A Manic Pixie Dream Girl (MPDG) is a stock character type in films. Film critic Nathan Rabin, who coined the term after observing Kirsten Dunst's character in Elizabethtown (2005), said 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 and adventures."
The Manic Pixie Dream Girl has been compared to another stock character, the Magical Negro, a Black character who seems to exist only to provide spiritual or mystical help to the white savior protagonist. In both cases, the stock character has no discernible inner life, usually existing for the sole purpose of providing the protagonist with important life lessons.
MPDGs are usually static characters who have eccentric personality quirks and are unabashedly girlish. They invariably serve as the romantic interest for a (most often brooding or depressed) male protagonist. Examples of an MPDG are described below:
Natalie Portman's character in the movie Garden State (2004), written and directed by Zach Braff. In his review of Garden State, Roger Ebert also described this kind of rather unbelievable "movie creature" as “a girl who is completely available, absolutely desirable and really likes you.” He notes, “we learn almost nothing about her, except that she's great to look at and has those positive attributes“.
Clarisse in the novel Fahrenheit 451 (1953). Critic Jimmy Maher of The Digital Antiquarian wrote:"Bradbury has been credited, with some truth, with foreshadowing or even inspiring everything from 24-hour news as entertainment to the Sony Walkman in Fahrenheit 451. I’ve never, however, seen him properly credited for his most insidious creation: the Manic Pixie Dream Girl."
The titular character of Annie Hall (1977) is often called a MPDG but is arguably not one, as she has her own goals independent of the male lead and ultimately leaves him.
Kate Winslet's character Clementine in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004) acknowledges the trope of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl and rejects the type, in a remark to Jim Carrey's Joel: "Too many guys think I'm a concept, or I complete them, or I'm gonna make them alive. But I'm just a fucked-up girl who's lookin' for my own peace of mind; don't assign me yours."
Although Zooey Deschanel's Summer in 500 Days of Summer (2009) is often identified as a MPDG, the movie can be seen as a deconstruction of the trope because it shows the dangers of idealising women as things, rather than respecting them as real people with their own complex outlooks. Director Marc Webb stated, "Yes, Summer has elements of the manic pixie dream girl – she is an immature view of a woman. She's Tom's view of a woman. He doesn't see her complexity and the consequence for him is heartbreak. In Tom's eyes, Summer is perfection, but perfection has no depth. Summer's not a girl, she's a phase."
Eve, the lead character of Stuart Murdoch's musical filmGod Help the Girl (2014), has also been noted as a subversion of the trope, with actress Emily Browning approaching the character as "the anti-manic pixie dream girl" and describing her as having "her own inner life" and being "incredibly self-absorbed; [...] Olly wants her to be his muse and she's like, 'No, I'm not having that. I'm gonna go do my own shit.'"
Responses to the term
In an interview in New York about her film Ruby Sparks, actress and screenwriter Zoe Kazan noted that the term should only be used to criticize writers who create one dimensional female characters, not actresses. She ultimately expressed skepticism over the use of the term, noting that it’s use could be reductive, diminutive, and misogynistic. She disagreed that Hepburn's character in Bringing Up Baby is a MPDG: "I think that to lump together all individual, original quirky women under that rubric is to erase all difference."
In a December 2012 video, AllMovie critic Cammila Collar embraced the term as an effective description of one-dimensional female characters who seek only the happiness of the male protagonist, and who do not deal with any complex issues of their own. She noted that the pejorative use of the term, then, is mainly directed at writers who do not give these female characters more to do than bolster the spirits of their male partners.
In December 2012, Slate's Aisha Harris posited that "critiques of the MPDG may have become more common than the archetype itself,” suggesting that filmmakers had been forced to become "self-aware about such characters" in the years since Rabin's coining of the phrase and that the trope had largely disappeared from film.
In July 2013, Kat Stoeffel, for The Cut, argued that the term has its uses, but that it has sometimes been deployed in ways that are sexist. For example, she noted that "it was levied, criminally, at Diane Keaton in Annie Hall and Zooey Deschanel, the actual person. How could a real person's defining trait be a lack of interior life?"
Similar sentiments were elucidated by Monika Bartyzel for The Week in April 2013, who wrote "this once-useful piece of critical shorthand has devolved into laziness and sexism.” Bartyzel argues that "[The term] 'Manic Pixie Dream Girl' was useful when it commented on the superficiality of female characterizations in male-dominated journeys, but it has since devolved into a pejorative way to deride unique women in fiction and reality."
Retiring the term
In July 2014, writing for Salon, Rabin stated that the term "Manic Pixie Dream Girl" had frequently been deployed in ways that are sexist and had become as much of a cliché as the MPDG trope itself.
Rabin acknowledged that the phrase has its uses in specific, limited contexts, saying that "the phrase was useful precisely because, while still fairly flexible, it also benefited from a certain specificity." However, he continued by stating that the overwhelming popularity of the term, coupled with the oversimplified definition he gave when coining it, had led to it becoming a kind of “unstoppable monster.” He wrote "by giving an idea a name and a fuzzy definition, you apparently also give it power. And in my case, that power spun out of control."
Rabin asserted that it had gotten to the point where people were commonly using the term to critique real women and actresses (instead of fictitious, one dimensional characters) and to describe things that don’t actually fall under the rubric of the MPDG. In his conclusion, Rabin noted that many nuanced female character cannot be classified in such an all-encompassing, restricted nature and apologized to pop culture for coining a term that is so pervasive and ambiguous, and he stated that the term should be retired and “put to rest."
