Once Upon the Manic Pixie Dream…

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by Randall S. Frederick

Manic Pixies tend to linger, leaving their trail of glitterdust on everyone they touch. Dream Girls, Dream Guys, they are the elusive white whale of dating – distant and mysterious, typically leaving the story with wreckage unimagined for someone else to clean up. But they are also human. A source of joy. The nexus of conflicting, even competing narratives that evoke strong emotions in the those who tell such narratives. But who is the Manic Pixie? How do you know you are one?

The standard definition of a Manic Pixie Dream Girl is that of

a stock character type in films. Film critic Nathan Rabin, who coined the term after observing Kirsten Dunst’s character in Elizabethtown (2005), describes the MPDG as “that bubbly, shallow cinematic creature that exists solely in the fevered imaginations of sensitive writer-directors to teach broodingly soulful young men to embrace life and its infinite mysteries and adventures.” MPDGs are said to help their men without pursuing their own happiness, and such characters never grow up; thus, their men never grow up.

The Manic Pixie Dream Girl has been compared to another stock character, the “Magical Negro,” a black character who seems to exist only to provide spiritual or mystical help to the white savior protagonist. In both cases, the stock character has no discernable inner life, and usually only exists to provide the protagonist some important life lessons.

The Oxford Dictionaries even joined in this year (2015), defining it as “a type of female character depicted as vivacious and appealingly quirky, whose main purpose within the narrative is to inspire a greater appreciation for life in a male protagonist.” The cultural understanding of a Manic Pixie is a bit broader. It could be anyone who appears perfect from a distance, then becomes increasingly aloof the closer you are to them. They are a source of joy, whimsy, art, and expression whose absence produces a violent seizure of sadness, melancholy, listlessness, and mental blockage. They are typically younger, an ingenue whose bluntness and affectatious  appeal seems sophisticated for a short period until they either “age out” and become tiresome. For Steven Vredenburgh, a Communications Coordinator for a church in Pasadena, CA, that first encounter with a Manic Pixie was in high school.

“I was a senior in high school when I met Stacey,” Vredenburgh recalls. “My church’s youth group met with other groups from the region in San Diego for conferences to play sports, music, or watch those who did. Stacey was beautiful; her dark hair was cut into a bob that contrasted with her pale skin. She was also a third level black belt in Taekwondo and had a heart condition that meant she couldn’t drink caffeine.

“We were introduced by a mutual friend, and I was more than a little surprised when I found she was interested in me… On day three [of the conference], she mentioned casually that she had a boyfriend in another state. More than a little heartbroken, I started avoiding her. On day four, she started flirting with the kid I was sharing a room with.”

For me, there have been two. The first migrated towards the “basic” life after we broke up — church, baking and canning, graphic design job, and the other staples of suburbia. But before any of that happened, she sharpened her claws on me. When she broke up with me, it was in a flurry of phonecalls where she said first God then the Devil were talking to her “and I’m not sure who I should listen to.” The breakup, she said, was “because of 500 Days,” referring to the 2009 film 500 Days of Summer, starring Zooey Deschanel and Joseph Gordon-Levitt.

We had recently watched the film together, where Zooey Deschanel’s titular character, Summer, reluctantly begins dating the greeting card writer, Tom. The names tells you everything you would need to know of the film – Summer burns hot for a while then settles into a sad Fall, sharp iciness of Winter, only to resurface with new colors at an engagement party (her own, to a new man) in Spring. Tom – a general enough name – is a set piece in the waxing and waxing of Summer’s world. And so it was with us. Laura called, broke up, and reappeared in my life with a tragically inept apology right after she was engaged to her Next Guy. If it had happened to anyone other than myself, I would have laughed. “What did you expect? You knew she was like that!” 

