The Sound of Music, which turns 50 today, is either a towering work of cinematic genius, a twee adaptation of a Rodgers & Hammerstein show about a good-looking musical family, or an endlessly reliable babysitter, depending on one’s experiences with it growing up. But even for those who’ve never seen it, the film’s cultural influence is indubitably vast and impossibly contagious. Raindrops on roses and whiskers on kittens. Doe, a deer, a female deer. How do you solve a problem like Maria?
As well-loved and frequently aped as the movie is, one fact about it is often overlooked, namely that its protagonist, Maria von Trapp (née Fraulein Maria), is one of the earliest examples of an affected and oft-debated cinematic trope. She is, despite her plummy accent and I-know-best-I’m-a-governess affect, a Manic Pixie Dream Girl, that fictional bearer of quirky fun and madcap outings and ultimate lifelong happiness once emotional walls have been dismantled, brick by brick. Maria, a flibbertigibbet, a will-o'-the-wisp, a clown, is in fact an agent of quirky change similar to Holly Golightly in Breakfast at Tiffany’s, Belle in Beauty and the Beast, Sam in Garden State, and (perhaps less whimsically) Vivian Ward in Pretty Woman. In she floats, with her music, and her bicycle, and her disdain for military-parenting styles, and soon everyone in Austria is openly singing Edelweiss and defying the Nazis at prestigious singing contests.
Endless pixels have been spilled over this particular trope, and whether it’s “the scourge of modern cinema,” as Jezebel has suggested, or a harmless character archetype employed to create maximum comedic discomfort when paired with a rigid, anxious, and cold, male counterpart. The term was coined by The A.V. Club’s Nathan Rabin in 2007 during an assessment of the film Elizabethtown, whose central character, played by Kirsten Dunst, is the kind of “psychotically chipper waitress in the sky” who so divides audiences. “The Manic Pixie Dream Girl,” Rabin writes, “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.” Or, you know, to be kind to their children rather than train them to react to whistles, like dogs.
Maria, played with infinite grace by Julie Andrews, is an early exemplar of the kind of twee noughties heroine later embodied by Zooey Deschanel in New Girl and 500 Days of Summer. She makes clothes out of curtains. She takes the von Trapp children on cycling tours of scenic Austria, where she teaches them to sing. She doles out romantic advice to Liesl, who doesn’t need a governess, in an infinitely empathetic and non-judgmental way, even if that wisdom ultimately isn’t helpful (Rolfe’s betrayal of the von Trapps to the Nazis ends up being one of the cruelest movie twists of childhood). She directs ambitious and quirky puppet shows about lonely goatherds, and yodeling is involved. She employs parataxis to conquer fear, creating long lists of happy thoughts that comfort the children during a thunderstorm, and these happy thoughts are basically a description of Taylor Swift’s Instagram feed: warm woolen mittens, cream-colored ponies, silver-white winters that melt into springs. If she’d only had access to a ukelele, you’d best believe she would have played it.
But all this is just window-dressing compared to Maria’s most defining moment of MPDGness: the way in which she transforms the lives of Georg von Trapp (Christopher Plummer) and his seven infinitely tricky children. From headstrong Liesl to incorrigible Kurt, Maria breaks the children using a lethal combination of reverse psychology and mnemonics, thanking them at the dinner table for the “precious gift” they left in her pocket to welcome her to her new home (a toad), and reducing them all to floods of penitent tears. Wearing down the Captain is a bit trickier, and unfortunately involves disposing of his charming and tart-tongued fiancee, the Baroness von Schraeder, whose defining characteristics are that she dislikes children but loves manipulative behavior and pink lemonade. But the genius of Manic Pixie Maria is that Baroness Elsa practically does the job for her: When Maria returns to the Abbey after Elsa points out Maria’s ungoverness-like feelings for the handsome Captain, it precipitates Georg’s realization that he loves the guileless nun-in-training, not the calculating Vienna socialite. If only all romantic triangles were so easily resolved.
Still, bicycles, guitars, home-made dirndls, and musical boating trips aside, Maria’s ultimate role in The Sound of Music is to conquer cruelty with kindness, and to embody the spirit of gung-ho certitude and optimism that presumably could have stopped the Nazis from declaring Anschluss in Austria in 1938. More fully realized than most Manic Pixie Dream Girls, she’s far from perfect, but she’s endlessly hopeful and unfailingly brave in the face of imminent danger, and she's also ultimately the agent of her own destiny. Maria isn’t a problem to be solved but an answer, at least for chilly widowers with palatial lakeside estates, fleets of rebellious children, and secret poetry in their hearts. May she bless our homes and our DVD collections forever.