When we interpret a text, do we uncover a hidden meaning?
Or are we imposing a meaning from the outside?
The Manic Pixie Dream Girl is a type of female character often depicted as a whimsical, sometimes eccentric, fantasy woman who saves the male protagonist from himself. She is a vivacious character whose main purpose is to teach the male protagonist that life is worth embracing. Film critic Nathan Rabin coined the term MPDG as “existing solely in the fevered imaginations of sensitive writer-directors to teach broodingly soulful young men to embrace life and its infinite mysteries and adventures.”
The term percolated in the public consciousness when 500 Days of Summer (2009) came along and crystalized the idea in our imaginations. Summer became the archetype of a Manic Pixie Dream Girl. She has little dialogue and barely a backstory, seeming to exist only in Tom’s romanticization. She’s not a person. She’s an idea, a fantasy of the spontaneous and inscrutable girl of his dreams.
The film is shot with a vintage and hipster aesthetic, with the cinematography being every film school student’s dream. The old school romanticism is evident in both dialogue and setting. Summer is an embodiment of a set of quirks and mysterious tastes, from her dreamy bangs, indie obscure music tastes, to her screaming the word “penis” in a children’s park for fun.
Tom romanticizes Summer and her world, and the audience views Summer from his distorted lens. Lyrics and dialogues like “I love how she makes me feel” and “You make my dreams come true” show how Summer is an escape for Tom, someone who is signaling the welcome of spring. Tom is smitten by her and views her as perfection (“in love with her knees”).
Cracks start seeping in as soon as he realizes that Summer isn’t falling in love with him and in congruence with her previous statements, still didn’t want a serious relationship. Tom struggles to make peace with this and after the breakup, stoops down to calling her “evil, emotionless, miserable or a robot”.
The first viewing of the film made me (and several other viewers) resonate with Tom and his motivations, seeing Summer as irrational and unpleasant. We lament her for breaking his heart and for not magically falling in love with this “nice guy”. A second viewing changes your perspective as you empathize with Summer who has always been upfront about her boundaries, trying to grapple with this unreasonable man who has projected his own fantasies on her. He expects her to live up to this unrealistic ideal that he has created for her and is disillusioned when she turns out to be *surprise, surprise* a real human being.
Tom believes that Summer is the only person who can make him happy, and is an answer to life’s every existential question. He refuses to listen to her and instead chooses to create his own illusions where she is falling in love with him. The film tries to call out his irrationality, with a woman pointing it out to him that he was being preposterous in demanding Summer to be the perfect person. Beyond this romanticization, we see that they were never compatible and their romance had lost charm. The relationship had run its course and yet Tom was unwilling to accept that reality.
Although Summer is often identified as a prototype for this trope, the movie can also be seen as a deconstruction of the trope because it shows the dangers of idealizing women as things, rather than respecting them as real people with their own complex outlooks. The director of the film has remarked that the Summer is Tom’s view of a woman, lacking complexity and depth. He sees perfection in her, and gets his heartbroken, serving as a reminder that Summer was much more than his inaccurate projection.
The Manic Pixie Dream Girl usually aids in the male protagonist’s transformation without ever showing any real agency of her own. Summer does technically help Tom see something new. But it is only because she is existing for herself, being true to herself and serving her own needs, and thus exhibiting agency. She is a dynamic character that aids in the progression of the entire story, despite the growth that Tom undergoes after their encounter.
The ultimate manifestation of a man’s idea of a woman - the MPDG is sexually attractive, with just enough mystery to allow him to fill in the blanks of her personality with his own desires. Summer’s character very intricately walks these ropes and is almost an archetype of an MPDG. However, a reinterpretation of the narrative allows one to view Summer as a subversion of this trope, establishing that women are independent and capable of existing outside men’s fantasies.
Often, when a parody wrestles with the tropes it seeks to destabilize, it can be easy to perpetuate, rather than supersede stereotypes. Paper Towns (2008/2015), a book by John Green and later an adapted film, also seeks to construct and then deconstruct this trope. The male protagonist begins with “My miracle is Margo Roth Spiegelman.” and progresses towards realizing that “Margo was not a miracle. She was not an adventure. She was not a fine and precious thing. She was a girl.”, displaying the trajectory of the narrative. Attempts at deconstruction are few, and often leave one pondering about when the submission ceases and subversion begins.
“What a treacherous thing to believe that a person is more than a person”
Both these films work hard to demolish the fiction of the perfect, mysterious woman. But the act can be unsatisfying if, ultimately, that woman still only exists to help a man come to a greater understanding of himself, and the world around him, before exiting the story forever.
Anna Leszkiewicz interestingly remarks, “I can’t help but wonder: is a Manic Pixie Dream Girl, not a Manic Pixie Dream Girl when her sole function is to teach a brooding, soulful young man that his understanding of women is flawed?”
Leaving you with a few gems from Olivia Gatwood’s poem “Manic Pixie Dream Girl”:
“You wanna know my name, If I had to guess, it would probably be a season or after a dead actress who you loved as a child”
“This is your love story about the way I teach you to live. Everything you know about me, they will learn when it is projected onto you”
“The convenient thing about being a magical woman is that I can be gone as quickly as I came. And when you’re a whole person for the first time, the movie is over”