“You know what I do when I’m feeling completely unoriginal?” Sam, a stereotypical Manic Pixie Dream Girl from the film Garden State, shuts her eyes and thrusts her hands into the air, chanting Laba-laba-laba! “I make a noise or I do something that no one has ever done. And then I feel... unique again; even if only for a second.”
The Manic Pixie Dream Girl (MPDG) trope is deceptive. At first glance, the trope appears to empower women to break free from society’s expectations. Rather than striving for perfection, MPDGs are eccentric and a little off-kilter. They’re often overly optimistic, bubbly, and have quirky habits.
However, a closer look at MPDGs in the media demonstrates why the archetype is so problematic.
The MPDG type was first defined in 2005 by film critic Nathan Rabin in his review of the film Elizabethtown. Rabin describes that a MPDG “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.”
In his definition of the trope, Rabin hits upon the central problem of the MPDG: her only purpose is to teach the male protagonist a lesson.
Take Sam, for example. In the film, protagonist Andrew grieves his mother’s recent death and struggles to repair his strained relationship with his father. Through his relationship with Sam, Andrew gains a more positive outlook on life and ultimately forgives his father.
However, Sam is one-dimensional and her storyline is glossed over. Her grapples with epilepsy and compulsive lying are mentioned briefly but given no resolution. As film critic Roger Ebert states in his review of the film, Sam is “one of those creatures you sometimes find in the movies, a girl who is completely available, absolutely desirable and really likes you… we learn almost nothing about her, except that she’s great to look at.”
The trope’s lack of depth has made it an easy option for writers to turn to, so examples can be found in all forms of media. For example, much of Dante Alighieri’s magnum opus, The Divine Comedy, describes his muse, Beatrice. Although Beatrice is based on Beatrice Portinari, a real woman, The Divine Comedy transforms her into an ethereal, angelic MPDG.
Just like Sam and Claire from Elizabethtown, Beatrice merely exists as Dante’s guide to heaven — she’s given no depth or substance, and is reduced to la gloriosa donna della mia mente (the glorious lady of [his] mind).
The MPDG’s impacts might seem limited just to the media, however, its proliferation has implications on the real world. In a story for The Atlantic, writer Hugo Schwyzer describes his internalization of the trope as a teenager. Schwyzer recounts his relationship with an Austrian girl named Bettina, who he viewed as an MPDG instead of a real person; “I thought less about her and more about how it was she made me feel… I didn’t question her role as a change agent in my life.”
Schwyzer’s story is a reminder that art doesn’t exist in a vacuum. Media depicting the MPDG has detrimental impacts on both young boys and girls: teaching girls to reduce themselves from multifaceted human beings to men’s muses, and teaching boys that women exist solely to help them.