Enter: Manic Pixie Dream Girl!

I don’t know how I wound up reading about the Manic Pixie Dream Girl trope a couple of weeks back, but I’ve been itching to write about it ever since. Nathan Rabin coined the term writing about Elizabethtown and female lead Kirsten Dunst’s role as the kind of female who “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.”
Apparently this immediately caught on which is no surprise. Just like new psychiatric classifications, new tropes tend to be addictive (any emotionally awkward, head-centered character seems to get classed as an Asperger’s case). And just as rapidly, it got questioned: much like psychiatric diagnoses, it was getting flung about too easily, to the point any quirky, unconventional female love interest was a Manic Pixie (as at Jezebel and Nerve).
I think this trope lumps together two separate things. There’s the Manic Pixie romantic lead and the female character who in some fashion saves or proves the worth of the male lead. Which is a common thing, not at all limited to this character type.
In Silver Streak, for example, Jill Clayburgh’s character exists so that insecure Gene Wilder can get laid, feel like he’s attractive and then heroically save her from the bad guys (I like the movie, so I was disappointed how shallow her role was). In Good Will Hunting, (a much better film) Minnie Driver exists to convince tormented Will (Matt Damon) that despite his lower-class origins and tragic past, he’s a wonderful human being worthy of being loved by a wealthy, educated (but not as much as he is) woman. In the classic Manchurian Candidate, Janet Leigh only has to meet Frank Sinatra to start bailing him out of jail and breaking her engagement (it’s possible Leigh just couldn’t convey the chemistry the role needed).
But this doesn’t mean the pixie getting someone to Embrace Life is automatically a bad sign. Hell, it’s a basic romance plot: The insecure virgin who finally gets confidence. The man who realizes he’s going through the motions with his current relationship and reaches for something better. The ordinary woman elevated by the love of some amazing guy. The bad boy who straightens up and flies right (this overlaps with my good bad girl classification). The fact it’s badly done doesn’t mean the idea is bad, only the execution.
And I agree with the critics, this is frequently misapplied with a broad brush. One later article co-written by Rabin describes Barbra Streisand in What’s Up Doc as “a pesky chatterbox who endeavors to help dreary musicologist Ryan O’Neal get the grant he’s after, but instead succeeds in driving a wedge between O’Neal and his fiancée, and getting him embroiled in espionage and jewel thievery. Streisand’s character never really has any plausible motivation: She’s just an anarchic change agent, pitched halfway between a screwball heroine and a cartoon character.”
Um, did they see the movie? Streisand’s motivation is that she falls in lust/love with Ryan at first sight; any wedges she drives between O’Neal and his fiancee (Madeline Kahn) are quite intentional. Helping him get the grant is just part of protecting what’s now her man (in real life this would be insanely stalkery, but that’s common in rom-coms).
This makes me wonder if the trope is not only sticking to quirky types but also to women who take the initiative instead of waiting for the man to do the asking (most of the characters in that second list are the romantic aggressor).
There’s one more question I’ll bring up in the next post.

4 Comments

Filed under Movies

4 responses to “Enter: Manic Pixie Dream Girl!

  1. Pingback: Manic Pixie Dream Guys | Fraser Sherman's Blog

  2. Pingback: Undead sexist cliches: Women who orbit men (#SFWApro) | Fraser Sherman's Blog

  3. Pingback: They did it all for love: Wonder Woman and character motivation (#SFWApro) | Fraser Sherman's Blog

  4. Pingback: Competing with the dead (and other writing links) | Fraser Sherman's Blog

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