Unless you’ve been hiding out under a rock or just haven’t spent that much time on the internet (which, in this day and age, might be basically the same thing), chances are you’ve heard of the manic pixie dream girl. The trope is used to describe a quirky and whimsical female character whose sole purpose for being on screen is to wear awesome outfits and inspire the male lead.
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.” That’s according to Nathan Rabin, the writer who coined the phrase back in 2007, and this week apologized for inventing it.
The problem with the manic pixie dream girl (famous examples include Natalie Portman’s Sam in Garden State and Kirsten Dunst’s Claire in Elizabethtown) is it’s a character who really doesn’t have much of an inner life. She’s there to be quirky and adorable and maybe teach a life lesson. She’s Urban Outfitters in girl form. But of course, women are individual and complicated and, quirky or not, we all have inner lives. We don’t have to have a woman be the protagonist in every single story ever, but if a woman is going to be a side character and/or love interest, she should at least resemble a recognizable human being.
As Rabin states in apology letter in Salon:
“I coined the phrase to call out cultural sexism and to make it harder for male writers to posit reductive, condescending male fantasies of ideal women as realistic characters. But I looked on queasily as the phrase was increasingly accused of being sexist itself.”
As it has evolved, the term has become more problematic. It’s now slapped onto any female character with a healthy amount of quirk (Annie Hall,, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind‘s Clementine, our own Zooey D’s 500 Days of Summer) even if these characters do have a lot of agency and inner life. In the case of 500 Days of Summer, the movie is actually a straight-up brilliant critique of a man trying to make a real woman his fantasy girl. These characters don’t deserve to be saddled with “Manic Pixie Dream Girl” hate. They’ve done nothing to deserve the disrespect.
Rabin ends his piece, which is super smart and thoughtful and absolutely worth the read, with a call to arms:
“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. But in the meantime, Manic Pixies, it’s time to put you to rest.”
Goodbye, little lady.
Featured image courtesy of Camelot Pictures