for Rabin naming this trope. Drew Baylor played by Orlando Bloom has just lost his job, his girlfriend and he decides he wants to kill himself. So just at that very moment he gets a call from his sister saying his father died and he needs to go handle the family affair. Drew gets on a plane and meets Claire, a flight attendant who talks to him throughout the whole flight even though he’s clearly not interested in interacting with her. Claire eventually guides Drew on a personal journey of self exploration, growth and embracing fun.
“I’m checking out this cute guy.”
“Why are you telling me that?”
“How could I leave you in distress?”
“I’m taking you out.”
You might remember Zooey Deschanel in 500 days of Summer, the non-committing love interest of the film’s star Tom Hansen played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt. The story follows Tom on his journey of falling in and out of love with Summer Finn. They have the classic Manic Pixie Dream Girl scene where they are frolicking around in the world and the Manic Pixie teaches the uptight star how to embrace his inner child.
CLIP: 500 Days of Summer
“There’s kids around.”
“There are no kids around.”
“Are you having fun?”
“This is the kind of thing you did with the Puma?”
“No… we rarely left the room.”
“Sorry tourettes, you know how it is.”
“She has it too.”
And this list would not be complete without an appearance from Natalie Portman. Her young and bubbly child like character in Garden State just might be the quintessential Manic Pixie Dream Girl. She’s here to guide angsty, emo Andrew Largeman played by Zach Braff out of his depressed state and general gloominess all with traditional Manic Pixie child like glee.
CLIP: Garden State
“Any way… ah… I’m talking too much, you gotta fill out your forms.”
“What are you listening to?”
“The Shins, you know em?”
“You gotta hear this one song, it’ll change your life I swear.”
“Oh I’m sorry, you have to, ah, fill out your forms. Conundrum. Think you could uh, maybe listen while
you fill out-” “Ya I think I can handle that” “Ya?”
The list of Manic Pixies kind of goes on and on and on. There’s Kate Hudson’s character in Almost Famous,
Meg Ryan in Joe Versus the Volcano, Charlize Theron in Sweet November, and what about Winona Ryder in Autumn in New York, Rachel Bilson in The Last Kiss and Elisha Cuthbert in My Sassy Girl among others.
The Manic Pixie perpetuates the myth of women as caregivers at our very core, that we can go “fix” these lonely sad men, so that they can go “fix the world”. The Manic Pixie Dream Girl is really a muse who exists to be the inspiration for the troubled, tortured man. In fact we should talk about this whole idea of a muse which is the foundation for this trope. For centuries male filmmakers, writers, painters, artists of all kinds have often cited women as the inspiration for their brilliant masterpieces.
I swear if I hear one more story like this I’m going to scream. Or puke. Or both.
Women are not here for men’s inspiration or celebration or whatever else. We are musicians and artists and writers with our own brilliant and creative endeavors. But you wouldn’t know that from the Manic Pixie Dream Girl trope.
Needless to say, the Manic Pixie, not so great for women’s representations.
So Hollywood writers, let me remind you that women are not here for your inspiration, celebration or to coax you out of your troubles. You might not know this but we’re full and complete human beings with our own troubles, interests and creative endeavors.
So how’s about your stop using us as your muse and start writing us as real people.
Lisa Wade, PhD is an Associate Professor at Tulane University. She is the author of American Hookup, a book about college sexual culture; a textbook about gender; and a forthcoming introductory text: Terrible Magnificent Sociology. You can follow her on Twitter and Instagram.
putnamp — April 2, 2011
I haven't seen a lot of those movies, but I'm confused about Kate Hudson in Almost Famous. The main character is nuts for her, but she's not at all interested in him, and never is. Am I over-reading into the trope, expecting that Manic Pixie Girl is supposed to gratify the main character's love interest?
ellebee — April 2, 2011
a couple of these examples are a possibly-intentional play on the manicpixiedreamgirl trope, or at least don't end with the "guy actually ends up being saved" conclusion.
For example, in Eternal Sunshine, the whole point is that Clementine starts out as Joel's self-perceived MPDG, while at the same time she warns him that she is not going to "save him" and that she's "just a f***ed up girl looking for her own peace of mind, so don't assign me yours." Joel ignores the warning and treats her in this manner anyway, and it spells doom for the relationship.
Natalie Portman's character in Garden State is definitely the quintessential MPDG, though. Through-and-through
Alan B — April 2, 2011
If I were to describe the characters in these movies in one word each, I might use "helpless" for the guy, and "aggressive" for the girl. Isn't that, in a sense, a shift from the age-old trope of a man choosing a female and pursuing her as a material goal?
