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The Manic Pixie Dream Girl Trope, Explained

You know the Manic Pixie Dream Girl, that wild and special woman who lives her life to the fullest and brings someone else to live his life to the fullest. But who really is she? What’s behind this label, and have we been misusing it? Watch this video for our deep dive into the trope.

TRANSCRIPT

Ever meet a woman who’s quirky, impulsive, and plays by her own set of rules? If you have, and you’re a lonely sad-sack dude in a movie … then you may have encountered a Manic Pixie Dream Girl. Originally coined by A.V. Club writer Nathan Rabin, this term became part of the pop-culture vernacular because it so perfectly encapsulated a certain type of female character that had become prevalent in a certain type of movie. Here are a few characteristics that most Manic Pixie Dream Girls seem to share:

They’re outgoing. Men in movies hardly ever approach Manic Pixie Dream Girls. Manic Pixie Dream Girls come up to them, introduce themselves, and strike up conversations. Even if they’re played by supernaturally beautiful movie stars, men often react to their seductive whimsy with reluctance or bafflement. They have particular and outwardly advertised tastes. Whether it’s in fashion, music, or just oddball theories, Manic Pixie Dream Girls have a style that’s meant to advertise that they are not like normal girls.

Summer: “I love the Smiths. You have good taste in music.”

Tom Hansen: “You like the Smiths?” - 500 Days of Summer

They’re undaunted. Manic Pixie Dream Girls never give up, no matter what men or society are telling them. They persist—usually somehow remaining in a great mood, even if they’re dying! They don’t care what people think! By doing all this, they change people’s lives. Specifically, men’s lives. Men who need a Manic Pixie Dream Girl are typically lonely, tortured, or driven by their careers. The once timid or dejected male protagonist emerges from his encounter with a Manic Pixie Dream Girl ready to embrace life’s challenges and idiosyncrasies.

Claire Colburn: “You have five minutes to wallow in the delicious misery. Enjoy it. Embrace it. Discard it. And proceed.” - Elizabethtown

Of course, many of these traits arguably apply to a lot of heroines throughout film history. Is it so weird for a woman to have a distinctive fashion sense, or a favorite band, or an extraverted, nonconformist personality? What’s the difference between a Manic Pixie Dream Girl and a genuinely quirky woman? Here’s our take on who the Manic Pixie Dream Girl really is, and whether she still exists in pop culture as we know it.

Manic Pixie Origins

The movie Elizabethtown certainly didn’t invent the Manic Pixie Dream Girl, but it did inspire the label. In 2007, A.V. Club writer Nathan Rabin kicked off his column series My Year of Flops with an entry on Cameron Crowe’s 2005 movie, which was a notorious box office and critical failure from the much-loved writer-director who also made Say Anything, Jerry Maguire, and Almost Famous. Elizabethtown is about a depressed young man played by Orlando Bloom traveling to his father’s memorial when he meets Claire, a flight attendant played by Kristen Dunst, who becomes his cheerful, quirky, effervescent love interest.

Claire, Rabin wrote, is a Manic Pixie Dream Girl, a type of character who “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 A.V. Club later posted a longer list of Manic Pixie Dream Girls throughout film history. Like a lot of coinages in the age of the internet, the term “Manic Pixie Dream Girl” quickly became a popular shorthand. But as with a lot of insightful, memorable critiques, the term also became a catch-all. For some writers and viewers, it was a familiar buzzer that they could hit every time they recognized some characteristics of the trope.

At times, the eagerness to label female characters Manic Pixie Dream Girls started to feel, to some, like latent misogyny —a way of dismissing female characters for superficial reasons, like having dyed hair, or being funny. Thoughtful creators like the novelist John Green and the writer and actress Zoe Kazan called the term out (both in interviews and in their work) as being unhelpful and applied too broadly to characters who were really more than just Manic Pixie Dream Girls.

Nathan Rabin even wrote an essay for Salon in 2014, in which he confessed to his pride turning to discomfort as the description became ubiquitous and increasingly used in sexist ways—rather than calling out sexism, as it was originally intended to do.

Today the term remains a part of the cultural lexicon but the question of who exactly qualifies as a Manic Pixie Dream Girl is increasingly fraught and controversial, even as new examples of the trope continue to appear.

Leo Borlock: “There’s just something about her, she’s not like anybody else. Is she magic?” - Stargirl

Manic Pixie Hall of Fame

To be sure, Rabin was correct to point out Elizabethtown as a particularly egregious example of a, particularly persistent cliché. Claire takes an immediate, supportive liking to a stranger, she offers life-changing advice…

Claire Colburn: “Everybody’s gotta take a road trip at least once in their lives. Just you and some music!” - Elizabethtown

… and she curates his life with art projects and mix CDs, guiding him on his own cross-country scattering of his dad’s ashes. Another go-to example of the MPDG is Natalie Portman’s character Sam from Garden State, written and directed by Zach Braff. Sam meets Braff’s character Andrew by chance, takes an immediate interest in him, shows off adorable personality quirks, and brings him out of overmedicated numbness.

