Challenging the myth of the
Manic Pixie Dream Girl
by Rachael Weir
The term and its meanings
In a 2007 A.V. Club review for the movie Elizabethtown, film critic Nathan Rabin coined the term “Manic Pixie Dream Girl,” which has since become a regular descriptor in pop-culture vernacular. Rabin defined this as a common cinematic character type: it refers to a female character who “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” (Raban, “Bataan”). [open references in new window] Manic Pixie Dream Girls are quirky, atypical, free spirited women who act as inspirations for male protagonists who search for higher meaning in their lives. These women usually seem to come out of nowhere; little background information is given about them. Such a narrative tactic effectively dehumanizes them and establishes their fantasy status as muse.
After encountering the trope of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl, I was reminded of certain characters from ancient Greek mythology, Nereids, sea nymphs who would appear to guide distressed sailors to safety. The survival of such an ancient mythical female throughout history and in art and literature reveals the persistence of this myth in world culture about a female muse as savior of men. She reappears not only in screenplays but in the longer tradition of storytelling. Considering how ingrained in culture this female role as muse and savior is, it’s worth examining further its presence in film, a more modern form of storytelling. Furthermore, as a feminist, I would like to think about alternate ways film could be used to fight such a reductive character trope. In fact, I’ve seen that one of the most effective challenges to the Manic Pixie Dream Girl occurs when a film turns that trope around so that it becomes a weapon against itself. In other words, the screenplay takes the trope apart within the film narrative itself.
Before going into further depth regarding films which embrace this character trope and films which deconstruct it, I would like to address some critiques of the journalistic use of the term Manic Pixie Dream Girl. Over the years, the term has been used about many female characters who are quirky and beautiful, so much in fact that it has lost much of its meaning. It also has raised a controversy among feminists, many of whom believe that the term shouldn’t be used at all due to its increasing ubiquity and proportionately decreasing substance as a critical tool. Thus, in an AV Club article released in August 2008, a year after the coining of the term, a list was released which cited even more examples of Manic Pixie dream girls in film. (Raban, “Wild”) I found it interesting that this list included Annie Hall, who in my opinion is not a Manic Pixie Dream Girl. I realized that the addition of dynamic female characters to the canon of the Manic Pixie Dream Girls subverted viewers away from understanding that a film’s self-aware use of the trope could be used to draw attention to misogyny in filmmaking. In the case of Annie Hall, just because Annie Hall wore menswear and was unique, that did not make her a Manic Pixie Dream Girl. She had her own goals and pursuits and in the end, chose not to be with the male protagonist.
Because of the broadening definition of the trope had come simply to define quirky and whimsical female characters, some feminist critics struck back. For example, in a Rookie article, Gabby Noone wrote, “just because I like cute stuff doesn’t mean I’m shallow, or that I live to make guys feel more adventurous and deep.” In an observation aimed at a critique of lazy writing, Monika Baryzel wrote in a 2013 article for The Week,
"this once-useful piece of critical shorthand has devolved into laziness and sexism…’Manic Pixie Dream Girl' was useful when it commented on the superficiality of female characterizations in male dominated journeys, but it has since devolved into a pejorative way to deride unique women in fiction and reality."
I have to admit, the feminist critiques of the proliferation of the term over the years made me reconsider my own position of finding these female characters appealing. I thought, am I contributing to sexist stereotyping of women? What’s my social responsibility as a movie viewer? There may well be women who feel that they are being told that they aren’t multidimensional, that they aren’t real, because they have a pixie haircut, wear vintage clothing and like to bake. The broadening definition of a term that may be pejorative has allowed for broadened interpretation, and even application to real women. In this vein, in a 2014 apology for coining the term, Nathan Rabin 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, “I’m sorry”)
Because of the term’s over-extended application, I hope to be more specific in my analysis of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl characterization and how that trope has been used by filmmakers. The typage is not simply about traits, interests, and quirkiness. In this essay, I will present a clearer definition of the trope based not only on how the characters are scripted but also in terms of the cinematic techniques used to enhance the “mysticism” of the female characters as opposed to emphasizing their ordinary human traits.
