JANUARY 29, 2016
IMAGINE A BRIGHT TEENAGE GIRL you know telling a dream about her future. She wants to meet a guy and inspire him to change his life. She’ll prance into his existence with her childlike perspective, brightly dyed hair, and unusual fashion choices. She’ll embarrass him in public, lead him on a homemade treasure hunt, introduce him to some cool indie tunes, and show him with her blithe example what it means to live free from convention. He’ll be so inspired by her witty quips and whimsical presence that he’ll start carpe-ing-the-diem all over the place. He’ll become the man he was meant to be, and all our young friend really had to do was be her quirky, gorgeous self. Pretty soon he’ll be basically in love with her, but at that point she can just fade off into the sunset because she will have achieved her life’s purpose: helping a guy reach his potential and smell the roses. “What about your potential?” you ask her, perplexed at the supporting role she imagines for herself. She looks at you incredulously, as if she doesn’t even understand the question, and then her eyes slide away.
That narrative-in-a-nutshell describes the pervasive appeal — and troublesome controversy — of the manic pixie dream girl. Young adult literature has an abundance of manic pixie dream girls, from Sam in The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky, to Dulcie in Libba Bray’s Going Bovine, to the title character of Jerry Spinelli’s Stargirl. A critic named Nathan Rabin first coined the term in a 2007 review of the movie Elizabethtown, describing Kirsten Dunst’s adorably oddball character. The “MPDG” has two main features: 1) she’s an attractive girl with an offbeat, eccentric personality, and 2) she functions in the story as a catalyst for the male protagonist’s growth, while remaining essentially a static character herself, with no story arc of her own. The character is perhaps best realized in film — another seminal example is Natalie Portman’s character in Garden State — but is prevalent across all media.
Best-selling YA author John Green has written several novels that are in explicit dialogue with the concept of the manic pixie dream girl. With his voice-driven style, Green seems to specialize in overly articulate teens with nerdy passions who dream big about doing something amazing with their lives and who encourage each other to seize the day, usually resulting in creative pranks. Anyone who’s seen his popular YouTube videos (he and his brother produce amusing and energetic short lectures for teens under the title Crash Course) will know that Green himself is fast-talking, verbose, and even a bit goofy, like your favorite middle school teacher, encouraging viewers “not to forget to be awesome.” He seems not to mind being a sort of manic pixie author/teacher/YouTube personality himself. He embodies the most positive aspects of the type, capturing and keeping his audience’s attention through sheer force of personality, and inspiring young people to be confident and authentic. In his books as well, Green exploits the manic pixie’s appeal to the utmost, endowing his characters with mystery and creativity that drive his stories forward and sharpen his dialogue.
In Green’s novels, there is considerable tension between the potent appeal of his manic pixie characters, the excitement and fun they bring into the narrators’ lives, and the messages these characters impart about their own lives and identities. It is only through celebrating the quirky charisma of manic pixie dream girls and fully exploring their attraction that he is able to show their accompanying problems. Green manages to convey how attractive these narratives of inspired transformation can be, while at the same time drawing attention to complex issues of agency and identity — and their lack — in such characters. In his most complex work, he deconstructs the type, showing readers the pitfalls of defining others in narrowed ways, and, even more importantly, the danger of adopting this other-focused identity.
Green’s first novel, Looking for Alaska (2005), preceded the term manic pixie dream girl but helped define the territory. That book’s title character, Alaska, is textbook MPDG: she’s quirky, damaged, self-destructive, creative, flirty, and (of course) gorgeous. She makes narrator Miles’s life at their boarding school a lot of fun: they play pranks, sneak alcohol, and have long late-night talks. Before long he’s a little in love with her, but, alas, she has a (older, long-distance) boyfriend. Alaska encourages Miles to experiment sexually with his first girlfriend, explaining how oral sex works. Miles feels for the first time like he’s really living, thanks to Alaska’s influence — until (spoiler alert!) about a third of the way through the book, she dies in a car accident that may have been a suicide. Miles spends the rest of the story questing and questioning to solve the mystery of her death and what it means for him.
In this way, the book is really about Miles’s growth and his experience loving and losing Alaska, not about Alaska’s choices and her journey. Alaska’s death allows Miles to freeze an idea of her in his mind that might or might not be accurate. His friend says to him at one point, “It’s like now you only care about the Alaska you made up.” By the end of the book he realizes how his conception of Alaska was flawed and narrow. He understands that Alaska’s fragility and volatility, the very things that made her so attractive, were her downfall, and he accepts that he can never fully know what motivated her; thus Green’s deconstruction of the MPDG occurred side by side with her creation.
