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.