Despite Rabin’s calls, some film critics continue to use the term, and writers continue to produce explainer articles and videos that attempt to define it.
Manic Pixie Dream Boy
A possible male version of this trope, the Manic Pixie Dream Boy or Manic Pixie Dream Guy, was found in Augustus Waters from the film version of The Fault in Our Stars (2014); he was given this title in a 2014 Vulture article, in which Matt Patches stated, "he's a bad boy, he's a sweetheart, he's a dumb jock, he's a nerd, he's a philosopher, he's a poet, he's a victim, he's a survivor, he's everything everyone wants in their lives, and he's a fallacious notion of what we can actually have in our lives."
The Manic Pixie Dream Boy trope has also been pointed out in sitcoms such as Parks and Recreation and 30 Rock. The female protagonists of these shows are married to men (Adam Scott's Ben Wyatt and James Marsden's Criss Chros, respectively), who, according to a 2012 Grantland article, "patiently [tamp] down her stubbornness and temper while appreciating her quirks, helping her to become her best possible self."
Algorithm-defined fantasy girl
Another version of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl is the algorithm-defined fantasy girl. Although the latter is not human, but a robot or artificial intelligence, her function is the same: to fulfill the desires of the male character and to help him in his journey without having any desires or journey of her own, e.g. Joi in Blade Runner 2049.
^ abRabin, Nathan (January 25, 2007). "My Year Of Flops, Case File 1: Elizabethtown: The Bataan Death March of Whimsy". The A.V. Club. Retrieved January 5, 2010.
^ abBowman, Donna; Gillette, Amelie; Hyden, Steven; Murray, Noel; Pierce, Leonard & Rabin, Nathan (August 4, 2008). "Wild things: 16 films featuring Manic Pixie Dream Girls". The A.V. Club. Retrieved April 16, 2009.
^https://slate.com/culture/2012/12/manic-pixie-prostitute-video-is-the-latest-critique-of-the-manic-pixie-dream-girl-archetype-video.html%7CRetrieved January 22, 2022}}
^Welker, Holly (February 12, 2010). "Forever Your Girl". Bitch (46): 26–30. Retrieved June 26, 2016.
^Berman, Judy (August 7, 2008). "The Natalie Portman problem". Salon. Archived from the original on October 8, 2011. Retrieved January 5, 2010.
^Ebert, Roger (August 6, 2004). "Garden State". Rogerebert.com. Retrieved June 26, 2016.
^"The 10 Best Anime Shows on Netflix". Vulture.com (New York magazine). October 10, 2017. Retrieved July 10, 2021. "...an emotionally damaged boy and a bit of a manic pixie dream girl..."
^"Your Lie in April: How to Trade Depth for Beauty". TheTacomaLedger.com. April 18, 2016. Retrieved July 10, 2021. "Kaori is a total manic pixie dream girl. That is, a “quirky” girl driven entirely by her unspecified desire to break a (hetero male) protagonist out of their shell"
^"Processing Grief Through Anime Part One: Your Lie in April". OtakuExhibition.com. June 10, 2021. Retrieved July 10, 2021. "I immediately pegged Kaori as a stereotypical manic pixie dream girl"
^Maher, Jimmy (2013-09-23). "Fahrenheit 451: The Book". The Digital Antiquarian. Archived from the original on April 24, 2019. Retrieved 10 July 2014.
^Kelly, Dominic (January 9, 2013). "Clip joint: Manic Pixie Dream Girls". The Guardian. Retrieved October 27, 2020.
^"Top Five Manic Pixie Dream Girls". Filmspotting. November 19, 2010. Archived from the original on June 17, 2016. Retrieved June 26, 2016.
^Wiseman, Eva (August 16, 2009). "Is there such a thing as 'the one' - and what happens if you lose her?". The Guardian. Retrieved June 26, 2016.
^Morgan, Laura (October 13, 2014). "Emily Browning On Playing An 'Anti-Manic Pixie Dream Girl' In The New Pop Musical God Help The Girl". Lucky Magazine. Archived from the original on October 13, 2014. Retrieved June 26, 2016.
^Juan, Jada (January 26, 2014). "Sundance: Belle and Sebastian Front Man Stuart Murdoch's Glasgow Musical". Vulture.com. Retrieved January 5, 2015.
^Greco, Patti (July 23, 2012). "Zoe Kazan on Writing Ruby Sparks and Why You Should Never Call Her a 'Manic Pixie Dream Girl'". Vulture. Retrieved June 26, 2016.
^Semantic Breakdown: The Manic Pixie Dream Bitch. YouTube. December 14, 2012. Retrieved June 26, 2016.
^Harris, Aisha (December 5, 2012). "Is the Manic Pixie Dream Girl Dead?". Slate. The Slate Group. Retrieved September 16, 2014.
^Stoeffel, Kat. "The 'Manic Pixie Dream Girl' Has Died". The Cut. New York Media LLC. Retrieved September 16, 2014.
^Rabin, Nathan (July 15, 2014). "I'm sorry for coining the phrase "Manic Pixie Dream Girl": In 2007, I invented the term in a review. Then I watched in queasy disbelief as it seemed to take over pop culture". Salon. Retrieved June 26, 2016.