The Manic Pixie Dream Girl. Her quirky characteristics, weirdly colored hair, and “not like other girls” personality has been seen time and time again in male-written films forming the idea that these types of girls only exist solely to improve the lives of the men they are romantically involved with. After watching Elizabethtown in 2007, AV club writer, Nathan Rabin coined the term Manic Pixie Dream Girl by explaining she is, “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.” While it may seem praise-worthy that writer-directors are providing us with female characters who are unique and different, these writers- directors are undercutting what it means to be a strong heroine and female character.
Two female protagonists who are often wrongly mistaken as a Manic Pixie Dream Girl (MPDG) are Clementine (Kate Winslet) from Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and Summer (Zoey Deschanel) from (500) Days of Summer. This is why the MPDG has now become a harmful trope. When great writers such as Charlie Kaufman and Scott Neustadter write dimensional and complex characters like Clementine and Summer that live life according to their terms these women get lumped into the same MPDG trope the film was sticking the middle finger to and trying to deconstruct in the first place.
MPDGs are like the definition implies “shallow.” They have very little depth and are underdeveloped characters who live only to bring the depressed, lonely, and uninspired male protagonist out of their slump and see the “true colors" of life. The notion that women cannot live without their world revolving around men is sexist and sets us back decades into our world, where women were meant to cook, clean, and ultimately just keep their husbands happy. While the term has gotten popular in recent years for some the original MPDG was Susan played by Katherine Hepburn in 1938 classic Bringing up Baby and we still see her today such as Grace Vanderwall’s character in the 2020 film by Disney Plus, Stargirl.
For most women when you see a MPDG you admire the cool and undaunted personality that makes her seem like such a badass … at first. But when you step back and see that writer-directors are simply using her to appease their male love interest and deny her of any substantial qualities, development and complexities, the sexism of their creation is rather clear. So it was hurtful to see that strong female protagonists like Clementine and Summer, were being called MPDGs and grouped into the category of badly written characters. Therefore, I read the AV Club’s 16 Films featuring Manic Pixie Dream Girls list and watched a few movies on it because it was important to me to examine how MPDGs are harmful and overall degrading to women.
But I couldn’t help but notice that on that list and many others that all MPDGs are almost exclusively white. No Black women whatsoever. It’s not 100 % a bad thing because MPDG is a sexist trope but it shows how the film community and society as a whole places Black women into a box. Can Black women not be quirky, weird, and adventurous? In most movies Black female protagonists are always sassy, sultry, bold which is great but can we not be bubbly, cute, and daring like our white counterparts? This idea of what Black women “should be” is only shown in films and there’s a great article in The Root providing real-life examples of Black MPDGs. I might just have to write a novel or script with my quirky black heroine one day ;) Now without further ado let's get started.
MPDG Scale :
🧚- I’m a normal woman
🧚🧚 - I only like super indie bands like The Smiths
🧚🧚🧚 - I dye my hair every month because f*** the patriarchy !
🧚🧚🧚🧚 - Let’s go on a road trip to find ourselves !
🧚🧚🧚🧚🧚 - I WILL CHANGE YOU !!!
Elizabethtown (Kirsten Dunst)
Scale : 🧚🧚🧚🧚🧚
Written and Directed by : Cameron Crowe
Year Released : 2005
On the plane, flight attendant, and our MPDG, Claire sparks up a conversation with depressed and suicidal Drew (Orlando Bloom) as he takes a late-night flight to Kentucky to bring his recently deceased father back to his home state of Oregon. Throughout the movie, she is there to help Drew make sense of the death of his father, and her outgoing, bubbly, and quirky personality are too overbearing for her self at times. She draws an entire map of Kentucky for Drew, rambles on about how she can “read” people just by their first names (she’s never had a good experience with an Ellen), ditches her assigned flight to Hawaii to attend the funeral and seemingly does everything he needs. When Drew tells her that he’s
never been on a road trip she convinces him to drive the 2, 242 miles home after the funeral (they end up having it in Kentucky) with his father’s ashes because, “Everyone should take a road trip once in their life.” She makes him a scrapbook for the trip and leaves him minute by minute instructions, sights he should see, songs corresponding to the places he is passing, and he scatters his dad’s ashes around these new sights. The main issue with Claire is she has no storyline of her own. Whatsoever. We don’t know anything about the girl, and when I thought we were getting to know something about her ( she talked about her on and off boyfriend Ben), it turns out he was fake and she made him up to conform to Drew’s idea that they “just aren’t right for each other.” Claire is the perfect example of an MPDG because she has no depth, little conflict and it's as if she was an angel dropped down from the sky to make Drew happy and once her job is done she flies away.
