The Manic Pixie Dream Girl on Tour
Manic Pixie Dream Girl: “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.”
– Nathan Rabin, film and music critic, and the man that (regrettably) coined the MPDG label
At some stage in our lives, all of us fell in love with a doe-eyed, fictionalised character and her dorky-but-cute idiosyncrasies. In fact, most of us are still in love with her (here’s looking at you Audrey Hepburn in Breakfast at Tiffany’s, Natalie Portman in Garden State, Kirsten Dunst in Elizabeth Town and Zooey Deschanel in, well, everything).
This trope is not, however, limited to the constraints of film and literature. It is also manifested in the eccentric solo traveler and her Instagram account. Donning macramé bracelets and small tattoos, the wanderluster embodies liberation, spontaneity, intelligence and autonomy. She seeks wisdom and understanding in a world consumed by greed and technology. She’s creative, quirky and perfectly imperfect. She can craft a facade of emotional depth on social media that lures the lonely boy who dreams of independence and freedom.
It is not until the female traveller returns from her wanderings that she is confronted by the reality of her MPDG title. “Oh you’re SO adventurous and free spirited!” Lonely Boy groans. “I’ve been lurking all your photos for the longest time! Have you seen Into The Wild? It’s my FAVOURITE movie.”
He proceeds to plan a picnic by a waterfall, buys a copy of Kerouac’s On The Road and picks up a Contiki tour brochure at the local travel agent with a beaming smile on his face. Suddenly, the MPDG becomes a catalyst for him to discover how to embrace life in a true and authentic way.
According to Hugo Schwyzer, the Manic Pixie Dream Girl “knows him better than he knows himself, or so he believes. This convenient assumption allows the young man both to adore the MPDG and to avoid any responsibility for reciprocity. How can he be expected to give anything back when she has this magical intuition about the world that so vastly exceeds his own?”
But every so often, as any woman who has had the MPDG thrust upon her knows all too well, Lonely Boy falls in love with she who is always leaving. He falls in love because he thinks she’s an unsolvable mystery, and that it is his destiny to unlock all understanding. He musters up the courage to ask her on a date. They spend the following weeks hiking and kissing in the ocean and buying strawberry milk and peppermint crisps in service stations barefoot. Just like that, Lonely Boy becomes Adventure Boy. His existence is meaningful and momentous, thanks to her.
Then one day, two months later, it hits him. She’s not perfect or fun all the time. She’s a real human being who farts and poops and has a day job just like everyone else – for how else is she to fund her exciting nomadic lifestyle? Suddenly, normality and boredom flood through the door. She likes to lie in bed and watch brainless television! She gets grumpy when you leave towels on the bathroom floor! She listens to commercial radio! God forbid, she likes getting drunk and going clubbing with high heels on!
Lonely Boy realises she cannot stimulate him for the rest of his life because she doesn’t exist. Or at least if she does, she’s not the one he’s been pining after for however long. He returns On The Road, throws out the Contiki brochure and slumps on the couch to brood. He resumes the GTA game he was playing before she landed. He grows bitter and decides he hates her – he hates her for leading him on! For making him believe that what they had was special! He unfollows her on Instagram.
The problem with the MPDG, in both film and literature, and in life, is that she is only ever understood and written by men. In 500 Days of Summer, it is only in the latter half of the film we find out Summer is engaged. It comes as a shock to the viewer and immediately we blame her for seducing the male protagonist, Tom. Why didn’t we know? How could she be so heartless? He is such a beautiful, committed man!
The reality is, all we knew about Summer was “her smile, her hair, the heart-shaped birthmark she has on her neck… the way she sometimes licks her lips before she talks”. Summer was merely the stimulus for Tom to undertake transformation, so that by the end of the film he is ready to meet Autumn (God, the plotline sounds ridiculous when you put it this way).
Isn’t this the role women have always adopted? Anita Sarkeesian of Feminist Frequency thinks so, stating that the MPDG “… perpetuates the myth of women as caregivers… that we can go ‘fix’ these lonely sad men, so that they can go ‘fix the world’.” It’s superficial and a manifestation of the failure of narrative, which has been mirrored in the stories we tell about our own lives.
Many of us have fallen into the trap of magnifying the aspects of ourselves that align with the MPDG trope. Maybe it’s driven by our insecurities, maybe it’s the need for online gratification, maybe it’s naivety. It’s not until it’s too late that the people chasing the girl we’ve constructed is the only girl they want to know. Are they the only ones to blame? Are we responsible for building the MPDG image because of our subconscious acceptance of sexist tropes?
We’re all searching for a Saviour. Some turn to religion, some to alcohol, others to their partner, and some to a fictionalised, hyper-real manic pixie dream girl. But the MPDG is not a Saviour. She will not pick you up, shake up your world and rescue you. Only you can do that.
Cover by Shannon Kelly