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 Lazy Betrayals

Prompted by: Moana and LotR

Before I start, I should probably make it super clear that when I first saw Moana back in November 2016, I LOVED it. I was absolutely over the moon for the lead woman of color, the lack of romantic subplot, and the soundtrack. I loved it so much that as soon as I left the theater, I texted Mr. Swiz and told him that it was an absolute must-see. So he went to see it and after he got out of the theater, he told me how much he… was disappointed with it. It sparked a fun conversation about representation and appropriation, the monetary nature of the movie business, and betrayals. I’ll leave those other heavier topics for another time, but today I want to talk about the betrayals. An excerpt from our conversation is as follows:

“A young viewer enjoys a story well told because it takes them somewhere, and they’re not thinking at all, at least probably not on a conscious level, about how the protagonist’s goals inform their character, or how the obstacles they might face define their journey and so on and so forth. When Maui inevitably turns his back on Moana before the third act, a less-jaded Swiz may have been anxious, instead of unsurprised, about his inevitable return.”

I didn’t think much of it at that point in time, largely due to the other conversation topics, but also because it’s a Disney movie and Disney movies tend to follow certain plot points  (see Shang leaving Mulan on the mountain, Han’s infamous “if only there was someone who loved you” line, etc.)

As some of you know, I re-read the Lord of the Rings trilogy this summer after more than a decade since my last reading. I found the books far more enjoyable and immersive this time around (for some reason my 10 year old brain struggled with the litany of middle earthen names) and upon completion decided to re-watch the movies as well. The movies feature several big departures from the book story line, some of which make sense given time constraints (eg: Tom Bombadil) and some that I wholeheartedly support (eg: Arwen having more to do than serve as a three-sentence love interest). However, there is one scene in the movies that really and truly irks me. During the ascent of the Stairs of Cirith Ungol, Gollum uses lembas crumbs to frame Samwise and as a result, Frodo tells Sam to go home.

frodo sam

My frustration over this betrayal reminded me of Maui’s betrayal from last year. And it got me to thinking: what IS the deal with Maui’s entirely too predictable disappearance and reappearance? He leaves Moana after their first attempt to restore the heart, in a betrayal that many viewers saw coming a mile away. And even more predictable is his reappearance, right when Moana needs him the most. As it turns out, TV Tropes has a name for them both: Plot-Mandated Friendship Failure and Changed My Mind, Kid, respectively.

You can view other examples of them here and here 

The fact that there’s such an abundance of examples available leaves me feeling a bit frustrated. I think there are certainly situations in which a betrayal is in-character or is even necessary. For example, Hans’ betrayal of Anna is Frozen is a sublime plot twist, and Han Solo’s departure in New Hope is 100% on par with what we already know about his character. But I’m rather of the belief that relationship drama– in any kind of relationship– shouldn’t be the sole thing keeping the story moving forward. A good writer should have other tricks up their sleeve to propel the story towards the desired climax.

In the book, Frodo and Sam made it through Mordor without any departures or betrayals, which spoke volumes about their relationship and the trust they had in each other despite all the odds. Why couldn’t they have done the same in the movie? Why couldn’t Maui have been injured or Moana’s spirit defeated by something other than Maui’s disappointment? Why couldn’t the two have maintained their friendship and found a different way to arrive at the point of perfecting their teamwork?

I re-watched Moana a few weeks ago, and while I might have been frustrated by the plot-mandated friendship failure, you can bet your bottom dollar I sang along with every word of ‘I Am Moana’.