Tired Tropes: Manic Pixie Dream Girls
I am an avid enjoyer of all things romantic. Whether it’s a goofy tv sitcom about a quirky girl and her three male roommates, a bizarre Michael Cera movie that takes place in Toronto, or cheesy young adult novels written by a forty year old man, I am going to take part in it. However, I’ve noticed that a lot of these works, especially those written predominantly by men, cast women in a harmful light. Whenever I open a new book or press play on a movie I’ve never seen before, I always wait to be disappointed. Not because the writing is bad or the acting is uninspired, but because I’ve seen two-dimensional female characters far too often. It’s what I always dread and have come to expect; the manic pixie dream girl haunts me.
“Manic pixie dream girl” is the term used to describe characters who serve no purpose other than to serve the protagonist in some way. Typically, these kinds of characters are goofy, quirky, and enthusiastic. However, they’re also typically seen as unserious, air-headed, and non-complex. Unsurprisingly, a manic pixie dream girl is also typically a woman. These characters may come across as fun-loving and lighthearted, but if you look deeper, there’s nothing more to them. They are not fleshed out by the writers and they exist only to further along the (usually male) protagonist’s own journey. After the protagonist has reached his moment of self-discovery and has overcome whatever obstacle he was facing, the manic pixie dream girl either disappears or continues as his love interest. In short, a manic pixie dream girl isn’t real – she has no values, goals, inspirations, or journeys of her own. She is simply there to guide the protagonist in his life.
Some of the most pertinent examples are Ramona Flowers in Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, Margo from Paper Towns, and Maria from The Sound of Music. Yes, the guitar playing ex-nun serves as Captain von Trapp’s manic pixie dream girl. She teaches him to be less uptight, which is the primary “goal” of the manic pixie dream girl.
This trope is not just a tackless cliche, though. It has a much more nefarious undertone. Manic pixie dream girls might seem like an isolated thing, taking place only in movies and books, but in actuality, the trope extends to the real world. The normalization of manic pixie dream girls in the media puts the idea out there that women exist to help men. It pushes the idea that we don’t have any goals of our own, that we’re just waiting around to tell some guy to laugh more or stop to smell the roses.
We are all influenced by the media, whether or not we like to admit it. The presence of manic pixie dream girls is rather subtle, meaning that writers can get away with spreading a harmful ideal. Whether or not we pick up on this trope while consuming media doesn’t really matter though; it’s subliminal and we subconsciously take in this dynamic.
We need to portray women in a better light. There are plenty of pieces of media out there that have interesting, fleshed out female characters that don’t exist to serve men. For example, the movie 500 Days of Summer completely subverts the manic pixie dream girl trope. The main character Tom completely romanticizes Summer without her repeatedly showing she does not want to be his manic pixie dream girl. While some could argue she is still a manic pixie dream girl, because she helps him realize some things about himself, she has her own goals and feelings. In the end, it’s revealed that Tom functioned as a manic pixie dream girl for Summer, as he taught her that love does truly exist.
I’m not saying that romance stories have to end, I’m just saying that the female characters deserve just as much thought as the men. I love love stories! But what I love even more is seeing something that doesn’t harm an entire gender. I’ll admit that I indulge in media that portrays women in this unflattering light – Scott Pilgrim is still one of my favorite Michael Cera movies – but I can recognize the issue with this kind of stuff. That’s one step in the right direction, at least: knowing that whatever I’m watching or reading doesn’t really reflect the way real people act or think. The manic pixie dream girl trope won’t ever die, it’s been around for decades (if not centuries), but being able to recognize it and its danger is one way to combat whatever effects it has on viewers.
I’ve compiled a short list of some pieces of media that portray women in a more favorable light. There are so many books, movies, and tv shows that have interesting women, and while I obviously can’t list them all, here are some of my favorites.
- New Girl (tv show)
- While Jess is quirky and fun-loving and does teach Nick about love, she also is a real person. She has her own goals in life (becoming a principal), her own pitfalls (she can be uptight and sometimes doesn’t know when to let things go), and she has thoughts that don’t revolve around her love interest. She has an entire life that we can see – she exists outside of Nick’s own struggles.
- Pirates of the Caribbean (movie series)
- Elizabeth goes on quite the journey throughout these movies. She goes from being the governor’s pristine daughter to a full-on pirate. She has love interests in the film, of course, but she is clearly her own person. She denies her first love interest, Commodore Norrington, in favor of adventure at sea. She and Will don’t see eye to eye a lot of the time, and she nearly kills Jack multiple times. She does not submit to anyone and does not disappear once any of these men have their moments of self-discovery.
- Pride and Prejudice (book, movie)
- This one may seem a bit trickier, given that Lizzie teaches Mr. Darcy how to be a kinder, more open person. And she does typically put her own happiness last, another trait of the manic pixie dream girl. BUT she realizes that she deserves her own happiness and goes after what she wants. She is smart, witty, charming, and kind and her inner monologue proves this time and time again. Not only that, but she was written by Jane Austen, a radical and inspiring feminist author (and my personal favorite!).
- Community (tv series)
- There are a few notable women in this sitcom, none of which are manic pixie dream girls. Annie, Britta, and Shirley are all fleshed out, complex, and messy women – they are not a male fantasy. Annie is driven, intelligent, and caring, but she is also naive, stubborn, and judgemental. Britta wants to be an activist so bad and wants to help in any way she can, but she is also a bit incompetent at times and contradicts her own beliefs constantly. Shirley is the picture of motherhood on the outside, but inwardly she is judgemental, a bit misinformed, and full of rage. And that’s part of what makes this show great; all these women are multi-faceted. They have as much of an inner life as the male characters do.
- Where the Crawdads Sing (book)
- I know, I know. This book and its author are kind of problematic. But that doesn’t take away from the fact that Kya is a fully fleshed out character. This coming of age novel really shows us Kya’s inner monologue; we get to watch her grow up from an abandoned six year old girl into an accomplished, competent old woman. Not once does she set aside her own values and beliefs for the men in her life, whether it’s her father, best friend, or boyfriend.