As much as I hate that film now, it is not the only instance of a woman’s emotional immaturity and wistful longing for Anywhere But Here that has been cinematically celebrated. Kirsten Dunst in Elizabethtown (2005) is another end of the spectrum, sharing her love of music, wanderlust, and midnight magic with a bumbling “failure” like Orlando Bloom. Almost every woman in a F. Scott Fitzgerald novel fits the bill, as does every “Companion” on the popular show Dr. Who. The Doctor’s companions are often given titles like “The Girl Who Lived” or “The Girl Who Waited” – they are defined by their relationship to the Doctor. Natalie Portman in Garden State (2004). Diane Keaton in the titular Annie Hall (1977). For that matter, Audre Tatou in the titular Amelie (2001). She doesn’t even need a body to fit the fantasy, as Scarlett Johansen/”Sam” proved in Spike Jonze’s Her (2013). What matters is the fantasy of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl, the idea of her, not who she is or her body. The queen of them all? Audrey Hepburn in pretty much every movie she was in. Hepburn’s shadow is so long and far-reaching that we forget that Truman Capote wrote Holly Golightly as a point of mockery and derision, not the champion of women that we associate with Hepburn’s portrayal.

Indeed, before long, we have a color wheel of heroines in film who have wrecked lives, the scattered trophies of broken hearts and confused men a triumph for the causes of individualism, “quirkiness,” and personal freedom among women. But it is a trope that cuts both ways. Kirsten Dunst’s “Claire” in Elizabethtown is juxtaposed with “the bitch” played by Jessica Biel and “the all-wise mother” of Susan Sarandon. Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s “Tom” has only one other female companion, a younger sister who dispenses old soul wisdom (and a prenatural knowledge of tampons just in case we have a hard time believing wisdom in the mouth of babes). The “Manic Pixie” trope is one of only a few slots allowed for women in male-driven films and it is important to understand that patriarchal culture only allows women to be one or another. Never can a woman be multivarient or “complete.” They must either be the soft-spoken dreamer, the deep-voiced sage, one of the guys, or the mother. It is a classic typecasting going back to the Greek pantheon of Hera, Athena, Aphrodite, and Artemis. Is it any wonder that the most common statement on a woman’s dating profiles is “I’m not your average girl” followed closely by “I’m complex”? Women do not want to be typecast or fit some role marked out by them for a man. They want to be themselves, a fully developed character in their own life. When they break the roles men have set out for them, they are “the bitch”, the Pandora who stupidly destroys the (man’s) world. Their capricious actions can only be redeemed by popularity (another misogynist trope for women in film), a consensus among the friend group that after all, she had her faults, sure, but she was what every woman should be. She was nice. As T.H. White says of Guinevere after blaming her for the downfall of Camelot in The Candle in the Wind, “She must have been a nice person, or Lancelot and Arthur (both nice people) would not have loved her. Or does this not follow? Do nice people love nasty ones?” If you intimate that I am building a case that Manic Pixies are evil, then you are right because in the end, they are terrible people. But they are also light bringers. They are also real people. They are identifiable.

When I told a friend of mine about this article, it revived old stories we had shared previously about our experiences with Manic Pixies. What we kept arriving at was yes, we were deeply hurt by them but in the end, this was our own fault for expecting them to be one thing, to conform and be our dream fully realized, when they were always something else — a real person with as many negatives as positives. I asked Stratton Glaze, a creative consultant in Los Angeles, to share some of those thoughts in writing.

I would say that there are not really any true MPDGs because MPDG is more about the way some guys see a certain woman. It’s a way of describing a story arc present in many films, and in my case it resonated with patterns in my life a few years ago. The story always starts with a guy who is feeling lost or has lost hope. Orlando Bloom in Elizabethtown is a great example. Right away, we can see that this is not a good start for a romantic story. The MPDG’s power is that she is full of hope. She celebrates every day and every moment and every person.

If the focus is on the girl, we could begin to ask questions about how she really feels, whether or not all of her joy is a cover for some deeper problem. But that is somewhat unfair to someone who exemplifies the kind of life that the depressed guy wants to have.

The problem with MPDGs is that they offer joy at too cheap a price, their presence providing the sole source of happiness for the guy. Again, this is not a model for a healthy loving relationship, but the problem is not the girl who seems to enjoy life and people, the problem is the guy who for whatever reason does not. It is romantic to tell stories about people helping other people “see the light” and “pick themselves up again” but the problem is that these more likely become repeating patterns rather than one time character arcs that end with a marriage ceremony. Most MPDGs don’t need to change, but their openness to many different people means that they are vulnerable to being used by people who cannot overcome their problems in healthy ways and put the entire burden of salvation upon a romantic relationship.

