The Real-World Consequences of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl Cliché

Women do not exist to help men change; men do not need women to transform themselves.
Fox Searchlight Pictures

The Manic Pixie Dream Girl is a well-known pop-culture cliché. The term was coined by critic Nathan Rabin in his review of 2005's Elizabethtown to describe the cheerful, bubbly flight attendant played by Kirsten Dunst. Since then, this character type has been analyzed everywhere, from XoJane to Slate to the Guardian. A list of film examples of the "Manic Pixie Dream Girl" includes roles played by everyone from Barbra Streisand to Natalie Portman to both Hepburns (Audrey and Katharine)

Rabin claimed that the MPDG "exists solely in the fevered imaginations of sensitive writer-directors to teach broodingly soulful young men to embrace life and its infinite mysteries." In a recent exploration of the "Manic Pixie Dream Girl" phenomenon, though, the New Statesman's Laurie Penny argued that the ubiquity of this stock character in mainstream movies has real-world implications. "Men grow up expecting to be the hero of their own story," Penny writes. "Women grow up expecting to be the supporting actress in somebody else's."

In Penny's view, the Manic Pixie Dream Girl is not just an onscreen fantasy--she's a template for young women's lives. "Fiction creates real life," Penny notes; "Women behave in ways that they find sanctioned in stories written by men." For Penny (and for many who commented on her piece), Manic Pixie Dream Girlhood served as a model for how to live as a teen and early 20-something.

This is a problem, according to Penny, because women "deserve to be able to write our own stories rather than exist as supporting characters in the stories for men."

The end of the MPDG would be good news for men, too. The Manic Pixie Dream Girl may serve as a catalyst for male transformation, but in both her real and fictional manifestations, she sends the message that a bright and sensitive young man can only learn to embrace life by falling in love with a woman who sees the dazzling colors and rich complexities he can't. Just as the all-too familiar "Magical Negro" character uses mystical intuitive powers to help white folks tap their God-given potential, the MPDG reminds men that they need (and, more precisely, are entitled to) a women's inspiration and encouragement to reach their own true destiny.

"For me, Manic Pixie Dream Girl was the story that fit," writes Laurie Penny, admitting that she had the "basic physical and personality traits... the raw materials" to live into the part. I, on the other hand, had the requisite qualities to be the boy who fell in love with MPDGs. I was shy, un-athletic, bookish and pudgy. I was horny, lonely, and brooding. I fell for clever, impulsive, short-haired brunettes. I kept my longings to myself, wanting to spare them the awkwardness of making the "I'm flattered but I don't want to spoil our friendship" speech, and wanting to spare myself what I correctly imagined would be the excruciating humiliation of having to hear it. Not old enough to buy cigarettes or vote, I was well on my way to being one of what Penny calls the "mournful men-children" who attach themselves to the bright, the unconventionally pretty, the eager-to-please.

Decades before the term was coined, a Manic Pixie Dream Girl gave me my first proper kiss. Thirty years ago this month, while visiting relatives in Austria, my Viennese grandmother introduced me to Bettina, one of the many teens to whom she gave private English lessons. Bettina was six months older than I was; dark haired and impulsive. On our first date, we went to see La Cage aux Folles with German subtitles; on our second, we went skinny-dipping in the Old Danube; on our third, we smoked hash, listened to the Sex Pistols, and read Paul Celan aloud with her friends from an anarchist youth collective.

We didn't sleep together, but she taught me to open my mouth when I was kissing, and to cup her face in my hand as my tongue touched hers. After a fourth date and hours of hiking and making out in the Lainzer Tiergarten, I asked if I was her boyfriend. She laughed, shook her head, and decades ahead of her time, gave a short but impassioned speech about how monogamy was the enemy of true love.

By the time I left Vienna, I was utterly infatuated.

For the next two years, we wrote each other long letters two or three times a month. Feeling that my American education wasn't up to par, Bettina sent me reading, listening, and viewing lists in both German and English. She turned me on to the Lessings (Gotthold and Doris), the Velvet Underground, and Oskar Kokoschka. I read and listened to everything she suggested whether I liked it or not. I rarely reciprocated with my own offerings, fearful she'd find my own tastes (Stephen King, The Police) pedestrian, unimaginative and thoroughly disappointing.

Presented by

Hugo Schwyzer teaches history and gender studies at Pasadena City College.  He is co-author of Beauty, Disrupted: A Memoir.

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