Two films that use the trope uncritically
To refresh the reader’s memory, I will provide two examples of films which include Manic Pixie Dream Girl characters. Both of these films limit the female characters embodying this trope through both narrative and cinematic means.
Ruby Sparks (2012), written, directed and starred in (as supporting actress) by Zoey Kazan, is a film about a man named Calvin (Paul Dano) who experiences writer’s block and then materializes his dream girl by writing her into existence. Throughout several trials of making adjustments to his dream girl, Calvin faces the consequences of having full agency over her behavior and of bringing a fantasy into the real world.
Ruby first appears in the opening shot of the film in one of the few long shots that she is afforded throughout this film. In ordinary cinematic practice, a longshot gives a character freedom to walk freely throughout the frame and, effectively, through the world of the film. In this instance, she seems to have a kind of independence alone in this space of physical freedom. At the same time, due to backlighting, Ruby appears in featureless shadow, which takes away her identity. And since the composition makes her look like she is walking among the clouds, the image establishes her as an angelic fantasy from the very beginning.
During the end of this first shot of Ruby, the sound of an alarm clock begins to ring, and we cut to the image of Calvin, the protagonist, waking up. This signals that she was just a dream. Not real.
In a later scene, as Calvin talks to his therapist, we learn that he is a troubled writer. He admits his dream about Ruby and says that he is writing about her and consequentially falling in love with a fictional character.
As he lays on his back in his therapist’s office, he describes Ruby’s characteristics, her quirks, her interesting past—one of her first crushes was John Lennon, she can’t drive a car, and she had an affair with her high school teacher. As he tells her history, we see a visualization of this description but it is a transparent image laid on top of the image of the air vent on the ceiling that Calvin is looking at as he lays on the sofa. This transparency of the image emphasizes the fact that Ruby is still just an idea, a seemingly unique and different kind of woman, but still solely an inspiration for this uninspired writer.
Soon after Calvin starts writing about Ruby, he wakes to find her in his home and is startled that his writing has materialized a woman. This low angle looking down on Ruby is one of the few times that Ruby gets a longshot all to herself which, in theory, should afford her independence and freedom within the frame as previously discussed, but once again, cinematic choices detract from her potential for autonomy. The visual impact of this low angle shot from Calvin’s perspective is to establish his power over her in the first scene that Ruby “exists” as a physical person.
This is one of several shots in which Calvin appears in a long shot, but in his case, there is nothing to cancel out the freedom that comes with the long shot. He is about to sit down at his typewriter, which is the way he has complete power over Ruby. Anything he writes about her comes true. When Ruby starts to attain her own life, make friends, and isn’t spending every second with Calvin, he doesn’t like it, and so he writes that she is miserable without him. So she is.
Once more, Ruby gets a longshot, but it’s flooded with other people and it also only occurs because Calvin is looking back at her after he lets go of her hand. He sees she is crying because she is “miserable without him.” After Calvin realizes he can’t have any life apart from Ruby even for a second, he writes that she is happy, but she seems too happy. Then, Calvin writes that she is “just Ruby,” happy or sad, but as a result she becomes too moody for him.
In the climactic scene, Calvin admits to Ruby that he has control over her. He demonstrates by making her speak French, do a striptease, violently snap her fingers, and shout her love for him repeatedly. She eventually collapses on the floor, heaving in exhaustion. In close up, the camera pans down Ruby’s body, effectively breaking up her image into pieces within the frame and reducing her into an objectified character who has been conquered and made less whole. Laura Mulvey has theorized this fragmentation of the female body in film, “Once part of a fragmented body destroys the Renaissance space, the illusion of depth… it gives flatness, the quality of a cut out…”(838). And Mulvey’s characterization of the cut out is a fitting description as well of the dehumanizing and puppeteer-like relationship between Calvin and Ruby.