Not to discount the argument made in the video - I recognize the cliche and agree that it is tired. But I do wonder if it originated from male writers who aren't thrilled at the expectation of taking the aggressive role in romantic relationships.
Just a thought...
Chlorine — April 2, 2011
Yikes, I really haven't seen enough movies to even realize this was a trope. I think I'd seen only one MPDG before (... no idea what movie it was) and it just read as a typical chick flick to me.
I do have to say though... I kind of prefer this trope over the typical sexed up sex sex sex (or alternately, BABIES BABIES BABIES BABIES MOTHERHOOD) that you usually get out of female characters. :/ I liked that these characters at least had ~some~ personality...
You know what, movie directors? From now on, you need to write a script and them randomly switch 3/4 of the genders (and races, while we're at it) in the movie before finalizing anything. We'd suddenly get a ton of more interesting roles for women AND for men.
russ — April 2, 2011
I am reminded of the "Magic Negro" trope.
Brendon — April 2, 2011
One of the more interesting parodies of this trope is the 'Rita' plotline during the third season of Arrested Development -- in which a woman Michael's been seeing as a wild, adventurous free spirit is revealed to be developmentally disabled -- it's been his own narcissism that's caused him to read her as a manic pixie dream girl.
Brendan — April 2, 2011
I've got one... the 'angry feminist'. Angry feminist goes off about women being put down and sterotyped (or troped). What the angry feminist always misses though, is that the 'putting down' and sterotypes aren't a male/female thing. It's a generic power thing for the 'putting down' and a very generic, and very universal, 'human' thing for the stereotypes. There isn't a group on the planet that hasn't been stereotyped to hell (and that doesn't do the exact same thing). What's more, take any adjective that can be applied to a human being and you'll almost immediately think of a stereotype that goes along with it. Including Angry Feminist's stereotyping of hollywood writers.
It's the nature of storytelling to draw on familiar sterotypes, it's a necessity to help the audience gain a frame of reference in a reasonable amount of time. Trying to introduce sufficient characters for a 90-120 minute film without resorting to any stereotyping whatsoever is almost impossible. First because you're going to have a hard time constructing a truly unique character that isn't drawn on some other character in some way. Second, because the time you'll require to develop the character in such a way as to avoid every stereotype out there will leave you no time for anything else in the film. Finally, you'll be left with a character so alien and different from what people know, they won't be able to relate to the character and by being unable to relate, they will have a hard time developing any empathy for the character.
As for the issue with this particular stereotype, the Manic Pixie Dream Girl, that of the caregiver.... all I can say is good luck arguing with evolution. Women are mothers, women create and nurture life and evolution has encoded women with instincts that facilitate that. That's not to say women Should HAVE to be mothers, all people have free will, but arguing against the nurturing caregiver stereotype will get you about as far as arguing against the fight or flight reflex.
merryn — April 2, 2011
What is also soooo disturbing about this architype is how men and boys make sense of this femininity and how it functions in these popular cultural gendered narratives/scripts of 'care'. When you read the transcripts of interviews with male domestic violence perpetrators or listen to research and feedback from people who work with male domestic violence perpetrators (and Johns and pimps) it is clear that a dominant recurrent theme in the data is that male DV perps (Johns and pimps) is that they feel women are 'there' (i.e. women's 'true' purpose) is to prop up men's lives, support and care for them through anything and everything, including their problems with anger, sex 'needs' etc... This architype is really an absorber, she is there to witness the man's life, she is the audience to his play. Her life is merely a recognition of his. She is a cipher, a recorder. Her life is of no consequence and she has no personhood. Adams rib...
bearmonkey — April 2, 2011
What would we say about a manic pixie dream *boy*? That women need free-spirited, immature men to lift them out of their funk and aren't strong enough or smart enough or un-bitchy enough to do it on their own (Something's Gotta Give, for exampe)? I dunno, just a thought. I'd say it still perpetuated a negative stereotype about women, even though the shoe is on the other foot.
I think the real issue at stake is that there are just not enough detailed, realistic female leads with non-stereotypical plots. When your identity is still oppressed, that oppression turns everything it touches to shit. It becomes a stain of the Other. It becomes a mess of distortion and baggage and political battle lines...just sordid *history*, no matter what is going on.
