When critic Nathan Rabin coined the phrase “Manic Pixie Dream Girl” in 2007, there was something perfect about it. Rabin used it for the first time in his review on The AV Club of the Cameron Crowe flop Elizabethtown, as a way to describe how the character Claire, played by Kirsten Dunst, seemed to be more sprite than person, a hyper-adorable lady whose sole design is to coax the male protagonist out of his doldrums and teach him how to live, man.
“The Manic Pixie Dream Girl exists solely in the fevered imaginations of sensitive writer-directors to teach broodingly soulful young men to embrace life and its infinite mysteries and adventures,” Rabin wrote. It was a shrewd observation of a certain mid-2000s stock female character, one who arrives with a suitcase full of construction paper and eccentricity to medicate the malaise of modern life. It was the age of the tyranny of whimsy. Think about Natalie Portman in Garden State or Zooey Deschanel in almost anything. These female characters are less actually realized humans than magical creatures. They have a frenzied assortment of quirks instead of a personality. They were a way to mask the rote sexism of having a woman appear in a film solely for the pleasure and education of a man. (This man was usually played by Zach Braff. )
Cut to 2014, and Rabin’s essay in Salon today renouncing the “Manic Pixie Dream Girl” phrase. ”I feel deeply weird, if not downright ashamed, at having created a cliché that has been trotted out again and again in an infinite Internet feedback loop,” Rabin wrote. “So I’d like to take this opportunity to apologize to pop culture: I’m sorry for creating this unstoppable monster… I would welcome its erasure from public discourse.”
Rabin’s essay is an interesting look at the way that pop culture’s cannibalistic tendencies. The phrase he created to criticize a movie trope soon became a trope itself. That’s the thing about putting a piece of writing (or music or art or film) out there in the culture: You don’t get to control what happens next. It gets taken out of context, ascribed all sorts of meaning that the creator didn’t originally intend. That’s why there are so many favorite quotes floating out there ascribed to ten different people, mutated beyond recognition to the person who originally wrote or spoke them.
The very person Rabin aimed his criticism at embraced the term, used it as shorthand. Cameron Crowe, whose lackluster film inspired the phrase, once told an interviewer “I dig it…I keep thinking I’ll run into Nathan Rabin and we’ll have a great conversation about it.” It became so pervasive that, in a recent chat with New York Magazine, Zoe Kazan lashed out at the term. “It’s a way of describing female characters that’s reductive and diminutive, and I think basically misogynist,” Kazan said. “I just think the term really means nothing; it’s just a way of reducing people’s individuality down to a type, and think that’s always a bad thing.”
Doubtless, Kazan is correct. But I don’t think Rabin needs to apologize for creating the phrase Manic Pixie Dream Girl. It almost ascribes too much power to him to do so. After all, it’s not like Rabin’s out there slinging MPDG leggings and glitter paint. Besides, it’s a great phrase. Rabin just fairly and accurately coined a phrase for what is a misogynistic type. As a friend of mine pointed out, it’s really a sign of how perfectly Rabin described a cliché that it got used by people making new versions of that cliché. Perhaps the 2008 list that grouped Audrey Hepburn’s character in Breakfast at Tiffany’s and Diane Keaton in Annie Hall went too far, as Rabin admits—both those characters have motivations deeper than cheering up and inspiring male companions—but the original phrase just called out a way that sexism was operating under the guise of idiosyncrasies.
Nailing down sexist or racist stereotypes is like a game of Whac-a-Mole. The moment you call attention to a type, it begins receding, only to be replaced by something else. A new kind of personality is in vogue for female characters, one in which women are allowed to be messy, but only in certain ways. The Manic Pixie Dream Girl has been going the way of the cupcake, replaced by a heartier but no-less fantastical Cool Girl, the one that Gillian Flynn described in Gone Girl as “a hot, brilliant, funny woman who adores football, poker, dirty jokes, and burping… Cool Girls never get angry; they only smile in a chagrined, loving manner and let their men do whatever they want.” Goodbye Kirsten Dunst, hello Jennifer Lawrence.
The Manic Pixie Dream Girl may not be the desirable type anymore, but we don’t need to “erase it from public discourse,” as Rabin suggests. Instead, we should try to be aware of the ways that women and representations of women are constantly being sorted into differently decorated boxes. But I agree wholeheartedly with Rabin’s conclusion:
Let’s all try to write better, more nuanced and multi-dimensional female characters: women with rich inner lives and complicated emotions and total autonomy, who might strum ukuleles or dance in the rain even when there are no men around to marvel at their free-spiritedness.
Follow Margaret Eby on Twitter @margareteby