The critic who coined 'Manic Pixie Dream Girl' is disowning the term, thanks to it being wielded too widely – but his invention is still useful in a Hollywood where sexism is very much everyday
It's one of the most mendacious tropes in Hollywood: the female character who throws new light onto a male character's life through her Birkenstocked free spiritedness, while having absolutely no interests or agency of her own.
She's the Manic Pixie Dream Girl, a coinage by film critic Nathan Rabin in 2007, and famous examples include Kirsten Dunst in Elizabethtown, whose stewardess devotes herself to repaving a dope's life path, or Natalie Portman in Garden State, reversing existential inertia via the music of the Shins and being real pretty. The MPDG is an example of a sexism in Hollywood that in some ways is more troubling than Michael Bay's latest denim-shorted cypher in the Transformers franchise – it says women are beautiful, inspiring and have valuable perspectives on life, but those qualities are best deployed in the service of saving a man.
But now Rabin is disowning the term. "I’m sorry for creating this unstoppable monster," he wrote in a Slate essay this week. "I feel deeply weird, if not downright ashamed, at having created a cliche that has been trotted out again and again in an infinite Internet feedback loop."
Similarly, Zoe Kazan – a young, hip actor who has no doubt been offered MPDG parts – has voiced her distaste with the term, calling it "reductive and diminutive, and I think basically misogynist", and saying it gets applied to female characters who don't actually fit the trope.
But while people might certainly reach for the term a little too quickly, a backlash against the cliche shouldn't be conflated with a backlash against the trope itself. Because this is where film criticism can really be useful: calling out the industry for its bullshit. Kazan and Rabin are rightly uncomfortable in thinking about women in terms of stock subgroups, and yet this is exactly how a male-dominated film industry thinks about them – and after a trickle-down process, how ordinary men will end up thinking about them. By lampooning it in a tangy phrase like MPDG, a trope which has creeped along suddenly gets the light shined on it, and its ridiculousness becomes so well articulated that it's difficult to get away with it again.
And it's getting increasingly difficult to write an MPDG. Seth Macfarlane's A Million Ways to Die in the West, with its whore and Manic Pixie Dream Cowboy characters, felt cartoonishly reductive even for him – it stalled at the box office. Meanwhile New Girl, the hit TV sitcom starring Zooey Deschanel, has succeeded because it takes the MPDG trope and subverts it. Deschanel's Jess seems to see herself as a MPDG – only to find that her dreaminess is irritating and her mania prevents her from saving anyone. In so doing she becomes a rounded character; likeable and quirky but not reductively so.
So where should critics be turning their lances next? Hollywood is still littered with tropes ripes for skewering. Leslie Felperin coined "arthouse stud monkey" for the hirsute chaps (Michael Fassbender chief among them) who pleasure the women of publicly-funded movies. Or you could cite the Plaid Gastronome, seen in Chef and Drinking Buddies, who covers up emotional uncertainty with hipster food trends and Urban Outfitters clothing; Bleak Origin Story Man, where all subsequent heroic endeavours are revealed to be thanks to not getting hugged enough as a kid; and Black Comedy Ivory, the actor who pops up to soothe white audiences that, y'know, it's still a film for them. Perhaps if enough noise is made about these characters-by-committee, there might finally be room for more people that actually reflect our lives.
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