Just a note before we begin – it’s been pointed out to me that not everyone inhales pop culture commentary like I do, and many of you haven’t actually heard of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl trope before. It’s an old stereotype, but the name is relatively recent, so if you want to read more about what I mean when I use it there are good introductions on both Wikipedia and TV Tropes.
The stereotype of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl annoys the fuck out of me. This single trope has completely ruined Before Sunrise, and countless other films like it for me. My boyfriend watches Before Sunrise, and all he sees is an incredibly romantic movie. I watch it, and all I can see is a magical girl who shows up with no history and no future, and helps the male protagonist realise what’s truly important to him in life over the course of a night, only to conveniently disappear the next day. And then I start ranting, and things go kind of red tinted, and I wake up and my boyfriend is suggesting we never watch Before Sunrise again.
I’m sure it comes as no surprise that I was very interested to read Laurie Penny’s essay I Was A Manic Pixie Dream Girl, and enjoyed it thoroughly. She brilliantly summarises one of the things that bothers me about this stereotype the most; the prevailing assumption that all Manic Pixie Dream Girls only exist in order to help a poor, lost man discover something wonderful about life and love, without any goals or ambitions of their own.
I absolutely agree with Penny that this trope encourages women to put their male partner’s dreams and ambitions before theirs, and I know that I’ve done this myself. To be honest, though, it’s not what really gets under my skin and fires up my fury at this stereotype. I’ve never felt particularly compelled to be a hero, of anyone’s story. I like to help – it’s what I like to do, and what I do best. I’m not a leader. There are women who could be leaders though, and SHOULD be leaders, who are being held back by this idea that quirky, interesting women only exist to make men more interesting, and I think THAT is fucking bullshit.
What really gets to me personally about this sterotype is a little different though. I think about how much it’s affected the way I related to the boys I dated, and the way I related to myself, and I just get SO ANGRY at everything I’ve missed out on, the time I’ve lost flailing pointlessly. Sure, it’s only one stereotype among a sea of cardboard cutout ideas of how women should be, and there are as many reasons to be angry about them as there are women. But here are my thoughts on why I, personally, hate this particular trope with all my heart.
You see, I’ve been a Manic Pixie Dream Girl, with a heavy emphasis on the Manic. I was probably always going to be “quirky” anyway, considering how enthusiastically I inhaled books of all kinds from the moment I could read. Cramming a nine year old brain full of Michael Ende and Tolkien was never going to encourage me to be what you would call “normal”. For a long time I presented myself quite deliberately as a completely stereotypical Manic Pixie Dream Girl – my hair was either short and spiked, or various colours, or both; I loved dates where we wandered around cemeteries; I would write poetry about the beauty of my lover’s fingertips on my skin, and compare our love to an endless beach in the moonlight. There were days I was so happy I could barely contain it, and days when I was inexplicably melancholy, and my lovers seemed to find this endlessly fascinating. Well, to a point.
See, the thing about a Manic Pixie Dream Girl is that she’s a Dream Girl. You can watch 500 Days of Summer as many times as you want, and still find yourself woefully unequipped to deal with a Manic Pixie Dream Girl who is actually, well, manic. Not to mention a Real Girl rather than a Dream Girl. A MPDG never cries for days on end, for no discernible reason, no matter how hard you try to cheer her up. If she’s sad, you can just cup her little face in your hands and kiss her gently, and it’s all better. A MPDG only dances in the streetlights when you’re there to see it, and only takes you on spontaneous trips that have you back in time for work on Monday. She doesn’t run off into the night after a fight and refuse to contact you for two days, leaving you not knowing if she’s alive or dead. She’ll stay up all night to finish a painting, or a story, but somehow still make it to work the next day and clean everything up when she’s done – expect for one utterly adorable smear on her nose she always misses. She doesn’t lose herself in the process so deeply that by the time you find her in the bathtub covered in paint she’s completely disassociated and unresponsive.
Unfortunately, I used to be prone to doing all these things, both the whimsical and the frightening. Because so many of the boys I dated had grown up on the idea of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl, they thought they knew what to expect from a “quirky” girlfriend, and it freaked the fuck out of them when they realised what they thought they knew was only half the story. They had a definite line in their heads between “fun crazy” and “fucked up crazy”, and I wasn’t capable of staying on the acceptable side of the line – I was just plain crazy.
