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Nathan Rabin Is Sorry He Coined the Phrase "Manic Pixie Dream Girl"

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by Ryan Lattanzio
July 15, 2014 3:57 PM
11 Comments
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In a new editorial for Salon.com, Dissolve critic, former AV Club staffer and pro pop culture writer Nathan Rabin takes an "opportunity to apologize to pop culture" for coining the phrase "Manic Pixie Dream Girl," now a cliche in the media-echo-chamber parlance of the times.

So what is a Manic Pixie Dream Girl? From Rabin's first "My Year in Flops" AV Club column, it's a handy-dandy blanket term for those fantasy women who, in the movies, 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." 

Diane Keaton as "Annie Hall"

The Manic Pixie Dream Girl "taps into a particular male fantasy: of being saved from depression and ennui by a fantasy woman who sweeps in like a glittery breeze to save you from yourself, then disappears once her work is done."

The MPDG, if we're going to pigeonhole, is a fun and fancy-free spirit. She might have chemically colored her hair. She loves dancing and singing in the rain and being impulsive and impetuous and reveling in her restlessness. She lives life more fully than you do -- but, careful, she's broken inside. (Clips after the jump.)

Think Annie Hall, Natalie Portman in "Garden State," Kate Winslet in "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind," Holly Golightly, "Amelie," any and all Zooey Deschanel characters and, of course, the patient zero: Kirsten Dunst in Cameron Crowe's "Elizabethtown," "a fancifully if thinly conceived flibbertigibbet who has no reason to exist except to cheer up one miserable guy":

That day in 2007, I remember watching “Elizabethtown” and being distracted by the preposterousness of its heroine, Claire. Dunst’s psychotically bubbly stewardess seemed to belong in some magical, otherworldly realm — hence the “pixie” — offering up her phone number to strangers and drawing whimsical maps to help her man find his way.

When I hit “publish” on that piece, the first entry in a column I called “My Year of Flops,” I was pretty proud of myself. I felt as if I had tapped into something that had been a part of our culture for a long time and given it a catchy, descriptive name -- a name with what Malcolm Gladwell might call "stickiness."

But then Rabin goes on to discuss how, basically, the MPDG took on a monstrous life of her own, inching her way into the pop cultural lexicon and eventually just becoming another reviewer cliche. (The MPDG's rise culminated in 2012 with this hilarious video parody on the "State Home for Manic Pixie Dream Girls.")

"Ruby Sparks" director/writer/MPDG-par-excellence Zoe Kazan said it was "misogynist"; "Fault in Our Stars" YA author John Green called out Rabin on his archetyping in a Tumblr post, citing his "Paper Towns" as a novel devoted "IN ITS ENTIRETY to destroying the lie of the manic pixie dream girl."

Thus, here is Rabin's great, big apology -- a terrific piece of writing on its own that manages to say something about the state of female characters in movies today. Which is that, duh, we're dealing with an alarming dearth of quality ones in the mainstream.

I'd like to join Kazan and Green in calling for the death of the “Patriarchal Lie” of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl trope. I would welcome its erasure from public discourse. I'd applaud an end to articles about its countless different permutations. Let’s all try to write better, more nuanced and multidimensional female characters: women with rich inner lives and complicated emotions and total autonomy, who might strum ukuleles or dance in the rain even when there are no men around to marvel at their free-spiritedness.

Watch clips of your favorite Manic Pixie Dream Girls, including the most annoying of all -- Natalie Portman's "original human moment":

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11 Comments

  • tyler4all | July 19, 2014 8:15 PMReply

    Why should Rabin have to apologize about anything? The ones that should apologize are the writers and directors who have been pushing this weak writing on us for years. These characters are so weak because 1) they exist solely to make the sad sack, man-child of a character crack a smile and realize the world is not out to get him and 2) it makes men seem dependent on love and sexuality to get off their asses and stop feeling sorry for themselves. As if male characters couldn't just get their shit together without the help of a woman! As if women existed only to please men!

  • anonymous | July 19, 2014 11:17 AMReply

    I've always hated that term. It's dismissive and has been used to describe every quirky or eccentric female character.

  • Alex | July 16, 2014 8:54 PMReply

    So... is Holly Golightly the Manic Pixie Dream Girl Matriarch?

  • Alex | July 16, 2014 8:54 PMReply

    So... is Holly Golightly the Manic Pixie Dream Girl Matriarch?

  • Brian | July 17, 2014 10:43 AM

    Holly was kind of a mess, wasn't she? She didn't exactly help any guy or rescue him from anything. So she doesn't quite fit the description. I never found her to be especially appealing or attractive. She had a desperate quality that mitigated whatever good side she had. (Not that I can remember much about that side of her.)

    The scene I remember most from BREAKFAST AT TIFFANY'S is the one where Buddy Ebsen stalks George Peppard in Central Park. If only Peppard had been a guest star on "Barnaby Jones" years later and they managed to find a way to incorporate the Tiffany's scene somehow.

  • Jake Bart | July 16, 2014 2:17 AMReply

    My two cents: If a term, created to critique misogyny in pop culture, is then adopted by culture toward misogynistic ends, blame the culture not the term. There's nothing inherently misogynistic in the coining or usage of the term in Rabin's original piece. I can understand Rabin's request that the term be more or less put to rest on the grounds that it has risen to the level of critical cliche. Again, I still believe people misusing/misapplying MPDG does not make it a misogynist term. When someone trots out the word "pretentious" to describe a movie (another pot shot chestnut), I don't take issue with the word itself; I take issue with the stupidity of the commenter.

  • Andy Klein | July 15, 2014 6:48 PMReply

    Well, for my exact generation, Julie Christie in Billy Liar was the equivalent. She wasn't manic; you couldn't really call her a pixie; but she did perfectly tap "into a particular male fantasy: of being saved from depression and ennui by a fantasy woman who sweeps in like a glittery breeze to save you from yourself, then disappears once her work is done." I thought of her more as Lifeforce-Restoring Witch Dream Girl. She was definitely a "fun and fancy-free spirit." But, unlike (for instance) the Zoes, she seemed like an adult.

  • Brian | July 15, 2014 5:40 PMReply

    They have a lot of these characters in anime also, but they tend to be more layered and more dominant in the story and to serve a somewhat different purpose. The first one I thought of was Lum, of tiger-skin bikini fame from "Urusei Yatsura," in which she's an alien girl who latches onto a horny Japanese high school boy and moves in with him and gives him a horrendous zapping whenever he makes her jealous--which is often.

    I did a Google search for Manic Pixie Dream Girls in anime and I found a site that listed quite a few but the only ones I was familiar with were Haruhi Suzumiya from "The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya" and Megumi Noda from "Nodame Cantabile." And, IIRC, the character focus in both series is on the girls and the changes she undergoes. The guy in question always seems to be serving the emotional and development needs of the female protagonist. But there are always interesting, nuanced female characters in anime.

  • Here we go again | July 15, 2014 5:39 PMReply

    The manic pixie dream girls at Indiewire don't like you labeling them. Their free spirits, pseudo feminist beliefs, and top tier liberal arts degrees have made them very adapt to man hating. It's interesting how a magazine about independent film is so sexist it's overwhelming. You hate men, and it shows. How many main characters were female in the Oscar contending films last year? You people bitch and moan, and bitch and moan. Jesus H

  • intangible fancy | July 15, 2014 5:02 PMReply

    That links to the wrong article, by the way.

  • ryan lattanzio | July 15, 2014 5:50 PM

    Fixed!

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