The Manic Pixie Dream Girl in the Attic: On Netflix’s “Love Is Blind”
By Samantha PergadiaMarch 1, 2023
Netflix’s hit reality TV series Love Is Blind (2020– ) is also obsessed with the marriage plot. The show, which describes itself onscreen as an “experiment,” takes Charlotte Brontë’s blind love literally. In season one, co-hosts Nick and Vanessa Lachey begin by pointing to an uncited psychological study that says emotional connection, rather than physical attraction, is the key to long-term marital success. (The Lacheys fail to point out, of course, that everyone cast for the show is conventionally attractive.) In order to “experimentally” prove this study, for 10 days, the cast members interact with potential marital prospects in “pods” separated by a wall. They can hear but not see each other. Like other reality shows, they are not allowed the distractions of cell phones or internet-based electronic devices as they date. If they hit it off with someone, they must propose in order to see each other in person and go on a free honeymoon. They then live together, meet families, and move through an accelerated dating timeline. The show’s arc concludes four weeks from their first date with a marriage.
Love Is Blind is not alone among reality dating television shows that follow the marriage plots of Victorian literature. Starting with The Bachelor (2002– ), various contemporary shows have fashioned their plotlines around heterosexual marriages. These shows choose between the paths of Jane Eyre or Middlemarch. That is, each show either builds up to or launches with a marriage. Indian Matchmaking (2020– ) and The Ultimatum: Marry or Move On (2022– ), for instance, both shape a season arc around proposals and weddings. In contrast, Married at First Sight (2014– ) and the 90 Day Fiancé (2014– ) show the vows that dissolve and disappoint over time. These marriage plots come with all the promises and perils of actual marriage.
The gendered archetypes that emerge from reality television’s marriage plot likewise have literary precedents. There are the “manic pixie dream girls” of Henry James and F. Scott Fitzgerald (both Daisies!); there’s Jane Eyre as the “good wife”; and there’s the exiled “crazy ex-girlfriend” in Bertha, Rochester’s wife kept as a “madwoman in the attic.” For men, the televisual archetypes are best schematized in other recent shows via Pride and Prejudice: the “nice guy” (later Mr. Darcy) and the “FBOY” (early Mr. Darcy).
The sharpest archetypical opposition available to women, then, comes between potential romantic partners (good wives) and unsuitable women (the fleeting physical allure of the manic pixie dream girl or the crazy ex-girlfriend). The figure of the crazy ex-girlfriend is a modern iteration of the madwoman in the attic, a foil to the good wife in the marriage plot. In Jane Eyre, a major plot point revolves around Rochester’s concealed wife in the attic, a woman gone mad. In their 1979 work of feminist literary criticism, The Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth-Century Literary Imagination, Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar examine works by Austen, Mary Shelley, Charlotte and Emily Brontë, George Eliot, and Emily Dickinson that similarly force women into either angel or monster archetypes. These authors write against the flattened representation of women by male authors, who project the manic pixie dream girl as their muse, seducer, or desired object.
The manic pixie dream girl is thus a fantasy of male desire, an image produced by the artist tortured and inspired by a woman who is unavailable or no good. Contemporary urtexts include the 2004 film Garden State (Sam, portrayed by Natalie Portman) or 2009’s 500 Days of Summer (the eponymous heroine, portrayed by Zooey Deschanel). This archetype also emerges as the love interest of Aziz Ansari in Netflix’s Master of None (2015– ). She gets reworked parodically in Netflix’s You (2018– ) and in Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl (2012), which describes her as the “cool girl.” The manic pixie dream girl is effortlessly beautiful, travels light (literally and figuratively unburdened with traumatic baggage), is fun and flirty but never jealous or shrewd, and never nags. She is the kind of feminist on board with sexual liberation and ethical nonmonogamy (probably bisexual), but who never utters the word “patriarchy” or approaches any of the misandric ideas, language, or practices that attend feminism. She is not a feminist killjoy.
The third and most recent season of Love Is Blind dramatized a sharp distinction between the manic pixie dream girl and the potential wife. Two of the male contestants, Bartise and Cole, continuously stressed a divide between the women they desired (Raven and Colleen, respectively) and the fiancées they felt an emotional connection with in the pods (Nancy and Zanab). Cole unpacked this schema: “Zanab is the girl I emotionally connect with. Colleen’s the girl I physically connect with. Where is the in-between, you know?” Like a sexist Dr. Frankenstein playing Mad Libs with his own desires, he asked, “Where is the perfect girl?”
