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 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.

  • Great piece!

  • “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’ve known these types of girls my whole life, then again, I went to art school and a teach yoga. But don’t think this is some illusive creature that will never surface. Most of the girls I am friends with are like this, they just aren’t as easy for men to meet because they don’t hang out in bars and such. Most of the time we are just busy creating or doing our own thing.

    I think if you did want to meet a girl like this you should go somewhere they would be at, such as a photography meet-up, vintage movie showing, or anywhere else interesting and unusual.

    Also, I live in the south, girls like this are uncommon, but out there.. seems like in bigger areas this would be very common. Then again, with the growing hipster trend, seems like girls like this would be everywhere.

    I also have never thought of Natalie Portman as some indie-only star. She is such a talented actress in a wide range of films, Garden State is definitely not what I think of when I think of her.

  • Jonas

    Agree. What about all of those idealistic male characters in chick flicks. Should Zack, Remy or Paul write an article on how they ruined the life of so many dorky normal guys? I think you should.

  • H

    What exactly is this article saying? You like MPDG but they don’t exist?

    I agree with Mandy. These girls exist.

  • HarshReality79

    I’ve dated two of them over the years (one before it was even archetype). They exist. They also tend to not settle down either. Bit flighty.

  • MattChi

    Great piece, but I agree with everyone. One of my best friends in highschool was one of those girls. And yes they exist. The stereotypical straight-laced average-joe just has trouble meeting them.

  • The MPDG is definitely defensible, and the term is fanatically over-applied. Any girl with a specific personality suddenly gets slapped with the moniker. Nathan Rabin’s own list has a couple questionable additions that speak as fully-fledged characters.

    I think the male/viewer avatar is more fully to blame in this particular trope. Because the protagonist is the viewer stand-in, they are kept vague with a goal, and all the characters around them are more fully drawn. Garden State is the worst offender, Almost Famous is a close second. Any character is going to seem manic and flighty when compared to the zero at the front and center of the action.

    Basically, people love a good sweeping generalization when they can make one. “There are only 7 basic plots.” “Hollywood only makes sequels.” Manic Pixie Dream Girl is another bucket to throw a bunch of girl characters in when you’re trying to say something bad about a film. There’s more to it, and I’m glad there are people out there who know that there’s something deeper happening.

    Also, Zooey Deschanel is doing some fine comedic work in New Girl, and her character doesn’t have any of the qualities Rabin enumerates. A sitcom based around a MPDG wouldn’t work. I know you didn’t badmouth it in your article, but I’m tired of that association.

  • Zack Ruskin

    Thanks all the insightful comments! I don’t think the MPDG is pure fantasy, but for those that do, I hope to covince them that the archetype has laid the framework for some great characters. The definition has become so diluted and stigmatized that I fear some people are unwilling to see the beneficial outcome of the MPDG.

  • Something to think about. A nice read.

  • Lys

    You seem to be missing the actual problem with the MPDG and I’m not sure you really understand the concept or the criticisms of it. MPDGs only exist to effect (both positively and negatively) men. They don’t live for themselves; they solely exist to have an effect on a male character’s life. No one would argue that Penny Lane isn’t an important plot point of Almost Famous and makes the movie richer, but that’s the problem. She’s a plot point, not a character. She has wants or desires of her own and simply acts as a catalyst for the male protagonist’s coming of age. MPDGs may have positive impacts in the story, but those positive impacts are on male’s lives, not their own. They own lives don’t matter and they’re reduced to props for the male protagonist to use and then dispose of.

    People in the comments are also pointing out that girls like this exist, but they really don’t. Sure, you may know some quirky girls who are into things like yoga and vintage and scooters. But I can guarantee you these real girls actually do have their own goals, hopes, and lives and do more than just flit around making animal noises when they feel like it and showing their boyfriends how wonderful life is. They don’t solely live to further your life and make you a better person. They’re people, not plot points in your life like the MPDG trope would have you believe.

  • JessKitty

    My whole problem with the little pixie waif like creature is that half the time she’s shown as having a mental problem, but it’s no longer a problem, instead it’s cute and quirky and just so adorable that you go, “Aww, isn’t that sweet?” Yes, it is a problem. And just because someone is cute as a button, doesn’t make emotional/mental illness suddenly adorable.

    I saw real life examples of this growing up. I had a friend who could not stay still. I’m not talking she was a fidget, I’m talking she couldn’t pay attention for more than five minutes at a time. She would get up during movies and move around, pace the floor, etc. Had it been an average looking girl, people would have said, “That’s an issue, have you considered getting help for this?” but because she was just the cutest little thing you ever saw, everyone found this darling and quirky. Ever her teachers thought she was too cute for words and if they did discuss the issue with her parents it was done softly as, “Well, it’s just her, isn’t it? Darling little creature…”

    Fast forward to her late 20’s early 30’s, and she’s no longer the adorable pixie and instead of being cutely flightly, she’s become a pain in the ass. But by this point, she’s so used to getting away with it, that she doesn’t have the skills. She’s finally diagnosed with hyperactivity, and a few other disorders that are the results of being indulged in all her whims. So, now that she isn’t cute, she doesn’t have that sympathy, NOW she has to unravel her life and put it back together again. And she never was the same. Since she’d never had a leash put on her, she had no clue how to even start. Instead of being called cute all the time, she was getting yelled at, which lead to depression, which lead to heavy medication, etc.

    Whenever I see Zooey Deschanel act the cute little quirky girl, I think of my friend, and I wonder what would have happened if instead of being indulged and spoiled, someone other than just me had said, “Hey, honey, this is more than a quirk, this is a mental problem and let’s work on this.”

  • Covalent

    What’s the matter? You can’t stand the sight of a strong Nord woman?

    But to be serious, you shouldn’t expect an average movie to depict reality. The characters need some exaggeration to really grab their essence and have a hold on their personality. I loved 500 days of summer and I can’t even say if it’s because of the story or the characters (or simply because it’s Zooey), but what I know is that I liked her as a character (which resembles a lot to Jess in New Girl…)

  • MetFanMac

    Vaguely connected to what #JessKitty said, one of the earliest MPDGs in cinema is probably Katharine Hepburn’s character in “Bringing Up Baby” — and when I saw that movie, instead of thinking, “Aw, how endearingly quirky!”, I thought, “Holy crap, this woman is completely deranged.” Totally twisted around my perspective on the movie.

  • The problem with MPDG is that they are a male fantasy. It’s a woman that a guy needs to “fix”, but also one that represents what he wishes he could be — free and secure. But can you imagine someone acting like that at 45?

    You can tell because they’ve never been presented in an independent context. The MPDG always exists as a romantic interest for the male.

  • Evan

    The writer to which you are referring is actually named Nathan Rabin. Sorry to be a spelling douche.

  • Sumner

    Broodingly soulful is one way to describe me, and having met this young woman I can honestly say there is more than an ounce of truth to the description in the article and the reports recorded in the comments. It is all very twisted when we have someone judging another person’s emotional wave as needing correction or trying to reason with it like it is something flat or something that needs to be flattened. Tormented is an understatement for describing this personality when it is on the low side of its wave with a bunch of emotionally dependent friends demanding a reason for the lows, and mellows of life. These same emotional empaths (friends of MPDG/MPDB) choose diagnostic tools and the ability to pierce someone’s psyche using deterministic measurements to undermine and control something that by its truest nature insulates every process of the human experience.

    We’ve come a long way in trying to understand the Emotional Solar Plexus and our movie setting’s and character styles depict how far we have to go.