Film & TV Literature

The Manic Pixie Dream Girl in Literature and Film

Art by Jasmine Snow.

by Megan Evans.

The ‘Manic Pixie Dream Girl’ is that character that every teenage girl idolises (well, I for one can certainly say that this was the case for me). She is so effortless and carefree, and it’s a well-known popular term that resembles the woman that ‘exists solely in the fevered imaginations of sensitive writer-directors’. These young women aim to teach men to embrace life, and not through the means of a man having to show this for them. They have a unique way of looking at life and are fulfilled with their duties by living their life exactly how they please. But have we misused it?

A large proportion of popular culture encapsulates this particular type of woman through a genre of specific movies. The main point we can gather from this is that men don’t approach them – the manic pixie dream girl approaches the man. By being out of the ordinary through their types of music and their seemingly oddball theories of ‘living their life’, a style that segregates them from ‘the normal woman,’ makes them even more likeable and fun to investigate further.

Elizabethtown is a major film that started the whole concept of the ‘manic pixie dream girl,’ through the character of Claire Colburn who is played by Kirsten Dunst. She plays a character that is bubbly, in comparison to the male protagonist, played by Orlando Bloom, who is coming to terms with his father’s death. She shows this man that she has just met the reasons for him to stay alive and shows the inner beauty of living which is synonymous with the tropes of the ‘manic pixie dream girl.’ She is so imperfect that she is perfect, by dictating his life with art projects, mix CDs, and her witty humour.

American film critic, Nathan Rabin, called out the use of this term however, as being used loosely because it ‘calls out cultural sexism, and make[s] it harder for male writers to posit reductive, condescending male fantasies of ideal women as realistic characters’, as quoted in Salon.

It is interesting that many of these ‘manic pixie dream girls’ are either written by men or directed by male directors.  There are also arguments as to what actually fits this mould, as so many other examples such as Sweet November, Garden State, and a lesser known film called Watching the Detectives have characters that are unlike other females. But does this mean they are fitting of it? Classic movies also marginalise some of these heroines such as Bringing Up Baby, which Katherine Hepburn stars in as she is a relentless woman, and Barbra Streisand in What’s Up Doc, which uses this character as a method of humour, not necessarily to define the woman’s role within the film.

A very clear example of the ‘manic pixie dream girl’ in the world of literature is definitely Looking for Alaska by John Green. Alaska was exactly the girl I had always dreamt of being – a reckless individual that breaks out of the constrained boundaries that men set out for her. Miles changes schools and meets individuals such as Alaska, who teach him what the real world is like, what the social order is, but also how to genuinely love another human being, no matter how ‘messed up’ they are. The tragedy of the events that occur within this beautiful story helps aid Miles to his recovery in accepting the uncertainty of her disappearance as not being his fault.

We also see this within Green’s other novel and film adaptation of Paper Towns. Quentin, the main character, is obsessed with Margot. Margot disappears early on in the novel, and then we are taken on a hunt to try and find her through varying strange clues, which do not make sense. The male character finds resonance through Margot’s quirky personality and outlandish qualities. When you really think about it, Quentin is a fairly forgettable personality – it is Margot that makes this story much more memorable, as she drives the plot in the interesting direction, and is ready to embrace life’s challenges. 

If you haven’t seen 500 Days of Summer, then you have probably heard of it. Zooey Deschanel plays the character of Summer, who helps a stereotypical male archetype, Tom, to discover that he can change his career path from budding card writer to an architect that is full of ambition. This is another clear-cut example of the manic pixie dream girl that has been mislabelled. Despite the film’s initial reception, it forces out a female character that is depicted as a social agent, who exists regardless of what their partner idealises her to be.  The chemistry between these two lovers still makes this film so compelling to watch, as Tom builds a romantic relationship that doesn’t exist, whereas Summer is very upfront from the beginning about not wanting to be in in a relationship.  

These questions help us to unpick those theories that are trying to defy the laws of male subjectively undermining women and instead, helping us to question the power dynamic and seeing inside this revolutionary female character persona that is not just crafted by men to just fall in love with. It shows the strength and hurdles that these women need to achieve to be such an important character within a story, and without them, we have a big gap within film and literature as we need quirky characters that help to diminish the old fashioned stereotypes  that dominate film with behaviours that contrast each other.