The term Manic Pixie Dream Girl (MPDG) seems to have become synonymous with presenting a stereotypical female supporting character in romance movies and television shows. Although, not only are these women presented as supporting in the scope of the narrative of a film or television show but these characters are presented solely as a catalyst for a male’s own self-discovery and eye-opening journey into the offerings of life.
First used by critic, Nathan Rabin, in describing Kirsten Dunst’s character in the film, Elizabethtown, an MPDG is described as a person that “exists solely in the fevered imaginations of sensitive writer-directors to teach broodingly soulful young men to embrace life and its infinite mysteries.”
While this may seem like an inconsequential trope in creating an “endearing love story,” this toxic storyline not only creates unrealistic expectations for both parties in a relationship but also an unfulfilling, rather bitter narrative for women.
Summer Finn and other MPDGs are NOT bad people!
When I began this article, I immediately thought of the character, Summer Finn, played by Zooey Deschanel in the 2009 film, 500 Days of Summer. In short, the film follows the relationship of Summer and Tom Hansen, played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt.
From the start of the relationship, Summer makes it known that she does not believe in love, essentially writing off the potential for a long-term committed relationship with Tom. On the other hand, Tom says he believes in love and continues to fall for Summer and her lively spirit “showing him the world.”
Prior to meeting Summer, Tom lead a rather boring life. Now it seems to be filled with music (iconically displayed by Gordon-Levitt dancing throughout Los Angeles to Hall & Oates “You Make My Dreams” following his night with Summer), fun and overall, fulfillment.
All of these qualities seem to be pegged onto Summer so when the relationship fails, the audience is led to believe that Summer is the reason. It also does not “help” her character that she has fallen in love and married someone else by the conclusion of the film. The only positive attribute associated with Summer is that Tom took her advice in pursuing his dream career in architecture.
The problem with the portrayal of Summer is that she is only seen from the perspective of Tom as the girl who opened his eyes and then broke his heart. Meanwhile, Summer was just upfront about her feelings from the beginning and throughout the duration of the relationship.
Furthermore, it should have never been her responsibility to “enlighten” Tom’s life and make it better. It is no woman’s responsibility to be tasked with such an obligation and Summer should not be viewed as the villain when she was just leaving a relationship she was no longer interested in.
Yup, there are Manic Pixie Dream Boys too…
While maybe less frequent as the MPDG, Manic Pixie Dream Boys exist too, driving more unrealistic expectations.
A notable example would be the character of Augustus Waters in the John Green book-turned-film, The Fault in Our Stars.
Endearing from his first line, Waters changes the life of fellow cancer patient support group attendee/future girlfriend, Hazel Grace Lancaster, through basically checking off every girl’s box of the “dream guy.”
Matt Patches of Vulture describes Waters as “… a bad boy, he’s a sweetheart, he’s a dumb jock, he’s a nerd, he’s a philosopher, he’s a poet, he’s a victim, he’s a survivor, he’s everything everyone wants in their lives, and he’s a fallacious notion of what we can actually have in our lives.”
While a nice dream to have, this pretentious depiction of a young adult tragic love story sets for expectations of what one can only see as a type of “pipe dream” in placing all of these expectations and narratives into one person.
There is No Such Thing as “Fixing” Someone
Another trope associated not only with MPDGs but with so many romance narratives today is the connotation that it is our job as a significant other/potential lover to “fix” someone.
This fixing can include a host of problems that seem to be used to justify actions of the other person, that should otherwise be written off as awful, problematic, etc.
My first thought of such an instance is in the film, Love & Other Drugs, where Anne Hathaway’s character (Maggie) is attending a doctor’s appointment and future boyfriend, Jake Gyllenhaal (Jamie), creepily watches her disrobe, knowing that he should not be present, considering he is not her doctor.
Proceeding this invasion of privacy, Jamie, a notorious playboy (a fact that seemingly justified his previous womanizing and creepy behavior) finds a way to finesse a date with Maggie.
Leading to yet another “eye-opening” relationship for a male character. Maggie shows him what love is like in a romantic relationship, begins to make him realize his career potential, and shows him there is more to life than money and sleeping around.
Meanwhile, Maggie is dealing with early-onset Parkinson’s, something that will change her life forever. Something that Jamie is in denial of for most of the film, leading to the couple’s inevitable break-up.
This need to literally “fix” an incurable disease shows Jamie’s desire to fix his partner despite her wishes and her want of compassion, not a cure. Eventually after a series of questionable life choices, Jamie realizes and proclaims his love for Maggie saying he will stay by her side and take care of her.
While seemingly romantic at first glance, the relationship portrayed to the audience is one of the incessant need to literally fix someone despite the fact, it is impossible or not their job to do so.
Along with the fact that, once again, a male’s actions and feelings towards romance and life are seemingly turned “upside down” by the female supporting character, despite a need for her own storyline.
What Happens Now with This Not So “Happily Ever After?”
While these are just a few pop culture examples of MPDGs and their negative effect on society, there are countless other films and shows filled with this classic archetype.
We need to expect more. How are we supposed to expect healthy relationships in our own lives when our models tell us that we are supporting characters in our own lives?
Where our purpose is to fulfill someone else, make them/their dreams complete or attempt to fix them?
The first step is to acknowledge the media shown to us that depicts such an unhealthy narrative. A narrative not only perfectly encapsulated by Rabins definition but also by few characters themselves such as Clementine in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, stating:
“Too many guys think I’m a concept, or I complete them, or I’m gonna make them alive. But I’m just a fucked-up girl who’s lookin’ for my own peace of mind; don’t assign me yours.”
Acknowledgment such as this is the first step, changing the narrative to create love stories not entirely dependent on a life-changing supporting female character is the next.
Danielle is a recent graduate of Boston University, where she studied Mass Communication. While a student, Danielle was a part of BUtv10’s pop culture game show, Pop Showdown! and interned for WTBU’s Love is on the Air. Prior to graduating, Danielle also interned with Bethel Woods Center for the Arts in New York and the Academy of Country Music in Los Angeles. Since graduating, Danielle started interning at Big Machine Label Group In Nashville. When she is not working within the country music stratosphere, she enjoys reading Young Adult novels, listening to dating/relationship podcasts (S/0 Nicole Byer!) and journaling.