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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.