Written by Jasmine Snow
Illustration by Jasmine Snow
The Manic Pixie Dream girl (MPDG) is a term coined by film critic Nathan Rabin after seeing Elizabethtown. It refers to “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.” However, over time, this definition has become misconstrued. The term MPDG is now often used to refer to female characters who are simply impulsive, quirky and/or free. The fact that the MPDG term was only coined to call out sexism, to refer to female characters who were created to solely help broody males relax and enjoy life has been lost. As a result, the term MPDG is often used as a ‘catch-all’ and reductively groups female characters together. Therefore, I think it’s imperative to explore what a MPDG girl truly is, who qualifies as one and how we can better use or not use this term in the future.
There are common characteristics that genuine MPDG’s often meet such as, an outgoing nature. MPDG’s almost always approach the man, introduce themselves and strike up conversations even if they aren’t welcome. This leads me onto another classic MPDG characteristic, they’re persistent, especially towards men who show little to no interest in them. Even if they’re played by gorgeous, scintillating actresses, they’re almost met with rebuke. Nevertheless, they are unwaveringly tenacious and always find a way to situate themselves within the male characters life. They also often have niche, ‘indie’ taste that supposedly makes them ‘not like other girls’. A perfect example of this is when Sam Feehan (Natalie Portman) meets Andrew Largeman (Zach Braff) in Garden State:
Zach: “Who are you listening to?”
Sam: “The Shins, you know em?”
“You gotta listen to em, they’ll change your life I swear”
And, boom, she’s in. Furthermore, despite all of this, they are inordinately happy, even if they’re dying like the character Sara Deever (Charlize Theron) in Sweet November. Sam spends the entirety of the film trying to make Nelson Ross (Keanu Reeves) happy, with no real motivation, until we find out at the end she’s dying and she “needed to know that you’ll [Nelson] go on and have a beautiful life.” In doing so, these female characters change lives, particularly men’s lives. Before meeting the MPDG, the male characters are often lonely, tortured or career driven, but afterwards they have a new lease of life.
However, simply because MPDG’s often possess these traits, does not mean every female character with one or even all of these traits are a MPDG. These traits apply to a lot of female characters throughout history, but it is not and should not be unusual or unrealistic for a female character to be strong, independent or ‘different’. Upon reflection of the character Claire Colburn (Kirsten Dunst), in Elizabethtown, it is clear why Rabin coined the term MPDG. Claire perfectly embodies this repeated cliché of a female character whose main function is to serve the male character and improve his life. Claire instantaneously assumes a motherly, supportive and guiding role for a complete stranger by providing him with the correct pronunciation of Louisville, warning him about the weaving roads and even flicking his light back on so that she can draw him a map to the infamous exit 60B within the first minute of meeting him. She is undeniably a MPDG because her being seems to exclusively revolve around the happiness of Drew Baylor (Orlando Bloom) and that doesn’t change.
Nevertheless, there are many female characters and even real-life women who have been unfavourably been mislabelled a MPDG. A prime example of this is, Clementine Kruczynski (Kate Winslet) in An Eternal Sunshine of a Spotless Mind, who explicitly states “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 looking for my own peace of mind, don’t assign me yours.” This notion is the complete opposite of a MPDG, yet because her character introduces herself to Joel Parish (Jim Carey) on a train in high energy by talking about the different names she gives her hair dyes and persistently creates conversation even though Jim doesn’t seem all that interested, she is often deemed a MPDG. Upon analysis of this singular scene, one could reasonably argue she is a MPDG, but that would be a huge oversight. There is a lot of context to this scene that needs to be considered, in this film Clementine and Joel have a romantic relationship, that falls apart, which results in them both erasing their memories, only to meet again on the train and that is why Clementine is so persistent. The reason why this timeline changes everything is because even though their memories of each other have been erased, the procedure doesn’t seem to be one-hundred percent effective because they are always drawn back to one another and so when Clementine sees Joel, she asks “Do I know you?”, hence the persistence, because there is a part of her which remembers him. In addition to this, she is not one dimensional like many MPDG’s are, she has an arc, flaws and most crucially she does not live to serve Joel.
Another example of a classically mislabelled MPDG is Summer Finn (Zoey Deschanel) in 500 Days of Summer. On the surface level, it is understandable why Summer receives this label because she’s a beautiful, bubbly girl who encourages Tom Hansen (Joseph Gordon) to live life to the fullest. However, to label Summer a MPDG, is a big misunderstanding of the film. The reason why Summer so perfectly manifests MPDG energy is because Tom projects this image onto her and the film is trying to demonstrate the danger of perceiving people in the way in which you want them to be, rather than the person that they truly are. Marc Webb, the director of 500 Days of Summer said “Yes, Summer has elements of a Manic Pixie Dream Girl. She is an immature view of a woman. She’s Tom’s view of a woman. He doesn’t see his complexity and the consequence for him is heartbreak.” This proves the MPDG persona is how Tom perceives Summer, but not who she is and the writers made this clear throughout the movie. The one and only goal of a MPDG is to improve the life of the male character, so if Summer was a true MPDG she would have given Tom the committed, loving relationship he is so desperate for. Yet, no matter how many warning signs she gives or how many times she tells him “I [Summer] just don’t feel comfortable being anyone’s girlfriend”, he ignores her. Summer’s backstory tells the audience she has lived a life of privilege, which has perhaps made her too self-indulgent and this is superbly demonstrated when Summer flirts, dances and embraces Tom at a wedding, all the while knowing she had a boyfriend at home because she “wanted to”. This proves that Summer is not a MPDG because she prioritises herself, even if it is to Tom’s detriment.
The term isn’t inherently problematic because this trope is very real and one-dimensional love interests, with no depth or reason is questionable writing which deserves to be highlighted. However, if we condemn all female characters such as Annie Hall, Margo Roth Spiegelman and many more who are inspiring or quirky we’re dismissing many stand-out performances, fictional characters and real people. Moreover, 500 Days of Summer may have a subversive plot line about how the male protagonist deludes himself, yet that intended message didn’t stop a huge number of viewers from siding with Tom and vocally blaming Summer, as well as even Zoey Deschanel herself. This suggests that the narrative was too myopic, allowing viewers to feel Tom’s side of the story and not effectively encouraging them to feel for Summer as well. Therefore, this term must be used with greater care and ultimately a great diversity of voices is needed to create and write the heroines we see on screen.