I felt like Natalie Portman's character was kinda fleshed-out...she likes cool and interesting music, she does in fact have a family whom we meet, we do hear about her job, she has stuff to say had some insight...I remember liking the movie because I felt like there was some substance there, by Hollywood standards anyway. Zach Braff is simply the main character, and thus the story is about him. I would not necessarily expect a supporting character to do more than prod a plot along. And that's fine on its own. What's not fine is that almost every movie ever is led by a white, able-bodied, straight male AND/OR written by that same population. This is the lens we get, and it's quite the fish-eye.
rhea d — April 3, 2011
Saw some of Sweet November in college and it did make me want to puke. I thought The Rebound was a great romcom though, esp. the end where she tells him to go experience life and she works on her own then they happen to meet again and know for sure they're meant to be together. Ofcourse it's about a straight couple but it was great to see a woman take charge of her life, a man stand by to give her courage when her ex-husband comes to take her back. Great movie.
[links] Link salad turns over and over and over again now | jlake.com — April 3, 2011
[...] Anita Sarkeesian on the Manic Pixie Dream Girl — Some interesting sociology here. [...]
Mal — April 3, 2011
All of these movies might be written by men, but they are all "chick flicks", the kind of movie that women have to drag men to see and movies that men sleep through. They are created to be consumed by women and and they are all successful - women adore them. Blame the writers if you wish, but these myths are perpetuated by women themselves.
Contrast that with the huge number of young males that go to see movies like 'Tomb Raider' and 'Resident Evil' in droves and one begins to get the idea that this issue isn't about how men view women but it's an issue about how women view themselves.
Syd — April 3, 2011
More obnoxious than the movies, is the subsection of men in real life who expect women to be like this. I think I like those men even less than men who expect women to be simply sex objects, to be totally honest.
:D — April 3, 2011
Lotuspetal7 — April 3, 2011
i gotta say: in real life it's really fun to appear in the role of a manic pixie dream girl! occasionally when i'm in a particularly inspired phase of my life i meet a guy who's in a particularly jaded phase of his but is wowed out of it due to my amazing manic pixieness. (which gratifies me and i play up my manic pixieness even more.)
heehee. but it's true actually. i think this kind of thing happens a lot among creative types who need regular inspiration--film directors and writers have probably had the experience themselves so they make movies about it.
the phenomenon is not gender-limited. plenty of people have been manic pixie dream boys for me ♥
shale — April 3, 2011
The problem, in my mind, with the Sarkeesian's criticism is that she makes very broad sweeping assumptions about men and their place in the world. She lops all men into the "rule/ fix the world" category as though patriarchy were this completely homogeneous force that puts every man always in power over every other woman AND man (doesn't make much sense when you put it that way, does it...). There are issues with the manic pixie dream girl trope, but it has little to do with the pathetic male characters in these films going on to fix the world thanks to the support they get from their female confidants. The men in these films are sad and pathetic, and mostly useless to everyone including themselves--often on the verge of suicide---and it is rarely suggested that they will ever amount to anything more than this (oh great, at the end of the movie they are no longer suicidal... at least for awhile).
The manic pixie dream girl shares a lot more with the "knights in shinny armour saves the princess" trope, except gender reversed, than the "Barack couldn't be the greatest president evah if it weren't for Michelle" trope. There are serious issues with the shallow hero knight character, as there are with the shallow pixie character. I wouldn't want a young man to seek to be a knight in shinning armour hero anymore than I would want a young woman to seek to be a manic pixie dream girl hero. On the other hand, young women, like young men, want to be heroes, and seek stories that inspire and guide them. These movies are not popular with men---they are with young women. We should be talking about writing stories that provide appealing feminist hero narratives for young women (as well as men).
Sort of in-line with MAL above, it isn't clear to me how making this issue into an issue about men gets us any closer to resolving it. On the other hand, this strategy would make more sense if we wanted to produce a feminist critique of Tomb Raider and Resident Evil---films made for and actually consumed by men.
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[...] UnaMused By The Manic Pixie Dream Girl [...]
Nijuro — April 4, 2011
I can agree with her without watching the video, right? I really dislike Anita Sarkeesian. Fucking fascist screens like 95% of all replies to her videos (and never mind that most of them might be misogynist, let the problem reveal itself instead of ignoring it) and her delivery grates on me. She's humourlessly sanctimonious and talks down to the viewer by preaching at us instead of letting us draw our own conclusions.
That said who watches these garbagey Hollywood romcoms seriously.
Lilac — April 4, 2011
Amazing. I was having a conversation this weekend about why tons of guys I've met like Garden State enough to recommend it to me, while no woman ever has. I think it's because women don't connect to this movie.
