An exploration of the iconic trope and its connection to modern dating
The manic pixie dream girl trope is a concept sitting at the intersection of art and personal identity. We know her from titles such as 500 Days of Summer, Scott Pilgrim vs the World, Her and Ruby Sparks as the vivacious, endlessly eccentric catalyst for the male protagonist’s newfound sense of purpose. She’s beautiful, she’s quirky and she’s completely one-dimensional. Coined by Nathan Rabin in 2007 and described as existing “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 cliched characterization has proven to be a broadly applicable term, even outside the realm of media. Simply put, if you’re artsy by nature, quirky, drawn to fixer uppers or simply have a fringe or dyed hair, you’re likely to have heard this term being applied to you.
Claire Colburn, played by Kirsten Dunst in the 2005 film Elizabethtown, is generally understood to be the original manic pixie dream girl. In fact, it was her overwhelmingly effervescent disposition and incessant willingness to put the male protagonist’s needs before her own that inspired Nathan Rabin’s original definition. Over the course of Elizabethtown’s 119-minute run time, we witness Claire put together two travel itineraries, cancel a tropical vacation, and take on the role of therapist for a man she had just met. Needless to say, the male protagonist falls head over heels for her, his severe bout of depression miraculously lifts and the movie ends with him learning how to find joy amidst the complexities and difficulties of the human experience. While being able to ‘fix’ another person in this way can seem romantic and admirable in nature, the male transformation happens at the cost of Claire’s sense of self. What does her male co-star provide her with and in which ways does he support her? She lacks desires, ambitions and complexities that should exist outside of her entanglement; and should she possess them on some deeper, veiled level, the male protagonist expresses no desire whatsoever to uncover them. This fate is what I classify as the plight of the manic pixie dream girl. A partnership spent dedicated to the role of sounding board; someone existing solely to enliven the life of their significant other, someone whose own identity is entirely entangled with that of another.
This repression of a female lead’s three-dimensionality is something that is carried through in any and all representations of the manic pixie dream girl. Take, for instance, the film 500 Days of Summer. While I don’t necessarily believe that Summer’s character fits neatly into the characterisation of MPDG, Tom’s impression of her certainly does. Upon their first meeting, when the duo discover their mutual affinity for The Smiths, Tom develops a fixation on Summer based purely on who he wants her to be, rather than who she really is. Tom remains naively oblivious to her own problems, complexities and ideals over the course of the film, yet when Summer remains unsurprisingly steadfast in her preference to avoid labelling their relationship, it is taken as a personal affront. Think of the scene in which we’re shown a split screen comparison of Tom’s expectations for Summer’s dinner party and the reality at hand. It does a great job of illuminating the deluded nature of Tom’s desires and expectation for the relationship to blossom into something romantic. When the party fails to live up to this, he leaves with a victim complex and a perspective that deems Summer the ‘big bad.’ This nuanced form of martyrdom is common amongst men who want to avoid taking responsibility for their own misinterpretations of their relationships with women, even in real life settings. Thus we see the representation of the ‘friendzoned’ mentality and the idea that ‘nice guys finish last,’ when this is rarely a fair characterization of any dynamic.
During my first watch, I understood this dynamic as an astute commentary on the male gaze; something that draws attention to the issues associated with falling in love with the idea of a person, rather than the person themself. I’d like to think that this is the general takeaway, that no one could blame Summer for Tom’s romantic delusions, yet when I discussed the film with an ex-boyfriend, he revealed that it wasn’t until his third re-watch that he began seeing Summer as anything but the villain. This mentality, in which a man’s infatuation with the idea of a person somehow constitutes entitlement to that ideal, is something that spills over into reality. I spent the first lockdown with a man who criticised me for watching reality television, saying that he thought I was the type to sit around writing, reading novels and watching old films while he worked from home, not the type to keep up with love island. I hadn’t measured up to his ‘manic pixie’ expectations and was essentially given the choice to adapt or move on. The plight of the manic pixie dream girl pertains not only to a loss of self but to the inevitable loss of the romantic partner when the MPDG fails to live up to her classification. Similar to the ‘cool girl’ effect explained in David Fincher’s Gone Girl, It creates a level of expectation that men cling to, yearn for and expect. When this expectation of their significant other doesn’t line up with reality, they simply move on.
We see this idea of the manic pixie dream girl being disposable or even intrinsically temporary in nature being carried across many other depictions of the trope. Think of Cleo’s representation in Coco Mellor’s 2022 novel Cleopatra and Frankenstein. While her character proves much deeper and more complex than the female leads we’ve referenced so far, and the novel itself proves a far cry from a manic pixie dream girl flick, Cleo’s tumultuous relationship with Frank demonstrates the way that these surface-level relationships require complete relinquishment of the MPDG’s three-dimensionality. Presenting as a young and strikingly beautiful artist, Cleo has no trouble securing Frank’s attention and it’s only when she lets her carefree facade slip that Frank’s head begins to turn. It’s a case of the male protagonist adoring her charming eccentricities and spontaneous disposition, yet shying away from any further character complexities that require reciprocated emotional support. Essentially, the way in which characters belonging to the manic pixie dream girl classification initiate each of their relationships with a sense of spontaneity and unwavering commitment to their significant other’s happiness sets out a level of expectation. Their initial vibrancy is so overwhelming that their partners see little reason to expect an eventual falter, meaning that when it does occur, they often just jump ship and move on. In this way, MPDGs are often seen as a stepping stone or a way for dissatisfied men to find purpose in their lives. They aren’t seen as a permanent fixture but rather a pit stop on the way to stability.
Conversations pertaining to the manic pixie dream girl now seem to be undercut with a question of relevance. Many iconic MPDG films were released in the early 2000s-2010s, begging the question: is this trope still something worth considering? It’s feasible that my own interest in the subject may be informed by personal experience (my dating history has mostly included what Rabin described as ‘broodingly soulful young men’) and I’ve therefore experienced the reality of the manic pixie dream girl treatment firsthand. Because of this, I can confidently say that the drawbacks ring true in real-life relationships too. While usage of the reductive trope has resulted in a fair few half-baked female characters and consequentially, directors have begun actively avoiding it altogether, I think the manic pixie dream girl still acts as a poignant reminder of how we shouldn’t view women. I’ve seen plenty of instances where women, myself included, have previously sought to align themselves with the classification of manic pixie dream girl. On the surface, it seems romantic and idealistic; proof that the desire to ‘fix’ a romantic partner can come to fruition. Yet, with our growing understanding of the trope comes the ability to reflect on the ways in which it pertains to our treatment of others and the treatment we accept for ourselves. I’ve been compared to a MPDG more times than I care to count and it still makes my skin crawl. The term reeks of expectations, of unreasonably idealistic dating practices and of the inevitable frustration that comes from the inability to measure up. It also illuminates the way in which men still hold on to the idea of a perfectly eccentric woman existing solely to fix their problems. In my experience, this trope still proves valuable in revealing one key truth; that the nature of the manic pixie dream girl presents similarly across both media and reality-based applications—it looks a lot better from a distance.