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Nathan Rabin Is Sorry He Coined the Phrase “Manic Pixie Dream Girl”

Nathan Rabin Is Sorry He Coined the Phrase "Manic Pixie Dream Girl"

In a new editorial for Salon.com, Dissolve critic, former AV Club staffer and pro pop culture writer Nathan Rabin takes an “opportunity to apologize to pop culture” for coining the phrase “Manic Pixie Dream Girl,” now a cliche in the media-echo-chamber parlance of the times.

So what is a Manic Pixie Dream Girl? From Rabin’s first “My Year in Flops” AV Club column, it’s a handy-dandy blanket term for those fantasy women who, in the movies, exist “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 Manic Pixie Dream Girl “taps into a particular male fantasy: of being saved from depression and ennui by a fantasy woman who sweeps in like a glittery breeze to save you from yourself, then disappears once her work is done.”

The MPDG, if we’re going to pigeonhole, is a fun and fancy-free spirit. She might have chemically colored her hair. She loves dancing and singing in the rain and being impulsive and impetuous and reveling in her restlessness. She lives life more fully than you do — but, careful, she’s broken inside. (Clips after the jump.)

Think Annie Hall, Natalie Portman in “Garden State,” Kate Winslet in “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind,” Holly Golightly, “Amelie,” any and all Zooey Deschanel characters and, of course, the patient zero: Kirsten Dunst in Cameron Crowe‘s “Elizabethtown,” “a fancifully if thinly conceived flibbertigibbet who has no reason to exist except to cheer up one miserable guy”:

That day in 2007, I remember watching “Elizabethtown” and being distracted by the preposterousness of its heroine, Claire. Dunst’s psychotically bubbly stewardess seemed to belong in some magical, otherworldly realm — hence the “pixie” — offering up her phone number to strangers and drawing whimsical maps to help her man find his way.

When I hit “publish” on that piece, the first entry in a column I called “My Year of Flops,” I was pretty proud of myself. I felt as if I had tapped into something that had been a part of our culture for a long time and given it a catchy, descriptive name — a name with what Malcolm Gladwell might call “stickiness.”

But then Rabin goes on to discuss how, basically, the MPDG took on a monstrous life of her own, inching her way into the pop cultural lexicon and eventually just becoming another reviewer cliche. (The MPDG’s rise culminated in 2012 with this hilarious video parody on the “State Home for Manic Pixie Dream Girls.”)

“Ruby Sparks” director/writer/MPDG-par-excellence Zoe Kazan said it was “misogynist”; “Fault in Our Stars” YA author John Green called out Rabin on his archetyping in a Tumblr post, citing his “Paper Towns” as a novel devoted “IN ITS ENTIRETY to destroying the lie of the manic pixie dream girl.”

Thus, here is Rabin’s great, big apology — a terrific piece of writing on its own that manages to say something about the state of female characters in movies today. Which is that, duh, we’re dealing with an alarming dearth of quality ones in the mainstream.

I’d like to join Kazan and Green in calling for the death of the “Patriarchal Lie” of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl trope. I would welcome its erasure from public discourse. I’d applaud an end to articles about its countless different permutations. Let’s all try to write better, more nuanced and multidimensional female characters: women with rich inner lives and complicated emotions and total autonomy, who might strum ukuleles or dance in the rain even when there are no men around to marvel at their free-spiritedness.

Watch clips of your favorite Manic Pixie Dream Girls, including the most annoying of all — Natalie Portman’s “original human moment”:

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