Since it was coined in a 2007 A.V. Club review of Elizabethtown, the term Manic Pixie Dream Girl has been used to describe everyone from Zooey Deschanel’s character in (500) Days of Summer to Zooey Deschanel, the real-life human being.
On its surface, the label of Manic Pixie Dream Girl appears to be no more than a critique of a specific type of character. However, the phrase has been thrown around so much since its inception 9 years ago that it has become a shorthand for any quirky female (fictional or not). What began as a feminist critique of an exaggerated male fantasy has become another cliché with which to classify and label women. Since coining the term, Nathan Rabin has tried to distance himself from it, largely due to the way the term has been twisted over time. Ultimately, improving female representation in film and television isn’t about finding the correct type of female character. It’s about having a wide range of types of female characters.
There is nothing wrong with creating a female character that is quirky, unapologetically feminine, philosophical, and kind. There’s also nothing wrong with having characters help other characters grow, learn, and self-actualize. What makes the MPDG problematic isn’t that she exists in a story; it’s how she exists in a story. Here are some important questions to ask yourself when creating a female foil for your male protagonist:
What is her motivation? Why is she suddenly spending so much time with this dude? What is it about him that she actually finds appealing and why? If the only answer you can come up with is that “he needs her to learn to enjoy life again” then close your word processor, shut your laptop, and run as fast as you can from that crowded coffee shop.
Is the bulk of her personality in her funky hair colour?
What is her back-story? What was she doing just before this broody male stumbled across her path? Was she throwing biodegradable confetti around her neighbourhood while skipping and listening to cassette tapes on her Walkman? Maybe try harder.
Is your name Cameron Crowe? Major red flag here—proceed with extreme caution.
While the MPDG is a trope that probably shouldn’t have made it past Breakfast at Tiffany’s, there’s still value in using a foil to help a main character grow as a person. Ramona Flowers from the 2010 film Scott Pilgrim vs. The World could be seen as a MPDG. She comes into Scott’s life when he is feeling his lowest, cheers him up, and helps him learn and mature. But the film’s writers (and especially Brian Lee O’Malley, the writer of the source material) go a long way in fleshing out the character. By the end of the film, the audience has a clear understanding of her motivation and back-story. We learn that Ramona is a woman that has consistently been MPDG-ed by her exes and over the years has learned to run every time it happens.
More and more writers are choosing to use their films to point out how reductive the character type can be. (500) Days of Summer appears to be an MPDG story at first but throughout the film we’re shown how damaging and insulting it is to see women this way. Ultimately Tom and Summer’s relationship doesn’t work because Tom is trying to use her as his MPDG, while Summer just wants to be herself. In Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Clementine, the would-be-MPDG, points out that “too many guys think I’m a concept, or I complete them, or I’m gonna make them alive. But I’m just a fucked-up girl who’s lookin’ for my own peace of mind; don’t assign me yours.” And in The Lego Movie the male protagonist meets Wyldstyle, a female character that is literally made of plastic but still manages to subvert the trope into something empowering.
We should never be afraid to tell stories about a quirky person (male or female) that helps another character learn something. What we should be afraid of is reducing these characters (especially when they’re female) to a cardboard cut-out of a human being. You can slap a metric ton of glitter and a bubble machine onto that piece of cardboard, it still won’t be as satisfying as watching a protagonist interact with and be affected by a real person.