The only danger in thinking of someone as a MPDG is the Dream. The Dream that you will escape your unhappiness through this one person’s presence. Their presence is simply not enough though for that to happen in any constructive, long lasting way.

I confess, much of my anger towards Laura centered around not accepting the way that I had begun to see her as my only way out. At the time, there were family and financial issues going on and I felt overwhelming responsibility to take care of things and “fix” them. Laura became the person I took joy from. Notice how I phrased that. She was full of life and I was an emotional vampire. More, when I think back to that time, it was terribly unfair of me to see her as either my lover, my friend, or the source of my problems instead of a human struggling her way through her own life. She was, whatever her faults, a real person.

By the time I met the second Manic Pixie,  I was steeled for her. I think, had Laura not been in my life, I would have been more damaged by Victoria than I was. She was a cool, mercurial figure that everyone spoke of with wide eyes and raised voices. “Oh, do you know Victoria? Have you met Victoria? She’s so cool,” or some variant like, “She rides a bike/ works at a bakery/ is a Feminist/ is an artist.” Victoria was a myth, a legend, for a year before she came into my life with a yellow sweater and red bandana. She was every bit the Manic Pixie to me – our exchanges always brief and memorable. I might have gotten caught up in reciting this gauzy myth around her had I not known what she was. And then one day – poof! – it was as though none of it had ever happened at all. Every time I talk about her now, my mind circles around that stairwell. The night we kissed, it was the first and only time I have ever felt something for someone. While I have always enjoyed kissing, hers in particular left a mark. It was the only kiss where I actually remember feeling something. Still, I was lucky enough to set it to the side, thank her, express my gratefulness to the universe, then continue with life. 

While the typical term is “Manic Pixie Dream Girl”, the reality is that there are just as many guys who behave this way though we tend to say men like that have a “Peter Pan Complex.” Only rarely are they a “Peter Pan.” For some reason we make a Dream Girl synonymous with our critique of her. She is this identity whereas a guy has a “complex” that he can, through time and experience, eventually lose. I’m not convinced of that, though. Fair is fair and so for my purposes, I will be speaking of Peter Pans and not the complex. These men are young, upbeat, always an idealist, and somewhat out of touch with the sobering reality of adulthood. That is, all of the traits of the Manic Pixie are apparent in a Peter Pan, the difference being only one of gender. I also discussed what it’s like to date a Peter Pan with several women — in fact, with some of the women I’ve previously dated. Once I described these qualities to them to get their feedback and experiences with Peter Pans, I was told, “Oh! So… you. You’re a Peter Pan. You want me to talk about dating you?”

One of the most frustrating attributes of a Peter Pan is their instability and general unreliability. One woman said that she dated a man in his early thirties who was “So, so, so much fun. It felt like dating cotton candy, really.” Lindsey Maggio is 28 now, married, and a fundraiser for Cancer research outside of Baton Rouge. “We’d go and do things or we’d just, you know, stay inside and play videogames or something and then of course have sex, and it was so great. But then he would disappear. And he couldn’t keep a job. Like, I think, looking back on it, that he might have had maybe three or four jobs? It was always unclear to me. I know he worked at a coffeeshop, and I know he was a bike messenger at one point, but then he would talk about work and it wasn’t either of those. By the end, I just stopped asking. I just couldn’t anymore, I was so over it. I mean, the way he talked about it, it was like he was doing all of these jobs at the same time. He had a job, but, you know, was doing all of these other things. Now that I think about it, if that was true, then how did he always have time to play around? To mess around and whatever? It made it hard to believe him.”

Kristen Butelo, a therapist who works with schools and children in Southern California, says she experienced something very similar and that, while it is confusing to date a man like this, the instability itself is the thrill.  “All of the guys I have been with have had traits of the Manic Pixie. Creative, suave, intriguing, and does whatever the fuck he wants to do. As magical and alluring as these creatures are, the relationships I had with them all had the same outcome and all the same lesson learned: The more you try to catch a pixie, the more uncatchable they become.”