Andrew Largeman: “You saved my life and I’ve known you for four days.” - Garden State

In less widely seen movies like Watching the Detectives, the female lead will go even further to advertise her specialness through the screenwriter with lots of fussed-over quirks that ultimately don’t mean much. Romantic weepies like Autumn in New York and Sweet November give stars like Charlize Theron and Winona Ryder a positive attitude and a series of eccentricities so they can improve the men in their stories. In Sweet November, Charlize Theron’s character Sara lives a lifestyle that seems designed to rebuke the aggression and materialism of the Keanu Reeves character. Even when Sara’s broader motivations are eventually revealed, they function as a life lesson for her boyfriend.

Sara Deever: “Just like I need to know that you’ll go on and have a beautiful life – the one you deserve!” - Sweet November

Manic Pixie Dream Girls, or Just Heroines?

Though the Manic Pixie Dream Girl term may have been popularized and identified during the 2000s, this character type has a lineage in much older movies. But claiming these classic forerunners as just more Manic Pixie Dream Girls dismisses and marginalizes some of the best romantic comedy heroines in movie history.

Susan Vance: “All that happened, happened because I was trying to keep you near me and I was just doing anything that came into my head.” - Bringing Up Baby

For some, the “original” Manic Pixie Dream Girl is Susan, the flighty heiress played by Katharine Hepburn in the 1938 classic Bringing Up Baby, who bedevils and vexes a paleontologist played by Cary Grant. Susan is quirky, she’s brash and she’s relentless in her dedication to a guy who doesn’t initially seem that interested. But Bringing Up Baby is a screwball comedy, which depends on characters who are outsized, zany, and undaunted to move the plot along.

In 1972 screwball homage What’s Up, Doc? Barbra Streisand’s relentless character does exist to loosen up a square professor and take him on a crazy adventure. But like in earlier screwball comedies, her unbeatable persistence is part of the joke—she’s like Bugs Bunny, as indicated by the movie’s title and irreverent attitude.

Another supposed Manic Pixie Dream Girl from the past, the title character from 1978 Best Picture winner Annie Hall, is flighty, a distinctive dresser, characterized as, unlike other women. and seen mostly through the eyes of male lead Alvy Singer. But Annie —who was supposedly based on actress Diane Keaton, a real person—is likewise her own person, who’s not content to just be Alvy’s fantasy object. And in the end, the whole movie is about a relationship that doesn’t work out, although Alvy likes to imagine it did by changing the ending in his own fiction.

So even if these memorable female characters fit the MPDG’s list of traits, it’s reductive to lump them together and ignore their complexity. In some ways, the Manic Pixie Dream Girl overlaps with a much older spirit: The Muse.

In Greek mythology, the muses are the goddesses who bring inspiration to literature and art. They may serve man in that sense, but they’re also far more powerful than mere mortals.

Perhaps one of the best onscreen “muse” characters in recent decades is the ethereal “band-aid” played by Kate Hudson in Crowe’s 2000 film Almost Famous. In the aftermath of Cameron Crowe’s Elizabethtown spawning the MPDG label, some questioned whether maybe Penny Lane was also a Manic Pixie Dream Girl. After all, she’s free-spirited, stylish, has great taste in music, and changes the lives of both rock star Russell, the guitarist of the band she loves, and protagonist William Miller, the young music journalist who’s in awe of her. But Penny doesn’t exist to inspire these men alone. Her connection to music is portrayed as more pure and spiritual than just about anyone else’s in the movie and the story also underlines how Penny’s generosity as a muse doesn’t always work out for her. So in the end, her happy ending isn’t returning to either man, as they both wish she would.

Russell Hammond: “We both wanted to be with her, but she wanted us to be together” - Almost Famous

Deconstructions of The Manic Pixie Dream Girl

One big problem with the Manic Pixie Dream Girl label is that it’s also indiscriminately applied to characters who are consciously intended to deconstruct, undermine, or comment on this trope.

Clementine Krucynski: “Too many guys think I’m a concept, or I complete them, or I’m gonna make them alive.” - Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind

As a Trope Anatomy video on the subject pointed out two of the most extreme examples of this mislabeling are Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind’s Clementine and 500 Days of Summer’s Summer. Clementine is outgoing, brash, constantly changing her hair color, and trying to live by her own rules. And Summer in 500 Days of Summer is the picture of the alluring quirky girl who’s many a hipster’s fantasies. She’s also played by Zooey Deschanel, who’s played other uninhibited female characters inspiring men to live freer lives and whose cupcake-loving, musical, quirky-girl real-life persona became synonymous with the Manic Pixie Dream Girl in the popular consciousness for a while.

