On Manic Pixie Dream Girls

Prompted by: The Secret History & The Raven Boys

I’m sure most of us are familiar with manic pixie dream girls by now, but just in case, here’s a quick overview: Coined by critic Nathan Rabin in reference to Kristen Dunst’s character in Elizabethtown, 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.” She is unavoidably quirky, overtly charming (often because of her quirkiness, sometimes through her aloofness), and is, 99 times out of 100, the love interest of the male protagonist.

“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.”

-Oxford Dictionaries’ recently canonized definition of the MPDG

If you’re struggling to think of an example, you can pretty much insert Zooey Deschanel’s on-screen essence in just about anything she’s ever been in. The problem that this trope creates is twofold: it typecasts certain actors, and more importantly, it reduces female roles down to one-dimensional objects of infatuation.

“When you get sent scripts and you see you’re always playing someone’s girlfriend when you want to be the central role, it’s so depressing.”

-Zooey Deschanel in regards to being tired of being cast as a MPDG

mpdg

The holy trifecta of MPDGs in film is Claire in Elizabethtown, Summer in 500 Days of Summer, and Sam in Garden State. However, the presence of the manic pixie dream girl has thoroughly infiltrated the lit world. In fact, they’ve been around for much longer than the term has been. From Sam in Perks of Being a Wallflower to Camilla in The Secret History, these manically dreamy girls pop up like daises (coincidentally, that’s a pretty popular name for the MPDG) in novels both old and new. Usually, the MPDG takes a backseat to our main (male) character. In The Secret History, this means she talks significantly less than any of the other (male) characters. In Looking for Alaska, this means she crashes her car and dies– which propels the main (male) character into his self-realization phase. Her personality is filtered through the rose-colored glasses of our male protag, and she usually ends up vanishing sometime before the third act so our brave boy can ~discover himself~. If you haven’t ever come across an MPDG in literature, you can pick up virtually any novel by Haruki Murakami or John Green to find one.

Here’s the thing about manic pixie dream girls: they really can seem quite delightful. They’re undeniably enjoyable to read, at least when they’re first introduced, because it takes a certain amount of whimsy and creativity to write them. They have unique names and quirky personality traits and most of the time they have dyed hair and green eyes. They’re vibrant and electric and people gravitate towards them. So why are they problematic? As I mentioned earlier, the big issue is that it reduces a unique female character to nothing more than a trope, which is problematic all on its own. But one of the reasons this is so frustrating is because it’s such an easy fix.

Maggie Stiefvater is the author of The Raven Cycle, a four-book series following the adventure of four prep school boys and their one female friend, Blue. Sounds like trouble already, doesn’t it? Yeah, that’s what I thought too. Except it’s not. Stiefvater is, beyond a shadow of a doubt, an incredibly talented writer. She makes paragraphs feel like listening to your favorite song on the radio while you’re cruising at night with the windows down. She weaves stories that drip in nostalgia and make your heart ache with the beauty of it all. And the vehicle that carries all of that emotion is her characterization. Every single character is resplendently unique and unavoidably important. Every single one has a part to play within their own character arc as well as in the grand scheme of things. But if it weren’t for that, all of them could easily feel like manic pixie dream girls (and boys). Blue only eats yogurt and wears crochet leggings in the summer. Gansey chews mint leaves and bought a warehouse to convert into a living space. Ronan is a high schooler with elaborate tattoos and a secret love for farming. Adam has freckles and a shy voice and can fix just about anything wrong with a car. There’s a family of psychics living under one roof, a handsome hitman with a penchant for 70’s culture, a Bulgarian who makes Molotov cocktails and loves street racing, and a 7 foot tall giant who lives in a house full of cats. Each character is quirky in one way or another, and could easily be one-dimensional without flaws or struggles or arcs. But Stiefvater makes sure that isn’t the case. She makes sure they all function both as cohesive groups and as individual characters. They work within their romantic storylines and outside of them as well. They are brave and scared and lonely and hopeful. They have secrets and share their lives with each other and throw temper tantrums from time to time. They are whole characters with whole personalities and it’s impossible not to adore them. (artist credit here)

raven cycle 3
Artist: flockeinc via tumblr

(If you haven’t read anything by Maggie Stiefvater yet, you’re missing out. She’s a master of magic and beautiful prose and slow burn relationships.)

