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Writer apologizes for creating ‘Manic Pixie Dream Girl’ cliché

The Manic Pixie Dream Girl is dead.


Actress Zooey Deschanel has frequently been dubbed a “Manic Pixie Dream Girl” for her roles in “500 Days of Summer and other indie romances. (Bret Harper/ Associated Press)

The death was swift and sudden, but maybe not too unexpected. Culture writer Nathan Rabin first coined the term “Manic Pixie Dream Girl” in a 2007 essay for the AV Club, in which he analyzed “a year of flops,” through the lens of one flop in particular, Cameron Crowe’s “Elizabethtown.” Kirsten Dunst’s character, a bubbly stewardess with a whimsical sense of style and penchant for all things magical, seemed to Rabin emblematic of a larger trend in cinema.

Dunst embodies a character type I like to call The Manic Pixie Dream Girl (see Natalie Portman in Garden State for another prime example). The Manic Pixie Dream Girl 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 Manic Pixie Dream Girl is an all-or-nothing-proposition. Audiences either want to marry her instantly (despite The Manic Pixie Dream Girl being, you know, a fictional character) or they want to commit grievous bodily harm against them and their immediate family. As for me, well, let’s just say I’m not going to propose to Dunst’s psychotically chipper waitress in the sky any time soon.

The term stuck, and examples mounted: Audrey Hepburn, ever a gamine, as Holly Golightly in “Breakfast at Tiffany’s.” Kate Hudson as the effervescent Penny Lane in “Almost Famous” (another Cameron Crowe film, oddly enough). Zooey Deschanel in, like, any movie ever.

But even as examples piled up, feminists and filmmakers took issue with Rabin’s sweeping disavowal of all “quirkiness” — especially since it seemed to target only female “quirkiness.”

Well, no more, says Rabin. In an essay Tuesday for Salon, Rabin cops to regretting his famous coinage — and even more than that, he wants the world to move on.

I feel deeply weird, if not downright ashamed, at having created a cliché that has been trotted out again and again in an infinite Internet feedback loop. I understand how someone could read the A.V. Club list of Manic Pixie Dream Girls and be offended by the assertion that a character they deeply love and have an enduring affection for, whether it’s Diane Keaton’s Annie Hall or Katharine Hepburn in “Bringing Up Baby,” is nothing more than a representation of a sexist trope or some sad dude’s regressive fantasy.

In “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind,” Kate Winslet’s Clementine appears a total MPDG. She dies her hair orange (then blue hair, then back to orange); she works in a bookstore; she has a penchant for spontaneity, and inspires Jim Carrey’s Joel to reexamine his miserably small life. Then, at a pivotal scene in the film, Clementine acknowledges the trope that’s so seemingly part of her DNA — and resounding rejects it: “Too many guys think I’m a concept, or I complete them, or I’m gonna make them alive. But I’m just … a girl who’s lookin’ for my own peace of mind; don’t assign me yours.”

The MPDG conflict spawned an endless cycle of think piece-fueled questions: “Is Annie Hall a Manic Pixie Dream Girl?” (Answer: no.) “What makes a Manic Pixie Dream Girl?” (Answer: a lot.) “Who made the Manic Pixie Dream Girl?” (Answer: a man — and isn’t that the problem?)

In 2012, actress Zoe Kazan summed up the conflict best, when promoting her movie “Ruby Sparks.” When asked how her character fit into the MPDG world, she admitted she “was not a fan.”

That term is a term that was invented by a blogger, and I think it’s more of a term that applies in critical use than it does in creative use. It’s a way of describing female characters that’s reductive and diminutive, and I think basically misogynist. I’m not saying that some of those characters that have been referred to as that don’t deserve it; I think sometimes filmmakers have not used their imagination in imbuing their female characters with real life. You know, they’ve let music tastes be a signifier of personality. But I just think the term really means nothing; it’s just a way of reducing people’s individuality down to a type, and I think that’s always a bad thing. And I think that’s part of what the movie is about, how dangerous it is to reduce a person down to an idea of a person.

And as Elisabeth Donnelly writes over at Flavorwire, “the way that ‘manic pixie dream girl’ has memed its way adorably through the world is a case study in how a trope can evolve from an empowering idea to a cliché and a conversation-stopper, all in the span of a couple of years.”

The Internet (predictably?) rejoiced.

And so, the Manic Pixie Dream Girl is dead (for now) — long live the Manic Pixie Dream Girl.

Julia Carpenter is a digital audience producer at The Washington Post.

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