A couple of days ago, Nathan Rabin, the creator of the ever-so-catchy term ‘manic pixie dream girl’ wrote an apology on Salon, expressing how deeply sorry he was for coining the term.
As someone who l-o-v-e-s to analyze harmful tropes of women in film and TV (given that we have so many options to choose from) I was a little hesitant to take his apology seriously. While, sure, he may feel sorry that what started out as a funny phrase to call a screenwriting phenomenon has now “spun out of control”, I’m not exactly sure who he’s apologizing to, or for what.
In his letter, he claims that the phrase itself gives women virtually no autonomy. While, in theory, this sounds like a good explanation, it unfortunately falls flat. Yes, the trope does perpetuate representations of submissive, dependent women in the media, but what Rabin failed to mention was that there are several other factors that contribute to this fate. In fact, this is something we are very familiar with, because it has existed since the inception of cinema. Since film’s beginning, “leading” female roles have been underdeveloped, guided by their male counterparts, and/or depicted as some sort of femme fatal.
All About Eve – Written/Directed by Joseph L. Mankiewicz
Why the hell does this keep happening? Well, it is because these tropes are being written by men. Most Hollywood writers and directors are men, so that means, most female characters are written by men; removes a whole lot of autonomy, doesn’t it? Though a hell of a lot more women have entered the film industry, according to Forbes, they still make up 16% of Hollywood and 26% of the indie realm.
Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind – Written by Charlie Kaufman
At first, what was later coined the “manic pixie dream girl,” seemed like an attempt by indie filmmakers to boost the complexity of leading female characters. However, it quickly became clear that this was just a decoy technique invented by men, for men. The presence of this kind of character is to simply help the male character navigate his emotional journey. Unfortunately, a lot of these movies, which are actually really great, have leading ladies that are deceptively likable. That is, until you realize the female characters have experienced zero growth, and that the film’s screenplay was written by a man.
500 Days of Summer – Written/Directed by Marc Webb
I appreciate Rabin’s effort to try to be less misogynistic (After all – he saw a trend of these magical girls that exist solely to make the male character whole) but it seems like he cares more about how “cliche” the term has become, and less about misogyny.
Almost Famous – Written/Directed by Cameron Crowe
I’m sorry that Mr. Rabin is tired of hearing the phrase, but honestly, it has opened our eyes to the ways in which female characters are written, and for whom they are being created for. Just because he doesn’t want us to use the phrase anymore doesn’t mean that the trope has ceased to exist. It was there before the phrase was coined, and it’ll be here if it ever falls out of use – that is, of course, unless we do something about it. Take Zoe Kazan for example, who wrote and directed the AWESOME 2012 film, Ruby Sparks. If you haven’t seen it already, please do. Zoe takes the idea of the “manic pixie dream girl” and exposes the trope’s instability. The film works to reveal how men often write women in the media in order to maintain the prominence of a male-focused identity. So, instead of petty apology letters, let’s see some more radical content.
Photo via Garden State film on darrenrueker.com