by Bernadette Bridges
With every artistic endeavor, there are arguments, and with every medium, especially film, there are tropes we all know and recognize. Some clichés we love, others we only tolerate, but one trope worth reexamining is the Manic Pixie Dream Girl.
She, the fantasy of so many men, appeared most recently in this New York Magazine feature, in which they’ve dubbed the “Original Manic Pixie Dream Girl, Jewish actress, Winona Ryder".
Let's back up to what exactly a Manic Pixie Dream Girl is. The term was coined by Nathan Rabin back in 2007 to identify female characters that “exist solely in the fevered imaginations of sensitive writer-directors to teach broodingly soulful young men to embrace life and its infinite mysteries and adventures.”
So, why do we care? Though we're not saying this trope is entirely limited to Jewish actresses, we would argue that the examples below have, through some of their works, helped define the concept. Among them Academy Award winner Natalie Portman, recently convert Zooey Deschanel, and Scarlett Johansson, one of Hollywood's top grossing actresses.
Natalie Portman in Garden State
The Film: Sad boy returns home for mother’s funeral, remembers the past, and falls in love with a compulsive liar.
As written by Stephen Holden from the New York Times, “All the characters are aggressively quirky,” and that seems to be the extent of what Sam, Portman's character, ever offers. But is her inherent quirkiness the only trait that makes Portman's character MPDG material? Heck no.
Spoiler alert! The final scene is a prime example of the accidental sexism that lies within the film's script and the trope of the MPDG. Andrew Lagerman, as played by Zach Braff, after taking Sam’s advice, pursues a life away from home of excitement and adventure. Sam is left crying at the airport. A few seconds later, Lagerman returns after having decided that he cannot live without Sam, which proves that while she's helped to define him, what about her?
It is a very “man sacrifices his dreams for the woman” ending. Honestly, it had the potential be more satisfying if Lagerman just left, leaving Sam to find her own life and realize her own true potential. But, to give credit to Portman's portayal; we see a life and the potential for more.
Zooey Deschanel in 500 Days of Summer
The Film: The story of two people who both happen to know the same (ironically very popular) The Smiths song. Dude falls in love with the youthful girl who eventually leaves him because she is unhappy in the relationship.
Here, in a more evolved MPDG story, director Marc Webb brings us a purposeful story, utilizing the reigning queen of MPDG herself: Zooey Deschanel. She seems to embody the trope in many of her roles, including 500 Days of Summer, New Girl, and Yes Man. She has basically branded herself as the ukulele playing, polka dot wearing, quirky girl. And frankly, Deschanel owns her MPDG status. She reaches beyond the stereotype, so frequently written for her, and brings us multifaceted characters with soul and their own agenda.
As Summer Finn in 500 Days of Summer, (spoiler alert) she teaches us that by turning someone into your muse, you deny them the right to live their own life for themselves. This movie follows the Manic Pixie Dream Girl stereotype to a T, but the ending brings it all crashing down, inverting the cliché by scolding Gordon-Levitt’s character for defining himself through Summer Finn.
There is some controversy in whether or not 500 Days of Summer really is an MPDG story. This video from Feminist Frequency argues that Summer truly is a MPDG while this one, by Mo Mo O’Brien argues directly against Summer as MPDG. We leave it to you to decide.
Scarlett Johansson in Her
The Film: Boy meets girl, girl’s an OS, and (Spoiler alert), OS’s don’t make the best girlfriends.
There's a lot with this film we could discuss and won't, like Joaquin Phoenix’s creepy mustache (plot device? Again, we’re not going there). The film is poignant in ways you don't see coming but the heart of it lies with the character you never see, Johansson’s disembodied AI, Samantha. This is the strangest evolution of MPDG.
Monica Bartyzel offers an interesting stance on Her, stating that it is not an example of Manic Pixie Dream Girl, “but a flawed exploration of women.” But doesn’t Samantha have MPDG traits? She seems oddly artistic/poetic for an operating system, as she attempts to change Phoenix’s character, Theodore Twombly, by bringing more adventure into his life. And, most importantly (and most literally) the only reason for her existence is to serve Twombly at his beck and call.
Unlike some of the above mentions, Samantha is unique in that she outgrows the trope into which she was created. She evolves, and no longer needs Theodore to define her. In the end she is anything but a Manic Pixie Dream Girl; she gets mad, insists on doing things her way, discovers herself and what she truly needs, and eventually moves on, leaving Twombly happier than he ever has been (like an MPDG) but not at her own expense.
So, is the Manic Pixie Dream Girl character so bad? Does it even really exist? That's for you to figure out, but perhaps we should end the discussion back where it started: with the man (semi-ironic), who coined the term. Of it Rabin now says, "I’m sorry for coining the phrase 'Manic Pixie Dream Girl'”. He may be sorry but are we? The trope has yielded big numbers at the box office, helped to arguably further many an actress's career, and seems to be growing and shifting as most artistic mediums do.
In addition to being a talented writer, Bernadette Bridges is a student at Columbia and an AJFF intern; and you could be too. Interested? Let us know.