Manic Pixie Dream Girls, the Santa Claus of romantic comedies
The people behind this movie “(500) Days Of Summer” owe this Insufferable Music Snob money to cover my dry cleaning bills. Why? Because I was subjected to this preview while waiting to see another movie, I yakked all over my clothes and they are to blame. I will also add that while I try very hard not to harbor prejudice in my heart against women who have ginormous Bambi eyes—because bigotry is wrong, you know—Zooey Deschanel has finally just gone too far. Of course, it’s so obvious that I’m forced to believe that she’s actually a darkly cynical person who is willing to ride the “so cute it’s not cute anymore” train until she’s sitting on a huge pile of money. So I’m blaming the men who write these roles. Even my cats know that they have to mix it up on occasion by taking a giant stinky shit as a precaution against inducing cavities. Even puppies know that you’ve got to slobber.
But I digress, because it wasn’t Deschanel that caused me to lose control of my gag reflex. It’s scene that starts off this trailer, where our young male hero falls head over heels for a woman in an elevator because she….loves The Smiths. Oh my god! He could have searched the world high and low for such a rare gem as a bona fide female human being who knows how to sing along to a popular Smiths song. I’m sure subsequent dates were full of further revelations about shared love for other obscure bands that one couldn’t possible expect a woman to know of. Perhaps they will retreat to his place where he’ll be astonished at her breadth of taste, so rare and precious in the ladyfolk. She could own a Talking Heads album! She may harbor love for Radiohead. Perhaps she even listens to the Beatles? It’s almost too much for a man to hope for so much rare awesome taste in one woman.
Reading this essay by Doree Shafir about the Manic Pixie Dream Girl trend in “indie” romantic comedies dredged up all the pain and nausea this trailer caused me to suffer. It also caused in me, to swipe from Hugo, a “yes, no, and maybe” reaction. The yes part:
She’s more of an elusive cipher, and this is a road Deschanel’s been down before, in Elf and All the Real Girls. …..
The most we learn about her is that she likes The Smiths, and Belle and Sebastian, and seems to have great style; throughout the film she’s decked out in adorable, vintage-y outfits……
Still, girls like Summer invariably serve as combination muse/object of obsession, usually allowing the guy in the equation to finally unlock his true creative impulses.
It’s exactly these things that are frustrating. The fantasy is of quirky, fun-loving women who have no internal life, no real ambitions, and who live only to send the hero into a dreamy reverie about how he does deserve more, dammit, and gosh, isn’t she cute? The problem here is that a lot of characters that get tarred with the label of MPDG are from movies where the big reveal is that actually, it turns out that even adorably quirky women have internal lives, real feelings that can be hurt, and deserve respect as human beings, not to be treated as adorable accessories for the hero. Or that’s the message in “Annie Hall”, at least. MPDG movies are about stripping away the tension between the fantasy of the woman with personality and understanding and the real-world ego needs of women that are equal to men’s, by creating characters who are wholly the fantasy.
Shafrir mentions some examples, and my “no” reaction was that she got some wrong. “Lost In Translation” and “Breakfast At Tiffany’s” don’t count, even if the actresses are so adorable that it’s hard not to feel a stirring of jealousy. “Breakfast At Tiffany’s” is a seriously fucked-up movie in many ways,* but you can’t deny that the plot is driven by Holly Golightly’s failure to be the cipher she aims to be. She wants to be a MPDG because it makes her money and keeps people at arm’s length, but her humanity keeps catching up with her. That’s the whole point of the business with her cat being named Cat. As for Sophia Coppola’s movies, I always thought she was more interested in examining how the pressure to live up to male fantasies of nubile ingenues damages the women who are objectified by it, but that’s most obvious in “The Virgin Suicides”.
The “maybe” part for me was due to the fact that I kept getting the uneasy feeling that Shafrir is mixing up romantic comedy fantasies with real life, because instead of lambasting these movies for leaning on a dehumanizing stereotype of women, she aims her guns at the “girls” themselves, even though, as fantasies, they don’t exist.
Of course, men find these women utterly bewitching. And why wouldn’t they? They’re the ultimate unattainable muses. They never make any demands; they never nag; they keep everything operating on a level of fantasy. It’s like they’re women who read The Rules while listening to Elliott Smith. (See also: the girl in the band, who is often the ultimate ingenue.) And of course, it’s not difficult to see the appeal of a woman like Summer. She’s always just out of reach, making herself scarce at crucial moments and artfully dodging any of Tom’s questions about whether they’re boyfriend and girlfriend.
See what I mean? At some point in writing this, Shafrir moved from lambasting the male writers who try to pass off their romantic fantasies as genuine characters, which is lazy and insulting writing, and goes on to be angry with women who don’t actually exist and, as such, couldn’t have done anything to Shafrir to make her so angry at them. I might be overreading this, but this paragraph makes her sound like she’s jealous, and that takes away most of her authority to talk about this subject. Zooey Deschanel is a real human being, and she doesn’t actually flit around in the real world giving men the idea that there is such a thing as a perfect woman who doesn’t get periods, doesn’t have bad days, and is always eager to listen to your hopes, fears, and dreams without wasting your time by having any herself.
Reading that paragraph also gave me pause, because it falls way too much into the trap of joylessly reminding people that love is about hard work and not about that fun stuff, or maybe I just took it that way because she took a swipe at the “girl in the band”, as if a woman is betraying the sisterhood by pursuing ambitions and artistic pursuits that might make her more attractive to some men. One would think that being in a band is exactly the sort of ambitious pursuit that we should applaud in women, though I do agree that a determined screenwriter could easily turn that into a MPDG trait by making the character’s talent seem effortless and minimizing her investment in the outcome. This isn’t a small concern, since Shafrir seems to be moving into thinking that there are tons of women out there who are willing to actually pretend to be dream girls, and now everyone who’s in a band or avoids nagging is suddenly a suspect for the crime of giving men too high of hopes. I don’t think that’s too much the case. No matter how many books like “The Rules” are published, exhorting women to work hard at concealing their humanity from men in hopes of bewitching them into thinking they’ve found a perfect cipher, at the end of the day, women want the same thing out of love as do men—the be understood, loved, and supported. The poor fools who buy “The Rules” are just under the impression that you can drop the act after a set period of time, and he’ll accept the big reveal, which seems unlikely if a man is actually dumb enough to be sucked into believing he’s seeing a woman who doesn’t want anything from him in return for giving so much of herself.
But I do totally get Shafrir’s frustration. The premise of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl is that our poor hero, who deserves so much from womankind, has been left adrift in a sea of boring hags. That’s why the trailer for this movie made me want to shoot myself. The audience is so in tune with the sexist premise that most women are tedious that we’re actually expected to buy the idea that a man would be blown away by meeting a female Smiths fan. The answer to this isn’t to demand that men lower their expectations in terms of wanting to be with women that have some spark of life, though. The problem with the stereotype is the one I thought Shafrir points out elsewhere—the MPDG’s quirkiness, good taste, and love of life is portrayed strictly in terms of what men want for themselves, and we don’t get much indication that there’s anything going on below the surface in the MPDG.
*I haven’t yet read the book, which I hear is a lot different.