Are you sick of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl trope? I am. Anita Sarkeesian from Feminist Frequency is. And Zoe Kazan, who wrote and starred in Ruby Sparks, wants the term to die. Because not only is the Manic Pixie Dream Girl (MPDG) trope poor writing, it is destructive to the way we view female characters and even women IRL.
Since critic Nathan Rabin coined the term in 2007 it has gained trope status. But there has also been a wave of films and books that subvert the MPDG trope. These works contain female characters who have the classic MPDG traits: they are quirky, fun-loving, have an adorable dark side, and are thrown together with the typified brooding straight white male character who uses her to derive meaning from his life. While these films and books stick to type for the most part, they also make a point of challenging the trope in some way.
Zoe Kazar provides the ultimate challenge to the MPDG trope in her 2012 film Ruby Sparks. This film literalises the Manic Pixie Dream Girl and then takes the trope to its extreme conclusion. Ruby Sparks tells the story of a writer, Calvin, who has spent his twenties trying to recreate the success of his first novel. A girl comes to him in his dreams and his psychiatrist encourages him to write about her. Calvin writes a classic Manic Pixie Dream Girl: “Ruby can’t drive. She doesn’t own a computer. She hates her middle name, which is Tiffany. She always, always roots for the underdog. She’s complicated. That’s what I like best about her. Ruby’s not so good at life sometimes. She forgets to open bills or cash checks.”
Then Ruby comes to life, which is amazing at first. Calvin has materialised his dream girl. Unfortunately, when he stops writing her, she starts her own character development. Suddenly she is going to art classes and meeting new people, having fun without him. Having lost control over her, he becomes convinced she is going to leave him.
As mentioned earlier, Kazan’s film is not the first work to challenge the MPDG trope, just the most obvious. In John Green’s book Paper Towns (soon to be made into a film), Q pines after his next door neighbour Margo for years. When she disappears he is convinced she left him clues to find her. SPOILER WARNING! But when he finally tracks her down, she is annoyed with him. She doesn’t want to be found or saved; she just wants to be left alone. END SPOILER. Summer in (500) Days of Summer, played by Zooey Deschanel, challenges the MPDG trope less explicitly by not wanting to fulfil the fictitious ideal that Tom Hansen, the male lead character, has created for her.
Despite the fact that these works are actually trying to subvert the MPDG trope, these names are the ones most commonly thrown around when the MPDG trope is lambasted. John Green is accused of writing all female characters as Manic Pixie Dream Girls. Zooey Deschanel is branded a typecast Manic Pixie Dream Girl. Critics were quick to label Ruby Sparks as the ultimate Manic Pixie Dream Girl, seemingly missing Kazan’s heavy-handed critique.
The anti-MPDG critiques in these works run on variations of a similar theme: women, no matter how quirky they are or how indie their taste in music is, do not exist to help men find meaning in life. And when you create an idea of someone that does not reflect their flesh and blood reality, you’re going to run into trouble.
In (500) Days of Summer we see how obsessing over your image of someone can lead you to a dark place: Tom winds up depressed and almost destroys himself because he has invested his hopes and dreams in his idealised version of Summer. In Paper Towns, Q’s MPDG idea of Margo in causes him to go on a road trip that does not fulfil his fantasy. But in Ruby Sparks Kazan takes the anti-MPDG message a step further, showing us how this unhealthy attitude is dangerous for more than just the brooding young man: it can cause him to abuse his Glorified Object.
SPOILER WARNING! In the climax of Ruby Sparks, Calvin and Ruby have a fight, the root of which is his need for control over her. Taunted by her saying that he can’t make her do anything, he uses the sole force of typing words on his typewriter to throw Ruby across the room and make her do all sorts of strange marionette-like actions. He makes her yell “You’re a genius! You’re a genius!” over and over again. END SPOILER.
Calvin does not want a real girl who has motivations that exist separately from him. He wants a female projection of himself. He wants someone to exist solely to serve his ego, to tell him he’s a genius, lighten his life when he’s getting too serious, to be available only for him and not for the wider world.
Throughout Ruby Sparks we see the MPDG trope played to its extreme, but in the climax we see the true ugliness of this extreme. Calvin’s behaviour here is unequivocally abusive. When we examine the MPDG trope in its more innocent beginnings, it is clear that Calvin’s abuse is not random, but a manifestation of the trope’s underlying assumptions. Recent research cites the biggest factor leading to men’s abuse of women partners to be unequal relationships. This factor is written all over the MPDG trope.
A Manic Pixie Dream Girl is an object, solely existing for the serious young man she is helping. When Calvin sees Ruby as an object he can treat her like one. A worshipped object – when she is doing what she is supposed to be doing. An object to be mistreated and – in this case, quite literally – thrown aside when she is not behaving according to how he thinks she should. Not all MPDG couplings have an underlying abusive element. But the objectification of the female character paves the way to abuse quite neatly. In Ruby Sparks, the clues for this begin when he gets upset at her for having a life outside of him – classic abuser behaviour.
Writers should take care not to create female characters as objects, whether as muses, sex objects, or Manic Pixie Dream Girls. But according to Clem Bastow, the MPDG trope has gone from being a problem of lazy writing to lazy consumption. It has got to the point that any slightly quirky secondary female character gets labelled a Manic Pixie Dream Girl, even if she clearly has her own storyline and motivations outside of the brooding young man. This has troubling implications not only for how we interpret films and books, but for our interactions with real people.
We have become so obsessed with tropes in media, helped along by the addictive popularity of TV Tropes, that we can start to blur the lines between what is real and what is written. So a girl you know who listens to indie music, rides a vintage bike and sometimes skips backwards just for fun can be labelled a MPDG IRL. In reality, no matter how quirky someone is, she is never a Manic Pixie Dream Girl, because every girl, like every person, has her own motives, dreams and ideas that exist outside of anyone else’s reality. Labelling people is tempting because thinking in categories is easier than imagining people complexly. But we need to be wary of the line where categorisation turns into objectification.
Along with Zoe Kazan, I’d like to see the Manic Pixie Dream Girl trope banished for good, both in the media and IRL. Kazan has revealed this male fantasy for the dangerous paradigm that it is. Now that the ultimate Manic Pixie Dream Girl has been created, fully explored and destroyed in Ruby Sparks, we can finally lay the trope to rest.