Garden State (Natalie Portman)
Scale : 🧚🧚🧚🧚
Director and Writer (s) : Zach Braff
Year Released : 2004
Starting similarly to Elizabethtown, Andrew ‘Large’ (Zach Braff) returns home to New Jersey for his paraplegic mother’s funeral. He meets our MPDG Sam (Natalie Portman) in a neurologist's office the next day and the two bond while Large is getting humped by a blind lady’s Doberman and she laughs telling him tp get the dog off he has to “kick him in the balls.” Throughout his four days stay the two meet each other’s weird friends, she finds out he can’t swim, they explore the “grand canyon” of the Garden State, bury Sam’s hundredth dead hamster and fall down the staircase of love. Prompting the most adorable line of the film said by Braff, “You’ve changed my life and I’ve known you for four days.” Zach Braff directed, wrote, and starred in the film which surprised me, he did an amazing job. Sam’s character is very dimensional and has much more depth than most MPDGs, but her ultimate purpose was to serve Large at the end of the day. Natalie Portman is an amazing actress and I quickly fell in love with Sam’s oddball personality because while she was quirky she also had problems of her own. She’s a pathological liar and when she first met Large in the doctor’s office she said she was there waiting for a friend but that was a lie. She has epilepsy and was there for
her routine check-up. Sam lives with her mother and her sort of adopted African brother Titembay in an animal-filled home with hamster tubes lining the walls. She’s babied by her mother who doesn’t hesitate to show Large a videotape of Sam ice skating in an alligator costume as a child, but make no mistake Sam knows how to hold her own. Large is at a crossroad in his life when he meets Sam because his acting career in LA has been subdued to playing handicap characters, his psychiatrist which is also his father has him so full-on prescriptions that his numb to everything in life and this is the first time he’s returned to New Jersey after nine years. She helps him realize life is what you make of it and Large you’re only twenty-six life doesn’t have to suck forever!
Breakfast at Tiffany’s (Audrey Hepburn )
Scale : 🧚🧚🧚🧚
Director : Blake Edwards
Writers : Truman Capote and George Axelrod
Year Released : 1961
In her iconic role of Holly, Audrey Hepburn is the most glamorous out of the bunch with her highlighted beehive, sleek black dresses, and pearls. While you may not initially think of her as one, Holly is an example that MPDGs take many shapes and forms and often hide in plain sight. It is heavily implied throughout the film that Holly is a sex worker and asks for “fifty dollars for the powder room” for then men she fiddles with and they follow her home begging for sex. When she meets the new man moving into her apartment building, Paul (George Peppard) we later learn that he too is no saint. He receives money from one particular older woman he routinely has sex with but has no affection for. Holly and Paul have friends with benefits relationships from the start and once she finds out that Paul is a writer who has been stuck in a rut for five years she is determined to get him
writing and inspired again. She introduces him to her socialite friends, takes him on their little tour of New York (stopping at Tiffany’s of course), and buries her problems to help him. When someone from Holly or should I say Lula Mae’s past comes to New York and Paul learns Holly is a child bride from Kentucky this may be the first case where we see the male love interest try to help the MPDG. Holly is flighty, bubbling with personality, all over the place, and always down for a good time and while she does not solely exist for Paul she does change the way he sees the world and breaks him free from his low self-esteem as a writer.
Watching The Detectives (Lucy Liu )
Directed and Written by : Paul Soter
Year Released: 2007
Violet: I have a condition. It’s called bore-phobia
Neil: Bore-phobia ? …. I see you’re allergic to boredom.
Violet: A very exotic and misunderstood disorder. So you can understand why doctors are reluctant to diagnose it.
As you can see the MPDG in this film is Violet played by Lucy Liu and yes she suffers from bore-phobia, gets used to it! Neil (Cillian Murphy) is a film buff and owner of videotape store Gumshoe Videos, living vicariously through the movies he watches. When Violet walks into his store one day looking for a movie, Nathan is the one who starts falling for her first, and while it takes some time for Violet to warm up to him, after that it is full speed ahead. Violet is all over the place, we don’t know anything about her, and while Neil tries to pry it out of her she deflects everything. When he asks where she was raised she replies with, “Alaska, Stockholm, Cape Town but mostly Tasmania,” so I guess that offers some clarity? Instead of having a t.v., she has a t.v. shaped fishbowl where her tiny creatures swim, goes to graveyards to see there is someone who died on her birthday and unlike Neil, she doesn’t like to spend time just watching things happen she likes to make things happen! Violet lies about a lot of things but in a cute way where it’s hard to
get mad at her and pranks Neil by hiring people to act out movie type scenarios that end up scaring the poor boy. But he can’t get enough of her carefree and intoxicating spirit that wants to make his world as whimsical and amazing as it can be. Violet is such a MPDG and if I knew someone like her I would be drained after one day with them, yeesh. She is the type of girl to do wild things because “you only live once” and she reminds me of Sam from Garden State. While she lacks that same depth, she wants to have fun in life and saves Neil from all the crappy life monologues and forces him to get out of his comfort zone. After Violet tells Neil she’s breaking up with him, he spends a whole week crying over videotapes at the cash register only for her to pop up out his house holding a heart sign that says “Just Kidding About Our Breakup” while he's in the tub. And then they go on a road trip to Memphis and the credits roll. You never know what to expect with a Violet and this poor film only made $15,000 in the box office. Yikes. But at least we see a MPDG as a woman of color :)
More on why Clementine & Summer are NOT MPDGs:
Now, many writers, directors, and authors have realized why Manic Pixie Dream Girls are harmful and Nathan Rabin, the man who created the term, wrote an article in 2014 apologizing and felt the trope had spun out of control. “I ’m sorry for creating this unstoppable monster,” he writes in the closing of his piece. John Green, a popular young adult author who is notorious for writing Manic Pixie Dream Girls, declared in a Facebook post that his novel Paper Towns “is devoted IN ITS ENTIRETY to destroying the lie of the manic pixie dream girl” and added on, “I do not know how I could have been less ambiguous about this without calling (Paper Towns) The Patriarchal Lie of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl Must Be Stabbed in the Heart and Killed.” So I guess we were all reading John the wrong way. Spoken words pieces by poets such as Olivia Gatewood have gotten to the grit of this trope and I would suggest you give her piece a listen, it is amazing. At the end of the day with the examples I showed you, it is clear why I am glad that Manic Pixie Dream Girls are being put to rest and hope to never see them again!