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A Side Trip to Media Land – How the Manic Pixie Dream Girl Trope Discourages Activism

May 26, 2012

unicornToday, in the midst of catching up on Mad Men and lamenting all the issues I could be covering here instead of relaxing, I saw that Zooey Deschanel iPhone Siri commercial one. more. time., and *finally* figured out my issue with the Manic Pixie Dream Girl (MPDG) trope in tv, advertising, and film.

If you’re not familiar with the trope, check out Wikipedia, TV Tropes, or Feminist Frequency first.

Sure, I’ve heard the arguments about the MPDG’s focus on uplifting central male characters, and having little to no lives of their own. Of course that’s a problem, but not one that is terribly specific to the quirky MPDG characters in film and television – those media are full of female characters that serve as support or window dressing only, quirky or not. The MPDG trope also seems to exclusively use young, fresh-faced white women – women of color and older women (and poor women, etc.) are apparently not useful in the role of gleeful weirdo muse, but lack of representation exists across media in general, and is not specific to just the quirkier supporting female characters. Thus, objection to this specific type of stereotypical character has always kind of whizzed by me as one more problematic portrayal in a sea of problematic portrayals.

But here’s where we loop back into women’s health and reproductive rights. If you’ve seen the Siri commercial with classic MPDG Zooey, you know that she plans to clean up tomorrow – today we dance. She’s ordering delivery food because she doesn’t want to put on “real shoes.” Like most MPDGs, she’s blowing off any real responsibilities in the service of fun, in the service of not showing any signs of being a real grown up.

When I’m sitting there thinking about the reading and writing I’d love to be able to fit into my life, about the internal pressure I create for myself to stay on top of and write against the tide of recent reproductive rights attacks, the MPDG is an attractive alternative. It says, “today, let’s just dance.” And that’s fine to some extent – focusing only on issues and seriousness at all times is a quick path to burn-out. But the MPDG is one more way of encouraging grown women with the means to do so to blow off seriousness, to not take themselves too seriously, and to not work too hard at anything other than fun (and enabling men). The MPDG is sharing new music, not talking about abortion and inequities and proposed state legislation. The MPDG is the devil on my shoulder that wants to stay in pajamas all day (like Zooey) – and believe me, that impulse of mine is strong, and does not need further encouragement.

Silly is good. Fun is good. As a lifestyle, it’s damn hard to sustain as a focus if there’s anything you actually care about, if you want to take time to think about serious issues, if you have real grown-up responsibilities and limited funds. That’s what finally struck me – the Manic Pixie Dream Girl isn’t just one more limited way of being a woman and an adult – it’s a way that discourages adult women from taking anything seriously, from objecting to disparities and injustice, and from doing the hard work of changing the world.

7 Comments leave one →
  1. Glenn Yates permalink
    May 26, 2012 1:40 pm

    Holy cow. Lighten up and show a little humor. The worst problem women have now is that men under 40 are so emasculated and denigrated that there is a paucity of men who have the confidence to be compatible to today’s woman. You are straining at gnats and swallowing camels.

  2. May 26, 2012 4:51 pm

    Interesting. I love that you wrote a post about MPDGs! Zooey is adorable, but, really? Asking Siri to tell you if it’s raining while standing in front of a window? On a more serious tip, with the MPDGs, there seems to be no “there there.” Fun, frolicsome. Benign hedonism. But no substance.

  3. May 27, 2012 8:23 am

    Nice insight–that’s an interesting angle on this character type.

    Also a ‘nice’ match here with the post and the inevitable ‘lighten up’ comment. “I see you wrote a piece about how life can’t be all fun all the time. You should be more about all fun all the time!”

    • May 27, 2012 8:55 am

      I know, right? The comment is kind of funny in that sad, predictable sort of way.


  4. May 28, 2012 10:56 am

    I agree with what you say, and I’d take it farther: the MPDG turns her back on anything serious, and her fundamental unseriousness is just the thing that uplifts men.* It’s as if they need to see a grown woman acting like a little girl to have their spirits lifted, or to feel secure in their places in the world.

    *Or anyway, those men who respond positively to the MPDG type. I know more who are turned off by it than who are attracted to it, actually.

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