‘Strong Female Characters’ and Manic Pixie Dream Girls: Why Can’t Hollywood Get Girls Right?

I’m sure if you’ve consumed any media within the last century, you’re familiar with the ‘manic pixie dream girl’, or have at least heard of them. Ditto for the ‘strong’ female characters or Mary Sues or even ‘sexy lamps’. I wish to examine how gender roles within female narratives are portrayed, and further elaborate in future articles about toxic masculinity and the effect Hollywood has on how we see ourselves and each other.

As a disclaimer, I am a fledgling media scholar (as major in communications and also minor in women’s and gender studies), which highlights why I feel like this topic and its intersections are especially important.

First, the manic pixie dream girl—who is she? She is simply a ‘quirky’ character whose eccentricism teaches the mediocre main character (often a scrawny, nerdy white guy with no discernible characteristics) a life lesson. She often does not have any development of her own, and her existence is nothing more than plot development for the main character. She is often a hippie activist, has dyed hair, and rejects societal norms. She is the opposite of a perfect Mary Sue––an attractive, nice, smart, and essentially flawless character whom real people aspire to be even though they are impossible. The Manic Pixie Dream Girl is ‘not like other girls,’ (implying that there is something wrong with other girls) and this makes her special to the main character, who often has feelings for her. If she dies, her death is nothing more than the main character’s motivations for ‘living life.’

Examples include Ramona Flowers (Scott Pilgrim vs. the World (2010)), Summer (500 Days of Summer (2009)), and Margot (Paper Towns (2015)). Now, I have not seen these movies, but seen them mentioned a lot. While the argument could be made that some of these characters and movies try to deconstruct this female character trope, not everyone will understand that, and will simply take the films at face value.

The main problems associated with the Manic Pixie Dream Girl is that she is special, but only to that specific boy (the main character), and her entire character revolves around how she changes him. Her attributes are tropey, and it can be hard to have a character with such attributes without turning them into a Manic Pixie Dream. She is also often mentally ill, but her depression/anxiety/other problems are romanticized to the point of harmful stereotypes and often lead to people rejecting professional help. She often clashes with other female characters, which speaks volumes of how women are portrayed as ‘catty,’ and further perpetuate gender roles.

Along similar veins are the ‘strong’ female characters, who are simply female characters who exhibit masculine characteristics and mannerisms. They are often strong and rude, looking down on other female characters to fit in with the male characters. They reject emotions, and do not have any other significant details about their character. In their design, they can be hypersexualized or masculine to the point of being mistaken or called a man. Again, it speaks to a male default and superiority, and these characters are often disliked greatly because they go against the grain.

What I want, and I hope that I am not alone in this, is a good strong female character whose arc does not revolve around the development of the main male character, who does not reject her femininity or emotionality for the sake of putting down other women and being higher in the eyes of the male characters, and who is flawed because she is human, and not because she is meant to be disliked. Women can be physically strong and unemotional, or they can be physically weak and emotionally strong. Women can be brash and loud and aggressive, but they can be soft and gentle. Women can be smart without being elitist and stuck-up. 

For a good example of this, I highly encourage researching Rebecca C. Hains’ 2008 article “Power(Puff) Feminism”, which analyzes The Power Puff Girls as feminist icons and the effect the show can have on deconstructing gender norms.

Women’s lives also do not just revolve around men. This idea is heteronormative and ignores those of us outside the gender binary, those of us who don’t fit standards romantically or sexually, and implies that women cannot exist for themselves. Women who are reduced to ‘sexy lamps’––characters who could be replaced by a lamp with no change to the plot––or ‘Bond girls’ are representatives of women as sex objects to be used and gazed at by men. 

As such, many movies do not pass the “Bechdel test,” which simply looks for an instance of two female characters talking about something other than a man.

This matters because the representation of women in the media is part of the cycle in which women are seen in the real world. If all we see are women in relation to men, we never know that we can stand on our own. If all we see are women as sex symbols, we never know that we are more than our conventional attractiveness (or that our looks are not tied to worth). I encourage everyone to consume media that they feel represents them in a good light, and hopefully those ratings will drive Hollywood to retire the Manic Pixie Dream Girl for a character who is allowed to exist and take up space as a woman––flawed, but worthy of everything.