My creative writing professor in college told us that all characters should be like the yin-yang symbol: the darkest characters should still have a spot of light, and the brightest characters should still have a spot of dark. No one wants to read about a glossed-over girl who doesn’t have anything wrong with her, just like no one wants to read about the dark villain with the mustache and black hat. To relate to a character, the reader must be able to see them as human. Not as just an object to be obtained, not as a quirky caricature, not as a disposable plot point. And so therein lies my issue with manic pixie dream girls: they are quirky objects, hard to obtain but easy to dispose of.

While the MPDG trope is a device that is in desperate need of some work, I’d be remiss to not share a secret about it. Sometimes, if I’m having a bad day, I think about how John Green would write me as a manic pixie dream girl. It’s reassuring to know that my collection of vintage china and my color-coded bookshelf would be whimsical, that my compulsion for neatness and my ripped cuticles would be marks of my quirkiness. That my gray-green eyes framed by glasses and my literary tattoos would be attractive. So if nothing else, the trope sometimes helps me to reframe myself and remember that there are always parts of ourselves that are delightful.

Review: You (Caroline Kepnes)

I never thought I’d be writing a “review” for a Did Not Finish but I think people deserve to be warned about the dumpster fire that is this novel.

you caroline kepnes

I’m pretty sure this is a new DNF record for me– I only made it six pages before giving up in disgust. I picked it up after seeing a review on Emma’s blog saying it was one of her only favorites of 2017.

It’s essentially a stream-of-consciousness narrative, written in 2nd person. So basically, you’re reading everything that our narrator is thinking. Which would be really great, if our narrator wasn’t a hyper-pretentious, misogynistic man-child and a judgmental piece of trash. Here’s some of the standout lines from the first two chapters:

  1. Your V-neck sweater is beige and it’s impossible to know if you’re wearing a bra but I don’t think that you are. (Congrats, Joe. You managed to make me hate you by the second sentence of the entire book.)
  2. “No, you’re not like those girls. You don’t stage Faulkner and your jeans hang loose.” (Anything along the lines of “you’re not like other girls” is an instant and enormous red flag for me.)
  3. “You sneeze, loudly, and I imagine how loud you are when you climax.”
  4. “This guy is, what, thirty-six and he’s only now reading Franny and Zooey?”
  5. “You could be buying it because you read on some stupid blog that she’s Courtney Love’s biological grandmother. I can’t be sure that you’re buying Paula Fox because you came to her the right way, from a Jonathan Franzen essay.” (FYI: there is no ‘right way’ to come across a book or a song or a movie. Different people have access to different things and it’s great that a wonderful piece of literature crossed their path, regardless of how it got there.)
  6. “You giggle and I wish your nipples were still hard.”
  7. “You hand me your credit card even though you have enough cash in there to cover it. You want me to know your name.” (Or you’re an arrogant garbage boy who can’t conceive of people allocating money for things other than you.)
  8. “He waits near her apartment and stages a run-in. Brilliant, romantic. Love takes work.” (Idolizes the stalking is love trope, naturally.)
  9. “Nobody, not even the rain, has such small hands. Except for you, Beck. These past few days, I’ve learned so much. You put your tiny hands to work on yourself when the mood strikes, which it does, often, which reminds me of another joke in Hannah, where Mia Farrow teases Woody Allen that he ruined himself with excessive masturbation.”
  10. “Besides, I like that you take care of yourself instead of filling your home and your pussy with a string of inadequate men.” (Add a nice dollop of slut shaming and Danielle is out of here.)

I dropped the book after that line. My hypothesis was that Joe was intentionally written to be abrasive and appalling, but I really don’t want to spend my time absorbing an entire book from the POV of an awful person. So I went to goodreads and read the blurb, then proceeded to read all the spoilers, then all the one-star reviews to assure myself that I wasn’t the only one disgusted by this. Then I finally read Emma’s review.

The thing is, I totally get what she’s saying.

It is creepy, because it’s so within the realm of possibility that a boy at the store finds you attractive and then takes it too far. I can understand, in theory, why people like and connect with the book. But I can’t justify sitting through so much slop for a trite and violent end. Perhaps the plot would have been better packaged in a different narrative style to make the entire ordeal feel less normalized? Because that’s what this book does: normalize stalking and violence and the sexualization of strangers.

