The manic pixie dream girl is the woman in the corner of the bar who looks deeply disinterested in everything that’s going on around her. She’s probably reading Kierkegaard, her hair could potentially be purple or an obscure shade of blue, and she is definitely the last person you ever thought you would meet at this bar, on this night. She’s gorgeous. She conforms to all societal standards of beauty. She’s only a size two, but somehow still has perfect breasts. And sure, she has a chequered past, but that just makes her all the more interesting because you have no idea what she’s going to say next.
She’s not like other girls — she’s different — and you know it from the moment you lay eyes on her. She will change your life for the short time you keep her around, and odds are you might even fall in love with her. But she’s not necessarily the one you end up with, but that’s okay. She exists solely to teach you life lessons, so that you can transform yourself into a better, more interesting person.
Perhaps the most important thing about her is that she is not real. She is the manic pixie dream girl, an archetype, a trope that male screenwriters use to give crappy romance movies more ‘edge.’
You’ve seen her before; she’s all around. She’s Ramona Flowers from Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, Margo Roth Spiegelman from Paper Towns. She’s reused over and over, and you can see multiples of her on nearly any streaming service in the world.
Many people don’t see the issues behind this trope, and while the manic pixie dream girl may not be the biggest issue in film and media, considering the lack of proper female representation, it is an issue that young women face. As the manic pixie dream girl trope has risen in popularity, more and more young women are ditching their interests to become this archetype. I know because I see it happen all the time. This archetype plays directly into the rise of the alternative subculture: as more young women make the switch from Uggs to Dr. Martens, they discover that they too can be like the manic pixie dream girl.
However, they misunderstand the ultimate impact of the manic pixie dream girl. Idolizing manic pixie dream girls pushes the idea that young women “should not be like other girls,” which leads women to internalize misogynistic values rather than empower themselves and each other.
The archetype reinforces the idea that women exist to service or better men, all the while pushing women to be as different as they can be from one another, pitting women against each other and tearing down any semblance of solidarity. Girls who wear Dr. Martens look distastefully at girls who wear Uggs, and vice versa.
The manic pixie dream girl also holds a unique paradox at its core. When you tell everyone to be edgy in order to be unique and different, it makes them all the same. You cannot tell all teenage girls to be alternative and unique because then being alternative becomes a trend, and you are right back where you started.
Let young women exist within their own parameters; let young women like what they like without pushing a stupid trend down their throats and then judging them for conforming or rebelling. Young women don’t exist to better men’s interests or open their eyes to new things, like classic literature or indie rock. If a man cannot learn these things without the help of a woman — first of all, I would not be surprised — he is probably not worth keeping around.
The manic pixie dream girl walks the line of being more dangerous than hypersexualization of women in the media. It puts women into such a specific, small box of existence, and essentially says that they can be beautiful, interesting, and original, but only when enlightening a man. It completely limits how women function in society.
While I understand that film and media are not real life, there is a lot to be said about how they influence people’s decisions. Time after time, young women see this trope in popular media and start to pick up on its featured components. They start to think that the best way to capture a man’s attention is by being an elusive, flighty woman who sees the world in full living colour — although this is not necessarily a bad thing to be, but in its own context.
Then they remember, as they have been taught, that they are not the main character in their story. They’re there to serve a purpose, to serve a man. Or, as I learned from this ridiculous cliché, they’re there to allow a man to treat them poorly and discard them once he’s stolen the more interesting aspects of their personality — which is deeply problematic.
This feeds all too well into today’s rise of the alternative subculture. As each day passes, I see another girl with her Dr. Martens boots and Urban Outfitters mom jeans that cost her way more than they should have. And I want to be honest — looking in the mirror, I see that same girl, dyed hair and Dr. Martens boots and all, reflected back at me. Because you see, participating in these trends is not the crux of the issue. The problem is when girls feel the need to change themselves and what they actually want to look like in order to stuff themselves into the box outlined by the manic pixie dream girl trope, an idealized woman that perpetuates a specific, unattainable fantasy.
Every week, more indie artists are breaking into mainstream culture with chart-topping albums that do not conform to traditional catchy pop music standards. Slowly but surely, movies that have ever so carefully put women down are rising in popularity because of their niche art house feel. And as they become more popular, the manic pixie dream girls at their epicentre become idolized by young women everywhere. Screencaps of seemingly profound quotes from these movies are all over Instagram, with captions along the lines of, “Oh, to be like her.” All the while, major corporations like Urban Outfitters are benefiting off of this ridiculous fad.
When it comes down to it, not all manic pixie dream girl depictions are inherently bad, and not all movies that portray women like this play into the archetype. The first example that comes to mind is Greta Gerwig’s Lady Bird, in which Lady Bird, our pink-haired protagonist, subverts the archetype, throwing it to the wind and focusing on her growth over any man’s. But while some movies are beginning to challenge this archetype, more work must be done. At the end of the day, the manic pixie dream girl must be stopped.
Collages by Stephanie Bai
Photos courtesy of Harper’s Bazaar Magazine