How ‘Skins’ Quietly Rejected the Manic Pixie Dream Girl Archetype

When Skins announced its plan to end its seven-season run with three movies checking in on three beloved characters, Cassie struck me as the riskiest choice. Wild girl Effy would always have a story to tell; Cook’s inevitable downward spiral is the stuff addictive teen television is made of. But after giving Season 2 its perfect ending, sitting in a Times Square diner on the verge of a reunion with her beloved Sid, what was left for Cassie to do? The answer, it turns out, was proof I hadn’t given the show and its savvy intelligence nearly enough credit. Thus far, Skins Pure is a compelling deconstruction of the stereotype Cassie’s original incarnation embodied at her worst moments: the Manic Pixie Dream Girl.

The basic characteristics of the MPDG have been trotted out in enough thinkpieces that many readers likely have them memorized. Still, here’s the textbook definition Nathan Rabin laid out in 2005: a “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.” In the eight years since Rabin introduced the term in his analysis of Elizabethtown, the MPDG has been equal parts omnipresent and reviled. Zooey Deschanel has become, perhaps unfairly, the face of the trope, and applying the descriptor to characters like Eternal Sunshine’s Clementine has the power to launch comment wars of epic proportions.

Skins is far from the first creative effort to take note of Rabin’s criticism. Parker Posey’s arc on Louie earned near-universal acclaim for its take on the MPDG, Zoe Kazan’s Ruby Sparks took a satisfying swipe at the archetype, and Adam Sacks’s hilarious “Manic Pixie Prostitute” sketch went viral on YouTube late last year for taking the idea of the MPDG existing for men’s benefit to its logical extreme. Even some lines in Jenji Kohan’s Orange Is the New Black echo MPDG detractors’ concerns about female agency: “I’m not someone’s girlfriend,” Piper Chapman laments to her ex when her fiancée publishes an article about her time in prison in The New York Times. Piper is frustrated that her real suffering is being portrayed as a means for her significant other’s personal growth, echoing the very real frustration of female viewers watching yet another MPDG teach a romantic hero a thing or two about “life and its infinite mysteries.”

But Skins Pure’s take on the MPDG is remarkable in its subtlety, letting the evolution and actions of its central character speak for themselves. In her first appearance on Skins, Cassie Ainsworth wasn’t exactly shallow, but she was definitely bubbly — and her love interest, Sid Jenkins, was Rabin’s “broodingly soulful” boy to a tee. Sid starts the series as a socially awkward sidekick and ends it as a daring romantic lead, and fragile, unstable Cassie is largely responsible for getting him from Point A to Point B. Cassie’s problems are significant: she struggles with an eating disorder, attempts suicide, and even starts Season 2 in an inpatient rehab clinic in Scotland. But too often, those problems are framed in terms of how they affect Sid and his insecurities, as when Cassie’s too-friendly relationship with some (male) fellow patients is depicted as just another one of Sid’s 99 problems following Tony’s accident. The show’s first saga ends with Sid dramatically following his True Love ™ to New York, having explored Cassie’s struggles on occasion, but not nearly as often as how they’ve affected Sid and gradually drawn him out of his shell.

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Skins Pure, meanwhile, ditches Sid altogether. We find Cassie a changed woman, but in a much more convincing way than Effy, whose turn as a high-powered hedge funder in Skins Fire seemed like a different character altogether. Cassie’s barreled through her wild and crazy phase and settled into the depressing reality of young adulthood in the big city, working as a waitress in a tiny London café. She spends her post-high-school malaise living a relatively tame, anonymous life, socializing with coworkers and starting a very tentative friendship with another resident of her hovel. It’s a far cry from the drug-fueled partying of her youth. The drama starts when Cassie discovers she’s being watched: someone’s been taking pictures of her standing at her apartment window, staring wistfully at the cityscape. That someone, it turns out, is the café’s scrawny, socially awkward cook.

On a lesser show, Cassie’s discovery would be the beginning of the end of her admirer’s journey of self-discovery. Cassie would listen to what several other female characters tell her: that the photos demonstrate his reverence for her; that only someone who sees how beautiful she is could capture her so perfectly; that someone taking photos of her without her permission and posting them on the Internet is endearing and sweet and not in any way skin-crawlingly creepy. Instead, Cassie takes matters into her own hands: she follows her coworker, tells him off, takes his camera, and lets him know in no uncertain terms that what he’s doing — assuming he has the right to make her into an object of his desire and present her to the world in that context without her consent — is Not Okay. Eventually, Cassie finds it in herself to forgive her coworker and allow him to photograph her, but their relationship is reestablished on her own terms, and she flatly informs him that romance is out of the question.

Cassie’s message comes across loud and clear. It’s not simply that she’s her own person with wants and desires that might not be one and the same with her admirer’s (though that’s a worthy takeaway in and of itself). It’s that she doesn’t exist as a means of getting some guy famous, or self-confident, or laid. And in the real world, men treating women that way doesn’t and shouldn’t end with a meet-cute or a romantic reunion on a park bench, á la the Season 1 finale of the original Skins. It ends with women being shocked, horrified, and very much not inclined to sleep with the men that try to convince us objectification is a form of flattery.

It’s no accident, I hope, that all this reads as an argument against the MPDG and the writer-director mindset that gave rise to her. If Skins Pure carries through with this logic in its second half, which airs tonight, it has the potential to leave a lasting impression with its mostly (but not entirely!) teenage audience. To men, of course, it serves as a reminder that the MPDG is a fantasy, and a harmful one at that. But to girls, it says something more powerful: that we should never stand for being treated the way Cassie has, and that we’re not frigid or bitchy or any other gendered pejorative for not being impressed by unwanted advances. Because the Manic Pixie Dream Girl isn’t just harmful for how she teaches men to perceive women; she’s also dangerous for how she teaches women to behave — namely, as passive recipients of romantic advances, not protagonists in our own right who can and should put our own problems first. But Cassie Ainsworth isn’t a Manic Pixie Dream Girl anymore, and she no longer has to act like one. Neither do we.