JUMP CUT
A REVIEW OF CONTEMPORARY MEDIA

copyright 2018, Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media
Jump Cut
, No. 58, winter, 2017-2018

Challenging the myth of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl

by Rachael Weir

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”). 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 be 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.

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). 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.

References

Bartyzel Monika. “Girls on Film: Why It’s Time to Retire the Term Manic Pixie Dream Girl.” 2013,
http://www.theweek.com/articles/465113/girls-film-why-time-retire-term-manic-manic-pixie-dream-girl.

Mulvey, Laura. “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema.” Film Theory and Criticism:     Introductory Readings. Eds. Leo Braudy and Marshall Cohen. New York: Oxford UP, 1999.

Noone, Gabby. “Manic Pixie Panic.” Rookie, 18 Apr.2013,  
www.rookiemag.com/2013/04/04/manic-pixie-panic/.

Rabin, Nathan. “I’m Sorry for Coining the Phrase “Manic Pixie Dream Girl.” Salon, 15 July 2014,
www.salon.com/2014/07/15/Im_sorry_for_coining_the_phrase_manic_pixie_dream_girl/.

Rabin, Nathan. “The Bataan Death March of Whimsy Case File #1: Elizabethtown.” The A.V. Club. N.p., 25 Jan 2007. Web. 22 June 2017. [give url]

Rabin, Nathan. “Wild Things:16 Films Featuring Manic Pixie Dream Girls. “Film.avclub.com, 4 Aug. 2008,
film.avclub.com/wild-things-16-films-featuring-manic-pixie-dream-girls-1798214617

Soghomonian, Talia, “Joseph Gordon-Levitt: ‘My Character in ‘(500) Days of Summer’ is No Romantic Role Model’.” NME. N.p., 05 Oct. 2016. Web. 22 June 2017. [give url]