Not Your Manic Pixie Dream Girl: Analyzing the MPDG Trope

You’ve seen it before countless times.  The female lead with blue hair, ripped jeans, and a cigarette takes the male protagonist by the hand and pulls him further into the party. “We only have tonight,” she says, and for her that’s true. Tomorrow she’ll disappear before sunrise, only to be remembered by the mixtape of rock songs she made for the male lead. These kinds of stories have been celebrated for showing the raw “truth” of adolescence, but until recently few have seen the flaw in these narratives. The male characters are made more mature and experienced by the end of the narrative, and the female characters are disposable. They teach the men how to live, and disappear once the story is over.  That is the issue of the “Manic Pixie Dream Girl;" they are not characters, but instead plot devices that serve to further the male storyline.    

The term “Manic Pixie Dream Girl” was coined by film critic Nathan Rabin after watching the movie Elizabethtown. He defines this term as: “that bubbly, shallow cinematic creature that 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. A pretty, outgoing, whacky female romantic lead whose sole purpose is to help broody male characters lighten up and enjoy their lives.”  

The term has been widely debated and often misused. The “Manic Pixie Dream Girl” stereotype has often been employed to label any character that is “different” or “quirky." Just because a female character likes a certain band or has dyed hair doesn’t automatically mean they qualify as an MPDG.  However, the main signifier of whether a female character fits the trope is if she is fully participatory within the narrative.  If a female character's story is told through the eyes of the male protagonist, without any regard for her own independent storyline - she has become a MPDG.  She is not a person anymore, but instead a figment of the male screenwriter’s imagination.

In looking back at the stories I consumed when I was a teenager, one of the most prominent MPDGs that comes to mind is Margo Roth Spielman from Paper Towns. Margo, an outgoing and adventure-seeking girl, coaxes the main character, Quentin, out of his shell when she brings him along on one of her zany adventures. Just as quickly as she appeared in the narrative, she vanishes, and Quentin begins a treasure hunt spanning across the US to find her. By the end of the book, Quentin becomes brave, outgoing, and daring, just as Margo had intended, while Margo’s character became nothing more than an X on a treasure map. Margo’s sole purpose in the story is as a tool to make the main character realize something about himself. John Green may have tried to dismantle the MPDG trope in his novel, but in reality he continued to perpetuate it, creating a character that exists as nothing more than a chapter in the male protagonist’s story.

When we continue to tell these stories, we often seem to leave out the voices that matter - those of the young women that read them. I grew up not knowing better, and tried to paint myself as these girls. Effortlessly cool, outgoing, “not like other girls,” and ultimately was frustrated when I failed.  But the issue was not with me, but with the characters themselves.  An MPDG is not a real girl, she is a half-formed idea, perpetrated by the male mind. A “Manic Pixie Dream Girl” is misogyny masked in dyed hair and good music taste. When we as women try to model ourselves after these stereotypes to become more “desirable," we make ourselves smaller. We reduce ourselves to a checkpoint in a man’s journey to maturity.  The way to solve this? Female creators and storytellers actively writing themselves into the narrative. We are more than just a disappearing love interest in a brooding young male’s story. As Olivia Gatwood writes in her poem, Manic Pixie Dream Girl Says:  

“...And when you are a whole person for the first time, the movie is over. Manic pixie dream girl doesn’t go on; there’s no need for her anymore. Manic pixie dream girl is to dream girl, and you just woke up.”