At least half of the 4 and 5 star reviews I read on goodreads talked about they found themselves rooting for Joe during the book. How even though they know he’s gross and sadistic, they still sympathize with his character. And on one hand, I absolutely think that’s an impressive feat for a writer: to have written their villain well enough that people can associate with him on a human level. But on the other hand, that’s just downright disturbing. That would be like telling Hard Candy from the POV of the pedophile. There is no excuse, no logic, no justification for stalking a stranger and killing people to reach her.

I watched the new Netflix original series The End of the F***ing World last week and was surprised to find that the first episode has a similar premise to this book. A troubled young white male targets a firecracker of a young white female and shenanigans ensue. Except the show handles it deftly and tenderly and creatively. There isn’t any hyper-sexualization of female characters, there aren’t endless asides about how subpar other people are because they don’t like the “right” things, and there isn’t any excessive vulgarity used for the sole sake of shock effect. Because the show is still new, I’m not going to say much about it for those who haven’t watched it yet. But I will say this: it’s a tender coming-of-age story in a wholly unique frame. If you tried to read You and couldn’t make it past the third chapter, try watching The End of the F***ing World.

 

The Misogyny of Romantic Comedies

Prompted by: Playing it Cool

Sometimes I’ll be watching a movie and something will occur to me regarding the genre or the character or the style or whatever else the case may be. Sometimes I’ll do a google search to see if anyone else has noticed the same things. Sometimes there will be an article or a blog post about the same exact thing I noticed… sometimes there won’t be. And sometimes I think to myself “I should write about it.” But I never do.

But I am today! And today I’m going to talk about how rom-coms are so misogynistic.

When Harry Met Sally

Okay so this is a classic, right? I mean, it’s up there with You’ve Got Mail and Pretty in Pink. I had  never seen it, so when it was playing during a plane flight a few months back, I was excited to watch it. Except that I hated it. I hated it from the moment Harry propositions Sally even though he is dating her friend… which is about three minutes into the movie. I hated how smug Harry was, how his self-absorbed monologues wouldn’t let Sally get a word in edgewise, and how he’s aggressive in his pursuits. I hate that he ghosts Sally after they sleep together, that he won’t stop harassing her after she tells him she wants him to leave her alone, and that he publicly announces all of her shortcomings as if she’s only acceptable once he’s said so. For 12 years, Harry shirks responsibility and demeans commitment, and yet we’re somehow supposed to buy that he magically changes and is ready to settle down and live happily ever after? Yeah, right. I hated it so much that I had to look it up when I landed and make sure I had even watched the right movie. I couldn’t fathom how so many people have found it endearing and romantic over the years.

Worthwhile moment: Sally publicly demonstrates how easy it is to fake an orgasm to prove that Harry really isn’t as good in bed as his monstrous ego would lead him to believe.

harry met sally

Play it Cool

This movie is an actual train wreck. Chris Evans plays the lead, and his character is just as sexist as his portrayal The Human Torch, if not more so. With a great line-up featuring Topher Grace, Aubrey Plaza, Michelle Monaghan, and Luke Wilson, I was pretty excited to see this pop up on Netflix. Unfortunately, the cast is really the only good thing about the movie. This sorry excuse for a romance features:

  • a scene featuring a sexy babysitter seductively dancing for a young boy.
  • a line about Malaysian women being the best to sleep with because they’re used to undersized appendages and you can “rip them up.”
  • a main character who continues to show up at the house of his love interest and drunkenly shout up at her window despite her repeatedly asking him to stop.
  • a girl whose consolation prize for not being loved by the main character is ending up with her ‘friend’ who previously forced himself on her.
  • a cliche attempt to stop a wedding because our white male lead simply can’t fathom that someone genuinely isn’t interested in him.
  • repeated racism, sexism, and narcissism.

Worthwhile moment: Topher Grace’s character leaves copies of his favorite book at cafes and coffee shops with a hand-written inscription about how the story changed his life and he hopes it can do the same for the stranger who picks it up.

play it cool 2

27 Dresses

Another airplane viewing, this is one I didn’t even finish. 27 Dresses relies so heavily on stereotyping and sexism to further the plot that it’s shameful. Girl is wedding-obsessed, girl wants her own wedding so badly because that is what gives life meaning, girl is jealous over her sister stealing her romantic interest (instead of just talking about it like grown women should). I turned it off at the part where James Marsden steals her planner and starts plotting about how he is going to use her personal information to get her attention… after she already told him in no uncertain terms that she wanted him to leave her alone. There’s a TV Trope for this plot device called Stalking Is Love. I’m not sure when we started presenting not taking no for an answer as something that’s romantic and endearing. What it is is creepy, and oftentimes borders on harassment. No means no.

