Film critic Nathan Rabin coined the now-infamous phrase “Manic Pixie Dream Girl” (MPDG) in an innocuous 2007 review of the film Elizabethtown1. The phrase became a quick, snappy term for a problematic storytelling technique that has existed for a long time: women as a plot device to further the personal growth of male characters. The term opened up discussions about why the trope is harmful to real-life gender conceptions, and highlighted the unequal, gendered positions entrenched in storytelling. Blogger Ben Beaumont-Thomas has pointed out that it is now difficult to write a MPDG character without being called-out for it2.
But have we really “banished” the trope of the MPDG, and the gender hierarchy in storytelling that lies behind it? Or are we merely hyper-hostile to the aesthetic of the “quirky” indie-girl that has come to symbolize the MPDG? Rabin himself laments the over-application of the term, calling it an “unstoppable monster” that is at best meaningless, and at worst sexist3. Writer/Actress Zoe Kazan (Ruby Sparks) thinks the term is “misogynist” because it reflects the way men think about female characters, rather than the character herself; the term reduces all “individual, original, quirky women” to one flat trope4. An offbeat female character, no matter her depth or place in her particular story, is now often labeled as a MPDG, automatically “bad” and “unfeminist.”
Additionally, recent attempts by male filmmakers to avoid this trope have come no closer to portraying real, fully-fleshed female characters. Take the Jurassic World films. Leading lady Claire (Bryce Dallas Howard) is ostensibly a “feminist” character, seemingly the anti-MPDG: successful businesswomen, single, and strong-willed, her life revolves around no man! Yet, in the story-world, these “strong,” “independent” qualities make her irresponsible, a terrible decision-maker, and utterly exasperating and incompetent in a crisis. She relies on the gritty man’s-man (Chris Pratt) to save the day, and runs from dinosaurs in heels! The character is no MPDG, but she is just as shallow and unreal.
Avoiding a well-known trope like MPDG does not automatically make for a whole and honest female character. The term brought to light one pattern of misogyny in storytelling, but that doesn’t mean the work is finished. "Manic Pixie Dream Girl" has served its purpose, so perhaps it is time to create new terms to open up discussion about current, under-addressed patterns hindering the inclusion of honest female characters today.
- Rabin, Nathan. “The Bataan Death March of Whimsy Case File #1: Elizabethtown.” AV Club, G/O Media Inc, 25 Jan. 2007, film.avclub.com/the-bataan-death-march-of-whimsy-case-file-1-elizabet-1798210595.
- Beaumont-Thomas, Ben. “Why the Manic Pixie Dream Girl Must Never Return.” The Guardian, Guardian News and Media, 16 July 2014, www.theguardian.com/film/filmblog/2014/jul/16/why-the-manic-pixie-dream-....
- Rabin, Nathan. “I'm Sorry for Coining the Phrase ‘Manic Pixie Dream Girl.’” Salon, Salon.com, 16 July 2014, www.salon.com/2014/07/15/im_sorry_for_coining_the_phrase_manic_pixie_dre....
- Greco, Patti. “Zoe Kazan on Writing Ruby Sparks and Why You Should Never Call Her a 'Manic Pixie Dream Girl'.” Vulture, Vulture, 23 July 2012, www.vulture.com/2012/07/zoe-kazan-ruby-sparks-interview.html.