I don’t even know how to tell you how frightening and heartbreaking it is to look at someone you love, someone you rely on, and watch them withdrawing from you without saying a word. It’s like running down a stairway in the dark, and realising a second too late there isn’t a step where you were expecting one. It was always clear when I had crossed the line – there was a certain coldness, a fear and distrust that came up behind their eyes, and I got to know that look so very well.
My romantic life followed a very predictable pattern for many years. I would meet a boy, and be my “outrageous”, funny, outgoing Public Self for long enough that they would fall for me. We would have fun times together, doing crazy, fun stuff – having loads of uninhibited sex, going to or hosting parties where everyone always somehow ended up naked, taking spontaneous road trips to the country on a moment’s notice. We would walk halfway across the city in the middle of the night, sculling cheap wine and talking until we were out of breath. I would write them fairytales where they were a Prince, and poetry where they were beautiful creatures, and sing them to sleep. I felt like I could never refuse a party, I could never leave a club before 2am, I could never refuse another drink. Everything I said needed to be funny, insightful, or interesting somehow. Every single thing. I could never bring myself to tell my partners I just felt like sitting at home in my trackpants for the weekend once in a while – sitting at home was boring, and being boring was the worst thing I could imagine.
They would tell all their friends how crazy, and funny, and clever I was, and the more they told people these things, the more pressured I felt to live up to this image they were creating. People would meet me for the first time, and already know five hilarious, crazy stories about me and things I’d done. Every time these stories got aired, they became more mythic, and I felt more and more pressure to keep adding to that myth. I felt more and more constrained by this paradigm that built up around me, and among other totally unhelpful coping mechanisms I would start cheating on my partner as a way of lashing out against their expectations of me.
Eventually, something would break. My brain isn’t built for long term strain, and it buckles pretty easily under significant pressure for a significant amount of time. Interestingly, the breaking point hardly ever came over me cheating – I was too good at hiding that. But something would happen; I would do something to shatter the Manic Pixie Dream Girl box that had built up around me, and it would be over. I would do something “fucked up” crazy instead of “fun” crazy without realising until too late. I would do something “fucked up” crazy because I couldn’t bear the pressure of trying to be fucking “fun” crazy all the time.
My lover would see marks from me cutting myself. I would be in a furious mood, drink too much while they were around and lash out at them with all the things I’d been trying not to say. And it would be over. They would see me for who I was, and they would leave. Sometimes they felt I’d tricked them somehow, made them see what they wanted to see, and in a way that’s certainly true. For a long time I knew perfectly well these boys were putting me in a box, and I played right along with it, but I did it because I didn’t believe anyone could love me unless I was squeezed into that box. And every time they left once they saw my true form, this idea got reinforced this idea even further. I felt like my portrayal of the Manic Pixie Dream girl was all I had to offer anyone – that if I wasn’t that anymore, I was nothing.
This myth that built up around me of a Manic Pixie Dream Girl also meant that for a long time I dated the same kind of people over and over again, despite the fallout that always ensued. Again and again I insisted that I REALLY wanted a boy who could take care of himself and didn’t need me to prop him up, and again and again I would end up with boys who felt they had nothing to live for but me. It’s fucking exhausting to live up to that kind of pressure, truth be told, and I was not cut out for it at all. So why did I keep finding myself in these situations?
Partially it’s because I was familiar with a certain type of boy by then. I wouldn’t have known what to do with a partner who didn’t burst into tears whenever I suggested even vaguely that maybe we weren’t actually meant to be after all, because I’d never had one. I MET other types of people, for sure. But I never pursued them, or allowed them to pursue me, because it was all too unfamiliar.
It’s also because presenting yourself as a Manic Pixie Dream Girl attracts a certain type of boy, on the whole. MPDG’s attract the boys who feel like they never fit it, who feel alone and misunderstood, who want someone to show them it’s okay to be weird. Unfortunately, a lot of these guys are simply too caught up in their own internal struggle for self-acceptance to have much time or energy to help out anyone else, or even really look at the people around them that hard. Their whole world is filled with themselves – they’re not deliberately selfish, they just can’t see past their own skin. This interacts quite badly with my particular type of mental illness because I’m not always able to express myself very well. It’s difficult for me to get across to the people around me what is going on inside, and how severe the situation is – I needed someone who is able to pay attention, who had something to give me beyond empty adoration of the mythic image that had grown around me. I needed someone who doesn’t run away as soon as it gets “hard”.
