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Manic Pixie Dream Girl the First Manic Pixie Dream Girl the Second

First of all, this post was partially inspired by a John Green quote my friend Marisa reblogged on tumblr the other day:

 

I’m fascinated by the way the contemporary world has constructed this manic pixie dream girl (to use a term coined by Nathan Rabin) who flutters into the lives of men and changes them forever with her moodiness and mystery. This idea has become the kind of female Edward Cullen, and I am of course drawn to it myself but also really troubled by it, because I think it’s just a new kind of objectification of women. So I think I wrote about that in Paper Towns not because I saw it in my own life but because I saw it in my first novel, Looking for Alaska, and because in the years after writing that story, I became more and more troubled by the book’s failure to point out that, like, the idea of the manic pixie dream girl is not just a lie but a dangerous one that does disservice both to the person doing the imagining and the person being imagined.

I love what he says, and I love how this transition actually shows in his writing, which isn’t always the case when it comes to what writers claim about their own work. What I mean to do here is not only talk about why these stories are problematic, but also about why I’m nevertheless so drawn to them, just like John Green. It’s almost embarrassing to look at a list like this and count how many of these films are among my all-time favourites. This is a bit of a scary post to write, actually, because I don’t want to come across like I’m saying, “This is not a problem! Will everybody please shut up and go away!” I never want people to shut up and go away when it comes to criticism, even when I disagree with the points they’re making. And in this case I do agree, which leaves me with a lot of unanswered questions and vague notions that I need to try and articulate.

As John Green states, these films and books are problematic because the women in them are idealised to an extent that dehumanises them. And yet there's something about the process of doing that when you first fall in love that’s incredibly human and that really speaks to me. Don’t most of us do it when we’re young and struggling with very intense and sometimes new feelings of longing and desire? How do we deal with having someone, or the idea of someone, have such a huge impact on the person you’re in the process of becoming? I know I’ve been there myself, and I love these stories because they reflect and validate a kind of experience that isn’t perfectly aligned with the kind of romantic experience we acknowledge and value. I love them because even though this process isn’t the same as my current far more egalitarian, messier, and actually intimate definition of love, it mattered hugely to me. It matters still.

But of course, to speak of these stories in such general terms is to ignore the gender angle, which I don’t think is something we should be doing. This may be a universal and human process, but we’re only fed stories that present it from a male perspective – and yes, that’s a huge problem. It’s the good old issue of women being expected to relate to and put themselves in the shoes of men, but the reverse being unthinkable. Also, not believing that there are any essential gender differences in how we experience longing or in how we tend to idealise others is not the same as not thinking there are any differences in how men and women experience these things in a deeply sexist world.

I think the pattern is the main problem here – the pattern all these stories form, and how it ties into the history of the male gaze. I may love these stories individually, but when I look at them as a whole, they do ring alarm bells. They strongly suggest that to experience this – to become obsessed with, or be deeply changed by, someone you might not even know all that well but who seems to embody everything you care about and want to be – is only acceptable if you’re male. Which is why as a 19-year-old trying to write a story about it, I instinctively adopted a male voice and made it m/m.

As a consequence, girls are made to feel that their agency and their right to feel longing or desire have been denied. How many stories about unrequited love, for example, or about having deep feelings for someone who may "officially" only play a peripheral role in your life, have female protagonists? This is an honest question – if you can think of any examples, I’d love to hear all about them. And perhaps more importantly, how many of those stories about women present their unrequited feelings in a sort of heroic, glamorised light? My experience, both in stories and in life, is that this kind of idealised crush is exclusively the prerogative of boys and men. A woman in the same position would be perceived as kind of pitiful; not as noble or tragically heartbroken. I'm of course well aware that the idea of the tragically heartbroken male, Sorrows of Young Whether style, is also not at al mainstream. And yes, boys are laughed at and shamed for having deep feelings of any kind, let alone for deep feelings for girls who don't necessarily love them back. But at least the trope exists, you know? Sensitive young men along the lines of the protagonists of all these movies no doubt feel isolated, but there's no shortage of characters they can relate to; there's at least a whole subculture out there to make them feel acknowledged and validated and like they're allowed to exist. Girls in the same position? I'm not entirely sure.

Of course, the way we tend to read these stories can’t really be dissociated from culturally dominant ideas about male and female sexuality, even if the stories don’t deal with sexual feelings in themselves: it’s okay for men to experiment, it’s okay for them to go through several partners until they find The One, it’s okay to love and lose someone. For women, to do so implies you’re either foolish or Morally Loose. What you should be doing is finding and settling down with the person you’re going to stay with for the rest of your life as soon as possible. Nobody else is allowed to matter. (This idea applies to men and women alike when it comes to mainstream definitions of “true love” and romance, of course, but we do enforce it far more strictly when it comes to women.)

