In his review of the Cameron Crowe film Elizabethtown, as part of his My Year In Flops series, Nathan Rabin (formerly of the AV Club and now reviewing for The Dissolve) coined a term that has become ubiquitous in pop culture. The original definition of ‘manic pixie dream girl’ is defined as thus:
“The Manic Pixie Dream Girl 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 (despite The Manic Pixie Dream Girl being, you know, a fictional character) or they want to commit grievous bodily harm against them and their immediate family.”
It didn’t take long for the term to dominate discussion of sexism in film and other creative mediums primarily dominated by men, and for good reason. The trope wasn’t new when Rabin created the term, and it’s not the only example of the ways in which female characters have been shoddily treated excluded from decent characterisation by an industry that’s systematically shut women out for decades. Nevertheless, it’s a very useful term, a shorthand for a specific kind of woman that we’ve all encountered in fiction, one we know is painfully false and damaging and yet is so favoured. These women aren’t characters so much as props, quirky with a capital Q and no interests or driving desires beyond making an average Joe of a man happy and fulfilled.
There has been some backlash against both the term and the trope, yet to blame the term itself for this and to deem it as inherently misogynistic seems to miss the point. The trope is sexist and lazy storytelling, but pointing that out doesn’t add to the damage. By that logic, pointing out that anything is sexist would be sexist itself (and don’t think nobody’s used that defence on me before). We wouldn’t be able to discuss anything with that train of thought.
It’s true that some films and characters have been unfairly lumped under the MPDG umbrella by lazy writers (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Ruby Sparks, Her) but this ties back to my above point. The misuse of a term doesn’t undo the inherent usefulness of the term. “Literally” is a good word to use when it’s used properly, and a million abuses of it don’t break the word. You don’t just abandon words or terms because some people have no idea what they really mean.
Some great characters still fit into the MPDG mould, and it doesn’t instantly turn them into terrible characters, but like the Bechdel Test, the MPDG term is a handy reminder of just how prevalent certain trends are. Today, we still have to deal with token women in major films, a lot of whom end up needing to be saved by the heroic male protagonist, even as they’ve spent the majority of the film trying to demonstrate what a Strong Female Character they are. It’s not quite the MPDG trope but it still ties into the use of a woman to validate a man’s worth.
The MPDG is a subset of the Damsel in Distress, along with its familiar cohorts the Designated Love Interest, the Fighting Fucktoy, the Sassy Gay Friend, the Token Minority, and a hundred other ones I could name off the top of my head. Tropes exist because storytellers continue to lazily use them as crutches across all mediums, and the very naming of that trope acknowledges there’s a problem and leads to the deconstruction of it, allowing other writers to move beyond it. Films like Ruby Sparks and 500 Days of Summer are clear call-outs to the MPDG trope in their subversive take-downs of viewer expectations. You can’t take on the problem without acknowledging it first, and the trope does that. (Can we also take a moment to appreciate the irony of John Green claiming he deconstructs the same trope he applies repeatedly without irony?)
The MPDG term is not without its problems. Its use of the word “manic” is questionable, since it implies that these examples of fantasy male wish fulfilment must be in some way mentally ill in order to achieve their aims (although there is definitely a worthy discussion to be had about the way our fiction tends to romanticise mental illness as a quirky trait or a necessary evil for creativity). Modification of the term to rectify this problematic issue would be welcome, but a call for the term to be dropped from pop culture discourse feels unnecessary and a touch drastic. Rabin’s regret is understandable, and it’s probably not ideal for a writer as accomplished and entertaining as he is to be defined by one term he made up on the fly, but knowing that the words you write could be used for the wrong reasons is the risk one takes.
If we were to eliminate every word or term used for incorrectly by ignorant readers or just those trying to make a faulty point then nobody would ever write anything new. The Manic Pixie Dream Girl trope will continue on as long as lazy writers continue to use familiar crutches to tell their stories. Maybe we can retire the term when film, TV, literature and everything else moves beyond it. Then we can perhaps get on with wiping out the other terrible stereotypes.