Sunday, November 6, 2011

A Manic Pixie Nightmare

I wrote this essay for my Criticism class, and I'm particularly proud of it.

She enters the scene like some sort of ethereal creature from a dream. Waifish, with giant anime eyes, wavy tresses and otherworldly pale skin, she exudes an infectious devil-may-care attitude. Everything that pops out of her mouth is surprising and quirky and yet, her gobbledygook pearls of wisdom inspire men to better themselves. She’s a spiritual guide, artist’s muse and indie music goddess rolled into one. If she sounds too good to be true, that’s because she is. She is the Manic Pixie Dream Girl, the character men love and women love to hate.

Manic Pixie Dream Girl is a term A.V. Club film critic Nathan Rabin coined in his book “My Year of Flops” describing a female ingĂ©nue archetype 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. The Manic Pixie Dream Girl is an all-or-nothing-proposition. Audiences either want to marry her instantly or they want to commit grievous bodily harm against them and their immediate family.” Not-so-surprisingly enough, the writer-directors behind these characters are young men, who model the young male heroes after themselves.

The character who sparked Rabin’s vitriol was Kirsten Dunst’s overinvolved flight attendant Claire in Elizabethtown, who utters a fitting line: “I'm impossible to forget, but I'm hard to remember.” The unforgettable Manic Pixie Dream Girl has long been a part of cinematic history, starting with Claudette Colbert’s high-society spaz in 1934’s screwball comedy, It Happened One Night. As entertainment writer Sharon Knolle pointed out in Moviefone, one of cinema’s most iconic heroines epitomizes the MPDG trope. Holly Golightly, Audrey Hepburn’s famous wannabe socialite in Breakfast at Tiffany's is a prime example of the whimsical yet wise woman whose mystery charms and inspires the male protagonist (George Peppard’s writer Paul Varjack) to reexamine himself.

The MPDG has emerged, according to the AV Club, in many forms, including Shirley MacLaine’s free-spirited elevator operator in the Apartment to Julia Robert’s Pretty Woman. But it wasn’t until the 2000s that her character became a pervasive screen presence. From Kate Hudson’s 2000 portrayal of fragile fantasy girl Penny Lane in Almost Famous to Mila Kunis’ Forgetting Sarah Marshall and Friends with Benefits characters, and most memorably Natalie Portman’s eccentric Sam in Garden State, the MPDG has been instrumental in saving navel-gazing men from themselves.

The difference between the old Hollywood MPDG and her Millennial counterpart is a lack of a character development. Audrey Hepburn’s Holly Golightly, for all of her quirks, had a tragic backstory as a child bride that made her a sympathetic character. Today’s MPDG is hard to identify with because as the critical pop cultural blog Jezebel points out, her character is distinguished by a secondary role and lack of an inner life. “She's on hand to lift a gloomy male protagonist out of the doldrums, not to pursue her own happiness.” She exists as an ideal, a hologram men can project their image of the perfect woman onto. As a real woman, she lacks substance. She would be considered flighty, frivolous, or just plain, a mess.

Take for instance, the latest embodiment of the MDPG: Zooey Deschanel characters. Since appearing in (500) Days of Summer and now starring in the too-cute TV show New Girl, hipster princess Deschanel has become the poster child for the manic pixie dream girl. Her title character Summer was awful: she was self-involved, callous and unreliable. Yet, romantic Tom (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) read her lack of predictability as an air of mystery. Summer became the puzzle he, and real-life men around the world, yearned to solve. And now, as the New Girl, Deschanel sells her brand of “adorkability” – an actual tagline from the show’s advertising – on a weekly basis, as she steals hipster boy hearts and repulses real-life nerdy girls with her exaggerated posturing, irritating self-motivational jingles and penchant for saying the wrong - but somehow still cute - thing.

The question the MPDG poses is: what does her existence say about men? What of the stock character who needs to stoke his ego by projecting his anxieties onto the MPDG? The young writer/director/actors of today are apparently lost, and so are the men who fall in love with these dream girls. Perhaps they need to work on themselves instead of hoping for a spirited woman to whirlwind turn their lives upside down. As Clementine in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind warns the emotionally withdrawn Joel, “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 who's lookin' for my own peace of mind; don't assign me yours.”

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