Monday, April 18, 2016

How NOT to Write Female Characters: Reflections on the “Manic Pixie Dream Girl” Trope

As I’ve argued in previous blog posts and in class, representation in pop culture and media are pivotal to how society understands the dynamics among people and institutions. Although people seriously underestimate the value of what they write off as merely “entertainment,” those social dynamics manifest themselves in the law and how we treat one another.

Every few months, sometimes for no particular reason, I get a seething rage about the Manic Pixie Dream Girl trope (shortened to “MPDG” in some instances for the purposes of this blog post). As this article from The Atlantic discusses, the term has made its way to the Oxford Dictionary, with the definition as follows:
“manic pixie dream girl (noun): (especially in film) a type of female character depicted as vivacious and appealingly quirky, whose main purpose within the narrative is to inspire a greater appreciation for life in a male protagonist”
The annoying crux of this trope is that the female character, however interesting she may be, functions primarily to serve the male protagonist’s development arc.

(See also, the “Women in Refrigerators” and “Manpain” tropes)

As the article by The Atlantic suggests, one of the most popular examples of this trope is Natalie Portman’s character in "Garden State." Portman’s reflections on her role suggest that a female character being “interesting” is one thing, but a female character existing within the narrative for her own purpose is an entirely different matter.

One of the more specific reawakenings of my MPDG rage stemmed from the movie version of “Scott Pilgrim v. The World,” wherein the female character Ramona Flowers seems more like a prize to be won by the male protagonist, rather than a badass in her own right. As this review suggests, a lot of the MPDG problems stemmed from adapting this story from comic to screen, as the comics involved more backstory for Ramona Flowers that would have otherwise saved her from MPDG status had they been transferred over to the film version. Whether or not we accept the difficulty of transferring mediums as an excuse for how female characters are written is a hotly debated topic in itself (I personally find the excuse to be lazy and such adaptations to be sloppy).

There is a broader social critique invoked in the criticism of this trope. Sure, we’ve come a long way from Blackstone’s “doctrine of coverture” days, wherein women were legally and socially subordinated to men. However, ideas associated with the MPDG trope remind us that American society at large is a far cry away from acknowledging the autonomy and personhood of women. The MPDG trope is so criticized, specifically because female characters appear solely for the development of the male characters. If the female characters are largely portrayed for nothing more than their use to men, how will real life men view real life women? The persistent issue is that real women in real life continue to be objectified by men and valued only for how they make men feel. Men continue to assert the entitlement to control women’s bodies and destinies (highlighted in areas of law such as reproductive justice, domestic violence, and rape). The MPDG trope perpetuates this mode of thinking.

The lengthy public debate about the meaning and validity of "Manic Pixie Dream Girl" as a term is precisely the kind of conversation that we need to have to question social consciousness about different issues. As the cited articles suggest, in an atmosphere where the Manic Pixie Dream Girl trope is thoroughly discussed, such a trope becomes known and identifiable to the point that writers will have to work harder to avoid clichés. Put simply, this awareness puts the pressure on writers to write female characters with the complexity that rings true to that of their female counterparts in reality.

Undoubtedly, there is a lot of work to be done in this area. Male writers continue to dominate film and television, so the accurate depiction of popular culture is largely left to men trying to convey an experience that they don’t live. Out of this process, getting a well-written female character can be hit-or-miss, but that’s why it’s important to keep the pressure on the industry and the people in charge of telling these stories. We need more women in position of power, more women writers and directors, more women everywhere and anywhere. We need to keep the pressure on male writers to write the kinds of female characters that we see in reality: the powerful, the strong, the weak, the conflicted, the complex, existing on their own terms and for their own purposes and no one else’s.


Sonja said...

In response to a certain type of male attention, my college friends and I coined a real-life equivalent to the Manic Pixie Dream Girl - the Freaky Weird Girl. Freaky Weird Girls attract comments like, "you're so different from other girls," "wow, you've heard of bands I've never even heard of before," and "you have a really unique sense of style." Similar to the the MPDG trope, men's attraction to Freaky Weird Girls is related to their own self-image - by dating, or being associated with someone they see as "unique" their social status and sense of self is elevated. The older (and perhaps more "mainstream") I've gotten, these types of comments have diminished. But occasionally, when someone realizes I have tattoos, my Freaky Weird Girl status is reinstated. Fortunately, I can usually spot these types of people and tend to avoid social interactions where I am being commodified for my "uniqueness," and instead work to build genuine connections with people, based on more than the male ego.

India Powell said...

As soon as I read the first couple paragraphs of your post, I immediately thought of Natalie Portman in "Garden State." As the Atlantic article describes, that character was truly the epitome of MPDG. I remember watching that movie and for years trying to be exactly like her. That if I could just be a smart, skinny, quirky, tomboy-ish-but-still-classically-gorgeous girl, then life would be perfect. But as your post inspires me to dig into this issue, I'm realizing that all those quirky "flaws" that we see find so endearing in many MPDG's are note really flaws at all. Those characters, unlike their male counterparts, are so perfectly manicured that they're not really allowed any true flaws. Maybe those girls are "too honest" or "too spontaneous." But they're never narcissistic, or overly pompous, or strikingly ignorant. It's an unattainable standard of quirky, but not too quirky, relatable, but not too ordinary.

Meredith Hankins said...

YES India. Natalie Portman in Garden State is the epitome of MPDG. I have tried to explain to so many people why I hated that movie, and have struggled to put it into words. This post does it perfectly! Another frequent MPDG culprit (victim?) is Zooey Deschanel. 500 Days of Summer? Ugh. It's one of the reasons I've never watched New Girl because it seems like she's the same type of character.