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The Last Nail in Zooey's Coffin
By Christine Stoddard
I finally caved in and watched “New Girl” because my inner pop culture nerd held a gun to my head. Of course, for that metaphor to work, I suppose this little nerd creature had the barrel of her pistol pressed against the inside of my skull. Or something. Regardless, I was tired of having “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” as my only reference for the Manic Pixie Dream Girl trope. In fact, that one doesn't even count because Kate Winslet's character Clementine spurns the trope with her line: "Too many guys think I'm a concept, or I complete them, or I'm gonna make them alive. But I'm just a fucked-up girl who's lookin' for my own peace of mind. Don't assign me yours."
Clearly I'd seen “Breakfast at Tiffany's,” but I wanted to watch something made in or after 2007 when film critic Nathan Rabin first coined the “Manic Pixie Dream Girl” term. Here are Rabin's original and often quoted words:
In typical 'me' fashion, I'm coming into the discussion a little too late because I don't tend to watch TV shows during their current season. Yet this is also the perfect time to dredge up the dead six-year-old from her grave. According to everyone from New York Magazine to The Atlantic, the Manic Pixie Dream Girl trope has died. So it's a good thing that death intrigues me.
First, here's a quick re-cap of why so many people dislike the trope and therefore characters like Jess (Zooey Deschanel) in “New Girl.” The blog, Bucking the Wave, perhaps put it most concisely in a review of “500 Days of Summer”: “These women are always happy and quirky, have no real lives of their own, and exist solely to push depressed men to do things and save them.”
These characters suffer from a savior complex, or delusions of grandeur that are ultimately condescending. These women are condescending because they think they can “save” people, but the term is mostly condescending toward them. A woman's purpose should not be a man. Hasn't feminism taught us at least that much?
A December 2012 article in The Sun called “Serious Advice to Victorian Wives on How to Keep their Husband Happy” reminded me of how women used to be fully expected by all levels of society to devote themselves 100% to their male guardian. Their personal needs and desires came second. Those were the days when women were told things like, “It is a positive duty to make yourself as attractive to your husband as you can.” That's nice. Does he have the same duty? Do I, as a woman, have other duties? Or is this all about how tightly I can lace my corset?
Anyway, back to the Manic Pixie Dream Girl trope. She doesn't please too many progressive types (myself included), that's obvious. And now she's gone so all that “feminazi” anger can dissipate! Yay! Not quite. Death is cause for reflection. I want to reflect on the name of the trope.
We're now all familiar with the term if we were not before and we have at least “New Girl” and “500 Days” as reference points. We know what the term denotes and connotes. What I want to (quickly) analyze are the individual words that make up the term. Manic Pixie Dream Girl is a highly specific word combination and one that has caught on big time. But why did Rabin choose those particular words for the term? What is it about these words that captures the annoying essence of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl so poetically?
Obviously the first word in the term is “manic.” “Manic” is the adjective for the noun “mania,” a Middle English word that sort of means “mad spirit.” In the 1820s, someone described as “manic” was considered psychotic (and, surprise, women, not men, were usually the “manic” ones.) Well, this trope refers to women who are at least kinda-sorta lunatics, so it's on point. Yet the trope isn't called “manic women.” It goes on.
The next word word is “pixie.” I have to admit that this is the word I'm most sensitive about. A pixie is a fairy or sprite (though it can also mean “a small, pert, or mischievous person,” as defined by Random House Dictionary.) I'm sensitive about the inclusion of this word because, in more recent years, fairies have gotten a bad rap for being stupid, weak, and flighty. They're associated with pink and glitter and “girly” things. What I don't like is that “girly” means stupid, weak, and flighty, but boyish doesn't relate to any of those negative qualities. Boys will be boys, but girls will be dumb sluts. Ho-hum.
It used to be that humans feared fairies and their powers. Fairies were thought of as evil and calculating. While it's not good to be evil (duh), at least if you're thought of as conniving, you're thought of as someone with agency. You have to be smart and capable to be manipulative. Manipulation takes planning and foresight. Aesop's cunning fox is perceived as clever, at least until that crow comes along. Being a glittery thing who flutters her wings and bumps into flowers all day doesn't take planning and foresight. That doesn't take brains. No brains means no agency.
However, the trope name wouldn't be the same without the word “pixie.” These characters are flighty and the trope name acknowledges that trait—my political opinions about the implications for fairies aside.
The next word in the trope name is “dream,” which also fits because these characters see a reality that's not grounded in logic. They feel; they don't think, and that goes back to the idea that these women are attractive partially because they are brainless. Otherwise the protagonist wouldn't fall in love with them.
Last but not least is the word “girl.” Yes, “girl,” even though all of these characters are grown women. They behave like children. They cling to fantasies, or at least that is how they're portrayed. The protagonist falls in love with the Manic Pixie Dream Girl because she's infantile and non-threatening. She can be dominated.
And she has been. Because, now, she is dead.