The Week the Manic Pixie Dream Girl Broke

This week, a Flavorwire supercut made its way around the Internet professing to show 75 years of the "Manic Pixie Dream Girl." But what is this breed of woman, and why might writer and actress Zoe Kazan have something to do with it being destroyed? 

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This week, a Flavorwire supercut made its way around the Internet professing to show 75 years of the "Manic Pixie Dream Girl." But what is this breed of woman, and why might writer and actress Zoe Kazan have something to do with it being destroyed?

The term Manic Pixie Dream Girl (or MPDG, for those who like short-hand) has been floating around for years. It's attributed to Nathan Rabin, who used the phrase way back in 2007 to describe Kirsten Dunst in the Cameron Crowe movie Elizabethtown. Dunst plays a flight attendant who enters the life of Orlando Bloom's suicidal hero. Rabin wrote:

The Manic Pixie Dream Girl 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. The Manic Pixie Dream Girl is an all-or-nothing-proposition. Audiences either want to marry her instantly (despite The Manic Pixie Dream Girl being, you know, a fictional character) or they want to commit grievous bodily harm against them and their immediate family. As for me, well, let's just say I'm not going to propose to Dunst's psychotically chipper waitress in the sky any time soon.

Since then the moniker has popped up in film criticism to describe — among others — Dunst in that film, Natalie Portman in Garden State, and basically Zooey Deschanel as a human being. In March Virginia Pasley writing for Slate used Deschanel's adorkability as a jumping off point for a piece about the overuse of the term:

It’s obviously a useful phrase, but increasingly overextended. These days, MPDG has come to mean every female role that’s comedic or even the smallest bit quirky. In fact it’s starting to feel like an undeserved insult, tarnishing even the classics of comedy.

And she's right. Instead of honing the definition of just what a MPDG is, Flavorwire's viral video blew up the category by including, for instance, Julie Andrews' Maria in The Sound of Music. That choice elicited a "Really?" from Vulture's Eliot Glazer.

The video, however, was created in honor of the release of Ruby Sparks, a new film written by and starring Zoe Kazan which tells the story of a writer whose words create his dream girl, Ruby. The trailer has MPDG written all over it. Kazan is adamant that she herself not an MPDG. She explained to Mary Pols of Time: “Like I am ‘offbeat’ and I’m not ‘conventional looking’ and I have unconventional tastes and I feel like if I was a character, people would be like: Manic Pixie Dream Girl! It seems crazy to me because I’m not manic, I’m not a pixie and I’m not a dream girl.” She also is adamant that Ruby is not an MPDG. She told Vulture:

Look, I don’t think of her as that; I hope other people don’t think of her as that. I think if they do they’re misunderstanding the movie. That term is a term that was invented by a blogger, and I think it’s more of a term that applies in critical use than it does in creative use. It’s a way of describing female characters that’s reductive and diminutive, and I think basically misogynist. I’m not saying that some of those characters that have been referred to as that don’t deserve it; I think sometimes filmmakers have not used their imagination in imbuing their female characters with real life. You know, they’ve let music tastes be a signifier of personality. But I just think the term really means nothing; it’s just a way of reducing people’s individuality down to a type, and I think that’s always a bad thing. And I think that’s part of what the movie is about, how dangerous it is to reduce a person down to an idea of a person.

She goes onto rebut theories that Diane Keaton's Annie Hall or the Katharine Hepburn in Bringing Up Baby characters are MPDGs and concludes the point: "I don’t want that term to survive. I want it to die."

The MPDG as a trope has certainly not remained free from criticism. For instance, a video blog last year took it on and down, and a video parody from March titled "State Home For Manic Pixie Dream Girls"  highlighted its absurdity. We're also pretty sure Lena Dunham took an ax to the MPDG with her show Girls. The girls in that show can be described as manic (Hannah), pixie (Shoshanna) and dreamy (Jessa) but never all three together. But Kazan herself also might have succeeded in helping its demise. At least according to Flavorwire's review — headlined "Does ‘Ruby Sparks’ Kill the Manic Pixie Dream Girl?" — which explains that the film includes "an emotionally charged implosion of a fatally one-dimensional archetype that dramatizes the problem with lonely male writers creating female characters who don’t exist — pretty, offbeat girls with no hopes or dreams or thoughts or needs of their own." Over at Movieline their piece "Ruby Sparks Blows Up Manic Pixie Dream Girl Myth" gets at something similar:

Directed by Little Miss Sunshine's team of Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris, Ruby Sparks isn't the exercise in stevia-dusted whimsy that it sounds like, especially once a flesh-and-blood Ruby suddenly materializes — exactly as Calvin wrote her — with no awareness that she began as a fictional literary character.

This touch of movie magic is actually a way for the filmmakers to tartly examine the cinematic trope of the manic pixie dream girl and the larger problems inherent in searching for someone who's perfect for you.

Kazan is right in her desire to undermine the MPDG. The trope — though it highlights girls who are quirky and perhaps unconventional — can be just as damaging to the psyches of young girls as any blonde bombshell. (Trust us, at the age of 15 this writer took it at as a high compliment when a boy said she reminded him of Natalie Portman in Garden State.) Movies with MPDGs can be enjoyable, but the MPDG is, as her name suggests, a dream, and just as much of one as any Transformers babe is. Listening to the Smiths — "they all listen to the Smiths" a character in "State Home for Manic Pixie Dream Girls" says — signifies about as much originality as a tight top does.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.