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Monday 22 September 2014

The world has fallen out of love with quirky girls

A backlash is building against Hollywood's dreamy girls.

Published 01/08/2014 | 00:00

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Zooey Deschanel charms Joesph Gordon-Levitt in ‘500 days of Summer’.
Natalie Portman in Garden State
Zoe Kazan and Daniel Radcliffe in ‘What If’.

She is cute and kooky, enjoys kittens, cupcakes and depressive '80s singer Morrissey. She's the Manic Pixie Dream Girl and though we cannot decide whether she is real or a figment of Hollywood's imagination, upon one thing many of us agree: we want her to go away.

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You will recognise the MPDG even if not familiar with the phrase. She is every character Zooey Deschanel has played, Kate Hudson's goofy groupie in Almost Famous, Natalie Portman's Shins-championing muse to Zach Braff in Garden State. Whenever the screen is lit up, as if with twinkly fairylights, by a quirky female supporting character with big blue eyes, a thrift-store frock and hairclips that properly belong on a four-year-old, you are witnessing the MPDG effect in action.

That these two- dimensional creations are patronising towards woman, condescending towards audiences and annoying to watch is a widely held viewpoint. But lately the debate has moved on, with some proclaiming the Manic Pixie Dream Girl over, others stating it was sexist to define female protagonists in such terms in the first place.

The subject is about to become super-relevant with the arrival in this month of soppy rom-com What If, in which Zoe Kazan stakes a claim as the definitive on-screen Manic Pixie. Has - as seems to be the case - the era of the MPDG passed into history? Or will Kazan, playing opposite a downcast Daniel Radcliff, lead the caricature back from the brink? We are about to find out if those fed up of MPDG represent the majority. You could say it's D-Day for MPDG.

Zooey Deschanel charms Joesph Gordon-Levitt in ‘500 days of Summer’.

'Manic Pixie Dream Girl' was coined in 2007, in a review of the excruciatingly twee Cameron Crowe movie Elizabethtown by Nathan Rabin in the Onion's AV Club. He wrote: "The Manic Pixie Dream Girl 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."

Soon the phrase was retroactively applied, to Deschanel in Elf, Portman in Garden State and, in what was arguably over-reach, Diane Keaton in Annie Hall and Audrey Hepburn in Breakfast at Tiffanys.

Seven years on, Rabin has distanced himself from the term.

"I'm sorry for creating this unstoppable monster," he says in Salon.com. "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."

"I don't have a problem with the phrase itself -it describes a trend in contemporary character/narrative development," says Dr Maria Pramaggiore, head of the department of media studies NUI Maynooth.

"I think it was troubling when [writers] decided to use that term to account for any quirky woman character on screen ever - that's where elements of sexism arise because it suggests that, despite the vast complexity and diversity of representations of women in film and television, we believe we can fit them into just a few frames. That's very problematic."

Echoing these misgivings is the aforementioned Kazan, who explicitly confronted the MPDG stereotype in her 2012 movie Ruby Sparks. "What bothers me about it is I think that women get described that way, but it's really reflective of the man who is looking at them, and the way that they think about that girl," she told New York magazine in 2012.

"I think that to lump together all individual, original quirky women under that rubric is to erase all difference. Like, I've read pieces that describe Annie Hall as a manic pixie dream girl. Katharine Hepburn in Bringing Up Baby. To me, those are fully fledged characters that are being played by really smart actresses."

In the UK's New Statesmen, Laurie Penny has written that she was influenced to become a real life Manic Pixie Dream Girl because of her familiarity with the stereotype. "Manic Pixies, like other female archetypes, crop up in real life partly because fiction creates real life, particularly for those of us who grow up immersed in it. Women behave in ways that they find sanctioned in stories written by men who know better, and men and women seek out friends and partners who remind them of a girl they met in a book one day when they were young and longing." 

Others have cautioned against forming assumptions on the basis of a person's dress sense or musical tastes. "Just because I like cute stuff doesn't mean I'm shallow, or that I live to make guys feel more adventurous and deep," wrote blogger Gabby Noone.

Natalie Portman in Garden State

"For example, I would never ask a guy to lie down 
in the street with me and look at the stars.... I'm way too cynical to ever fall 
in love with a boy over a 
mix-tape."

Too many kooks...

The Manic Pixie Dream Girl is a well established cinema trope. Here are the performances that created the archetype.

Natalie Portman (Garden State). "You gotta hear this one song. It'll change your life," quirky Portman tells hapless Zach Braff. The song is by The Shins, a band forever implicated in the rise of the MPDG.

Kirsten Dunst (Elizabethtown). It was Dunst's turn as a hysterically whimsical waitress that lead to the coining of the MPDG phrase.

Zooey Deschanel (500 Days of Summer). She wears vintage frocks, is adorably wacky and breaks Joseph Gordon-Levitt's heart into a million pieces.

Zoe Kazan (What If). She has a boyfriend - but that doesn't mean she and heartbroken Daniel Radcliffe can't be friends, right? Cue bonding over ping-pong and The Princess Bride.

Zoe Kazan and Daniel Radcliffe in ‘What If’.

Irish Independent

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