The Manic Pixie Dream Girl

The one-dimensional depiction of women in film, television, and literature

Femme Fatale

She’s not like other girls. She’s an ethereal, fun-loving, free-spirited, and wide-eyed Zooey Deschanel-esque creature. She laughs when there is no joke, and dances when there is no music. She talks about sea horses and stars, but doesn’t know what a football is. She capitalizes the letters in the middle of words. She plays the ukulele. She has a bizarre name like “Alaska” or “Stargirl” that she chose for herself.

But of course, she’s also almost always white, thin, able-bodied, heterosexual, and conventionally beautiful—therefore making her strange behaviors seem “quirky” and “cute” rather than off-putting and disturbing. She’s every single girl in a John Green novel. She is a girl who “loved mysteries so much that she became one.” She “embodies the Great Perhaps.” She is the “faintest scent of a cactus flower, the flitting shadow of an elf owl.” She is “bendable light.”

She is a mystery, an enigma. We never see her inner workings or learn too much about her. We never understand her emotions, her motivations, her fears, and her reasons for doing the eccentric things that she does. But we do know what effect she has on the people around her—especially the shy male protagonist who falls madly in love with her. He will begin as a boy, lost and confused about who he is, ready to lead a conventional and boring life—ready to go “to Duke in the fall, then go to med school, and become an oncologist, and obviously get married and have kids by thirty.” But by the end of the book or film, he will emerge as a man, his eyes opened to the infinite possibilities before him.

The manic pixie dream girl makes men become “irretrievably different” from the mere boys they were before. She teaches them “to revel”; she teaches them “to wonder”; she teaches them “to laugh.” She shows men the joys of uninhibited childhood, she makes them feel young and alive again, and she changes their lives forever.

But the manic pixie dream girl is not real. In real life, women are not mysterious enigmas whose sole purpose is to change a man’s life. Women are very much motivated by their personal beliefs, fears, desires, and ambitions. Maybe she wears different-colored socks because she forgot to do the laundry. Maybe she plays the ukulele because it reminds her of her vacation in Hawaii. There’s always a reason, a motivation, an internal dialogue.

But that internal dialogue is what makes her a real person, and not a manic pixie dream girl. The manic pixie dream girl “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.” We never see her internal dialogue because that’s the whole point—she is never meant to be understood as a fully dimensional human being.

We never know why Stargirl insists on publicly singing happy birthday to her fellow students, or why Margo Roth Spiegelman joined the circus for a week. Alaska Young from John Green’s “Looking for Alaska” has an odd moment of self-awareness when she says, “You never get me. That’s the whole point.”

The allure of the manic pixie dream girl is that she is a mystery. And the moment we learn more about her and see the world from her point of view, that illusion is destroyed, and she is no longer a manic pixie dream girl but a normal human being. And in this way, the manic pixie dream girl can only exist in the male gaze.

Jerry Spinelli awkwardly attempted to shift from depicting Stargirl as a manic pixie dream girl to a real girl by writing a sequel “Love, Stargirl” from Stargirl’s perspective. But there’s a reason why that sequel never really took off in the same way that the predecessor did. The reason why Leo—and we, the reader—fell in love with Stargirl in the first book was because we never understood her. That was the whole point. Through Leo’s male gaze, we saw Stargirl as a pretty girl who did weird things for no apparent reason, making her absolutely adorable and attractive. The Stargirl in “Love, Stargirl” obviously did not see herself as doing quirky things for no conceivable reason—from her point of view, she was doing normal things for a reason.

That internal dialogue destroyed the illusion of Stargirl. It destroyed her magic. She was no longer the “flitting shadow of an elf owl” or “bendable light” that had so captivated Leo’s imagination. She was just a normal human girl just minding her own business and living her own life.

And in fact, that’s what women are. The protagonist Quentin in “Paper Towns” finally realizes, “Margo was not a miracle. She was not an adventure. She was not a fine and precious thing. She was a girl.” Women are real human beings with thoughts and feelings—not just pretty plot devices to aid in the growth of the male protagonist. If a fictional male character in a John Green novel can realize that, I can only hope that real-life male writers and producers can eventually realize that, too.

Nian Hu ’18 is a Government concentrator in Mather House. Her column appears on alternate Fridays.

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