'Garden State' Turns 10 & Here's What "Manic Pixie Dream Girl" Means A Decade Later
In an August 2013 blog post, author John Green responded to an anonymous question about his third novel, Paper Towns . In his response, he lay the intentions of the novel bare, writing "I do not know how I could have been less ambiguous about this without calling the novel The Patriarchal Lie of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl Must Be Stabbed in the Heart and Killed." In July 2014, Nathan Rabin wrote a missive for Salon apologizing to the world for coining the term in the first place. So how did we get here? How did we get from the wildfire spread of the acknowledgment of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl, to a place that half wishes the term never claimed relevance in the first place?
First, we must acknowledge where we stand now: July 28 marks the tenth anniversary of Zach Braff's directorial debut, Garden State. The role of Garden State in the rise of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl is, at this point, legendary. Natalie Portman's character, the eclectic, eccentric, epileptic Sam, was one of Rabin's major examples in the 2007 AV Club article that started it all — or at least, started it all in the public consciousness.
Sam wasn't the complete epicenter of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl argument — at the time the entire argument was inspired by Kirsten Dunst's character in Elizabethtown, a quirky stewardess named Claire Colburn who seemed to exist mainly to coax Orlando Bloom's Drew Baylor out of his depression. But Garden State, in all its Zach Braff-y glory, turned out to be the more memorable film, and so went on to be referenced in nearly every discussion of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl that was to come. And oh boy, was that a lot of discussion.
And at first, many of those discussions were hugely productive. Big, long-latent questions bubbled to the surface: What is it about the roles for women in film (most specifically film of the 2000s, but not strictly) that is so unsatisfying, so one or two dimensional? What can we do to fix it? What are the signs that a female character is being written purely for the benefit of the male main character or, as Rabin suggested, as the embodiment of millennial male fantasy? When was a character simply a plot device, and when would we allow her to be considered fleshed-out? When would we consider her good enough? When was a female character well-written enough that we'd consider her whole?
Like the Bechdel Test before it, which evaluates female representation in film based on a few factors, the idea of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl provided a useful jumping-off point for feminist discussions of media. Films like (500) Days Of Summer and novels like Green's Paper Towns actively served to expose the idea of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl — the enigmatic woman who would guide her man to salvation and self-actualization— as the lie that it was.
But that was also where things got complicated. (500) Days Of Summer, for example, was widely misinterpreted as yet another film that fell into the MPDG trap, as opposed to one critiquing the man behind it. And that seems to exemplify much of the second life of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl: Rampant misunderstanding, rampant overuse, and the reutilization of the term as a weapon against "unworthy" women, as opposed to one aimed at the lazy writing the term's origins was designed to call out. Somewhere along the way it was Zooey Deschanel's character — and even Zooey Deschanel herself — the culture started demonizing, not the man who willfully misunderstood her.
When the big-screen adaptation of The Fault In Our Stars came out this June, I witnessed someone calling main protagonist Hazel Grace Lancaster a MPDG in the comments of a Jezebel Facebook post. For the record, Hazel Grace Lancaster's about as far from a Manic Pixie Dream Girl as you can get: She's the story's main character, the entire novel's told from her point of view, she's thoroughly fleshed out, and has agency and a narrative completely separate from her interactions with her love interest. In fact, the only thing that really links her to the trope at all is the fact that she has a love interest, and that she and that love interest play landmark roles in each other's lives. But if there's anyone in that story who's a Manic Pixie Dream Anything, it's the winsome Augustus Waters, and even then it's more than just his sex that disqualifies him.
Unlike the Bechdel Test, the MPDG as a tool of cultural criticism has become more thoroughly confused as time's worn on. What was initially used to call out over-reliance on stereotypes has now been regeared, by many, into a catch-all weapon against any female character deemed too 1) "quirky" (whatever that means), or 2) influential over a male character's story. In fact, it's even been utilized as a weapon against real-life women. It, like many tropes, is what Rabin refers to as "inherently reductive." And in its extended life, that reduction has been used to dismiss females fictional and real alike, often for simply existing with a personality and a male companion. As Rabin wrote in his re-visiting of the term:
The trope of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl is a fundamentally sexist one, since it makes women seem less like autonomous, independent entities than appealing props to help mopey, sad white men self-actualize. Within that context, the phrase was useful precisely because, while still fairly flexible, it also benefited from a certain specificity.
He continued in his piece:
But by giving an idea a name and a fuzzy definition, you apparently also give it power. And in my case, that power spun out of control.
As I mentioned before — and as Bustle's Anna Klassen asserted in her initial response to Rabin's Salon post — the acknowledgement of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl has done worlds of good in our modern world of cultural criticism. I, for one, am grateful for the discussions it's sparked. But I think it might also be time to move on to a new era — a new mode — for analyzing the way women are treated in our media. And the tenth anniversary of Garden State might be the perfect opportunity to acknowledge that the term's usefulness has worn thin.
We can be grateful to Rabin and to the hordes of other essayists, bloggers, and media peoples who have undoubtedly created an environment open to discussing how we write and talk about women. We can also simultaneously acknowledge, as Rabin himself has, that it's time to move on from our over-reliance on the term. Keep that magical spark of cultural criticism alive, for sure — we still need thoroughly-written female characters. But we have to stop conflating this trope; misusing it wins more points for sexism than it does for feminism. It's time to move forward. It's time for new terms — goodness knows there are more tropes out there worthy of our attention, both good (the Emily Nussbaum-coined "Hummingbird" is a promising one) and bad. It's time for the Manic Pixie Dream Girl to claim the place its earned: irrelevance.