Every single piece on this subject appears to contain a picture of Zooey Deschanel, and I don’t want to be the one to buck that trend. (Bret Harper/ Associated Press)

What’s in a Manic Pixie Dream Girl?

Well, nothing.

The term, coined by Nathan Rabin at the A. V. Club to describe Kirsten Dunst’s character in Elizabethtown — that zany woman with idiosyncratic hair who waltzes into the movie, transforms the life of the schlubby hero forever, and waltzes back out, preferably to ukulele accompaniment — has seen a lot of use (and abuse) of late. In The Week, Monica Bartyzel suggested it was time to retire the label, saying that it was ballooning to devour every single female character ever created, even actual, real, well-rounded humans. 

In the New Statesman, Laurie Penny (who, before this, I most vividly associated with her refusal to accept the fact that Ryan Gosling had stopped her from walking into traffic as the Major News Item It Clearly Was) writes powerfully about the character type in the essay “I was a Manic Pixie Dream Girl.”

She pinpoints the biggest problem with this character type early in the essay (worth reading in its entirety for the lovely points it makes about the writing life): the lack of an inner life. “She’s never a point-of-view character, and she isn’t understood from the inside. She’s one of those female tropes who is permitted precisely no interiority. Instead of a personality, she has eccentricities, a vaguely-offbeat favourite band, a funky fringe.”

Being mistaken for a Manic Pixie Dream Girl is one of those problems that indicates your life has been largely pleasant — you have taken care of food and shelter and socialization, and now your complaint is that people mistake you for a romcom protagonist — but with that caveat, it’s a real problem. I’ve been there. If you play the accordion, are prone to ill-advised color combinations and earnestly enjoy certain defined styles of bad music, they swing by your apartment (decorated in whimsical found objects, naturally) and give you a membership card, and you have to spend years trying to unsubscribe from the list. They do not know any better. They don’t know what you have in there.

What defines a Manic Pixie Dream Girl is that she’s seen from without. She is a woman created by a man — for revenge, as Laurie Penny points out, or for wish fulfillment, or for some other reason. What defines her is her relationship to others, usually the male hero.

As soon as she starts to take independent action, be her own protagonist, or lets you see inside her head, Manic Pixie ends and Character starts.

There have been Manic Pixie Dream Girls as long as men have been writing books.

She is seen but not heard. She is Pygmalion’s revenge, a zany beautiful doll that wants to sculpt her creator, in turn. She is not a person. I would say that she makes it okay to be eccentric — but only if you can be eccentric and cute at the same time, like Zooey, not if your idea of eccentricity is donning full Union garb and marching off to reenact Antietam in unflattering pants. You can be as quirky as you want, as long as you keep that lip-gloss impeccable under that funky hair.

The question with these stereotypes and tropes is — at what point does it stop being nice that Hey, Look, There’s A Woman There and become frustrating that Yes, There’s A Woman, But She’s Made of Cardboard? I think we’re near that point.

It is better to have someone who is only seen from the outside — the Love Interest, the [Demographic] Sidekick, the fantasy creature who bears only a trace, external resemblance to reality — than someone who is not seen at all. But it’s better yet to have a character who is real and well-rounded and speaks for herself. It’s more interesting for everyone. Fantasies are all very well but they won’t pick you up at the airport. This is why we need more women to be creating the people who occupy our imaginations.

Not every woman created by a man is a Manic Pixie Dream Girl, of course. Consider Madame Bovary. And even pixies, seen from the inside, cease to be pixies and become people.

Cold Comfort Farm, by Stella Gibbons, is the closest thing I’ve ever read to an interior portrait of a manic pixie. Flora, its protagonist, is a life-fixer by any measure — but her primary eccentricity is that she deems herself normal while everyone around her is off his or her rocker. She fixes their lives only because she decides that if she can sort the torrid romances out, maybe someone in the house will figure out how to serve her a nice afternoon tea. But ask anyone else in the novel, from the overdramatized Starkadder family to the novelist Mr. “Mybug,” and they would probably describe Flora as some sort of life-altering fairy creature. In reality, she is no such thing. There is no such thing. But we only know that because we can see things through Flora’s eyes.

Of course. Once you see people as people, they lose their magic. The Great and Powerful Oz, the wizard capable of fixing everything that ails you, is James Franco with trick lighting. There are no pixies. Such creatures only exist in fiction. Bring them into reality and force them to exist in more than two dimensions and they explode in showers of glitter.
You are on your own. No amount of ukelele music can change that.

But reality is just as magical in its own way.

Just because certain characters do not exist in the wild does not mean we should stop writing about them, although vampires really, really could stand a rest. But perhaps we should save our extravagant flights of fancy for building excellent dragons rather than solving the problem that Only A Fictional Woman Who Thought The Stars Were God’s Daisy Chain Would Ever See Anything In This Guy. You don’t need to make up women. Real ones are far more interesting.

The answer to bad portrayals is more portrayals and better ones: more roles for women that are not defined by their relationships to men. It is, as Penny writes, more women who do their own magic.

Alexandra Petri writes the ComPost blog, offering a lighter take on the news and opinions of the day.