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 learn to embrace life only 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 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.

Rabin defined the manic pixie dream girl as a muse whose primary role is to teach and transform a young man. As contemporary a trope as it feels, it’s as old as Dante with his vision of being guided through paradise by his saintly Beatrice. Bettina was my guide, and as much as my adolescent self thought it adored her, I thought less about her and more about how it was she made me feel. Though I questioned whether I was good enough for her, and I felt lucky that she’d chosen me, I didn’t question her role as change agent in my life. It was a one-sided relationship not because I was any more selfish than your average teen boy, but because I took it for granted that this brilliant young woman knew the world better than I did. As unstable as she may be, the manic pixie dream girl not only senses a young man’s potential in a way he can’t, she intuitively knows how to lead him to his destiny. She knows him better than he knows himself, or so he believes. That convenient assumption allows the young man both to adore the MPDG and to avoid any responsibility for reciprocity. How can he be expected to give anything back when she has this magical intuition about the world that so vastly exceeds his own?

Not long after we both started at university in our respective countries, Bettina’s letters stopped coming. I was in love with someone else, but I missed my exchanges with her. My notes went without reply; I only had an address; no phone number, and in the mid-1980s, of course no internet through which to follow up. I asked my grandmother, who said she’d also lost touch with Bettina. Finally, one day in 1987, a black-bordered card came in the mail. It was a Todesanzeige, a death announcement. Just 20, Bettina had committed suicide by jumping out of a fifth-floor window. I later learned from my grandmother that Bettina had suffered from depression for years, something she’d never told me. Something, of course, about which I’d never asked. I’d taken her self-sufficiency for granted.

Dante’s Beatrice also died young, at 24. The great poet met her only three times in real life, but in his writing, transformed her into perhaps the original manic pixie dream girl. Dante was perhaps self-aware enough to recognize the gap between the real Beatrice Portinari and this icon whom he called his “beatitude” and his “salvation.” He called her la gloriosa donna della mia mente: “the glorious lady of my mind.” When I studied Dante in college, the semester after Bettina’s death when I was still moping and ostentatiously mourning, I came across that line in a commentary. I realized that though I’d had far more intimacy with Bettina than Dante had had with Beatrice, I was doing the same thing.

“We’re not fantasies, and we weren’t made to save you.” So Laurie Penny tells men on behalf of her fellow recovering manic pixie dream girls, those who unlike Beatrice or Bettina will live to become so much more interesting as they age and deepen. Becoming more interesting, however, will mean becoming less of the “submissive, exploitable, transcendent ideal” about whom so many young men fantasize.

Here’s the challenge for men in general, filmmakers and writers in particular. We need women who are lead characters, but that’s only part of the equation: We deserve to see men who love these women for the complicated, messy, decidedly non-ethereal people they are. That process has already started; as Clementine Ford points out in Daily Life, the growing influence of feminist writers and actresses like Lena Dunham, Ellen Page, Tina Fey, and Amy Poehler means more girls than ever are growing up with inspiration to “become their own heroes.”

In real life, men can and do learn to love women whose lives don’t revolve around catalyzing male transformation. In art as well as life, the manic pixie dream girl ideal exists because too many men remain intimidated by women who will not revolve their lives around our needs and our growth. We need to let go of the glorious ladies of our minds, and start being fully present with very real women with minds of their own.