Is the Manic Pixie Dream Girl Dead?

Slate's Culture Blog
Dec. 5 2012 2:47 PM

Is the Manic Pixie Dream Girl Dead?

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Zooey Deschanel

Photo by Jason Merritt/Getty Images

In a satirical new video, a suit-clad man clandestinely meets with a prostitute in a hotel room, hoping that she will fulfill the fantasy that his wife can’t give him. But it’s not a kinky sexual tryst he’s looking for: “I want you to turn my life upside down with your whimsical joie de vivre,” he confesses. “Manic Pixie Prostitute” is a subversive spin on the Manic Pixie Dream Girl archetype: The phrase, coined by Nathin Rabin in 2007, refers to female characters who “teach broodingly soulful young men to embrace life and its infinite mysteries and adventures.” The prostitute role-plays with the man’s “bedroom toys,” including giant headphones and a zip-up hoodie.

The MPDG has been teasing and torturing male characters for years, bringing excitement to their lives with infantile eccentricity and then breaking their hearts with their emotional aloofness. Famous examples mentioned in the video above include Natalie Portman in Garden State, Kate Hudson in Almost Famous, and “Zooey Deschanel in everything.” You may have noticed, though, that the more recent of those two films is nearly a decade old—and that, having moved her quirk to the small screen with New Girl, Deschanel hasn’t done much lately for the MPDG’s big-screen legacy. She may even have tired of such roles. Earlier this year, she said, “When you get sent scripts and you see you’re always playing someone’s girlfriend when you want to be the central role, it's so depressing.”

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In fact, critiques of the MPDG may have become more common than the archetype itself. Another popular video from earlier this year skewered the trope by imagining an institution devoted to harboring women who fit the type. Parker Posey’s complex character on Louie last season was, as Slate’s David Haglund pointed out, a critique of the MPDG as well, demonstrating that “someone with that kind of crazy energy would be exhausting, pushy, and quite possibly deeply troubled,” as Haglund put it. In the romantic comedy Ruby Sparks, Zoe Kazan turned the MPDG on its head, depicting a writer (Paul Dano) whose idealistic, winsome female character comes to life and challenges patriarchal notions of what women actually want.

So is the archetype over? It’s probably too soon to say. Among recent films, Jennifer Lawrence’s character in Silver Linings Playbook could be considered another iteration of the MPDG, though the movie’s relatively frank handling of mental illness (not to mention the character’s promiscuity) make her a bit more complicated than that. (Not to mention that co-star Bradley Cooper’s character is more manic than she is.) Still, five years after the term was coined, filmmakers seem to have at least become self-aware about such characters, and videos like the one above—and the one below—may kill them off yet.

Aisha Harris is a Slate staff writer.

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