In Defense of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl

Another angle to justify the necessity of MPDGs is that without them, we’d never have a character like Clementine Kruczynski (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind). Clementine is the antithesis of the MPDG, essentially defining the trope and than dismissing it when she says “too many guys think I’m a concept, or I complete them, or I’m gonna make them alive. But I’m just a fucked-up girl who’s lookin’ for my own peace of mind; don’t assign me yours.”

Clementine gets her not reading on. 

On the surface, elements of Clementine’s character resemble the quirky hipness that defines MPDGs: constantly dying her hair, making potato head figures, and breaking into beach-adjacent cottages. Certainly these behaviors could be described as a mania of sorts, and Clementine is definitely responsible for getting the brooding Joel to add some adventure into his life. Why then does she stand for the opposite of the MPDG?

Well, as Slacktory points out, “she has no interest in enriching her next victim’s life.” Whatever Clementine is up to, it isn’t for the cause of teaching Joel how to live fuller. It’s because that’s what she wants to do. I’m not saying Clementine is definitive proof of cinematic female empowerment, but I do think her resonance as a character is aided by her contrast to MPDGs. Yet, argue as I might on behalf of Clementine, there exists an even more concrete example of how an MPDG role can set-up a character for the ages.

If MPDGs were manifested as a dartboard, a picture of Natalie Portman from Garden State with her oversized headphones would be the bull’s-eye. Zach Braff zombiewalks his way into town, stumbles upon Sam and initiates a three-day romance that for all intents and purposes changes his life and leaves her exactly where she was. In her career, Portman seemed to fluctuate consistently between schlocky drek like Anywhere But Here and nerdy blockbusters like the Star Wars prequels and V for Vendetta. In the aftermath of Garden State, her fate as an indie film love interest seemed sealed. Then Darren Aronofsky got a hold of her, and what resulted was an Oscar-winning turn in 2010’s Black Swan.

Much scarier than the actual ballet.

I don’t mean to take any credit away from Aronofsky, or Portman herself, for the brilliant work they did in that film. However, I contend that viewers went into Black Swan with Garden State Natalie in mind – after all, it was the role she was most frequently linked to (Star Wars prequel hate forums aside). Thus, when her Nina Sayers transforms from fragile ballerina into something rather sinister, the shock and surprise resonate all the deeper. Black Swan’s impact was the beneficiary of people’s perception of Portman as an MPDG. But whereas Zooey Deschannel embraced the label (in as much as she took a whole bunch of roles that fulfilled the trope), Portman opted to flip a proverbial bitch and do something that stood in stark contrast to her past body of work.

There is no denying the negative impact a surplus of MPDG characters has had on the male psyche. Quirkiness has become a more valuable trait than honesty, and across the country boyfriends subject their lady loves to The New Girl because it’s about an independent woman, right? I too am tainted by the allure of impossible expectations, but as a movie fan, I’m grateful for the MPDG. Without her, there’d be major elements missing to undeniably amazing films like Almost Famous and Annie Hall. If not for the archetype, how could we grow more fully realized characters like Clementine? Yes, of course strong, compelling female roles don’t require inferior predecessors, but for every failed facet of the MPDG, there’s a better, smarter, more compelling character waiting to be written. I don’t discount any of the sentiments represented by publications like Jezebel or The Gloss; I embrace them. As such, I hope they will agree with my assertion that what began as an obnoxious ideal is evolving. It’s nothing perfect, and it never will be, but as filmmakers come to see there are no miles left in the legs of manic pixie dream girls, they will build something real from the appealingly false.

  • 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.