I was recently reading the March 2020 issue of Empire magazine, which happens to feature an editorial titled “the 100 greatest movies of the century (so far!)”. After reading through and agreeing/disagreeing with their picks, I came to entry number 31, Amélie (2001), the titular character of which is described as the “[only] manic pixie dream girl it’s okay to love.” This sentence irked me a little bit because the writer knew that MPDG is generally not regarded an appropriate term, or even a credible one, in today’s discourse.
Before we get into the criticism, it’s useful to provide some understanding of what kind of character the MPDG trope is supposed to refer to. The MPDG is a female character who exists “solely in the fevered imaginations of sensitive writer-directors to teach broodingly soulful young men to embrace life and its inifinite mysteries and adventures.” (Rabin in 2007).
The function of the MPDG is to help men and as such they are completely devoid of personal character development and growth, instead wandering aimlessly until they find the man they were created to help.
The term “manic pixie dream girl” was coined by Nathan Rabin back in 2007 when he wrote a review of Cameron Crowe’s Elizabethtown (2005). He used the term to refer to Kirsten Dunst’s character Claire Colburn. The etymology itself was described by Rabin in 2014. Manic refered to the character of Claire in Elizabethtown as being “psychotically bubbly”, and the term pixie came about because Rabin thought she “seemed to belong in some magical, otherwordly realm.” The “dream girl” likely refers to the fact that she serves the protagonist male character in leading him towards happiness. Once her job is complete, she disappears forever, thus being ideal.
The criteria for a character to become a MPDG is relatively straightfoward. It requires (1) a lack of character development, (2) a “quirky” personality, and (3) being a romantic interest. Some popular MPDG examples might be Penelope Lockhart (Keira Knightley) in Seeking a Friend for the End of the World (2012), Maggie Murdock (Anne Hathaway) in Love & Other Drugs (2010), Allison (Zooey Deschanel) in Yes Man (2008), and Sam Feehan (Natalie Portman) in Garden State (2004). Some other hallmarks of the MPDG include being very playful, energetic, and brightly coloured hair in shades such as blue or purple. In both film criticism and in film studies, labels and named tropes can be a good way to explain a particular concept without lengthy descriptions.
As in any field, film studies has its own particular lexicon. However, unlike other subjects, the act of critiquing film is accessible to anyone – all you have to do is watch a film and say your opinion. Furthermore, film is popular. It’s an integral part of pop culture, especially in the UK and USA. As a result, jargonistic descriptions (such as MPDG) slip into the realm of ordinary language. This has made it easy for the MPDG description to snowball into other contexts, first pop culture, and then everyday life and opinion.
In 2014, Rabin wrote the article “I’m sorry for doing the phrase “Manic Pixie Dream Girl” where he highlights a lot of the criticisms against the term, which I’m going to try to unpick here. In his article, Rabin writes “then Zooey Deschanel strummed a ukulele and became a Hollywood It girl and suddenly the MPDG was everywhere.” The problem here is quite obvious, Deschanel is not a trope – because she’s not a fictional character. She is, in fact, a real-life woman with memories, goals, interests, and other humanlike tendencies.
If we accept that the representation of the MPDG is her lack of an “interior life”, then in what world is it ok to accuse a real-life human being of the very same? It’s easy to see why many people find the term inherently sexist. The MPDG dub suggests critics can sometimes be too quick to write off a female character because of reasons x, y, and z. They have blue hair – that must be to counteract the fact they have no original thoughts or they’re quirky to please this guy or that guy. Film is a human invention, and as such it is always going to – in one way or another – represent a form of reality. When this trope is projected onto female characters, it enables it to be projected on to real-life people.
Rabin claims that the invention of the term MPDG was to point out a sexist trope, but it ended up becoming inherently sexist itself. It’s unjust to label these characters as MPDGs because they roll up on their moped to a sad looking man, whipping off their helmet and revealing their purple hair. Sure, they have a function – but all characters have a function. Characters are a plot device, they allow a story to be told and have the power to steer its narrative. So, when you label a character as a MPDG, you’re placing a limitation on them.
“I coined the phrase to call out cultural sexism and to make it harder for male writers to posit reductive, condescending male fantasies of ideal women as realistic characters. But I looked on queasily as the phrase was increasingly accused of being sexist itself.”Nathan Rabin, 2014 for Salon.
The term MPDG is unfair to the actresses of these characters, to be told they are but a reflection of either a “sexist trope” or a male fantasy. The term MPDG is unfair to the fans of these characters, the fans who celebrate them because the see value. The term MPDG is unfair to women, because it permeates the idea that you are what is projected on to you. Ukuleles and hair dye and mopeds aren’t shameful. If you enjoy dying your hair crazy colours and playing a ukulele (as I very much do), it doesn’t mean you’re a shell of a woman.
I don’t think the term MPDG started out as inherently bad. It pointed out lazy writing, and a certain sense of sameness. It was a quick way to say “oh, this character isn’t really developed that well, she doesn’t have that much or an arc, and her characterisation is pretty shallow…” The problem began when the MPDG sneaked its way out of film commentary and criticism and into pop culture. I guess the take-home here is that people cannot be tropes and equally so, tropes cannot be people.