Manic Pixie Dream Girl (n.): “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.”
Ten years deep into the term’s origination, the “Manic Pixie Dream Girl” stereotype has become a well-known character trope, a hack plot shortcut a la the White Savior. The phrase has been popularized and eventually retracted by its creator Nathan Rabin, but it’s too late – the MPDG has not only become something close to the desk that lazy writers everywhere can reach for, it’s also become a bizarre ideal for a certain subset of young, hip females.
So get your hair bow-aligned and your Belle and Sebastian mixtape in hand. Here’s the worst, the best, and the mislabeled.
Kirsten Dunst in Elizabethtown
Sensitive Male Creator: Directed/Written by Cameron Crowe
Even though the Crowe film itself is unmemorable, Dunst’s airline stewardess Claire –who lives to solve a still-hot, fresh-off-Legolas Orlando Bloom’s problems– ranks because her character originally inspired the MPDG term’s origination in 2005.
There’s no better example of the MDPG than Claire, who is nearly too quirky to function.
Important: PAULA DEEN IS IN THIS MOVIE.
Natalie Portman in Garden State
Sensitive Male Creator: Directed/Written by Zach Braff
It’s impossible to look at Natalie Portman in this movie without squealing over how cute she is, but that’s where her function ends. Constantly spewing lines that empower the protagonist, and act as little more than nonstop reinforcement of his cool originality, Portman’s Sam character is epileptic and adorable. And that’s about it.
Zooey Deschanel in 500 Days of Summer
Sensitive Male Creator: Director Marc Webb, Writers Scott Neustadter & Michael H. Weber
One of the iconic triptych of Deschanel, Portman and Dunst (attorneys at law), the character of Summer is installed into this painfully cute film to help Joseph Gordon-Levitt discover that he should be an architect instead of a greeting card writer. To be clear, this is a trope character showing another trope character that he should be doing this trope job, not that trope job.
Mary Elizabeth Winstead in Scott Pilgrim vs. The World
Sensitive Male Creator: Directed and Written by Edgar Wright, Character by Bryan Lee O’Malley
There’s no doubt that the Ramona Flowers character is a damsel in distress, cleverly disguised as a “weird girl”: she’s there to change the life of Scott Pilgrim. In spite of her inherent coolness, the film makes it clear that Ramona isn’t going to be the one to save herself, but Scott finds new purpose with her cool girl depth and constant change of hair color. That’s all it takes to date a shleppy 22-year-old Canadian, guys!
Zoe Kazan in Ruby Sparks
Sensitive Male Creator: Directed by Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris, Written by Zoe Kazan (twist!)
On its surface, this seems like just another white man in his 20’s finding himself through the magic of a polka-dot clad vagina. Great. However, Kazan’s story makes this an interesting study – this 2012 film presents the audience with a one-dimensional MPDG and singlehandedly dissects it and builds her into a fully realized character throughout the course of the movie. Sure, the Paul Dano protagonist tries to force his own fantasy on her to keep her in check. But Ruby ultimately insists on being her own person, even if that person was willed to life by some sort of lonely novelist magic in the first act.
Diane Keaton in Annie Hall
Sensitive Male Creator: Directed/Written by Woody Allen
This one, it would appear, is a common misconception. Allen went on the record repeatedly as saying that the Annie character was largely based on what he knew of Keaton himself– a fact the actress attested to. Sure, Annie changed Alvy’s perspective on almost everything, but she was flawed and based in reality.
Audrey Hepburn, Breakfast at Tiffany’s, Sabrina, Roman Holiday
Sensitive Male Creator: Various
Audrey was a quintessential manic pixie before the term even existed, and it’s evident in some of her most famous works. Whether Holly Golightly is showing writer Paul what New York is all about in Breakfast, Sabrina is transforming to impress the Larrabee brothers, or Ann is giving journalist Joe Bradley the scoop of his life in Roman Holiday, her lovable portrayals of sometimes complicated, always flighty characters is classic MPDG.
Does it make any of these films less fun to watch? Not necessarily, but it’s a staple trope of its time.
Kate Hudson in Almost Famous
Sensitive Male Creator: Written by Cameron Crowe
Sweet teenage groupie Penny Lane (played by Kate Hudson) won audiences over when Crowe’s film was released in 2000. But the writer ultimately demonstrated a downward spiral in quality work that would end in his most recent release, 2011’s We Bought a Zoo.
Upon further inspection, Penny is a character who is defined by the men around her – first by a band, and then by leading man and awkward boy journalist William. Sure, she’s addicted to quaaludes, but it’s nothing the love of a teenager can’t solve. Crowe has half of the plot to thank Penny for, and doesn’t give her a satisfactory background in return.
