I came across this pop-culture term called Manic Pixie Dream Girl sometime back, and finally I had a term to describe the stereotypical female character I’ve seen hundreds of time on screen. She’s beautiful. She’s deep. And she wants to make cryptic remarks about the meaning of life on a rooftop at 3 am. She’s ‘not like the other girls’ because she’s a special snowflake who understands life better than everyone else. She’s bright yellow while the male protagonist exists in a world of grey. She appears in a burst of indie music and says it’s time for our hero to see the world as she does. Sounds familiar? Well then you have reached the very definition of what a MPDG is: a stock woman character who exists in a world of clichés.
The term ‘Manic Pixie Dream Girl’ was coined by film-critic Nathan Rabin to described a female character who “exists solely in the fevered imaginations of sensitive writer-directors”. According to Rabin, these characters teach the broodingly soulful young men protagonists to embrace life along with all its mysteries and adventures. Some popular examples of MPDGs in Bollywood would be the characters played by Anushka Sharma in Jab Tak Hai Jaan, Kareena Kapoor in Jab We Met, Asin in Ghajini, Deepika Padukone in Tamasha, and Nargis Fakhri in Rockstar. Their counterparts in Hollywood would be characters played by Kate Hudson in Almost Famous, Jennifer Aniston in Along Came Polly, Winona Ryder in Autumn in New York, Natalie Portman in Garden State, Audrey Tatou in Amélie, and so on.
The Problem With MPDGs
But why is the MPDG trope a dangerous one, you may ask? Let’s break it down then. Firstly, the biggest issue lies within the very first word. Manic, or mania, is defined as mental or physical hyperactivity. This is closely associated with manic depression, a serious mental illness often glamorised by the character of the MPDG. The male protagonist will romanticise the MPDG’s inner anguish since this kind of angsty vulnerability apparently adds to her charm. A popular example of this is Alaska in John Green’s novel Looking for Alaska. She’s gorgeous but emotionally unstable due to childhood trauma, something which is treated as a quality that adds to her attractiveness. Next is this stock character’s ethereal appearance that puts the pixie in Manic Pixie Dream Girl: an appearance that makes sure that the female character caters to the body-idealisation that is romanticised by the male protagonist.
The other problem is that these female characters are often one-dimensional. They exist solely to develop the male protagonist’s character arc or move the plot along. MPDGs are dangerous because they reinforce the existing patriarchal notions in society that women exist solely to support their men. That they don’t have desires of their own. The trope then is not just an annoying cliché. It’s representative of what the male-dominated film industry thinks about women, i.e. mere ‘supporting characters’. And after a trickle-down process, it’s also how ordinary men end up thinking about them. On the other hand, when young girls grow up consuming books and movies filled with the MPDG, all they learn is that they’ll never get to be the protagonist of their own story. That they’ll get to be the leading lady at best.
What We Need More Of
What we need then are women who are lead characters. They can of course be eccentric and quirky, but not reductively so. But again, this kind of characterisation is only one part of the equation. We also deserve to see men who love these women for the complicated, messy, decidedly non-ethereal people they are. In art as well as life, the MPDG ideal exists because too many men remain intimidated by women who refuse to centre their lives around someone else’s needs and growth. It’s high time that we to let go of those glorious ladies in our minds and pop culture, and start paying more attention to the real and relatable women all around us.
Dyuti Gupta is an intern with SheThePeople.TV. The views expressed are the author’s own.