Green does the due diligence — when Miles learns that his image of Alaska is limited, mistaken, and self-centered — of warning readers about the cost of a particular kind of allure. But it is in Paper Towns (2009), his third novel, that Green more fully undercuts the wish-fulfilling surface of the narrative, exposing the oppressive and exhausting underside of living out this stereotype. He accomplishes this by giving his heroine meaningful voice and agency.
The inciting incident of Paper Towns comes right out of the manic pixie dream girl playbook: narrator Q’s longtime crush, Margo Roth Spiegelman (always referred to with her full name, turning her into a figure of worship), takes him along on a night of pranks and mayhem, then mysteriously disappears. Q follows clues to find her, taking his friends along on a spontaneous madcap road trip, only to discover that she’s not who he has always thought she was — and ultimately to hear her say the same thing back to him herself.
At its core, this book is about a boy who’s in love with a manic pixie dream girl, but instead of existing solely to enrich his life, she teaches him that she’s a person in her own right and that our ideas of the people we know are never exactly the same as who they really are. Margo Roth Spiegelman fits the manic pixie dream girl trope because she is a supporting character used to drive the plotline of the male hero. But she complicates the storyline of the protagonist, Quentin, by teaching him that she does, in fact, have a life all her own. And paradoxically, she ends up enriching his life all the more with this lesson, expanding his previously narrow, self-focused perspective. She refuses to fit into the box that Q wants to put her in. Here’s Q figuring that out:
Margo Roth Spiegelman was a person, too. And I had never quite thought of her that way, not really; it was a failure of all my previous imaginings. All along — not only since she left, but for a decade before — I had been imagining her without listening […] The fundamental mistake I had always made — and that she had, in fairness, always led me to make — was this: Margo was not a miracle. She was not an adventure. She was not a fine and precious thing. She was a girl.
One particularly deft touch Green deploys is making Margo complicit in her own manic pixieness. She consciously plays the role of manic pixie dream girl in the lives of those around her, and when she runs away from home, it’s because she’s tired of that role and wants to break out of it. She demonstrates an awareness of what it means to fulfill someone else’s life and not your own. And it turns out that Margo had sort of made Q into a bit of a dream boy herself, if not a manic pixie one, and she also realizes her mistake:
“And then you surprise me,” she says. “You had been a paper boy to me all these years–two dimensions as a character on the page and two different, but still flat, dimensions as a person. But that night you turned out to be real …”
By flipping the tables this way, Green shows that stereotyping and pigeonholing our friends and acquaintances is all too common. He gives Margo the same opportunity for growth that Q had: she also learns from the mistake of flattening a human being into a character in your head. Paper Towns thus differs from many teen novels in that Q and Margo don’t live happily ever after together. Instead, they learn an important lesson from each other in a specific moment in their lives, and then move on in different directions, each enriched by the experience.
The fantasy of being a manic pixie dream girl is a potent and insidious one for teen girls. MPDGs most often play a savior-like role in the lives of their male protagonists. They swoop in with their colorful accessories and hipster soundtracks and change the boys’ lives for the better. Who would not like to perform such a service? The desire to act as another person’s savior is a compelling wish that these stories allow readers to imagine fulfilling. However, beneath their bohemian glamour, MPDGs are actually pretty passive; their redemptive power is an illusion in someone else’s psyche. The power of the manic pixie dream girl is a limited, feminized kind of power, too often the kind women in our culture are encouraged to pursue. Instead of changing the world, they inspire men to change the world; they act as muses instead of artists.
And in putting these characters on their pedestals, their creators encourage girls in the audience to live the same way. Green’s books expose this dynamic for the sham it is; Margo’s and particularly Alaska’s stories can be seen as cautionary tales for girls who have a deep, unconscious wish to be a manic pixie.
The film adaptation of Paper Towns was not as wildly successful as that of Green’s tearjerker The Fault in Our Stars, though it did turn a profit. It received some negative criticism that specifically characterized Margo as yet another manic pixie dream girl. Some of the nuance of Green’s deconstruction seems to have been lost in the adaptation. It may be that the MPDG is especially popular in film form because her charm is so visceral — from Audrey Hepburn to Heather Graham to Zooey Deschanel. Green’s critiques are subtle, and perhaps difficult to translate to film; in the novel most of the relevant passages are internal monologues. Without that critique, the film becomes Garden State for a new generation, a retread of the trope, rather than a deconstruction of it.
As it happens, the film version of Looking for Alaska, directed by Rebecca Thomas, will be released next year. While the film rights were bought soon after publication, it took Green’s later success to make the production company take action. In the long gap between writing the story and filming it, Green has expressed ambivalence about whether the book should ever be made into film at all. Looking for Alaska is his first novel, and not his best. His later books show how his ideas have developed and grown more sophisticated in expression. Perhaps this new film will show us the next more nuanced chapter in the depiction of the manic pixie dream girl. Or so a girl can hope.