Zooey Deschanel: What, Exactly, Is a "Manic Pixie Dream Girl"? 

What Women Really Think
March 16 2012 10:44 AM

What, Exactly, Is a "Manic Pixie Dream Girl"? 

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Actress and Manic Pixie Dream Girl Zooey Deschanel.

Photo by Jason Merritt/Getty Images

Is Zooey Deschanel tired of being a “Manic Pixie Dream Girl”?

“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," she said recently. “As a comedienne, it felt so frustrating to always be setting up someone else's comedic moment.” Given how many Manic Pixie Dream Girl roles Deschanel must have been offered after playing the mysterious object of Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s obsession in 500 Days of Summer, one can imagine her frustration. 

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Urbandictionary.com tells us that the phrase was first coined by movie critic Nathan Rabin, in response to Kirsten Dunst’s role in Elizabethtown. He defined it as: "That bubbly, shallow cinematic creature that 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." The MPDG is childlike: in Garden State, Natalie Portman is characterized as stunted for living at home in her 20s (this was, ahem, pre-recession). She is mysterious, as in Dunst communicating her feelings through drawing elaborate maps. She is ethereal: in Sideways, Virginia Madsen always appeared to be softly lit from behind. She may have deficiencies in various departments—career aspirations, common sense, awareness of surroundings—but compared to the brooding young man she has all the answers.

It’s obviously a useful phrase, but increasingly overextended. These days, MPDG has come to mean every female role that’s comedic or even the smallest bit quirky. In fact it’s starting to feel like an undeserved insult, tarnishing even the classics of comedy. Recently, MPDG-originator Rabin helped compile a list of MPDGs in film. I started to feel confused when I got to numbers 7 and 8: Shirley MacLaine in The Apartment, and Katharine Hepburn, in Bringing Up Baby. Hepburn, an MPDG? Really? I hesitate to argue with someone over his own original definition—but it seems unfair to lump screwball comedy ditzes together with MPDGs. In the film, Hepburn sings love songs to a pet leopard and accidentally knocks over a dinosaur skeleton, yes—but is she manic? Does she save Cary Grant’s nebbish character from monotony—or is their pairing just … funny?

As for The Apartment, if anyone is a Manic Pixie Dream Girl in that movie—it’s Jack Lemmon. MacLaine is the one who’s brooding and suicidal on the couch—Lemmon spends the movie making spaghetti and singing to her, while deploying cute catchphrases like “That’s the way it crumbles—cookie-wise.”

To me, what really separates an MPDG from a female-character-with-distinct-personality-traits is the sense that something is wrong with the MPDG. Hence, the “Manic.” A true MPDG has to be like the girls whom alternative musicians wrote songs about in the ‘90s. From Train’s kleptomaniac Virginia (who’s prone to screaming fits) to the Counting Crows’ Maria (who “thinks she’s close to understanding Jesus,” but “has trouble acting normal when she’s nervous”), the songs featured a series of girls who appeared to be on the brink. Their drama and insecurity only made them more alluring to the singers, who were fascinated by them. 

In her interview, Deschanel went on to compare her role in the TV show New Girl to Kristen Wiig’s hit movie Bridesmaids, implying that they are both examples of women being let loose to be funny. “We already had our show in production,” she said, “but [Bridesmaids] made the networks pay more attention.”

But the difference between an MPDG and (would-be MOH) Kristen Wiig in Bridesmaids is that Wiig’s craziness is funny because it’s temporary. It’s induced by her circumstances. She wouldn’t normally get into fights with pre-teens in jewelry stores. She’s been pushed to the brink by a failure hat trick: messing up her love life; losing her business; and alienating her best friend. But her policeman suitor isn’t fascinated by her predicament—he’s concerned. He’s charmed by her—and turned off by her mania.

*Correction, March 17, 2012: This post previously misspelled Katharine Hepburn's first name.

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