If I had been unlucky, this cycle might have gone on forever. But one day, one of the boys stayed. I completely broke down, lost my shit, wept incoherently on him for hours and begged him to leave over and over because I couldn’t bear the thought of him seeing me like that. But he wouldn’t go. He didn’t make a big fuss, or reel off grandiose declarations of love and devotion. He just calmly and quietly kept repeating, “I’m not going anywhere.” Unfortunately, over the next couple of years, he was repaid for his patience and understanding by witnessing the absolute worst I had to offer. But no matter what, he never left me. He was the one who had to try and track me down when I ran away, and refused to contact him or anyone else. He was the one who found me in the middle of a full on dissociative episode in the shower, and just got in and held me until I came back. He was the one who finally, eventually, got it through my skull that maybe there was actually someone out there who would love me for me, and not the Manic Pixie Dream Girl I had been pretending to be. That particular relationship ended up pretty thoroughly fucked up by the end – but I’ll always be grateful to him for giving me that understanding, that knowledge that the real me inside the act was lovable. He helped me learn that I didn’t have to be anyone’s fucking Dream Girl, I only had to be myself, and that was interesting enough to be loved. I dread to think where I would be now if I hadn’t woken up to this when I did.
I don’t think the Manic Pixie Dream Girl trope is only dangerous in the context of male/female relations though. I think that sometimes it can discourage women from addressing mental health issues that don’t always have to be as debilitating as they are.
Because the Manic Pixie Dream Girl portrayal of women is so common in the media, for the longest time I didn’t think I had a mental illness, not REALLY. I thought I was just a “free spirit”, that this was how girls like me were supposed to feel and act, that my behaviour was acceptable and understandable. I saw my choices as being the Manic Pixie Dream Girl, or a Boring Sheep, and clearly one of these choices was superior to the other. I simply had no concept that I could be interesting, but ALSO emotionally stable (relatively, anyway). I would watch Betty Blue over and over, and weep at the end every time, but never quite caught on to the idea that perhaps the story could have ended another way. Don’t get me wrong, it’s amazing movie – but I was naive enough to take it as a blueprint for how I should be.
The Manic Pixie Dream Girl trope is a such a sanitised, romantic view of the erratic behavior that often comes many kinds of mental illness – on rewatching Betty Blue now it’s clear she’s written to have some sort of mood disorder, although it’s unclear exactly which one they were aiming for. But this erratic behaviour is almost always presented in such a way that women who see these movies and recognise parts of themselves in the wild, untameable heroines want to be like them. I mean, who wouldn’t want to be Betty Blue? She’s beautiful, and passionate, and irresistible, and her story is tragically, deeply romantic. I took her blueprint to heart for MUCH longer than I should have. But why is this such a problem, you might ask? Naive women look up to all sorts of ridiculous stereotypes in the media, and most of us figure it out eventually. This stereotype in particular bothers me because the last thing, the absolute LAST thing someone with an undiagnosed mental illness needs is an excuse to keep going exactly how they have been.
While watching your life crash and burn over and over is hard, at least it’s hard in a familiar way. Changing the way you react to everything is really, really fucking hard. It’s frightening, and complicated, and often feels impossible. Once I did start working on improving my mental health, I found myself clutching at any excuse I could find not to change every time my motivation faltered.
It’s hopeless, I would tell myself. This is just how I am, it’s never going to be any different. And why do I want to be different anyway? It’s just society trying to squish me into it’s bland little normal mould. I’m a free spirit! I cannot be tamed! This nonsense would go on for hours, and would usually end with me watching Betty Blue AGAIN and crying myself into a righteous rage, railing against a world that just didn’t understand me. It’s a comforting thought, the idea that it’s not my behaviour that’s wrong, but the world around me.
While the world around me could be more accommodating of my mental illness, using this as an excuse to not attempt to function better is horseshit, and I feel like if the MPGD idea wasn’t so fucking romanticised maybe the power of this excuse would be lessened.
There are upsides to the pop culture saturation of the MPDG, of course. More girls feel free to learn the ukulele, or wear long stripy socks without being judged as freaks. This is a lovely thing, and something I would hate to see go. But I also wish that I hadn’t romanticised my mental illness for so long, and hadn’t been encouraged to do so by all the portrayals of Manic Pixie Dream Girls in the media I saw. I wish I hadn’t fallen for so many boys saying they “want to be a better man” because I “inspire” them, when we were actually totally incompatible. I wish someone had told me that being a Real Girl is actually much more satisfying, fun, and interesting than being any kind of Dream Girl.
This post originally appeared here and has been republished with full permission.