She has existed for decades, a woman too quirky, too carefree, too exciting to exist anywhere but in the movies. Until recently, she went by many names — Annie Hall, Holly Golightly, Summer Finn — flickering across cinema screens, driving sensitive young middle-class white men mad with desire. Today, we call her the Manic Pixie Dream Girl.
The A.V. Club‘s Nathan Rabin coined that term back in 2007 in order to describe Kirsten Dunst’s role as the love interest of an awkwardly-accented Orlando Bloom in “Elizabethtown.” According to Rabin, the Manic Pixie Dream Girl (or MPDG) is a fictional entity who lives “solely in the fevered imaginations of sensitive writer-directors to teach broodingly soulful young men to embrace life and its infinite mysteries and adventures.” But if new indie features like “Ruby Sparks” and “Bachelorette” are anything to go by, it seems we may be in a new age of the MPDG — and of female onscreen archetypes in general.
With “Ruby Sparks,” star and writer Zoe Kazan has crafted a takedown of what she believes is the misogynistic MPDG figure. In the film, her real life partner Paul Dano plays Calvin, a former literary wunderkind who emerges from a ten-year bout of writer’s block with a burst of inspiration. He feverishly types a novel about his ideal woman: Ruby, 26-years-old, from Dayton, Ohio (because it sounds romantic), loves John Lennon, Humphrey Bogart, zombie movies, and brightly colored tights. Miraculously, one day Ruby steps out of the pages of his story as a flesh-and-blood real girl, and what transpires is an indie rom-com reimagining of “Pygmalion.”
If you’ve seen the trailer for the movie, which is directed by “Little Miss Sunshine”‘s Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris, the bright, poppy scenes and bright, poppy soundtrack may smack of the sort of twee affectations that made some critics roll their eyes at “Elizabethtown,” “Garden State,” and “(500) Days of Summer.” But in a recent interview with Vulture, Kazan argued that not all quirky, twentysomething girls with perfectly spaced fringe and an affinity for jumping into pools fully clothed are necessarily MPDGs — essentially, it seems, the point the film is trying to make:
“What bothers me about it is that women get described that way, but it’s really reflective of the man who is looking at them… I think that to lump together all individual, original quirky women under that rubric is to erase all difference… I want [that term] to die.”
But if the movie is a sort of critique of the MPDG, it’s also a critique of the traditional Hollywood romantic comedy — a genre whose female leads are almost always some version of the MPDG or the Type-A, career-focused gal that has kept Katherine Heigl so gainfully employed for the past ten years. And in that respect “Ruby Sparks” fails to accomplish what it sets out to do. The film does suggest that it is unfair, or even immoral, to reduce a human being — real or imagined — down to an idea of a human being. It juggles the male ego along with the notion of what it actually means to be the “perfect” partner and the need to define oneself on one’s own terms. But it also struggles to break the predictable and somewhat boring conventions of the romantic comedy genre: the boy-gets-girl-boy-loses-girl-boy-gets-girl-back formula used in so many variations for so long. There is one effectively disturbing scene in the third reel of the movie which makes you, for a glimmer of a moment, think that Kazan has indeed broken the mold. But the last moments of “Ruby Sparks” play like an afterschool life-lesson for the male protagonist — even though he doesn’t really learn anything at all. In the end, Kazan plays it too safe. Even Ruby’s freedom is not truly her own.
But perhaps it is appropriate that Kazan’s movie ends with a whimper instead of a bang, signaling the arrival of a new permutation of the MPDG: the woman-child. We’ve seen the woman-child in varying shades of messiness and ineptitude — most recently in “Bridesmaids,” a movie whose financial and critical success paved the way for another Locarno Film Festival selection, “Bachelorette,” in which characters discuss in finite detail the methods of giving a 10/10 blowjob.
“Bachelorette,” like “Ruby Sparks” and “Bridesmaids,” comes from a woman’s mind. Written and directed by Leslye Headland, the movie focuses on a group of high school friends now in their thirties (original MPDG Kirsten Dunst, Lizzy Caplan, and Isla Fischer), who reunite for the wedding of their friend Becky (played by Rebel Wilson). Their lives are all in various stages of disrepair. Unlike her frilly-dressed, Morrissey-listening, cupcake-baking counterpart, the woman-child in Headland’s world is a grotesquely entertaining inversion on the MPDG standard.
Here, the woman-child is many things: she’s Caplan’s foul-mouthed, skimpily dressed slacker Gena, who refuses to be called an “adult” and has spent the last fifteen years in a cocaine daze. She’s Fischer’s ditzy, manic-depressive Katie, who swears she will kill herself if she’s still working in retail at 40, and uses a cocktail of sex, alcohol, and drugs to numb her pain. Or she’s Regan, played by Dunst — the exact antithesis of her easy-going, carefree role in “Elizabethtown.” Regan is obsessed with perfection, and horrified that Becky (or “Pigface,” as she was called in high school) is getting married before she is. As one character describes her, she “hates herself because she’s unhappy and she has nothing to be unhappy about.”
If this sounds kind of heavy, don’t worry: like “Ruby Sparks,” “Bachelorette” never engages with its characters’ messed-up qualities long enough to bring down the comedy, which is predominantly derived from the spectacle of hedonism and rude humor that’s supposed to make the woman-child so entertaining. But there’s a certain degree of novelty that bubbles up to the surface with both of these movies — perhaps not in intention, but certainly in execution, and even more so in how they’re being received.
Hollywood is slowly responding to the memo that, as actor Chris Messina’s character in “Ruby Sparks’ points out, “quirky, messy women whose problems only make them endearing are not real.” However rather than finding a balance between the MPDG as caricature and the MPDG as person — as “Ruby Sparks” at least attempts — things have tipped over to the other side of the spectrum. How much more “real” are the messy twenty and thirtysomething year-olds that live in the worlds of “Bridesmaids,” “Bachelorette, and television shows like “Girls” and “30 Rock?” Are the characters themselves actually refreshing, or do we really like the idea of what the characters represent? That isn’t to say that there aren’t women who are like this, that woman can’t burp and fart and black out at the end of the night just like the boys. But now the woman-child has created a new arbitrary rubric under which any female character who is messy or rude or somehow unfeminine can be placed as a part of some new Renaissance of Female Comedy.
It seems any female character that walks across a television or cinema screen these days is ripe for some sort of new proclamation. Someone coins the term MPDG about a character in a forgettable Cameron Crowe movie, and suddenly we see the type in every female lead from Katharine Hepburn in “Bringing Up Baby” to Ruth Gordon in “Harold and Maude.” Suddenly, Lena Dunham’s “Girls” are the new voice of a generation, and Kristen Wiig and Tina Fey are the new icons of women who can be gross, funny, and sexy. Be these proclamations positive or negative, they once again turn these women into ideas and not people. The scope of womanhood, a world that includes more than just upper middle class white women in their twenties and thirties, is a lot more exciting than that.
Zeba Blay is from Accra, Ghana and lives in Jersey City, New Jersey. She is a regular contributor to Digital Spy, Africa Style Daily, Afropunk, and runs a personal movie blog, Film Memory. This piece is part of Indiewire’s Critics Academy at the Locarno Film Festival. Click here to read all of the Academy’s work.