I think that for everyone who says, "Well, it's Zach Braff's story, so of COURSE she's not well-fleshed out!" there should be the balancing statement. That is to say, wouldn't anyone who was intrinsically changed by a relationship with another human being to have that human being BE fleshed out, real, and worth changing for? A real woman far beats a manic pixie any day.
Heather — April 4, 2011
Can anyone just tell me what was to the left of the narrator? That constant glancing left really distracted me from what she had to say. Yikes.
Grizzly — April 5, 2011
I haven't seen most of these movies, but regarding Meg Ryan's character in "Joe Vs The Volcano" (she actually plays three characters; I'm referencing the one Joe ultimately ends up with); she would definitley not be described as a manic pixie dream girl. She is a dark and brooding character who even describes herself as "soul sick." If anything, Joe, who had recently learned how to embrace life (after finding out he had a terminal illness), is her manic pixie guy.
Grizzly — April 5, 2011
If you're looking for other examples of the manic pixie guy, check out Disney's "The Princess and the Frog," "Morning Glory," "Knight and Day," "It's Complicated;" in "Mamma Mia" Meryl Streep had three of them.
B — April 5, 2011
Gaming examples don't quite fit due to there generally being more character development in RPGs, but Vanilla (FF13), Colette (ToS), Yuffie (FF7), Rinoa and Selphie (FF8). Most of these get more development, which gets rid of a bit of the bubbly-ness, but only temporarily, but generally are this stereotype. The worst is definitely Selphie, who gets absolutely no development. Yuffie's development is a side-plot. Rinoa's is directly connected to her relationship with Squall. Colette is horrible particularly because she is contrasted to two strong female characters who act as FEMALE, not males who happen to have boobs like Fang in FF13 (Raine and Sheena). Vanilla is by far the deepest character in this list despite being the Manic Pixie Dream Girl.
Anyways, move away from RPGs and this gets worse because plot amount decreases. I cannot come up with any good examples at the moment. Notice how FF is bad? They all have one.
elizilla — April 5, 2011
My favorite manic pixie dream girl (or perhaps subversion of the MPDG) is Maude in "Harold and Maude". If Maude were a teenager, the movie would be boring and cliche, but by making her 79 years old the movie becomes profound.
Erin — April 5, 2011
Great video - but (spoiler) I felt the whole point of (500) Days of Summer was to break down that trope - that she was only ever a MPDG in his head, as he willfully ignored the fact that she was a whole, flesh and blood person and instead put her up on a pedastal. Because we see her largely through his eyes we are seeing his skewed view of her, but the reality starts breaking through in his moments of introspection and his acknowledgement that the relationship was never ever perfect and that she was never what he wanted her to be. The character might facilitate his discovery of what is posited to be his actual 'true love' by giving him something of a reality check, but she's hardly two dimensional and she is there to serve herself, not him.
Nick — April 27, 2011
I know this is an old thread, but it is fascinating to me.
I agree with the comment toward the beginning of the thread that immature, ungrounded male characters in romantic comedies tend to make for a completely different dynamic--the heroines in those movies tend to be pretty self-actualized and stable already, and even though they ultimately fall for the manchild, they don't really "need" him. The manchild is the one who has to do the changing, by growing up enough to be a worthwhile partner. (I certainly don't find the manchild movies unproblematic--pretty much everything Seth Rogen has done as a romantic lead, for instance, makes me sick.)
I think there is such a thing as a Manic Pixie Dream Boy, but he tends to be a special case--either he has a childlike perspective and is sweet and innocent (such as in Blast from the Past or Big), or he has some sort of hyper-evolved, preternatural ability, e.g. John Travolta's character in in Phenomenon, or the classic tale of a rock 'n' rolling freewheeler who shows up in a sleepy small town and teaches everyone to be happy. You might also say that Marty McFly was something of a Manic Pixie Dream Boy in the first Back to the Future movie--even though the "romance" was taboo because it was his mom, he brought a little magical sunshine into a monochromatic world.
(I do realize that using Big as an example overlooks the questionable nature of the adult heroine's adult relationship with the thirteen-year-old hero, but I believe the perspective he lends and the way he affects his love interest's world still pertains to this discussion.)
The awful Robin Williams movie Jack also had a Manic Pixie Dream Boy--the adult man's body piloted by a child's mind. The relationship between Jack and his teacher never got romantic (fortunately), but he still provided that fresh viewpoint for her and possessed the sweetness and charm of an MPDB.