Bartise and Cole were this season’s version of Shake, the Indian American cast member of season two, who became the villain after he droned on endlessly that he wasn’t attracted to Deepti, his Indian American fiancée (who contrasted with the blonde women he usually dated).
Bartise and Cole went beyond Shake’s confession. Where Shake disclosed these feelings to the other cast members and the confession cam, Bartise and Cole confessed their desires for Colleen and Raven to their actual fiancées. Lying in bed with his fiancée, Nancy, Bartise admitted that he found Raven a “smoke show.” And he went on, in detail, to describe his physical desire for and excitement about her. It’s a ghastly moment of television even before he asks Nancy, “Are you cool with me being that honest with you?”
Are you cool?
I have been pitted against the manic pixie dream girl in numerous relationships. When we were dating, an ex-boyfriend once told me why one of his friends would be in what he called his dating “playbook”: “She’s a no-nonsense tech geek who likes beer and working out. She is perfect drama-free girlfriend material.” He eventually left me for another manic pixie dream girl, someone who was uninterested in a relationship, someone he uprooted his life to travel with. “She’s a total tomboy,” he told me about this budding crush two days before he dumped me. “But she also played Elsa from Frozen in musical theater.” The ideal manic pixie dream girl is feminine but not fussy. She’s not like other girls.
When my ex-boyfriend said these things to me, I felt the same way Nancy did after Bartise rambled on about his attraction to Raven: “What the fuck?” she queried the confession cam. How am I supposed to respond to this live rendition of hot-or-not? And what am I supposed to do when this callowness masquerades as brutal, transparent, self-congratulatory honesty?
Watching Love Is Blind in the raw state of a new breakup carried a unique pleasure: the smugness of being single as I saw other women endure the humiliating rituals of a marriage plot. That smugness was muted, though, by my own humiliating realization that I had fallen for someone who was a guy much like those guys, a bad archetype of the oxymoronic “nice guy.” I was dumped and hurt by someone rehearsing gendered scripts as old as Jane Austen novels and as basic as the reality TV characters cast on my screen.
The couple that most fascinated me through the three seasons of Love Is Blind was Cole and Zanab. They pushed the show to reveal its point of view, the reality it was simultaneously reflecting and refracting. During the honeymoon where all the paired couples meet each other, Cole discovered and confessed his attraction to Colleen—to the cameras, to Zanab, and to Colleen—in an infamous pool scene that became explosive for both couples.
Cole could not help himself from endlessly disclosing that Colleen was his usual “type,” a 10, the girl he would find attractive and approach in the real world. He was torn between Zanab as the potentially good wife and Colleen as his manic pixie dream girl—she was a ballet dancer, lacked the depth Cole saw in Zanab, seemed to be drama-free, carried herself with a pleasant state of mania without being manic. And he processed all of this, mortifyingly, out loud.
This is the trap Zanab was caught in: how to get mad without going mad, how to express anger at the maddening trap of heterosexuality’s available positions for women without being deemed a crazy-ex girlfriend, out of touch with reality itself. How could Zanab express anger at the maddening way Cole pitted her against Colleen, without going crazy?
“Are you bipolar?” Cole yelled at Zanab after one of their particularly tense fights days before the wedding. Cole named this specific mental health condition, one attached to waves of mania and depression, as a fitting diagnosis. For the archetype of the manic pixie dream girl, mania is not a symptom of bipolar disorder but an allure that comes with no downside. The manic pixie dream girl is a woman trapped in a perpetual state of mania, spazzing with the frenetic energy of Summer in 500 Days of Summer and without a depressive crash.
Zanab was a modern madwoman in the attic, a manic pixie dream girl dangerously close to becoming a crazy ex-girlfriend.
Social media, of course, feasted upon this drama. But while posters have previously set their ire upon Bartise and Cole as the show’s villains, for the season’s reunion episode, Twitter shifted its eye to Nancy and Zanab, the pathetic victims. While Zanab was the crazy ex-girlfriend, a madwoman out of touch with reality, disproportionately responding to everything Cole said or did, Nancy became a “pick-me girl” with no self-respect, desperately trying to win her man back and turn into the object of his desire.
The TikTok-branded pick-me girl is a complement to the manic pixie dream girl. Where the latter is a fantasy projected by male desire, the former is a derisive label assigned by women to women. It is a 2021 rebranding of the “cool girl” described by Amy in Gone Girl, a transformation of the “not like other girls” trope. It is a charge and a diagnosis of cringe or undesirable behavior exhibited by a woman who has internalized and attempted to turn herself into a more perfect object of male desire, a manic pixie dream girl.
