Celebrating the 'Manic Punk Dream Girls' of the 1990s
Most of us know pop culture phenomenon of the "Manic Pixie Dream Girl," that energetic but one-dimensional female muse characters populating mid-'00s films like Elizabethtown and Garden State. Today we add a new wrinkle to Nathan Rabin's theory, one very specific to the 1990s—call it the Manic Punk Dream Girl.
Most of us know the pop culture phenomenon of the "Manic Pixie Dream Girl," a term coined by then-A.V. Club writer Nathan Rabin back in 2007 to describe the energetic but one-dimensional female muse characters populating mid-'00s films like Elizabethtown and Garden State. Everyone, especially Rabin, agrees that the term has become a bit of a catch-all cliché. Today is both mine and Rabin's birthday, so I'm taking the occasion to add a new wrinkle to his theory, one very specific to the 1990s—call it the Manic Punk Dream Girl.
The thought occurred to me when watching Cameron Diaz in the 1996 indie Feeling Minnesota, where she plays an utterly destructive, conniving character who sleeps with Keanu Reeves' character on the day she's marrying his brother and then pits them against each other while trying to extract money from each of them. At the same time, she's basically the hero of the movie and the only character you root for, and her whole life philosophy seems to be driven by the noble concept of living life to its fullest because we could all be dead tomorrow.
The Manic Punk Dream Girl usually bumps into a listless male lead, a scoundrel or roustabout involved in petty crime, and spurs into some sort of insane adventure. She might tote a gun herself, or do a lot of hard drugs; her occupation might be call girl or former stripper. Like so many movements in '90s American cinema, you can see Quentin Tarantino's fingerprints all over this. Two of the prototypical Manic Punk Dream Girls came from films he scripted, with his emphasis on fun, low-tier criminality among disaffected Gen Xers spawning a whole generation of American filmmaking that's still reverberating through the culture to this day.
Alabama Whitman is a prostitute hired for Clarence Worley (Christian Slater) on his birthday, without his knowledge—they swiftly declare that they have fallen in love and wed, cutting a violent swathe through Detroit and California's criminal underbelly, killing her pimp for no real reason and stealing a ton of cocaine. Shootouts and mob betrayals and the like ensue. Throughout it all, Arquette and Slater are hopelessly gooey about each other, and Arquette never really drops her chipper bubblegum-chewing attitude, even when James Gandolfini's enforcer is beating the crap out of her (she exacts her revenge, very memorably, with a corkscrew and a can of hairspray). Through it all, no matter how insane things get, she's always there to remind her husband he's the chaotic apple of her eye, scribbling on a napkin, "You're so cool!" while he's closing a drug deal.
Juliette Lewis, Natural Born Killers
This could be substituted with Juliette Lewis in pretty much anything. In her early career, she was cast as innocents surrounded by the evil that men do (Cape Fear, Kalifornia), but Lewis is probably the standard-bearer for the sort of chaotic catalyst that is the Manic Punk. She might start out a film a normal person beset by intense circumstances (From Dusk till Dawn, The Way of the Gun) or be the troublesome flame of a more unsavory character (Strange Days) but she'll probably end up with a gun in her hands at some point or another. Her work as Mallory in Oliver Stone's Tarantino-scripted Natural Born Killers is the most intense and terrifying take on the Manic Punk Dream Girl, egging on her husband Mickey (Woody Harrelson) and killing people with no empathy whatsoever. Stone is intent on making her look as cool and sexually aggressive as possible while this is all happening.
Meg Ryan, The Doors
A throwback Manic Punk, in another Stone film, hearkening back to an era before punk even existed. As Jim Morrison's paramour Pamela Courson, Ryan is a slightly more sympathetic, three-dimensional character since she meets a tragic end (a rare fate for the Manic Punk). But she encourages Morrison's insanity and consumes just as many substances right along with him, and Ryan dials her mania up to 11 for this, one of her most unique performances.
Kelly Macdonald, Transpotting
From across the pond comes Macdonald as Diane, whose courtship of Renton (Ewan McGregor) follows the Manic Punk formula to a tee—they meet, he immediately decides he's in love, and they have sex instantly, and then she reveals some insane darkness (in her case, it's that she's only 16 year old). Diane is a bit cooler than some of these ladies, but let's chalk that up to her Scottishness. Trainspotting is probably the most Tarantino-esque film to come out of Britain, with all his fast cutting and multiple-storyline trickery, but with a bleaker outlook on life layered over it all. Macdonald is the firecracker that propels so much of Renton's arc, though.
Laura Dern, Wild at Heart
Dern's character, Lula Pace Fortune, checks a lot of the boxes I've established here: crazy name, involvement in unnecessarily violent activities, wild and constantly over-the-top declarations of affection for her man Sailor (Nicolas Cage). But obviously it's worth noting that this is a David Lynch film, so applying any strict rules to its characterization is a fool's errand. Wild at Heart also came before Tarantino had made any impact as a writer, but are elements of Lula in so many of the characters that followed, especially her crazy dress sense. Wild at Heart particularly feels like True Romance's weirder cousin because of their shared Elvis obsessions.
Cameron Diaz, Feeling Minnesota
One could also include Diaz's work in Danny Boyle's follow-up to Trainspotting, A Life Less Ordinary, but it's not quite as demented as Diaz's role as Freddie, a former stripper who marries one man to settle a mob debt and pits his only slightly less dopey brother against him. The scene I link to below occurs about one minute in to her meeting Jjacks (Keanu Reeves). It should be noted that all these films were made by men, and that the Tarantino trend in the '90s was an energetically masculine one, and while these female characters are (to varying degrees) empowered, they do not always get to break out of their very plotty confines. Alabama Whitman, perhaps just because of Arquette's performance, feels like a real character with agency. But Freddie and so many others seem to exist only to make everyone else crazy. It's a Hollywood trope that had existed since silent movies and the invention of the femme fatale, just updated for a more lurid generation.
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.