Manic Pixie Dream Girl

Garden State

A Manic Pixie Dream Girl (MPDG) is a stock character type in films. Film critic Nathan Rabin, who coined the term after observing Kirsten Dunst’s character in ‘Elizabethtown’ (2005), said that the MPDG ‘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, like some other stock characters such as the Magical Negro, seems to exist only to provide spiritual or mystical help to the protagonist. The MPDG has no discernible inner life. Instead, her central purpose is to provide the protagonist with important life lessons.

Rabin coined the term in 2007, in his column ‘My Year of Flops’ (later released in book form) for ‘The A.V. Club.’ A year later, periodical ran a piece listing 16 characters they deemed MPDGs, and the new term was quickly referenced by other popular culture media. Katharine Hepburn’s role as Susan Vance in the 1938 screwball comedy film ‘Bringing Up Baby’ has been described as an early example of the character. MPDGs are usually static characters who have eccentric personality quirks and are unabashedly girlish. They invariably serve as the romantic interest for a (most often brooding or depressed) male protagonist.

Notable examples of female characters include Clarisse in the 1953 Ray Bradbury novel ‘Fahrenheit 451.’ Critic Jimmy Maher of ‘The Digital Antiquarian’ wrote: ‘Bradbury has been credited, with some truth, with foreshadowing or even inspiring everything from 24-hour news as entertainment to the Sony Walkman in Fahrenheit 451. I’ve never, however, seen him properly credited for his most insidious creation: the Manic Pixie Dream Girl.’ Other early examples include Holly Golightly in ‘Breakfast at Tiffany’s,’ played by cultural icon Audrey Hepburn in the 1961 film. According to Grace Smith, writing for ‘Hollywood Insider’: ‘The effortlessly eccentric Holly Golightly balances out the brooding writer Paul Varjack.’

The earliest modern example is ‘Autumn in New York,’ a 2000 film where ‘the square dude in question is uptight businessman Richard Gere, and the charming minx who breathes life into his sorry existence and reawakens his libido is delightful pixie/crazy free spirit Winona Ryder.’ Penélope Cruz’s character in the movie ‘Vanilla Sky’ (2001) is included on Jamie Loftus’ list of MPDGs, published by ‘BDCWire.’ Natalie Portman’s character in the movie ‘Garden State’ (2004), written and directed by Zach Braff was described by Roger Ebert as a ‘movie creature’ and ‘a girl who is completely available, absolutely desirable and really likes you.’ He notes, ‘we learn almost nothing about her, except that she’s great to look at and has those positive attributes.’

In asking whether the stock character’s popularity has peaked, Aisha Harris in writing for ‘Slate Magazine,’ considers Jennifer Lawrence’s character in the movie ‘Silver Linings Playbook’ (2012). She finds that Lawrence’s character could be considered another iteration of the MPDG, but ultimately decides she is a bit more complicated. Margot Robbie’s character in Amsterdam (2022) is characterized by Christy Lemire writing for as a Manic Pixie Dream Girl.

The titular character of ‘Annie Hall’ (1977) is often called an MPDG but, according to Dominic Kelly, writing for The Guardian, is arguably not one, as she has her own goals independent of the male lead and ultimately leaves him. Kate Winslet’s character Clementine in ‘Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind’ (2004) acknowledges the trope of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl and rejects the type, in a remark to Jim Carrey’s Joel: ‘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.’

Eva Wiseman, writing for ‘The Guardian’ about Zooey Deschanel’s character Summer in ‘500 Days of Summer’ (2009) concluded: ‘While Deschanel’s Summer is as whimsical as a traditional MPDG, the character rises above the cliché through her flaws.’ However, director Marc Webb stated, ‘Yes, Summer has elements of the manic pixie dream girl – she is an immature view of a woman. She’s Tom’s view of a woman. He doesn’t see her complexity and the consequence for him is heartbreak. In Tom’s eyes, Summer is perfection, but perfection has no depth. Summer’s not a girl, she’s a phase.’

Eve, the lead character of Stuart Murdoch’s musical film ‘God Help the Girl’ (2014), has been noted as a subversion of the trope, with actress Emily Browning approaching the character as ‘the anti-manic pixie dream girl’ and describing her as having ‘her own inner life’ and being ‘incredibly self-absorbed; […] Olly wants her to be his muse and she’s like, ‘No, I’m not having that. I’m gonna go do my own shit.”

In 2014, writing for ‘Salon,’ Rabin stated that the term ‘Manic Pixie Dream Girl’ had frequently been deployed in ways that are sexist and had become as much of a cliché as the MPDG-trope itself. He acknowledged that the phrase has its uses in specific, limited contexts, saying that ‘the phrase was useful precisely because, while still fairly flexible, it also benefited from a certain specificity.’ However, he continued by stating that the overwhelming popularity of the term, coupled with the oversimplified definition he gave when coining it, had led to it becoming a kind of ‘unstoppable monster.’ He wrote ‘by giving an idea a name and a fuzzy definition, you apparently also give it power. And in my case, that power spun out of control.’

Rabin asserted that it had gotten to the point where people were commonly using the term to critique real women and actresses (instead of fictitious, one-dimensional characters) and to describe things that don’t actually fall under the rubric of the MPDG. In his conclusion, Rabin noted that many nuanced female characters cannot be classified in such an all-encompassing, restricted nature and apologized to pop culture for coining a term that is so pervasive and ambiguous, and he stated that the term should be retired and ‘put to rest.’

A possible male version of this trope, the Manic Pixie Dream Boy or Manic Pixie Dream Guy, was found in Augustus Waters from the film version of ‘The Fault in Our Stars’ (2014); he was given this title in a 2014 ‘Vulture’ article, in which Matt Patches stated, ‘he’s a bad boy, he’s a sweetheart, he’s a dumb jock, he’s a nerd, he’s a philosopher, he’s a poet, he’s a victim, he’s a survivor, he’s everything everyone wants in their lives, and he’s a fallacious notion of what we can actually have in our lives.’

Another version of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl is the algorithm-defined fantasy girl. Although the latter is not human, but a robot or artificial intelligence, her function is the same: to fulfill the desires of the male character and to help him in his journey without having any desires or journey of her own, e.g. Joi in the 2017 film ‘Blade Runner 2049.’


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