Worthwhile moment: none.

27 dresses


So what’s the deal with the misogyny in romantic comedies in the first place? From women being expected to change in order to land the guy of their dreams (a la Sandy in Grease) to men creepily following women around to woo them (a la Christian Grey in 50 Shades of Grey), there’s just something off about what these popular romantic movies are selling. My frustration only increases when I realize that all this sexism exists in movies made for and about women. What are women retaining, consciously or not, as they watch these movies? Do we start to think it’s okay to be followed by a man even when we’ve told him to stop? Do we start to believe that our life doesn’t have true meaning unless we’re spending it with a man? Do we start to think that men can treat women however they want as long as there’s a grand airport/ballroom/sidewalk-in-the-pouring-rain apology? In her must-read article about what she learned from a year of watching rom-coms, Chloe Angyal summarizes it nicely:

“In romantic comedies, men who appear to be misogynistic pigs are simply waiting for the right woman to prove to them that women deserve to be treated like human beings.”

-Chloe Angyal, The Crappy Lessons of Romantic Comedies

The problem isn’t that this genre is often fluffy and predictable, and it’s not that they’re sappy or corny. The problem definitely isn’t that women want love or are interested in marriage. The problem is that, like or not, what we view impacts us. And the impact of consistently viewing love, sex, and relationships in an inaccurate and unhealthy light cannot be good. Angyal says that “romantic comedies teach us that a woman’s life is empty and meaningless without a man, and that any woman who believes she is happy being single is simply lying to herself. They teach us that love is only for straight white people –- skinny, beautiful straight white people, at that. They teach us that men are sex-crazed, commitment-phobic animals who have to be manipulated into romantic relationships, and that when a man really loves a woman, he’ll demonstrate his feelings with grand gestures that barely skirt the line between love and stalking.” And she’s right. These movies are sending the wrong messages, and they’re sending them relentlessly.

I’m not sure what the solution is. Maybe take viewings with a grain of salt? Maybe don’t be shy about turning off a rom-com that has even less redeeming qualities than most? Maybe add a few indie romances to your lineup: ones that feature healthy relationships with real characters and believable storylines (or just watch anything with Leslie Knope/Ben Wyatt or Morticia/Gomez Addams). Whatever the case may be, there’s no shame in rewatching Made of Honor for the fifth time if that’s something that makes you happy. But while watching Patrick Dempsey race through the Scottish countryside on horseback, remind yourself that, corny as it may be, the best love out there is actually the love you have for yourself.

On Game of Thrones and Violence against Women

Prompted by: Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire series

I am certainly not the first person to comment on the discrepancies between George R.R. Martin’s writing and the choices made by the front-runners of the show. I watched the first four seasons of the show back when they came out but stopped watching after the season four finale. But I just read all of the released books this fall, and then re-watched the first three seasons again. And boy oh boy do I take issue with some key elements.

Content Warning: violence, rape

Season 1, Episode 1: The rape of Danerys by Khal Drogo. In the books, Dany’s wedding night was overwhelmingly tender and consensual. Drogo asks her repeatedly what is and isn’t okay, he is considerate and slow and waits until it’s something that she is sure she wants. While that doesn’t change the fact that she was a child of 13, it sets a completely different tone for her well-being and their relationship overall. Instead, we get to start the entire show with an explicit act of sexual violence.

Season 2, Episode 7: Dany’s dragons are stolen. One of her maidservants is killed and the other maidservants turn out to have betrayed them both and given up the dragons. In the books, Dany’s handmaidens are unequivocally loyal. There is no bickering between them or conflict or jealousy. They are as kind to each other as they are to the Khaleesi, never making snide comments over the terminology the other might use due to their differing countries of origin. This plot point in the show really left a bad taste in my mouth. Why was it necessary for a close female confidant to betray the trust of the Khaleesi? Why did they have to paint a strong and brave female in such a negative light? Why did the handmaidens have to bicker in the first place? Why are the creators of the show so determined to eliminate positive female interactions?

Season 3, Episode 6: Arya comments that she doesn’t like Melisandre and the response of her male companions is that she feels that way because she’s a girl. Yay, more girl-on-girl hate… because the only conceivable reason a twelve-year-old girl wouldn’t like a grown woman is due to jealousy. Scenes like this only serve to teach girls not to listen to their intuition and to chalk up their feelings to combativeness between females. It’s a reinforcement of the tired social commentary that girls can’t get along because they’re too busy competing with each other.

