Beautiful, quirky, adventurous, quick witted, smart and cultured— sound familiar? It’s like a fairy tale when a woman possesses all of these qualities in real life, but in the land of TV and movies, these women are all over the place. Better yet, we have even coined a term for them–say hello to the girl of your dreams: the manic pixie dream girl.
In 2005, the movie Elizabethtown, featuring Kirsten Dunst and Orlando Bloom, hit theaters. After watching the movie in 2007, pop culture writer Nathan Rabin, sat at his desk, wrote a review of the movie and evaluated and created the phrase “manic pixie dream girl” (MPDG). In his article, which focuses mostly on Dunst’s free-spirited and whimsical character, he defines the MPDG as someone who, “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.” As someone whose favorite movies include Elizabethtown, Garden State and Breakfast at Tiffany’s, I think Rabin hit the nail right on the head.
This mystical, fairy-esque character is nothing new in entertainment. We can date the persona back to the leading lady Holly Golightly (Audrey Hepburn) in the classic film, Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961). Golightly is a complicated and carefree women living in New York City who doesn’t seem to stay in one place for very long. She is flighty, sociable and charismatic–the ideal heroine and romantic love interest. In the movie, Golightly becomes acquainted with her handsome neighbor and writer, Paul Varjak. Varjak is exposed to Golightly’s stirring and unconventional life as a social climber and gold digger. Unsurprising spoiler alert: he ends up falling for her, but how could he not? She is a MPDG, after all. Golightly’s MPDG status becomes more apparent in the scene where she and Varjak spend a whole day doing things they’ve never done before. They venture into a knick-knack store and steal animal masks, and then run out of the shop with the masks on, hand in hand. She teaches a “broodingly soulful young men to embrace life and its infinite mysteries and adventures.” Hmmm. Varjak’s love for Golightly causes him to end a relation-ship with a wealthy married woman, write more and escape from his writer’s block. However, there are moments in the film where you can’t help but wonder if Varjak is saving the hopeless MPDG more than she is saving him.
Acting as a man’s rescuer and worldly enlightenment is a significant aspect of the MPDG trope. It is most obvious in Elizabethtown that Dunst’s character, Claire, saves Drew Baylor (Bloom) from his thoughts of committing suicide. After he learns his father passed away, he travels to pick up his father’s remains and meets Claire along the way. Naturally, Claire is an outgoing, restless flight attendant who sends Baylor on a road trip. She leaves him fully equipped with a soulful music selection and a map. The point is, Claire’s character is used to point Baylor in the right direction that guides him to finding himself (and coincidentally to herself) by the end of the movie. The audience is left to assume that Claire replaced Baylor’s harmful thoughts and hardships, but we are left wondering more about the man’s helpful accessory. What exactly is the MPDG’s purpose and does she have her own story?
As mysterious as the MPDG is, we learn more about the archetype in the independent film written and directed by Zach Braff, Garden State. In the film we meet the self-loathing and extremely depressed actor, Andrew Largeman (Braff) who flies home to New Jersey (you guessed it) to attend his disabled mother’s funeral. While he is in the doctor’s office for his anxiety, he meets Sam (Natalie Portman). The childlike girl is sporting a hoodie, faded jeans and a large set of headphones placed on her short, pulled-back curly head of hair. Seconds later, she is placing her headphones on Largeman’s head, swearing that the indie band, The Shins, will change his life. As it turns out, Sam changed it. Through Sam’s quirky and unusual tendencies and antics, he learns more about the person he wants to be, and faces the unfortunate events from his past. Sam helps him get to the place of acceptance and openness to what life has to offer, including love.
Similar to the leading male roles, not many audiences can fully resist the adorableness of the MPDG. By the end of the movie, women find themselves wanting to be the MPDG and men strive to find a woman who can show them a good adventure or two and solve any problems they face internally. However, like any box people tend to put women in, the MPDG has its critics. Many argue that the common character is solely there to develop the male’s character. Some see her journey as nonexistent, or one that revolves around her love interest. There is some truth to that statement. Besides Breakfast at Tiffany’s, the audience isn’t really exposed to the MPDG’s own story. Everything is centered on the male. Perhaps it is just the plot of the film or a coincidence, but the trend is hard to ignore. While critics may look down upon the MPDG category and pray that it disappears from Hollywood, we can still learn something from the character. Although viewers may find her weird and not a possible entity in real life, she is independent and individualistic. She embraces who she is and everyone that crosses her path. She is compassionate and sees that she has something to offer the hopeless character (the leading man). Their relationship tends to go both ways, and they build and grow together and help one another in the process. If that is not a real life relation-ship scenario, then I don’t know what is.
By ALLISON KRIDLE / Former Intern
Found in 2016 Spring Print Edition