The pick-me girl was notoriously embodied by Amber Barnett on season one of Love Is Blind. The pick-me girl does the dirty work of patriarchy, pitting herself against other women, competing for male attention that she imagines as a scarce resource, something that attaches her to a marriage plot and its promise of upward mobility. She viciously lashes out against other women who are a threat to her heterosexual marriage (as Amber turned Jessica into a witch to be burned during the season one reunion). In order to gain male attention, the pick-me girl probably claims that all her friends are men (because they’re drama-free), that she’s not like other women. She is a symptom of patriarchy best diagnosed by second-wave feminist Andrea Dworkin’s description of the way that women collaborate and collude with patriarchy for their own subjugation. “Being an object for a man means being alienated from other women,” Dworkin writes. “[R]eadying the body for the fuck instead of for freedom […] she polices her own body; she internalizes the demands of the dominant class and, in order to be fucked, she constructs her life around meeting those demands.”
Zanab’s plan fails for this reason. Her aspiration toward dreamgirlhood simply turns her into a crazy ex-girlfriend. This culminates in the so-called “Cuties story” (which was not aired in the original broadcast) that Zanab recounts during the reunion episode. In her list of gaslighting allegations against Cole, Zanab claims that he tried to control her eating: as she tells it, Cole tried at one point to talk her out of eating two Cuties oranges.
In a seeming gesture of neutrality, Netflix aired the Cuties story at the end of the reunion episode, offering nearly five minutes of uncut footage. The clip concludes with a brief exchange that seems like nothing amid the tedium of this encounter: Zanab begins to peel two Cuties, and Cole asks whether she’s eating both of them.
This unedited footage was anomalous to the form and genre of reality TV: it did not utilize the short, snappy editing we usually see, but was instead long-form. Rarely does reality TV let us in on the tedium of the everyday, the mind-numbingly dull exchanges that aren’t oriented toward a plot. The Cuties story offers a rare glimpse of an unaltered five-minute exchange between people, an uncomfortable intrusion into the lull where it seems like nothing is happening. This is precisely where the mundane, maddening work of compulsory heterosexuality does its magic.
Social media responses read the Cuties footage as a testament to Zanab’s unhinged state of being out of touch with reality. People proclaimed that she was crying wolf, a madwoman making something of nothing.
Seemingly offering objectivity that gave too much context, the Cuties footage left out the context that actually mattered: the context Zanab was trapped in, not over the course of a five-minute exchange but over the course of the season, which is a microcosm of the position of women over the course of a lifetime. Cole’s behavior did not manifest in this small interpersonal dynamic, but within patterns that stretch from Austen to FBOY Island (2021–22). Zanab lives in a world that makes women go crazy trying to be the object of male desire.
The pleasure and reassurance of reality TV come from its position as a mirror. Watching it, I felt reassurance that women as beautiful as Zanab, Raven, and Nancy felt insecurity in the presence of their mediocre, sloppy fiancés. It helped me recalibrate my sense of worth amid a breakup. But the Cuties footage inscribed the show’s official perspective as Cole’s, not Zanab’s.
The figure of madness hinges on a question about proportion. Is the anger proportionate or disproportionate to the situation? This is impossible to adjudicate through the warping distortions of heterosexuality’s marriage plot—a structure that divides women into archetypes of alluring manic pixie dream girls, homely housewives, and madwomen in the attic. My psychiatrist told me that most women have anxiety. He reassured me that even without the traumatic cancer diagnosis that brought me to his office, I’d probably still need medication for anxiety. This was, he revealed, a common condition for women. His phrasing seemed to locate the problem in women, not in the maddening compulsions of being a woman.
We might read Love Is Blind’s marriage plot alongside Rachel Bloom’s scripted series Crazy Ex-Girlfriend (2015–19), which turned the archetype of the madwoman in the attic into a protagonist. In order to do so, the show had to break form, working through multiple genres of musical theater to get to the problem of genre itself as it scripts our expectation for the plot of a relationship.
After season two of Love Is Blind wrapped up, Shake immediately started dating a blonde woman, and Deepti wrote a memoir about choosing herself. We might think of the other contemporary female artists responding to the maddening traps of heterosexuality’s marriage plot: Taylor Swift, Rachel Bloom, Mindy Kaling. When you fail to become an object of male desire, to consummate life in the marriage plot, there are two available choices: you go crazy, or you show the world a slice of your reality through art, the way Victorian female authors turned to the novel to unpack and untrap their archetypes.
Samantha Pergadia is assistant professor of English at Southern Methodist University.
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