The manic pixie dream girl (MPDG) archetype took a blow last week, when the quirky, beautiful female archetype was declared dead by New York Magazine. But the MPDG can’t be kept down, and she knows it. Picture Zooey Deschanel’s character Summer, from (500) Days of Summer, reacting to the news. Her eyes might get a little wider. Then she would take another bite of pancake, as nonchalantly as she did in the scene where she breaks Tom’s heart. Because the MPDG knows that movies can’t get along without her.
So who are these MPDGs, and why are they the subject of so much controversy? The phrase “Manic Pixie Dream Girl,” coined by A.V. Club critic Nathan Rabin, refers to a type of female character that is beautiful, mysterious, eccentric, and illusory.
Almost always viewed through the eyes of a man that loves her, the MPDG lacks interiority, and is instead characterized by a collection of quirks and neuroses (think Summer’s love of Ringo Starr). Her role is usually to enter the male main character’s life for a time, and teach him lessons about love, life, and letting go. Balancing between seduction and wide-eyed innocence, the MPDG is an all-or-nothing proposition: audiences will either fall in love with her, or want to tear her bangs out by the roots.
She has appeared in films since time immemorial, but the MPDG wasn’t officially labeled as such until Rabin’s review of Elizabethtown in 2007. Her recent problems likely started with this list, an A.V. Club compilation of films that allegedly featured MPDGs.
Appropriately, the list starts with Kirsten Dunst's role in Elizabethtown. But then it goes on to accuse heavyweights, like Audrey Hepburn in Breakfast at Tiffany’s and Shirley McLaine in The Apartment, of MPDG status. So now the MPDG can cry, fall in love, and otherwise develop as a character? Katharine Hepburn is on the list, too, simply for being hilarious in screwball comedy Bringing Up Baby. Why not just call every female character ever a Manic Pixie Dream Girl?
As a Jezebel post declared this spring, the MPDG label lost all meaning when people tried to make it universal Even though the term should not be used as a one-size-fits-all label for female characters, the Manic Pixie Dream Girl is still alive and well, and probably hanging out at the nearest record store.
Here are five true MPDGs who prove that the archetype will never die.
Described by Rabin as a “psychotically chipper waitress in the sky,” Kirsten Dunst's Claire inspired critic Nathan Rabin to coin the term manic pixie dream girl (MPDG). The stewardess and love interest teaches Orlando Bloom’s character the correct pronunciation of Louisville, among other things.
A little crazy, and impossibly pretty, Natalie Portman's Sam epitomizes the whimsical, attainable, quirky brand of sexy that is the MPDG’s trademark. Roger Ebert’s review of the film described her as, “a local girl who is one of those creatures you sometimes find in the movies, a girl who is completely available, absolutely desirable, and really likes you.”
Sam is a classic MPDG because audiences learn little about her — the character is merely a collection of quirks. According to Ebert, “Portman's success in creating this character is all the more impressive because we learn almost nothing about her, except that she's great to look at and has those positive attributes.”
The object of main character William’s affections, Penny Lane is an exquisite thing that is never quite real, but she'll break the teenage reporter’s heart anyway. Kate Hudson may shed a tear or two in the role that earned her an Oscar nomination, but her character remains an illusion, beckoning young William on to the grown-up world of love and rock 'n' roll.
Bangs, check. Neuroses, double check. Zooey Deschanel has become the poster girl for the MPDG for good reason: Her turn as Summer is a textbook example of the MPDG archetype. Kind of zany, and really, really beautiful, Summer comes into Tom’s life for a while before breaking the would-be architect’s heart into a million pieces. She eventually falls in love with someone else (a character we never actually see), and Tom learns the all-important lesson that life goes on. Thanks, MPDG.
Yes, the MPDG has appeared on television as well, though not as frequently as in the movies. An MPDG isn’t allowed to develop enough for a long-running TV role, but (spoiler alert), Krysten Ritter's character dies before audiences really get a chance to know much about Jane, besides her love for art and penchant for heroin. Gorgeous and a little neurotic, with moods that change on a dime, Jane is the MPDG for Breaking Bad’s Jesse and AMC audiences everywhere.