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.