I’m a sucker for stories about people who have mattered and continue to matter to us even if the relationship is not permanent, or isn’t really a romantic or sexual relationship as we tend to define them, or isn’t even much of a relationship at all, but more of a vague and possibly one-sided connection: stories like Paper Towns, Meg Rosoff’s What I Was, The Virgin Suicides, and yes, all those manic pixie dream girl books and movies. But I desperately want them to be told from the point of view of girls too. Can you think of any examples of stories that actually do this?1 I will love you forever when you introduce me to some.

 

I thought it was interesting how John Green mentioned these female characters becoming a sort of female Edward Cullen – Twilight does seem to have had the potential of being a story about longing and idealisation from a female perspective, only somewhere along the way it became a cautionary tale about the dangers of female desire and the inevitability of true love. (I say this without having actually read it, though, so feel free to argue with me or tell me to shut up.)

When I was a teen, I devoted a lot of my time and energy to struggling with feelings of deep shame I couldn’t even put into words; feelings that in retrospect obviously have to do with the cultural notions hammered into my head about what I, as a girl, was allowed to feel or want without becoming a wretched, pathetic sort of creature everybody would point at and laugh. I wish there had been “manic pixie dream boy” stories around, preferably the kind that are also thoughtful and self-aware enough to alert us to the dangers of idealising people – but without demonising the process in itself. In sum, stories like Paper Towns starring girls.

They would have made such a huge difference in my life.

ETA:

 


1 My boyfriend read this post as a draft and suggested that Girl With The Pearl Earring might qualify. I knew there was a reason why I loved that book.

Date: 2011-03-21 11:23 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] bookgazing.blogspot.com
Now this is up I can comment here and say I adore The Virgin Suicides, but you're right they are the most manic and unknowable of pixie dream girls.

Also what do you think of books where girls have mysterious, unknowable manic pixie dream girl friends who they mebbe have a bit of a never really clarified whether this is sexual crush on (example, 'Who Will Run the Frog Hospital' by Lorrie Moore, but I imagine YA books like 'Beautiful' by Amy Reed which I want to read so soon are similar)? I am totally in love with those kind of books where the mysterious, glamorous, darkly synical girl sweeps into town and regular girl A is entranced but then probably either betrayed by, or betrays pixie dream girl friend, but I'm not sure that they don't have similar flaws to books that place the manic pixie dream girls across from romantic boys.

Date: 2011-03-22 02:53 pm (UTC)
bookgazing: (Default)
From: [personal profile] bookgazing
Good point. Would you say that Green approaches the same kind of thing in 'Looking for Alaska' when The Colonel reminds Miles that he knew her for such a short time, while The Colonel was her friend for years? Maybe he just doesn't expand on that enough to correct the typical male gazeness of the manic pixie dream girl book?

I was thinking about this last night, how although the girls in 'The Virgin Suicides' are set up as unknowable.mysterious ladies the boys seek to know them through the tiny fragments they have. They want to udnerstand them properly after they disappear Maybe some of the great manic pixie dream girl books have manic pixie dream girls who are kind of super mysterious, but also guys who are try to know them even if they don't succeed?

Date: 2011-03-22 01:26 am (UTC)
cypher: (every blessing has a price)
From: [personal profile] cypher
Looking at this analysis of the trope, I'm really reminded of the capital-R Romantic ideal of the (male) artist with his (female) Muse -- kind of an earlier iteration of a similar idea, I think. She doesn't create works herself, but her ineffable ~being~ is the source of creative energy for him. It's one of those sneaky kinds of objectification that sounds like it's admiration until the question of agency comes up.

And then I want to go off into tangents about the shift from artistic inspiration to personal-life catalyst, but I think that would be getting pretty far off topic from where you've started here.

Good stuff to think about, though!

Date: 2011-03-22 03:04 am (UTC)
chrisa511: (Default)
From: [personal profile] chrisa511
I think that most of us are guilty of enjoying stories like Green mentioned...which really is sad. They reinforce the idea that the only way a girl can be desirable is to have an edge or a "bad boy" nature...but without being able to express what's underneath that attitude of course :/ Let me know if you find any of the types of books you're talking about! I'd love to read them too!

Date: 2011-03-22 10:00 am (UTC)
From: (Anonymous)
Quite an interesting post. I had never heard about the term Manic Pixie Dream Girl before but after having a look at the movies you listed (wow, quite a few of my favourites there ), I think I understand it.

I like what you say here: "I may love these stories individually, but when I look at them as a whole, they do ring alarm bells." A lot to think about.

Ana (the smuggler one)

Date: 2011-03-23 05:06 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile] myfriendamysblog.com
I feel like I don't fully grasp the concept as I haven't seen many of these films or read any of these books. I think what I came closest to understanding was the idea that if a boy pines after a girl it's romanticized but if a girl does the same thing it's sort of pathetic?
Oh and that the person being pined after is more of a symbol than a human?
Your patience is deeply appreciated!

