Back in 2007, when The Dissolve’s Nathan Rabin was the head writer at the A.V. Club, he started the long-running online series My Year of Flops, chronicling high profile box office and critical bombs and sorting out the rightly maligned from the flawed but fascinating. The series spawned a book and an expanded spin-off, My World of Flops, but its most famous creation came from Rabin’s first entry, an essay on Cameron Crowe’s fiasco “Elizabethtown.” One of the many misbegotten elements of the film was Kirsten Dunst’s character, Claire, an impossibly kooky young woman who seemed to exist entirely to lift up the spirits of sad sack protagonist Orlando Bloom. Rabin described her, and characters like her, as a Manic Pixie Dream Girl.
The phrase took off following further cited examples and lists on The A.V. Club, eventually making its way through the farthest reaches of the internet and even back to both Crowe (who apparently liked it) and Dunst (who did not). It’s led to critical pieces on the trope and calls for Manic Pixie Dream Guys (be careful what you wish for), as well as essays on how closely Crowe’s MPDG zero patient is tied to the problems of his Manic Visionary Dream Boys. It’s gone from a fun observation of a stock character to a pop cultural phenomenon. And Rabin regrets all of it.
In a piece published today in Salon, Rabin apologized for coining the term in the first place, writing about how it’s been stretched beyond the point of usefulness and should be discarded. Rabin quoted Zoe Kazan, who mentioned in interviews that “I think it’s basically misogynist” and “I don’t like that term… I think it’s turned into this unstoppable
monster where people use it to describe things that don’t really fall
under that rubric.” Rabin has a belated response:
Here’s the thing: I completely agree with Kazan. And at this point in my life, I honestly hate the term too. I feel deeply weird, if not downright ashamed, at having created a cliche 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 Katherine Hepburn in “Bringing Up Baby,” is nothing more than a representation of a sexist trope or some sad dude’s regressive fantasy.
It’s big of Rabin to admit that the most easily identifiable bit from his funny, popular series should be put to rest. I remember reading that piece when it was first published and laughing with it as much as anyone, finally finding a way to describe just why Natalie Portman’s character in “Garden State” was so aggravating. But over time it’s gone from a critical description to a catch-all phrase for any lively, upbeat female character in film and television. When used to describe a problematic archetype that served as a male fantasy, it was useful. When used to reduce characters as individualistic and singular as Melanie Griffith’s Lulu from “Something Wild” or Shirley MacLaine’s Fran from “The Apartment” to people without their own wants or needs, no matter that the text doesn’t support that reading, it becomes insidious.
So insidious, frankly, that it goes beyond fictional characters and starts to be applied to real people. Zooey Deschanel may be terrific at playing offbeat, effervescent characters, but the internet seems quick to sand away any complexities she might have as a person or performer and dub her the living embodiment of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl, never mind that “New Girl” has worked to actively subvert that idea. It’s no surprise that Kirsten Dunst and Zoe Kazan might bristle at the term. The former has proven herself a gifted actress from a young age (“Interview With a Vampire,” “Little Women”), and she was asked about the term on tour for “Melancholia,” which is about as far from MPDG as you can get. Kazan, meanwhile, has shown great range in roles big (the upcoming “What If”) and small (“Me and Orson Welles,” “Revolutionary Road”). Seeing yourself reduced to an archetype is infuriating, doubly so if it’s with regards to a film you wrote, as it was with Kazan on “Ruby Sparks.”
This isn’t the first time a critical term for reductive stereotypes has been hijacked by the internet and turned into a reductive phrase in its own right. Spike Lee used the term “Super Duper Magical Negro” (or Magic Black Man, if you prefer) to criticize how Michael Clarke Duncan and Will Smith’s characters in “The Green Mile” and “The Legend of Bagger Vance,” respectively, were less people than mystical beings that exist solely to help solve the problems of the white protagonist (“How is it that black men have these powers but they use them for the benefit of white people?”). The term helped identify instances of the stock character from the past (Uncle Remus in “Song of the South”) and in the years since (Djimon Hounsou in “In America,” Omar Sy in “The Intouchables”), but the term has taken on its own troubling connotations in the years since. Yes, Laurence Fishburne’s Morpheus serves as a spiritual and moral leader to Keanu Reeves’ Neo in “The Matrix,” but doesn’t he have his own purposes and desires as well?
On this front, Morgan Freeman has probably been put into a box more than any other actor. True, he is often employed to play noble black guides — his God in “Bruce Almighty” and “Evan Almighty” having nothing better to do than give Jim Carrey and Steve Carell perspective is probably the most sweeping and irritating example. But the internet seems so in love with the idea of Freeman as the ever-present MBM that they’ve lumped in a number of his best roles along with the lesser ones. IMDb users have named “The Shawshank Redemption” as the greatest movie ever made (aside: It’s a good movie, but this is insane), yet Red has been turned into one of Freeman’s MBMs, never mind that, if anything, Tim Robbins’s Andy Dufresne is the magical character who changes Red’s life. Freeman’s Oscar-winning role in “Million Dollar Baby” is reduced from the worn-out yet warm ex-contender to his superficial MBM outline. His career-best role in “Seven” goes from a heroic man valiantly but futilely trying to shine a light through the darkness into black guy who tries to save doomed white people. His complicated, sometimes prickly turns in “Street Smart,” “Unforgiven” and “Gone, Baby, Gone” might as well not have happened. America’s most beloved character actor is turned into a stock character.
Should these terms be abandoned completely? Maybe not, but if we keep using them as formulas to process every character that share some traits with the worst offenders, we risk losing meaning and, worse, going from critical observation and possible calls for corrections to continued simplification of whole groups of people in media. Or better yet, screenwriters: try to root these characters’ actions in their needs, not your protagonist’s.