Season 4, Episode 3: Jamie rapes Cersei after Joffrey’s death. I don’t have to rewatch this episode to remember how utterly nonconsensual the moment is, especially in comparison to the book. Time has a good summary of what’s wrong with this scene, particularly in the light of director Alex Graves saying that it wasn’t rape.

Ros’s entire arc: so this starts off in pretty sex-positive way. A prostitute from Winterfell heads to King’s Landing to seek her fortune. When she starts working her way up in the ranks at one of Littlefinger’s brothels, it feels a bit gratuitous– “oh look how accepting we are, even a sex worker can be successful!” But it still feels positive and empowering– until it becomes clear that they established her as a character just for the sake of putting her in numerous horrible situations. She’s threatened by Littlefinger over her emotional distress after seeing a baby murdered, forced to partake in sadomasochism with another prostitute by Joffrey, beaten on Cersei’s orders, and finally she is brutally murdered by Joffrey. And out of all of those atrocities, only one even took place in the books.

These are only the scenes that stood out to me before I stopped watching the show. It’s been impossible to not hear about Sansa’s rape by Ramsay, or about Arya very  nearly being sold into sex slavery– two more overt and off-book instances of sexual violence.


The show features seven writers (five of which are men) and five directors (all of which are men). I’ve previously expressed my frustrations with male writers creating contentious and unsavory female characters in regards to the way Dave Eggers writes his female characters in The Circle. For me, the show takes this to a whole new level by not only including such moments, but also by including these moments that weren’t even in the books in the first place.

Complex has a must-read discussion on their site featuring a panel of female TV critics, and most of their thoughts on the series run parallel to mine, especially these two:

got violence against women

One of my biggest issues with the show in comparison with the books is that the show makes violence the centerpiece. It treats violence as a spectacle rather than focusing on the emotion that the violence results in. For example, in the books we are introduced to so many people who were survivors of war, and we hear the stories of what they saw and experienced. We connect with these people, many of them without names, because we are unavoidably faced with their outrage and pain and loss. Martin manages to make us feel with a sentence what an entire scene in the show fails to elicit. The same can be said for Theon’s transition to Reek. In the show, this character arc is nothing more than an entire season of torture porn. I don’t sympathize with Theon, I only mute the scenes so I don’t have to hear him screaming. In juxtaposition, book Theon disappears for a very long time, and when we finally see him again, he’s scarred and changed in more ways than one. The books make the torture utterly haunting and stomach-turning by alluding to what happened rather than shoving it in your face. Martin has discussed in interviews that he attempted to make his storyline historically accurate by writing in things like rape as a normal part of war. While I don’t entirely agree with the execution, I can understand his perspective on the choice. However, my qualms are not with how Martin treats women, my issues are with how the show treats women.

What it comes down to is that the show handles violence in a way that feels like it’s for shock value rather than emotional impact. The problem with this is that after being repeated over and over again, the shock diminishes but the violence doesn’t– and there still isn’t any emotional impact. Caroline Framke sums it up perfectly:

“The problem I have with Game of Thrones is less that horrible things happen to women than when horrible things happen to women, they’re filmed for shock value, and there’s often very little use in that story beyond how horrible it is.”

-Caroline Framke, Complex’s Female TV Critics Discuss the Violence Against Women on ‘Game of Thrones’

Predictably, the comments section has nothing but charming men saying that no one cares what women think and that feminism is garbage. There is also a comment that expresses a sentiment I’ve seen elsewhere: there’s plenty of violence against men in the show– so why is that not being discussed? But here’s the thing: sexual violence against women is a rampart part of our society. You need only look at the most basic of statistics (or the recent #MeToo movement paired with the massive amount of assault allegations currently being leveled at public figures) to see that women have and are suffering copious amounts of violence at the hands of men. To compound the issue, it is only in the past year that more women have started to feel safe enough to speak up about their experiences without overwhelming fear of being silenced. To what extent is it excusable or justifiable to continue portraying this excessive violence against women as a normal part of being a female?

The Lord of The Rings, much like Game of Thrones, takes place during a time of war. There is violence against all those involved, and the scathing effects of battle is not avoidable, nor is it shied away from. But unlike Game of Thrones, Lord of Rings doesn’t make a spectacle out of it. There are ways to shock viewers and keep them on the edge of their seat that don’t involve on-screen torture and rape.