You’re a dark brooding hero, painfully aware of all life’s treacheries. You have great disdain for most of it, save your own purpose. In comes a pretty, quirky girl with electric blue hair, energetic and adventurous. She is either outspoken and friendly, or cold and brooding herself, but goddamn are you electrically infatuated. She doesn’t give a damn about what society thinks, she marches to her own tune. Avant Garde when it comes to music, movies, and art. She gets you; you feel the tantalizing undercurrent of romance brewing. Y'all both may get your happily ever after, or maybe one day she mystically vanishes; either way, you're a changed man for the better.
Congratulations, you’ve found yourself a Manic Pixie Dream Girl.
Wake the f@$k up, for it's either delusion or psychosis you’re in.
The term was coined by film critic Nathan Rabin in 2007 to describe a particular kind of “bubbly, shallow cinematic creature” stock-character type in movies. To put simply, the Manic Pixie Dream Girl (MPDG) is someone free-spirited, adventurous, and eccentric, in almost all cases the love interest of the male protagonist. This woman though exists solely as a foil to the male protagonist’s own character flaws – being depressive, anxious, brooding, insecure, or stupid. She is the sudden unexpected ray of light, all quirky, spontaneous and either happy-go-lucky/icy cool. Without a darker/sob-story buzzkill protagonist, the MPDG does not exist.
The character of Claire Colburn (Kirsten Dunst) in the movie Elizabethtown (2005) is the trope codifier Rabin used when discussing the MPDG. Other such characters include Sam (Natalie Portman) in Garden State (2004). The female leads of Sweet November, Scott Pilgrim vs. The World, Jab We Met, Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara, Khoobsurat, and Breakfast at Tiffanies are just a few more examples.
More often than not though, many characters actually embody some MPDG elements while being fully fleshed-out characters in themselves. However, since nuance is public enemy number 1; suddenly, it was being thrown like darts everywhere. Rabin later disowned the term, given that it was being us almost for any female character with a sense of humour and was the romantic interest in the movie. The criticism that was in essence directed at the quality of storytelling was instead mangled by popular discourse to target female characters based on superficial attributes.
As the YouTube Channel Trope Anatomy discusses: Eternal Sunshine of a Spotless Mind and 500 Days of Summer are two of the most misunderstood movies in this regard. Kate Winslet’s character in the former presents herself as the MPDG, for sure, with all her brightly coloured hair and her eccentric, outgoing personality; but as she tells Jim Carrey’s character:
“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.”
A comment on the concept three years before the term was even coined.
500 Days of Summer is a tragicomic case of the audience not getting the point. While Summer (Zoey Deschanel) is portrayed as an MPDG, the whole point of the movie is that Tom (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is projecting his own image of her, and not really actually looking at her for the complete person that she is.
This last movie, perhaps, is one of the best deconstructions of what this trope is. Specifically, because the self-awareness is supposed to stem from the P.O.V. of the subject – the guy – rather than the object – the MPDG. His frustrations in their doomed relationship are meant for him to reflect upon, and see his childish tendency to project whatever fantasy he wanted.
The Take’s video essay on the subject discusses in detail the socio-cultural context and the larger lazy and sexist impulse in pop culture to indiscriminately and pejoratively apply the label to all female characters portrayed as free-spirited quirky. Kat Stoeffel wrote for The Cut observing that the label was used on actual people (like Zoey Deschanel), ridiculously pointing out the absurdity of claiming a real person has no interior life. Because in the end, it is just that – the lack of an interior, independent life – that reduces Manic Pixie Dream Girl to a reductive sexist stock character.
It was generally seen that the MPDG trope declined by the mid-2010s in the face of critical backlash as the aforementioned Stoeffel article discussed However, Emily Tannenbaum argues the trope just evolved, adding a few layers of sophistication – specifically, a tragic backstory. She uses the example of the Amazon Prime movie Chemical Hearts (2020) as a case study; where the character of Lili Reinhardt (Riverdale: Betty Cooper fame), despite having a tragic backstory, is still viewed from the male protagonists’ gaze and ultimately serves as a vehicle for his growth.
Time and again, you do meet a person whose vitality impresses you, or end dawning rose-tinted glasses as the chemistry between you and another start to cook. The portrayal of such desires and tropes in the literature or film have indisputably valid reasons, for they do speak to the human experience, and there is a resonance such ideas find among the audience.
The Take’s video essay on the Magic Pixie Dream Boy (a topic for another day) discusses another psychoanalyst thinker Carl Jung’s theory of the Anima-Animus (the masculine-feminine sides present in all people) with regards to how the manic, pixie, dream projection arises for both male and female love interests on screen. It can be viewed as a template for romantic movies, where the main character finds by the way of their romantic interest access to their own free-spirited and liberated side of their psyche.
Romance speaks to a deep-seated desire of people to experience longing, belonging and excitement. To bring the ideas of a different psychoanalyst thinker, Jacques Lacan; children are steadily socialized into stifling norms of behaviour that regulate how one can ask for their need for love and attention; thus, all desire then turns into the “Desire for the Other”, one’s romantic interest perhaps, but also the abstract longing for a more carefree “childish” uninhibited form of bond experienced as a child with their one's own parents. With regards to the MPDG trope, you often see the protagonist beaten down with life, disillusioned or struggling emotionally. Respite comes in the form of their magical saviour, a pixie dream girl to show them the light side of life.
Such forces speak to a universal experience of the human condition, and they form a crucial part of the stories we tell. However, the reason one must tread carefully, specifically in the genre of romance is the social context in which such films are made. The romance genre, Manic Pixie Dream Girls’ stomping ground, is notorious for perpetuating gender stereotypes and also plain cringe writing. Often, the female lead is viewed through the male gaze; objectified. But with the MPDG the gaze goes further enough to objectify the character traits of the woman into a neat little bundle of eccentric quirk that the male lead will latch onto to develop his own sense of humour and wonder.
The details of what constitutes a Manic Pixie Dream Girl, whether a story deconstructs or perpetuates the trope, or if the trope has changed in appearance or been completely done away with, is a discussion that will continue. Themes, tropes and trends in popular culture have a way of sticking around, mutating, and changing while also remaining in essence the same. But when a story that takes on the self-serious topics of “living freely”, “being spontaneous”, “growing into oneself”, blasé blasé, and there is romance involved, you’ve got to raise an eyebrow. And if the story heavily tilts from the hero’s perspective, and the heroine acts as a source of inspiration while essentially remaining static in her quirky alluring attributes and no growth mirroring her lovers – you’re in the territory.
Of kinda poor storytelling.