Admitting his guilt in making and controlling a fantasy woman, Calvin frees Ruby from him. Calvin’s voice over is heard over a sequence of shots showing him moving on with his life, walking his dog, finishing his book. The voice over then matches up with Calvin performing a reading of his latest work at a book release party:
“In the hope that she will not read this and reproach me, I have withheld many telling details: Her name, the particulars of her birth and upbringing, and any identifying scars or birthmarks.”
For a moment, it appeared as if Calvin has redeemed himself and truly freed Ruby, but in the end, he still keeps her identity for himself in fear of her “reproaching him.”
In the last scene Calvin is surprised to see Ruby in the park, the same setting where he bonded with her in his dreams (before she physically materialized). Visuallly, the physical placement of Calvin standing over Ruby for most of this scene maintains the sense of Calvin’s power. Because Calvin had freed Ruby from her past, she seems to have no memory of the way he tortured her. He has another chance; their potential relationship is starting out the exact same way it did in his dreams. This film had a lot of potential to make a statement against the fantasizing of women by tortured artist male characters, but narratively, it put the power back into the male protagonist’s hands hands by maintaining the male character’s cinematic advantage. Scriptwise and cinematically, the two characters were not treated equally, especially in terms of independence and freedom.
Stranger than Fiction
Stanger Than Fiction (2006), directed by Marc Forster and written by Zach Helm, is a film about Harold Crick (Will Ferrell). Harold is scripted as a dual character: a “real” man but is also a fictional one—from a novel being written by famed author Kay Eiffel (Emma Thompson). The “real” Harold can hear her voice narrating his mundane life as he brushes his teeth and goes to work.
In his job as an IRS agent, Harold is sent to audit Ana Pascal (Maggie Gyllenhaal), who has refused to pay all of her taxes for moral reasons. She is rebellious, tattooed, and a baker— clearly not mainstream.
In visual terms, the editing in this scene clearly “fantasizes” Ana. This editing method utilizes eye line matches to imply Harold is staring at Ana as she licks her finger. This kind of shot-reverse shot exemplifies the male gaze, theorized by Laura Mulvey, as a phenomenon in which women and the worlds they inhabit are presented from a masculine perspective, as perceived both by the male protagonist and hen by the audience who sees what he sees:
“The presence of woman is an indispensable element of spectacle in normal narrative film, yet her visual presence tends to work against the development of a story line, to freeze the flow of action in moments of erotic contemplation.”
Over this sequence, a narrator says that Harold “couldn’t help but imagining Mrs. Pascal stroking the side of his face with the soft blade of his finger.” Even within the narrative, Harold “freezes the flow of action” by stopping his job to stare at, objectify, and fantasize about Ana’s body.
Ana becomes the reason for Harold to change, to become more altruistic and independent, and she falls for him when he brings her flowers and plays a song on her guitar. We know nothing of her past apart from the fact that she went to law school and she is ultimately lacking in any real dimension. It’s interesting that in a film about a man who feels he has no power over his life (and whose story is being written), the most powerless character in the film is Ana, who is reduced to an erotically desirable object — rebellious yet simultaneously quaint and domestic (she bakes him cookies). She fulfills the fantasies of the male lead.
Both Ruby Sparks and Stranger than Fiction feature women who have an interesting style, unique beauty, and are clearly not part of the mainstream. In spite of the characters’ potential interest, through editing and shot choices, both films also present these women within the filmic space as simultaneously less than human and more fantastic than human. Ana and Ruby could be much more interesting characters. Ana has strong principles against contributing to a corrupt society and Ruby is an intelligent painter. In the end, both women are delegated to being just “supports,” serving as fantasies and inspiration to their male counterparts, men who have aspirations and are both “searching for answers.” In contrast, the muses don’t seem to have a complex interior life or history.