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The Manic Pixie Dream Girl May Be Dead, But Film’s Shallow Female Characters Live On

Is it a big deal when the person who coined a term disowns it? In Salon, culture journalist Nathan Rabin has penned a piece called “I’m Sorry For Coining the Phrase ‘Manic Pixie Dream Girl,'” where he apologizes for naming the archetype in an 2007 A.V. Club review that dissected Kirsten Dunst’s insufferable character in Elizabethtown. Rabin’s moment of insight eventually yielded a million think-pieces, Zooey Deschanel’s Emmy-nominated mainstream brand, John Green’s writing career, and a wave of cultural criticism that took to task — in manners both dismissive and frustrating — the phenomenon of female characters, often young, feeling like shallow, one-dimensional girls there to prop up a male protagonist.

We’ve written about the term at Flavorwire plenty of times, most recently in pieces like “Eternal Sunshine Destroyed the Manic Pixie Dream Girl” and “Feminist-Minded Critical Memes Like The Bechdel Test and Manic Pixie Dream Girls Are Losing Their Power.” The way that “manic pixie dream girl” has memed its way adorably through the world is a case study in how a trope can evolve from an empowering idea to a cliché and a conversation-stopper, all in the span of a couple of years.

But was there value to the initial diagnosis? Of course. The one-dimensional dream girl of film, television, and books isn’t a very interesting character, once you get down to brass tacks. There’s nothing round, nuanced, or person-like about her thoughts, fears, and desires; she’s merely a prop for somebody else’s story. That’s bad writing and it deserves to get called out. (It also persists. Take an upcoming example: I Origins‘ vapid Sofi, played by Astrid Bergés-Frisbey, a magical, often topless, exotic foreigner who says adorable things like “We are already married in the spirit world.”)

Where Rabin’s trope started to feel cruel was in the semi-pointless appellation of “manic pixie.” Perhaps it was applicable to the female characters in Garden State and Elizabethtown, but would you really call anyone else a manic pixie, beyond, say, Tinkerbell? In all honesty, when it comes to writing about half-baked, terrible characters in art, we need to use a broader range of terms beyond just slotting all wispy girlfriends into the Natalie Portman-in-Garden State slot. Go deeper. Write with more eloquence about why the character is underwritten, why the lack of an interesting woman in a movie is a problem. Pin it on the follies of the art.

The “manic pixie dream girl,” or any half-written “dream girl” character, is a symptom of something being undercooked in art, but she’s not the diagnosis. We need a culture where female characters can be written with agency and nuance, strength and weakness, ideas and goals in their heads that transcend something beyond just looking for love.

It’s why, despite the fact that I have found all of her films disappointing so far, there is something nice about the way an actress like Brit Marling (who appears in I Origins) is forging a career where she is, at least, playing nuanced women with a baseline of intelligence — and more often than not, she’s writing those characters. Her career makes me feel optimistic. The slight overrating she’s gotten for her output so far, to me, feels like a reflection of the fact that it’s such a rarity. And yet even as she’s a bright light in cinema, her smart scientist in I Origins is competing for space in the same movie with Sofi the dream girl. Having works with consistently interesting female characters is just so hard, isn’t it?

Ultimately, I’m not sure what Rabin’s dismissal of “manic pixie dream girl” will do. Perhaps it will take the air out of its sails as a pop culture term (it’s also about five years old; so it’s time to fly or fall, really, and I think collectively, we want the fall), or perhaps we’ll just move on to arguing about a new female archetype, one that is half-baked in a way that feels sexist. But really, the way to get rid of obnoxious critical shorthand is to produce good work — and when it comes to female characters, that means we need more women working as critics, writers, and directors.

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