On the tenth anniversary of its theatrical release, plenty still sticks out in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. There’s the seamless, low-budget blend of sci-fi and romance. There’s the trippy visuals, starting with a blue hairdo that puts Lea Seydoux’s to shame. Oh, and there’s Jim Carrey’s refreshingly non-terrifying appearance. But a re-watch of Michel Gondry and Charlie Kaufman’s dorm-room staple, ten years down the road, reveals an achievement viewers in 2004 literally didn’t have the words to articulate: a rebuttal to the Manic Pixie Dream Girl trope, back when Zooey Deschanel was still the lady from Elf.
At first glance, Clementine Kruczynski is a dead ringer for Nathan Rabin’s definition of the now-ubiquitous term: 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.” When she meets Carrey’s Joel Barish for what the audience eventually learns is the second time, she’s a zany ball of energy babbling on about ill-advised names for hair dyes. In a matter of hours, she’s teaching her very own broodingly soulful young man to embrace life, or at least the risk of falling through the ice on the Charles River.
But as Eternal Sunshine first shows us and later tells us, loving someone like Clementine isn’t all meet-cutes on the beach. As we’re taken through the lowlights of their relationship, the audience learns that the booze she pours into her coffee isn’t an endearing quirk; it’s a sign of the drinking problem that led her to total Joel’s car. She’s mercurial, irresponsible, and resentful of Joel to the point of being outright nasty. And, of course, she’s repeatedly described — by herself and everyone around her — as that term more associated with the MPDG than perhaps any other: “impulsive.”
Clementine’s flaws aren’t unforgivable, nor are they supposed to be. They’re a reminder, even a demand, that we take her personhood as seriously as we would any character’s with a less flighty personality or less colorful hair. It’s a lesson Joel never quite internalized the first time around. Enter the mini-speech that reads like a takedown of the “sensitive writer-directors” Rabin wouldn’t call out for another three years:
Too many guys think I’m a concept, or I complete them, or I’m gonna make them alive. But I’m just a fucked-up girl who’s looking for my own peace of mind. Don’t assign me yours.
Delivered in the Barnes & Noble where Clementine works (coincidentally, the one in the basement of my college campus’ student center), her warning initially falls on deaf ears. “I still thought you would save me,” Joel admits sadly as he teeters on the verge of losing her forever. He almost repeats his mistake at the film’s conclusion, when the couple agrees to give the relationship they have no memory of another shot. “I’m not perfect,” Clementine insists. Joel can’t see anything he doesn’t like about her, but he will. People with nothing to dislike about them aren’t real people. And the greatest failing of any fictional character is an inability to seem realistic.
Clementine’s, or rather Kaufman’s, lament is all the more remarkable considering that at the time, it was addressing a problem without a name — which isn’t to say the MPDG hadn’t existed long before Rabin put a label on it. Women have always gotten the short end of the stick when it comes to characterization, and the label’s been retroactively applied to everyone from Holly Golightly to Penny Lane. Until Rabin invented it as a description for Eternal Sunshine cast member Kirsten Dunst’s role in Elizabethtown, however, the idea that the helpful, zany love interest could be just as harmful a stereotype as the femme fatale or the pushy bitch simply wasn’t a part of the mainstream critical dialogue.
All the more remarkable, then, that Eternal Sunshine made a point of underlining men’s tendency to see romantic partners’ idiosyncrasies and not the complete package they’re a part of. In 2014, the term “Manic Pixie Dream Girl” is universal to the point of overuse; Zoe Kazan’s complained that it’s become a catch-all for unusual women in film, erasing the differences between them. It’s easy to forget that there was a time when we didn’t interpret indie rom-coms through the lens of the MPDG, just as there was a time when the Bechdel test was a revolutionary way of thinking about representation and not a bare-minimum standard for it.
Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is a remnant of that time. A decade later, the tale of Joel and Clementine isn’t just an unprecedented take on the breakup movie — it’s a critique of a trope that wasn’t yet a trope.