Carl Jung helped shape our understanding of someone with a “Peter Pan Complex,” as it is known in popular psychology today. As with most other elements of Jung’s work, he made it a point to locate the archetype in mythology and explain its relationship to other members of mythos. Though he did not fully develop this idea, his paper on the puer, “The Psychology of the Child Archetype”,  would be developed by later Jungian psychologists who noted the frequency of this archetype in their own work. In relationship to Jung’s original writings, the puer aeternus (“eternal boy”) is seen as a shadow of the senex (or “old man”). If the senex is identified by the god Cronus whose discipline, control, and rigid orderliness is what we now know as “time” (Cronus -> Chronos -> time) then the puer is identified by Hermes or Dionysus, gods known for their instinctual behavior, capriciousness, disorder, and whimsy. Notice that these gods are otherwise quite effective! Irresponsible, yes. But bounding with life and creativity, a source of joy to all who know them, even accomplished in curious ways. In real life, take for example the “free spirit” who has no college degree or stable job, but spent a year backpacking through Europe or the woman who works at the local coffeeshop but picked up two foreign languages in Asia.  A puer aeternus then, is defined by their duality or “bipolar” nature. This is not the same as bipolar disorder, but rather speaks to the presence of strong positive and negative qualities.

“And isn’t that what draws us to them?” Butelo continues. “What would be exciting about having them as your friend? Look at Peter and Tink, we all see how that worked out for her. Peters know the exact sprinkle of magic needed to hook us. They give just enough initiative, just enough investment, just enough romance, and then poof, they are gone! We are left behind, standing there, mouth open, net in hand, completely dumbstruck, craving more. Sometimes this little charade can go on for weeks, months, even years with them circling back. Sometimes, it’s brief and they simply vanish for good.

“In my experience, these individuals have all been in what I would call a ‘floating’ state of life. They weren’t particularly going in any direction, not grounded to any goals, and just kind of living in the day-to-day or ‘floating’ through life. I can’t say I’ve ever identified with that state of existence, but I would imagine that that [living that way] would bring you a lot of freedom to act impulsively based on whatever you felt like doing in the moment. Passionate nosedives? Moody spirals? Avoidant darts away? All fair game here, no explanation needed.”

As Lindsey Maggio said previously, this unpredictability and periods of disappearance might be attributable to a highly functional life that we never get to see. In my own life, while I have been accused of being a Peter Pan over the years, I also obtained two Master’s degrees, invested in a furniture store, was an editor for a handful of publications, and occasionally took up freelance work as a ghostwriter. Peter Pans might be whimsical and unpredictable, but as Jung said, there is always another side to their life. They have lives. They are not, in the end, entirely a magical creature, they only make us feel that way. In reality, they live complex lives that are often lived in reaction to their upbringing. Cronus, for example, was a rigid father figure until Zeus overthrew him and “released” the gods and goddesses to live their own individual lives. Seen in context, the Peter Pan is not that magical at all. He just knows how to skip over the details. It is his deep well of experience that makes him so versatile and also so distant. He’s just tired of explaining and lives life now on his own terms.

“The second trend I noticed,” continues Butelo, “Is that these individuals were pretty intense people-pleasers. They love wooing people. They are brilliant at it. They’re fun! They’re charming! They just seem to ‘get’ you! And let’s not forget, they are amazing lovers. But think about how Tink feels in her relationship with Peter. Her magic isn’t all that amazing to him anymore. Let’s face it, she becomes kind of a basic bitch. Wendy is the new girl now. Someone who thrives off pleasing people is not gonna accept playing with the basic bitch. So you get flaked on, ghosted, texts are ignored because they’ve had their fun, got their pay off, and are moving on to next set of wide eyes. In the long-term circling kind of dynamic that I’ve been caught in, it means you get bumped to the bottom of the totem pole. They know you’ll be around and will circle back when they sense the chase is slowing. I don’t think any of this is malicious or even conscious on their part, it’s just the pattern that keeps them feeling valued and free in their relationships and so they play it out. Because think about it, if they stuck around, it wouldn’t be all excitement and mystery, all glitter and sparkle. It would require some kind of commitment from them. That’s scary, that’s vulnerable, that’s work. That is a relationship.”

