In Defense of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl

Character archetypes are as old as the movies themselves. There’s the strong, brooding male; the precocious, insightful child and in recent years, the advent Manic Pixie Dream Girl (MPDG). The term was first coined by film critic Nathan Rubin as way to a describe Kirsten Dunst’s character in Elizabethtown.

Rubin defines the MPDG as “”that bubbly, shallow cinematic creature that 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.” I first became aware of the term after reading EJ Dickon’s article “How Zooey Deschanel (Almost) Ruined My Life or I Was A Teenage Manic Pixie Dream Girl” on Nerve.com. I spent the evening arguing with my girlfriend about the merits of Dickon’s piece, desperate to absolve myself of an ever-increasing fear that I might be like the a**hole ex-boyfriend she describes in her piece.

Zooey Deschanel bamboozles male expectations in (500) Days of Summer

Dickson’s thesis revolves around the idea that guys of a certain demographic believe MPDGs to be higher-minded than other “hot” actresses, and thus have no qualms openly stating how attractive Zooey Deschanel is when they wouldn’t be comfortable saying the same for Olivia Wilde. Furthermore, the qualities of MPDGs make them impossible to replicate in real-life, resulting in disillusioned men who place these expectations upon increasingly resentful spouses and girlfriends.

I don’t disagree with her; in fact, I can claim guilt for her charges, albeit subconsciously. There was a time when I was very smitten with Natalie Portman’s character from Garden State, and I definitely had a misguided crush on Deschanel circa (500) Days of Summer. My issue isn’t with Dickson’s assertions, but rather that along with all of the roles categorized as MPDGs, a wide variety of new and enticing roles for female characters have emerged as well. In addition, it is the very advent of MPDGs that has in some sense allowed for their antithesis characters to emerge across screens, giving audiences perhaps some of the richest material they have seen in a long while.

Kate Hudson’s Penny Lane in Almost Famous is universally acknowledged as the epitome of an MPDG. Lane is a self-proclaimed “band-aid”, following the band Stillwater around and occasionally doing the nasty with lead guitarist Russell Hammond. Her demeanor is floaty, unanchored and her motivations are New Age with a touch of vagueness. Clearly there is nothing for Patrick Fugit’s William Miller to do but fall in love with her.

“Listen to Tommy with a candle burning and you will see your entire future.”

What’s wonderful about Lane is that she functions to perfectly set-up Miller’s older sister Anita, played by none other than Zooey Deschanel. Even haters have to admit that Anita is pretty awesome. She escapes the oppression of her mother’s rule to become a stewardess, but not before leaving her little brother a stash of records and providing some sage tidbits of sibling advice.  Anita isn’t sold as William’s savior, and she certainly doesn’t lack for aspirations and identity. In addition, the shortcomings of Penny Lane infuse the strength of Anita’s character. If guys want to faun over Penny, it’s not because the film failed to provide a well-rounded alternative.