But Eternal Sunshine, which came out earlier than Garden State or Elizabethtown, was calling out the idea of a Manic Pixie Dream Girl before anyone had even coined a name for it.

Clementine Kruczynski: “I’m just a fucked up girl looking for my own peace of mind. Don’t assign me yours.” - Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind

And the whole point of 500 Days of Summer is that Tom is overlooking and intentionally misreading Summer’s whole internal life and personality.

Summer: “I just don’t feel comfortable being anyone’s girlfriend” - 500 Days of Summer

The way these characters are interpreted and misinterpreted by male characters isn’t a sexist accident on the part of the screenwriters; it’s what the movies in question are about. Branding real person Deschanel an MPDG also doesn’t make much sense, as it suggests that her personality is a fantasy created by some invisible male screenwriter.

Deconstruction is also the goal of Ruby Sparks, where a writer invents his own Manic Pixie Dream Girl-type character who somehow comes to life and his manipulative, self-centered tendencies are exposed as he tries to mold Ruby into his perfect woman.

Calvin Weir-Fields: “I told you I could make you do anything. I write it, you do it.” - Ruby Sparks

Similarly, 2013’s Her—which might be a certain kind of male fantasy—is also a movie about that fantasy and how it derives from loneliness. The operating system named Samantha is a quirky love interest so dedicated to the lonely male lead Theodore that she doesn’t even have a separate physical presence. But the movie ends with Samantha outgrowing Theodore and ascending to a higher plane of consciousness…

Samantha: “The heart’s not like a box that gets filled up. It expands in size the more you love. I’m different from you.” - Her

… just as many of these exceptional women do ultimately seem destined for a larger existence separate from the men whose lives they briefly deign to pass through.

Even after all this backlash and debate, it’s fair to say that the Manic Pixie Dream Girl is still with us. Just look at the Disney Plus original movie Stargirl, where a quirky girl teaches a boring guy how to take risks and then disappears.

But tropes are not automatically bad, and pointing them out doesn’t invalidate a movie. An exceptionally confident, unique, and inspirational female character isn’t on its own an expression of sexism. If we condemn all female characters who play the muse or who endear themselves to us with their bold quirks, we’d be throwing out many stand-out performances, fictional creations, and real people. Similarly, it’s not automatically the case that all deconstructions of the MPDG trope are inherently superior to straight-up examples. The writer character in Ruby Sparks is so obviously a mess that he becomes a case study, rather than a person.

Ruby Sparks being more self-aware about Manic Pixie Dream Girls doesn’t necessarily make it a more enjoyable movie than something like Garden State, where Natalie Portman’s acting gives her character a sense of inner life — may be more than the movie deserves. On the opposite end, 500 Days of Summer may be smart about how the male protagonist deludes himself, yet that intended message didn’t stop a huge number of viewers from siding with Tom and vocally blaming Summer. This suggests that the narrative was too myopic, allowing viewers to feel Tom’s side of the story and not effectively encouraging them to feel for Summer as well.

The lines can also blur, as characters who are apparently intended to deconstruct the trope can easily end up embodying it. More broadly, should we automatically dismiss movie romances because they aren’t always realistic, or because they favor one point-of-view over another?

If there’s an ultimate solution to the misuse of this trope, it’s a greater diversity of voices coming together to create characters and relationships, ensuring that romantic heroines aren’t so often conceived and written by men. Many movies are some kind of fantasy. But it does matter who’s doing the fantasizing.

Works Cited

Rabin, Nathan. “The Bataan Death March of Whimsy Case File #1: Elizabethtown.” The A.V. Club, 25 Jan. 2007.
https://film.avclub.com/the-bataan-death-march-of-whimsy-case-file-1-elizabet-1798210595

Rabin, Nathan. “I’m sorry for coining the phrase ‘Manic Pixie Dream Girl.’” Salon, 16 July 2014.
https://www.salon.com/2014/07/15/im_sorry_for_coining_the_phrase_manic_pixie_dream_girl/

Murray, Noel et al. “Wild things: 16 films featuring Manic Pixie Dream Girls.” The A.V. Club, 4 Aug. 2008.
https://film.avclub.com/wild-things-16-films-featuring-manic-pixie-dream-girls-1798214617

Trope Anatomy. “The Misuse of the Term - Manic Pixie Dream Girl.” YouTube, 9 Oct. 2017.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WwGjpPlgqyo