In children's movies, though, the MPDB is all over the place, starting with Peter Pan, the boy who never grows up and offers Wendy a world of adventure and escape from her stuffy role as a big sister/caretaker just before she is due to "grow up" (take a job as a governess? Get married? I don't know what was about to happen). Of course, the same tired gender role of woman as nurturer of man kicks in when Wendy becomes a surrogate mother to the Lost Boys, and ultimately she returns to her normal life (doesn't she? It's been awhile for me.) Even when she first meets Peter, she has to sew on his lost shadow and soothe him with bedtime stories.
Another, perhaps better example of an MPDB in a children's movie is The Boy Who Could Fly. It was a Disney movie in the early '90s, about a girl who has moved to a new neighborhood after her father's suicide. She and her younger brother are having trouble fitting in, and she obviously has unsettled angst about what she's been going through, and then she notices the boy next door, who has autism and some traumas of his own. Long story short, it turns out this boy, who stands on his roof with his arms outstretched, can actually fly, and he uses this power to save the girl's life at one point, as well as to help her escape from her pain. The boy never says a word until the end (surprise, it's a romance, so of course he says "I love you"), but he completely possesses the freedom from conformity needed to help the main character self-actualize.
...This is a really, really long comment, but I would like to wrap up by pointing out that Manic Pixie Dream Boys tend to affect large groups of people (and also be the main characters of their own movies), whereas the MPDG tends to only affect the male lead, who is himself the protagonist. That's bothersome.
Zachary Spector — June 22, 2011
That word "perpetuate" will probably never cease to confuse me.
(nb. I do find this trope problematic, but I am confused about what's being said about it here)
Normally I see it used to mean something like "contribute," where the thing being contributed to is a social phenomenon that's already ongoing. The idea is that, by contributing to a vicious cycle, you're making it last a bit longer, even if you aren't personally hurting anyone by doing so.
But here, a *trope* is perpetuating a *myth*.
Can an abstract entity such as a trope be meaningfully said to "contribute" anything to anything? It's not a conscious entity. It only exists because people use it. Those people perpetuate the trope, which exists because of the myth that women exist to care for others.
So, when you use this trope, you use this myth, and that's bad. That makes sense. I *think* that's what's being said here, but it isn't obvious.
Modern Girl — June 23, 2011
But what if you are a manic pixie dream girl? I never heard of this stereotype until this post. I'm a full human being. I'm neurotic, ambitious, professional and serious. But in all my personal relationships, I'm the lighthearted, childish one who likes to hum and dance, and do really silly and random things to make my significant other laugh. I AM a day brightening girl, and that's who I love being. We really do exist!
Soumya Sen — July 1, 2011
While being a very interesting article, I must confess it made me look at many films in newer ways. I think it's more than some women actually being happy with being the m.p.d.girl in real life. Women definitely have much less-defined characters in most films and you have to admit you go there to watch the male protagonist do his thing. The male gaze, that all universal thing ever present in cinema. I hate to admit that even No Country For Old Men has this to some extent, though I absolutely love that film. I think after I read this article, I started liking films like 21 Grams, Amelie and The Piano more. It would be nice having more films that treat both their women and men as fully developed, human and flawed.
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[...] said forced) I’ve kinda been wondering if Gugu Mbatha-Raw’s Talia was the black “manic pixie dream girl” the folks over at Racialicious have kind of sort of been searching for-asking about since [...]
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[...] ou might remember Zooey Deschanel in 500 days of Summer, the non-committing love interest of the film’s star Tom Hansen played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt. The story follows Tom on his journey of falling in and out of love with Summer Finn. They have the classic Manic Pixie Dream Girl scene where they are frolicking around in the world and the Manic Pixie teaches the uptight star how to embrace his inner child. via The Society Pages [...]
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[...] be just as acceptable beyond a few proscribed roles (sex object, mom, sister, casual girlfriend, manic pixie dream girl). And movies stretching the portrayals of womanhood in film should not just resort to casting women [...]
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Duderoo — January 8, 2013
"Honey, I finally finished my sculpture! It took two years but I couldn't have done it without you!"
"Keep it to yourself you self-serving asshole!"
You’ve Come a Long Way, Baby: Women Making Blockbusters | Stephanie Medley-Rath, Ph.D. — June 21, 2013
[...] be just as acceptable beyond a few proscribed roles (sex object, mom, sister, casual girlfriend, manic pixie dream girl). And movies stretching the portrayals of womanhood in film should not just resort to casting women [...]
Rusthuis voor de manic pixie dream girl | De Zesde Clan — August 8, 2015
[…] gebeurt er met de manic pixie dream girl als de film afgelopen is? Ze heeft immers geen eigen leven. Ze bestaat alleen maar om de mannelijke […]