Challenging the myth: two case studies

I would like to consider how challenges to the myth of woman as muse/savior are worked out in two films that come from very different time periods, geography, and cultures — Jules et Jim (1962), directed by Francois Truffaut, and 500 Days of Summer (2009), directed by Marc Webb. I chose such different works to indicate just how timeless and universal the female muse trope is and how the effort to challenge the trope must be ongoing. These films suggest that an alternative to the objectified and reductive trope might come from creating a more textured, more “realistic” female character.

Francois Truffaut’s Jules et Jim presents two, professionally and romantically lost, male friends (Oscar Werner and Henri Serre respectively) who fall in love with the same woman: Catherine (Jeanne Moreau). This film was released long before the term Manic Pixie Dream Girl arose, and thus it reveals the long life and international spread of the female muse/savior trope. In fact, Catherine in Jules et Jim  not only fits the woman as savior stereotype but even has other specific characteristics of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl. We see that both in the script and in the visual aspect, such as editing and cinematography. When Catherine appears on screen for the first time, for example, she is quickly identifiable as an object of inspiration or as a muse, rather than an independent subject.

This introductory sequence features several pronounced and quick jump cuts framing Catherine in medium close ups, close ups, and extreme close ups from different perspectives, so that every aspect of her face is exhibited. These close ups communicate that from the perspective of the two male leads, her appearance defines her, at least initially. It is a very common cinematic tactic, theorized in Laura Mulvey’s “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema”—presenting the female star in “stylized and fragmented by close-ups [because] directors shoot the female body in pieces through close-ups of the legs, breasts and other body parts” (841). [open references in new window] This technique immediately assigns Catherine the role of fantasy object for the male leads and for the viewer by means of identifying with the protagonists. In addition, the way the film restricts Catherine’s space through spatially-restricting close ups also illustrates a more general principle: Manic Pixie Dream Girl characters are confined not only in the plot but also in the filmic space.

Furthermore, Catherine becomes a fantasy woman through the way that the cutting slows down time by showing different perspectives of the same moment. Narratively, Jules and Jim perceive briefly that time has stopped because Catherine has entered their lives. Again, it is as Mulvey suggests: “For a moment, the sexual impact of the performing woman takes the film into a no-man’s land outside of its own time and space. (838)” The way the editing of the close ups manipulates time sets Catherine’s character up as the fantasy dream girl arriving to save the men from tedium and lack of direction in their lives.

The above sequence also has editing and framing similar to a sequence earlier in the film when Jules and Jim visit an Adriatic statue that they conclude is the “perfect woman.” Rapid jump cuts and close up shots of the statue from different POV’s resemble the editing and shots used when Catherine is introduced. So once again, this association of Catherine with a statue, through similar editing and cinematography, solidifies the notion that she’s an objectified fantasy girl. Such visuals objectify in an explicit sense too because the imagery poses a question about immobility and silence. That is, even though Jules and Jim value the quality of intelligence and stimulating conversation in in each other as male peers, their dream girl, in contrast, seems to be beautiful but speechless and without agency.

Although Catherine ‘s qualities initially conform to those of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl, later as she seems to realize that Jules and Jim have projected this limiting role onto her, she begins to resist them. These acts of resistance ultimately lead the narrative to deconstruct any association of Catherine with the trope. For example, she resists expectations by dressing as a man, jumping into a river after overhearing a sexist conversation, and even by proving that she is not the ideal wife or mother when she leaves her family for months at a time to have several affairs.

Through this gradual yet continuous manifestation of resistance, Catherine exerts her own agency, finally by committing suicide and taking Jim with her. One way to read her seemingly destructive act is that it is her way of liberating herself from being an object of inspiration, from being the men’s unrealistic fantasy. Even though Catherine’s characterization predates Rabin’s coining of the term Manic Pixie Dream Girl, it deconstructs the trope, with her final act protesting the inequality inherently associated with such a figure.

The contrasting film that I wish to consider that challenges the myth of woman as muse/savior and the Manic Pixie trope in particular is 500 Days of Summer (2009), directed by Marc Webb. If you google “Manic Pixie Dream Girl,” 500 Days of Summer comes up relentlessly as an example. The female lead Summer (Zooey Deschanel) seemingly walks into the male protagonist, Tom’s (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), life; she comes out of nowhere with no background information, as the Manic Pixie Dream Girl typically does. She also has the quirky manic pixie girl traits, as seen in her effortless vintage style, her unusual fixation with her hair, and the fact that she’s probably the only girl at the office party who sings Nancy Sinatra at karaoke.  

Deschanel has been in other roles that could be considered Manic Pixie Dream Girl roles, such as her portrayal of the wackily dressed and inexplicably moody mall elf, Jovie in Elf (2003), directed by Jon Favreau, and of the spontaneous Allison in Yes Man (2008), directed by Peyton Reed.