Belle (Paige O’Hara) in Beauty and the Beast
Sensitive Male Creator: Directed by Gary Trousdale and Kirk Wise, Written by Linda Wolverton, Character by Jeanne-Marie Le Prince de Beaumont
Not the first example you’d think of, but the case is strong. If we’re defining the MPDG as a female character whose ultimate narrative goal is to give dimension to a central male character, what could be more iconic of that than her function (i.e. true love’s kiss) actually changing him from an unidentified he-beast into an Aryan prince? The defense rests.
Charlize Theron in A Million Ways to Die in the West
Sensitive Male Creator: Seth MacFarlane
As Theron no doubt glows from her recent Razzie nomination for the same film, cartoon mogul Seth MacFarlane attempted to pen his first vehicle this past summer with flop A Million Ways to Die in the West. Theron’s character Anna, is “so unlike the other girls” and is, for some reason, the only other character in this world that shares MacFarlane’s 2014 perspective on an 1800s world. And boy can she sling a gun! Save it for your fan fic, Peter Griffin.
Yvonne Strahovski in I, Frankenstein
Sensitive Male Creator: Directed/Written by Stuart Beattie, Character by Kevin Grevioux
OK, this one is just straight up lazy. Adapted from the comic book of the same name, I, Frankenstein is an across-the-board failure following character Adam Frankenstein (why?) as he traverses the war between gargoyles and demons (what?) with the plot-furthering help of a sex bomb scientist named Terra (how?). Terra appears only to show villain Bill Nighy the vague science she is creating, and there’s a scene where we are led to believe that Terra and Adam fall in love when she stitches a creepy wound on his dead flesh with an unsterilized needle.
Scarlett Johansson in Her
Sensitive Male Creator: Spike Jonze
Scarlett Johansson’s voicing of Samantha, the computer program everyman Joaquin Phoenix falls in love with in Her is a seemingly self-aware depiction of the MPDG trope, because the audience knows it’s doomed from the start. Samantha begins to discover herself as a unique entity as the plot progresses, expressing curiosity and choosing to explore. Though her presence in the narrative is the primary force that shapes and changes its male protagonist, Samantha makes enough changes in her own digital life to justify herself.
Helena Bonham Carter in Fight Club
Sensitive Male Creator: Director David Fincher and author Chuck Palahniuk
There’s no greater regressive male fantasy (that you secretly admit to watching over and over) than Palahniuk’s Fight Club, brought to the screen by David Fincher in 1999. Helena Bonham Carter plays the female lead of Marla Singer, the death-obsessed addict who quirks around, attending group therapy for things she’s not suffering from and becoming the driving force behind Tyler Durden’s self-imposed destruction. Is there any other point to her character, other than to further the plot for Norton and Pitt? Not really, making her more of a manic pixie goth prop than anything else. Cool hair, though.
Every Woman Don Draper Cheats on His Wives With, the First Time They Have Sex
Sensitive Male Creator: Matthew Weiner
In a TV era marked by dark, troubled protagonists, Mad Men often used the gender norms of the time period to demonstrate the inner turmoil of everyone’s favorite advertising exec. This culminated in too many affairs to count, and though many of the show’s fierce female characters came equipped with a well-developed backstory and temperament, Don’s first roll in the hay with his newest lady always connected to the MPDG fantasy.
The second time, we realize something else – she’s harbored feelings for him forever (what’s up Allison?), she’s also married (what’s up Bobbie?), she was taking it less serious than he was (what’s up Midge?). That first time, though? She’s totally gonna be the one to “fix” him.
(For every woman Don hooked up with on the series, The Daily Beast has a terrifyingly comprehensive list here.)
Anna and April on “Gilmore Girls”
Sensitive Male Creator: Amy Sherman-Palladino (twist!)
Kind of a deep cut, but an important one nonetheless – GG was famous for introducing characters who were too cool to deny. Jury’s out on whether Anna, who held out on poor backwards baseball cap Luke about his daughter April for thirteen years, would actually go for him. Since “absentee father” points to a major jumping of the shark for Gilmore Girls, there’s no denying that the introduction of Luke’s daughter was a failed experiment in character development.
Honorable Mentions: Barbara Streisand in What’s Up, Doc?, Zooey Deschanel in Yes Man, Juliette Lewis is What’s Eating Gilbert Grape?, Penelope Cruz in Vanilla Sky, Mila Kunis in Forgetting Sarah Marshall, Marilyn Monroe in Some Like it Hot.
The Takeaway: every poorly written female character isn’t an MPDG, but every full-fleged MPDG is a poorly written female character. Rectangles and squares, y’all.