It happened to one of us, ladies. Let’s let her tell it: “A handsome man with tousled hair and an aversion to commitment showed up at my door, suitcase in hand, seeking shelter from the storm. (Okay, he’d called beforehand, but still.) We had a two-day romance — he played music, I wore a dress, we talked for hours. Then he disappeared from my life on a six-a.m. flight, and that was that. It was the emotional and quirky hit-it-and-quit-it.”
“My pop-culture education to date had not prepared me for this scenario. Yes, I felt a sense of loss at his leaving, but I also felt a sense of spiritual wholeness. Why wasn’t I moping around waiting for him to come back to me, like in a romantic-comedy post-breakup pre-finale montage? Why did I feel, of all things, better connected to my art?”
We came to a conclusion so bizarre that it had to be true: he’d Zooey Deschaneled her, hard. He was a manic pixie dream guy.
There are a lot these guys running around. (If you don’t believe us, please consult your college diary for all references to guys who are “between apartments.”) These are guys with whimsical plans who carry backpacks (always, backpacks!). They run around, crash on women’s couches, eat our home-cooked meals, tenderly stroke our… broken dreams, and then vanish like Mary Poppins, leaving us ladies behind — hopefully with a sense of emotional fulfillment and joyful memories (and not something terrifying, like a baby or a burning sensation).
In real life, we know a lot of these guys. But where are the manic pixie dream guys on screen?
Of course, their female counterparts are everywhere in cinema. If you have better things to do than hate-watch “Garden State” on a Sunday afternoon: the manic pixie dream girl, as defined by critic Nathan Rabin, is a movie stock character as beautiful as she is whimsical, who “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.”
But while artsy sprites from Kirsten Dunst and Natalie Portman to the adorkable Queen Termite Zooey herself have colonized our cinemas and our brains over the past decade, with their impeccably crafted mixtapes and impromptu bubble-blowing parties, no equivalent whimsical male waif (with a backpack but no cell phone — always, no cell phone!) has appeared for cinema’s straitlaced, bored, heterosexual women. Narrative, especially in Hollywood films, relies on characters who have no agenda or ego of their own — who exist to make the protagonist feel a certain way. The manic pixie dream girl is one of these figures — a cipher who lives to help a dude discover his real life’s purpose and truly feel alive — and movie women deserve their version.
Hey, you might be saying — that sounds totally gross! You might continue to say: the solution isn’t the addition of the manic pixie dream guy to the cinematic canon — the solution is to stomp out the manic pixie dream girl! Fair enough, imaginary person we are arguing with. Don’t get us wrong — we love romantic movies where both characters are complex. (Think “Before Sunrise.”) But not every single movie can be “Wild Strawberries.” Cipher characters aren’t inherently sexist or evil, and characters who aren’t particularly complex can still serve an important purpose. They only become problematic when they’re all women.
Cipher figures for women have always been thin on the ground. (Part of the reason we’re all still gushing over Pride and Prejudice almost two centuries after its publication is that Mr. Darcy is one of pop culture’s only true ciphers for women. And Mr. Darcy is many things, but he’s not manic or a pixie.) Think about it: how many narratives can you think of where a man loves a woman, transforms her, and then leaves her — and it’s not considered a tragedy? Manic pixie dream guys appear in your B-movie “divorcée re-enters life” narrative — “How Stella Got Her Groove Back,” “Under the Tuscan Sun,” “Eat Pray Love” — but only sort of. All the men in these movies bring joie de vivre back to the divorcees, but all three movies end with the couple together for the long-term. We tried to think of a film in which a woman loves a man, gets changed by him, has her heart broken (or at least bruised, a little bit) when he disappears, and then moves on, zest for life renewed — and thought of exactly one: “Titanic.” (And he doesn’t exactly disappear — he dies.)
But “Titanic” was a pretty big hit. So why does Hollywood think women can’t handle a manic pixie dream guy? The most likely culprit is outdated ideas about women and their needs. Women are supposed to be focused on marriage, constantly looking to settle down, and too emotional for casual relationships. Conversely, men are not supposed to be emotional or unstable — i.e. given to great public shows of whimsy that may or may not involve balloons. Pop culture generally puts more emphasis on the dark side of male free-spiritedness — men who irresponsibly destroy everything they touch. (Looking at you, Don Draper.) So, a manic pixie dream guy couldn’t possibly breeze into a woman’s filmic life, help her discover her real goals, and then breeze out, because her real goal would be to keep him from ever breezing out again. In this scenario, the fact that relationship had no long-term potential would mark it a failure for the woman.
This is, politely, bullshit. Rom-coms often instruct women to loosen up and enjoy life — but that’s only if that enjoyment of life manifests itself as getting seriously involved with a tough, traditionally masculine male figure. But women’s lives have changed at a dizzying pace over the past several decades, and we need modern movies to catch up with modern desires. Not all of us are looking for Gerard Butler to humiliate us into loving him. Some of us would be just as happy logging a few hours with a whimsical Ferris Bueller (you know, without the narcissistic personality disorder — but with the sweet stolen car).
It’s time for Hollywood to man up. Women’s desires matter. So, ladies and gentleman, a proposal, if you will: the manic pixie dream guy rom-com. We expect a script within the week.