Date: 2011-03-27 06:22 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] mooredatsea.blogspot.com
I don't think the manic pixie dream girl trope is so much a problem as a barometer, you know? A distillation of an idea, that ends up illuminating the way we fulfill ideals in our society, fi that makes sense. I actually wrote about this a bit a long time back, talking about Breakfast at Tiffany's I think - which, being a story ABOUT a 'manic pixie dream girl', more or less, is interesting in that it's conclusion is to point out that girl is hiding from life, missing the messiness and complexity of non-manic-pixie humdrum-ness. In the end, when she kidn of falls apart and admits that's she's really still 'just Lula Mae, stealing chickens,' you can see simultaneously watch her seek out her own internal pixie dream girl (or depending on your reading of the film, make Paul Varjak into one), while learning who she is under the veneer of manic-pixieness.

Come to think of it, it's worth pointing out that Paul, at the beginning of the film when he's essentially a 'boy-toy' for his 'decorator', IS something of a male manic-pixie dream girl to his mistress. But, of course, you only see the story from his point of view, and from his point of view, he's a young writer with a REALLY bad case of writer's block - which, since he eventually leaves the relationship he's in to chase his own 'muse' in Holly makes for some very interesting implications, as well. (Another manic-pixie-dream-boy might be Neal Cassady in On the Road, but being as the main character is male, this changes the mechanics a bit from a feminist persepctive, I suppose)

On the other hand, I think that part of problem is that in a subconscious way, we as a society tend to think ill of muses and helpmates, and much of poets and wild-eyed creators - I think this in part is evidence of the dregs of a pre-feminist society, when, since these roles were generally filled by women, they weren't viewed terribly positively. We measure success, very simply, by productions that contribute to the 'important': poems you've written, things you've built, money you've earned, fame you've garnered, etc, and so we tend to pity or look for signs of repression in people who DON'T receive these outward markers of success. Hence the sort of pity-shame complex our nation has over, for instance, housewives, or the oddity there is to the idea of a male kindergarten teacher (many parents I know would be uncomfortable sending their kids to one, I would suspect), or to anyone living a small, simple, hidden life. We try to jury rig things - give out mother of the year awards and such - but the problem is simply that we're structurally trying to fit a culture and system that rewards traditional male behaviour while tolerating traditional female behaviour onto an ethos that recognizes the weaknesses of such a system.

I, personally, can imagine nothing better than to be someone's muse - I'd rather be a manic pixie dream boy than a poet, anyday, though I don't make a terribly good one.

Date: 2011-03-28 02:56 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] mooredatsea.blogspot.com
That's funny - I've only seen themovie, never read the book! We'll have to trade someday :D. I wonder if par tof the reason that the whole trope is more common is because part of the poignancy of these stories is that, in the end, the world is too much and the manic pixie dream girl dies - and the character has this subconscious struggle that they couldn't protect them. That protectiveness is a power structure much more acceptable in the man to woman way, culturally, than in the reverse. Women are not encouraged to protect men. Protection is one of the last remnants of old-fashioned chivalry (for better or worse). I wonder if 'My Girl' would fit this category, though?

Date: 2011-03-29 02:06 am (UTC)
renay: Pink pony with brown hair and wings on a yellow background bucking hind legs in the air. (Default)
From: [personal profile] renay
Ana, did you see this video? (I mean, if you can where you are. IF NOT, I am going to download the hell out of it and put it somewhere you can. :|

Date: 2011-03-29 08:46 am (UTC)
renay: Pink pony with brown hair and wings on a yellow background bucking hind legs in the air. (Default)
From: [personal profile] renay
Oh! I don't think you would have, it's very new! It was posted after your entry. :D YOU COULD ADD IT RETROACTIVELY AS AN ETA. :D

Date: 2011-03-29 08:53 am (UTC)
renay: Pink pony with brown hair and wings on a yellow background bucking hind legs in the air. (Default)
From: [personal profile] renay
Let me talk about how hard it was to watch the clip from 500 Days of Summer as;ldka;ksd EMBARRASSMENT SQUICK FOR DAAAAAYS.

...I should bite the bullet and watch it soon, though! THEN WE CAN TALK ABOUT IT. :D

Date: 2011-11-05 12:15 am (UTC)
From: (Anonymous)
I know this comment probably won't get read due to how old the post is, but a fantastic example of female/female friendship version of the MPDG is Summer Sisters by Judy Blume, written for adult audiences. It's just a fantastic story told from the perspective of the woman whose best friend growing up was this wealthy, ethereal, mysterious girl who literally changed her life, with very positive and very negative repercussions. So, so good.

Manic Pixie Dream Boy

Date: 2011-11-23 12:33 am (UTC)
From: (Anonymous)
Just wanted to point out an example of my all time favorite Male example from my childhood... Jordan Catallano (sp?) played by Jared Letto from the TV show My So Called Life. He was just this idea of perfection that the main female character played by Claire Danes was obsessed with. She didn't really know him and could never really understand his point of view yet he was a huge influence to her and someone that she worshiped from a far and his mystery was actually more attractive.

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