Nathan Rabin, who coined the term “Manic Pixie Dream Girl” rescinded his contribution to cultural zeitgeist last year in an essay for Salon, saying, “I should clarify a few things here. The trope of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl is a fundamentally sexist one, since it makes women seem less like autonomous, independent entities than appealing props to help mopey, sad white men self-actualize. Within that context, the phrase was useful precisely because, while still fairly flexible, it also benefited from a certain specificity. Claire [in Elizabethtown] was an unusually pure example of a Manic Pixie Dream Girl — a fancifully if thinly conceived flibbertigibbet who has no reason to exist except to cheer up one miserable guy.” The same is true for Peter Pans. They are rarely allowed to be seen as fully realized people. Sometimes, our own hangups and previous hurts blind us to seeing them and sometimes it is their own reluctance to be known that causes them to shy away. What remains is our own selfish interests, our desperate pursuit of them. And this is troubling, the way that we have adopted a cultural artifact and either use it to slander someone or the way that we lean into it. Aja Romano at The Daily Dot writes that, “We may not live in a world where, as John Green put it, ‘boys can save girls by being romantically interested in them,’ but we do live in a reality where Hollywood actively teaches screenwriters not to pass the Bechdel Test because of the pervasive and false belief that men only want to see movies about other men, and that if a female character is onscreen, she, too, must be all about the man.” Often, the attractiveness of the star and identifiable “quirkiness” of the character helps facilitate this kind of behavior, in some sense rewarding us as we identify with the celebrity. “I’m just like (character) in (movie)!”

As Laurie Penny wrote in The New Statesmen, “Men grow up expecting to be the hero of their own story. Women grow up expecting to be the supporting actress in somebody else’s… Women behave in ways that they find sanctioned in stories written by men who know better, and men and women seek out friends and partners who remind them of a girl they met in a book one day when they were young and longing.” The inverse is true for the “Toms” of the world, male and female, who live a “basic” life of predictability, responsibility, and tradition. There are no heroes for these qualities and so, in a desperate attempt to be something, they can begin to make destructive choices to ensure they are somebody and that their life is not one of quiet desperation. There is nothing necessarily or inherently wrong with being basic or vanilla. I often wish that I had such stability in my own life! And that is why the Manic Pixie/Peter Pan discussion is still an important one to have. Even if we, like Rabin, were to revoke the label, what would we replace it with? Our only alternatives are to be “a bland and blah basic,” living life in predictable ways without the very thing we have been seeking all along – creativity. Life. Those sparks of genius and excitement that make life worth living. Hope. Joy in the world around us. Or to shutter in and become a vampire.

It took me a long time to understand this, but the reason I was an emotional vampire with Laura was because I wanted those attributes for myself. I could not enjoy them if someone else had them, I had to have them myself and would not be happy unless I leeched them from her. When I realized that and dealt with that part of my life, I was able to move on. I began appreciating other people who had those qualities without trying to suck it out of them. Something T.D. Jakes once said became my mantra, “Coveting has never been a problem for me. I don’t want someone else’s life. I just want my own. I don’t want your stuff. I want mine.” I needed to learn that. I needed to learn that I – and really all of us – could live life and be complete without someone else.

At the heart of it, Manic Pixies and Peter Pans are living the lives they want and do not need someone else to “fix” them or “enlighten” them or “show them the world.” They have done that, they are doing that, and they will continue doing that for the foreseeable future. They do not need someone else to complete them, close the circle, or open them up to paint with all the colors of the wind. Those same qualities we admire and fixate on are possible for us too. In real life, we can learn to love someone whose life does not need to revolve around us or “complement” us, functioning as a stepstool to that next level of personal authenticity. What is more, we need to let go of the ideals we have in our heads and hearts to begin enjoying the people that are in our lives right now who are every bit as amazing, even if they are still a bit “quirky.”

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Further reading:

Wild Things: 16 films featuring Manic Pixie Dream Girls (A.V. Club)

How Nathan Rabin’s Manic Pixie Dream Girl trope became a monster (The Daily Dot)

Laurie Penny on sexism in storytelling: I Was a Manic Pixie Dream Girl (NewStatesmen)

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