500 Days of Summer’s director may have made a conscious decision to cast an actress viewed as a Manic Pixie Dream Girl in order to set up the character before pushing back against the trope’s requirements. The film gradually constructs a more complex female character, much like Catherine’s gradual shift in Jules et Jim. It is also worth noting that lead actor, Joseph Gordon Levitt, interpreted his character in relation to the trope of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl. In a Playboy interview he said, “[Tom] develops a mildly delusional obsession over a girl onto whom he projects all these fantasies. He thinks she’ll give his life meaning because he doesn’t care about much else going on in his life” (Soghomonian).

Summer is introduced in line with this trope. Where Jules et Jim introduces Catherine as an object of the male gaze through cinematography and editing techniques, Summer is explained through a voice-over explicitly telling us that she is an of object of inspiration and a fantasy for men. On Summer’s way to work, the voice says, “she averaged 18.4 double takes a day.”

Another scene fragments Summer’s body similar to the way Truffaut fragments Catherine’s face. Here, the male lead only sees the parts of Summer that fit his fantasy; the visual style once again, belittles, dehumanizes, and restricts the female character by cutting her up into pieces on the screen.

Tom falls in love with Summer immediately, having barely spoken to her. Relatively soon, the two start dating and Tom now excels at his job because of her inspirational effect. However, Summer’s character begins to deviate from the trope of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl as she forces Tom to acknowledge all aspects of her reality, not just the parts of her that he idealizes and fantasizes about. When Tom and Summer start to fight, he seems to think it’s just one of her quirks, but in reality, she just isn’t that into him. The idea that Summer has her own feelings and might not love him doesn’t even seem to occur to Tom. Tom and Summer gradually grow apart. As a result, Tom becomes depressed and starts doing badly at work. When the two eventually break up, he can’t remember what went wrong even though she was obviously unhappy and showed many signs of dissatisfaction, such as a comment she made about them being like Sid and Nancy. In a sense, this story follows the exact opposite trajectory from the muse/savior narrative because as the woman becomes her own fully realized character, the male character starts to deteriorate without his beautiful girl muse.

One of the scenes toward the end is perhaps the most striking in terms of distinguishing between the expectations of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl and the actual woman. When Tom shows up to Summer’s party thinking they might rekindle their romance, we see them in split screen, one side is labeled expectations, the other reality. Such a technique physically removes and contrasts the male’s fantasy from the couple’s current situation.

Summer begins as an inspiration to the male lead, but she becomes a complex person with a background, who makes her own decisions about who she wants to be with. She becomes a character free from the fantasies and expectations of the male lead.

As I’ve previously suggested, both the older and newer film rely on and challenge the trope of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl. Catherine and Summer fight to break out of the confines of their male-crafted muse role by acting out and doing what they want, not what will help the male protagonists. They do not guide their men to safer and better shores. Looking at two films made half a century apart tells us how enduring and universal gender inequality has been even when packaged under different labels. Although the Manic Pixie Dream Girl trope could seem feminist in the sense that the female characters act in a free-spirited way, this is misleading. The Manic Pixie Dream Girl is a product of post-feminism because of the superficial signifiers of progress and freedom such as having quirky and unique personalities and interests. The trope is also post-feminist because it liberates the women from their traditional mother or daughter roles but deprives them a full background. Both the separation of the character from her background/family and the characterization of quirky free-spiritedness distract the viewer from the very traditional and normative ideology these characters embody, especially in that these female characters are still playing the supporting role in the male leads’ stories.

Because of the immense power of narrative film to influence how viewers perceive the world and their places within it, it is useful to establish that tropes such as the Manic Pixie Dream Girl are just that: character tropes. I believe that although Jules et Jim and 500 Days of Summer were made in different parts of the world and during different time periods, they both tackle the age-old struggle to categorize and shape gender roles. Both films can be commended for reminding viewers that women are not trophies, they are not fairies that appear just when they’re needed most, and they do not solely exist to inspire enlightenment for their male counterparts. It is also important to recognize that inequality between representation of male and female characters in film is often veiled by false signifiers such as a female character’s worry-free temperament. Cinematic choices can create invisible biases and perspectives that maintain a level of powerlessness for female characters no matter how free spirited they are written to be. And the cinematic effect on viewer perception is worth considering when weighing social responsibility.

My hope is that young women do not strive to play a fragmented, constricted, supporting role in a man’s life. In addition, men shouldn’t expect this supporting role from women. I and many of my friends enjoy these films, which have lively roles for talented actresses. I think the reason many of us were attracted to these lackluster characters was that we could see ourselves in their little imperfections. The female characters, although in supporting roles, often aren’t typical bombshells with unfaltering grace and finesse. Many times, they are less admired for overt sexual reasons and more for their unconventionality. The Manic Pixie Dream Girl may have seem like a welcome respite in terms of female characterization, but she is not the controller of her own destiny and she still relies on the male character to establish purpose in life. As an increasingly informed audience, and as future filmmakers, parents, aunts and uncles, we need to recognize these as popular fantasies and remember what these fantasies imply for the next generations who will, like us, be shaped by the stories around them.