I saw Laurie Penny’s article I Was a Manic Pixie Dream Girl through a tweet that Neil Gaiman made: with him questioning whether or not his character Death–in The High Cost of Living–actually fell into that stereotype. I’ve actually heard this term before, in passing, but I think I kept mishearing it as “the manic pixel girl,” or something along those lines. Maybe it was after watching and reading Scott Pilgrim that my brain started to make that reference.
Still, the definition of that term still stands: as a female character created specifically to make some dark, broody, introverted young man open up to life and not that much else. You know: the quixotic help-mate that comes and goes and whose only purpose in life is to help some guy “lighten up.” There are many conceits about this kind of character–this stereotype–that rub me the wrong way. I mean, I can talk about how she isn’t a whole human being, how she probably doesn’t eat, drink, sleep, eliminate in any fashion or probably even menstruate. I can describe how she is more of an elemental than anything material and is more of a shadow or a mirror for a man than anything else: at least when taken to the nth degree.
But I think what really bothers me, as a man and as a human being, is that the Manic Pixie Dream Girl always seems to have a kind of knowledge–inherent in her being–that she gives to the man, and he gives her nothing back in return. It’s insulting, really, to both genders in this dynamic.
I mean, think about it for a few moments. What this dynamic says, as a narrative, is that a brooding, insular man needs some agency outside of themselves to become a full being: that for all of their knowledge and skill, they really aren’t that bright as it were. They are not “naturally happy.” In fact, they are so hopeless that only one kind of woman can give them what they need and not, you know, come to some kind of understanding from personal experience or begin to help themselves. And is this pixie girl so whole and so unselfconsciously perfect that she can’t learn anything from him in return? That maybe he might also know something about life and it is not all about an Apollonian shallow self-centred view of the world in which everything has to be positive all the time, or someone’s view has to be saccharine sweet all the time to the point where they can’t stand the negativity in the world or other people and will either ignore or phase out someone who is “not positive enough” or try to change them?
As Thomas Mann points out in “Tonio Kroger,” some people dance and some people watch people dance and appreciate it for what it is. But I posit that this is no reason for either dancer or watcher to not interact or learn something from each other’s perspectives.
And I think that if I had to really go into this, I would say the following: people cannot fix each other. They can’t. The only way that a person can be “fixed,” whatever that means, is for that person to decide that they want to fix themselves: or to change. That person can ask for help, can accept it as well, but the agency is ultimately with them. Also, what is a “main character?” Is a main character someone who has to be in charge and in control all the time: making everyone else into an extension or a side-character in their own personal odyssey? If so, then it’s just so … tiring. It’s tiring and unrewarding because you are losing out on some experiences when you are like that.
You know what story would really intrigue me? Honestly? Something that began like a Pixie Dream Girl meeting a brooding dark young man and she presents this stereotypical face to him. And it isn’t all bad. She and him have fun despite himself and, god forbid, he actually begins to remember or know what happiness feels like. But as this relationship goes on, he notices that she is a human being too: someone who needs to use the restroom, sweats, passes gas, gets tired, gets periods, doesn’t get periods, gets cranky and has her own shit to deal with. And maybe she in turn learns things from him too. Maybe he shows her exactly what he perceives as wrong with this world. Maybe she learns that sometimes it is necessary to sit down and take things in: that there are times when it is appropriate–and healthy–to be solemn and really look at what it is that you are doing. Perhaps she can see that sometimes he just doesn’t want to be the main character anymore and that he just wants to be an interesting side-character–the kind that is generally unplayable, a strange NPC–who can come and go with her as she pleases, or as they do.
Perhaps they can dance in the sun and the night and enjoy being alive together. Maybe they can sit in a peaceful and non-threatening silence. And why does she have to be “simple” and he be “complex.” Why can’t they both–or all–just be intelligent and different as human beings? Why can’t they both be wrong, and be right at the same time? In fact, when it is all over in some form or another, why can’t they both go home at the end of the day changed for having met each other?
Because I tell you right now: whenever you do meet someone, you change them. I don’t mean you force to be what you envision them to be, but even if you don’t teach them new things even something as seemingly superficial as your mannerisms sometimes rub off on each other and get adopted in strange ways. And even if you ever get reduced to the point where all that easy conversation and love becomes stilted and somewhat embarrassing after at least one of you moves on with your lives–when you are just a little sentimental enough to make the person you once loved uncomfortable after … whatever the fuck it was you had–you know that just for one moment you both understood each other and held each other for dear life as human beings. And who knows: it might well happen again.
Maybe there is a film or a story like that which uses these two stereotypes–the Manic Dream Pixie Girl and the Brooding Young Man–and subverts them like that. Or I’m just amalgamating another stereotype and some cliched human dynamics together: like from some romantic comedy. But whatever the case, stories about actual human beings are nice: even when you don’t want to live them.
And I will just end off by stating one thing. Ramona Flowers is not a Manic Dream Pixie Girl. If anything, she is more like a Depressive Dream Pixel Girl: at least in the film. She is too detached and ironic to be manic and, frankly, is just another stereotype. And don’t even get me started on Scott Pilgrim. Sometimes, he doesn’t even have the intelligence going for him.
But I will say this: that just because someone isn’t a main character doesn’t mean that they aren’t–or they can’t already be–a protagonist.