In F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, Daisy Buchanan is both a fantasy and a quest. In Gatsby’s increasingly depersonalized vision of Daisy, she is the “golden girl” with a “voice full of money” who exists only to give meaning to his desires. In Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises, Lady Brett Ashley also exists only to rescue men or inspire them to greatness. In John Green’s Looking for Alaska, Alaska exists to fuel Mike’s growth and transformation. While alive, she injects fun and adventure into his dreary boarding school life. In death, she allows him to make sense of loving and losing her and come to terms with his narrow and limited conception of her. What do Daisy, Brett, and Alaska have in common? The fictional worlds they inhabit are interested not in their stories, but in what they enable the male protagonist to see, do, realize, and achieve. They’re all vehicles for someone else’s journey.
In 2007, film critic Nathan Rabin coined the term “manic pixie dream girl.” Rabin used the term to describe Claire, the emotionally shallow and inexplicably chipper flight attendant played by Kirsten Dunst in Elizabethtown (2005), whose only real job in the film is to further the narrative arc of its male protagonist Drew Baylor (Orlando Bloom). Claire spends endless hours on the phone with Drew, helps him make sense of his dad’s death and his own professional failures, and plans a road trip for him to scatter his father’s ashes. While she is busy saving Drew’s life, her own interior life and motivations remain unacknowledged. Rabin identified this character as a type 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.”
Like Claire, Sam (Natalie Portman) in Garden State (2004) is destined for a male protagonist rescue mission. She listens patiently to the newly-bereaved Andrew (Zach Braff) as he explains his problems—an act that goes unreciprocated—and uses all the patience and quirks at her disposal to help him on a journey to ‘find himself’. Sam’s main character trait is being endlessly available for Andrew. The film mentions in passing that she is coping with epilepsy, but it doesn’t expand beyond that. The list of female characters like Claire and Sam—who are never protagonists and who only ever exist to transform cisgender men—is endless. There’s Penny Lane (Kate Hudson) in Almost Famous, Summer (Zooey Deschanel) in (500) Days of Summer, Allison (also Zooey Deschanel) in Yes Man, Polly (Jennifer Anniston) in Along Came Polly, Anna (Charlize Theron) in A Million Ways to Die in the West, and Ramona Flowers (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) in Scott Pilgrim vs. The World. None of these women have backstories or character arcs of their own, and their sole responsibility is to help the male protagonist grow.
How to spot the manic pixie dream girl
We know that she has a quirky, eccentric, and freewheeling personality. While waiting for her next rescue operation, she reads books, plays the ukulele, and unlike most women in film, she eats. She doesn’t wear a lot of make-up, and sometimes she dyes her hair blue. More often than not, she is captivatingly beautiful. Occasionally, she’s blonde, and she’s always white.
None of these characteristics are negative, per se, but their sole aim is to make the manic pixie dream girl worthy of the broodingly soulful man’s attention. This guy is typically tortured, lonely, or consumed by his career. Most of all, he’s self-absorbed. He appreciates the fact that she is inspiring, perceptive, and worldly but only to the extent that these qualities give meaning to his life, shake him out of his dreary existence and enable his self actualization. For him, the manic pixie girl is an idea and a collection of attributes rather than a whole person with her own interests and agency.
Similarly, an apathy towards romantic commitment is a peak pixie trait. But this is less about women’s autonomy and more about the fact that she is ‘not like other girls’ (the most desirable way for women to exist in the misogynistic male fantasy). This lazy and entitled projection (usually imagined by writers or directors) is how the manic pixie dream girl became a sexist phenomenon.
Should we be worried about the manic pixie’s implications in real life?
Yes, absolutely. Pop culture is a reflection of the world we live in, as well as a template from which we take our cues. An onscreen trope both draws from and influences real life. For example, journalist Laurie Penny wrote about how manic pixie dream girlhood served as a model for how she should live as a teen and an early 20-something. The trope encourages men to “grow up expecting to be the hero of their own story,” she said, but signals to women that they can only be the supporting actress.
When the characterization ‘not like other girls’ is wielded as the ultimate marker of desirability, women are reduced to figures defined entirely through the male gaze. There is also the implied suggestion that the way women relate to each other is inherently adversarial. This becomes clearer in another version of the manic pixie dream girl trope—”the only girl”. She desperately wants to be a part of the boys’ club and does everything in her power to gain acceptance as ‘one of the guys’, including repeating their sexist language and attitudes. This is her way of telling the club that she is different from other women, and simultaneously ensuring that no other woman is able to enter this exclusive, privileged space. “In order to be the exception to the rule and the only woman in the club,” explains journalist Harriet Williamson. “you may be compelled to exclude other women to maintain your place.” Ultimately, this is a survival tactic for women who want to distance themselves from their own gendered marginalization by siding with the dominant group in hopes that it will give them some semblance of power.
The manic pixie dream girl and the only girl are both close approximations of “the cool girl.” Captured with perfection by Amy Dunne’s monologue in Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl, the cool girl is the vaunted combination of a “hot, brilliant, funny” woman who is into everything that the men in her life like. The “cool girl” will, without exception, laugh at a man’s dirty jokes, always be up for anal sex, and wolf down hotdogs and hamburgers while always remaining a size two. Like the manic pixie dream girl, she is not a real person, but an impossible idea.
If the cool girl and the manic pixie dream girl embody the ways in which women are denied their personhood and judged against impossible standards, the only girl is a reflection of what happens when women internalize these standards and behave in ways that will buy them acceptance in a world that is always already pitted against them.
Surely, it would make sense then to ditch the manic pixie dream girl trope?
Yes and no. Seven years after he coined the phrase, Rabin wrote an apology in Salon, advocating for the trope to finally be put to rest. While the “archetype of the free-spirited life-lover who cheers up a male sad-sack had existed in the culture for ages”, Rabin believed that by giving the idea a name, he had given it “a power that spun out of control.”
Recent years have seen the emergence of fully-rounded and complex female protagonists, including Issa Dee (Issa Rae) in Insecure, Arabella (Michaela Coel) in I May Destroy You, the eponymous Fleabag (Phoebe Waller Bridge) in Fleabag and Eve Polastri (Sandra Oh) in Killing Eve. Yet, if other recent releases like Chemical Hearts and Crazy About Her are any indication, the trope is dying an agonizingly slow death. To be fair, filmmakers have also deployed the trope to critique everything that it represents. Ruby Sparks turns the manic pixie on its head by rehumanizing her. Ruby (played by Zoe Kazan) begins as the embodiment of Calvin’s (Paul Dano) desires—he literally writes his fantasy of the perfect girl into existence—but there comes a time when she refuses to be hemmed in by his words and craves an identity outside of his idea of her. Ultimately, it is Calvin who has to set Ruby free by writing himself out of the story (she is after all, his creation), but he does not let her go before demonstrating just how much power he holds over her, making her ‘perform’ a string of scenarios that border on abusive. Kazan zeroes in on this interplay between fantasy and control to critique the dehumanization Ruby undergoes as she is forced to exist only as an object of Calvin’s fantasy.
This is why ditching the trope of the manic pixie dream girl is only a partial solution. Bypassing the stereotype entirely will not automatically put an end to badly-written female characters that reek of sexism and misogyny, but acknowledging it might. This means using the trope to critique it, including finding inventive ways that force a reckoning with how and why such shallow, biased, and thoughtless representations of women are harmful but also ridiculous. Like Ruby, we need more manic pixie dream girls to put up a fight, to challenge and resist the one-dimensional persona that is inflicted on them, and walk away from it in protest.