Oh dear. I’m probably going to take some heat for this one, especially if it gets picked up by File 770.
What is a “manic pixie dream girl”? Tvtropes puts it this way:
An upbeat young woman whose love gives the brooding male hero a new lease on life.
Wikipedia puts it this way:
…the MPDG “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.” MPDGs are said to help their men without pursuing their own happiness, and such characters never grow up; thus, their men never grow up.
You know how the term “space opera” was originally a derogatory term for crappy science fiction? I’m going to go out on a lark, invoke tropes are tools, and argue that Wikipedia is wrong and there’s nothing inherently bad about this trope.
Anita Sarkeesian is not a huge fan of the manic pixie dream girl. In fact, it was the first trope she deconstructed way back 2011, before her scammy kickstarter. I’m not a huge fan of Anita Sarkeesian, but it’s worth rewatching her take on it:
The manic pixie perpetuates the myth of women as caregivers at our very core—that we can go fix these lonely, sad men, so that they can go fix the world.
Here’s the thing, though: when you study the men who have fixed the world, you almost always find a strong, caregiving woman behind them. This is portrayed very well in The Darkest Hour, with Winston Churchill’s wife, Clementine:
Granted, Clementine Churchill is no manic pixie, but she did provide critical support to her husband, and was one of the key influences that shaped him into the great man of history that he ultimately proved to be.
Here’s the thing: men need women, just as women need men. All the feminist eye-rolling in the world doesn’t make that untrue. And for men who are lonely, depressed, or overly introspective, a perky outgoing woman can really have a positive impact.
The key to doing this trope well is to make the MPDG a complete character in her own right. Critics rightly point out that something is wrong when she exists solely for the benefit of the male protagonist. That’s not a feature of this trope, though: that’s just bad writing in general.
The best example of a MPDG in my own work is probably Deirdre from Heart of the Nebula. The rest of this post is going to be full of spoilers, so if it’s on your TBR list, you should probably skip to the end now.
Deirdre is very much a character in her own right. She’s the ship’s historian of the Chiran Spirit, a generation ship that James liberates from pirates before going into cryosleep. In spite of her perky, cheerful demeanor, she has experienced deep pain in her life. She immediately latches onto James, but over time this transforms from an interest in a living historical figure to genuine attraction and love.
James and Deirdre round off each others’ rough edges. She helps him to recover his optimism and self-respect, while he helps her to understand herself better and decide what she truly wants. They both help each other to reconcile with difficult baggage from each of their pasts, and though they both go through a period of disillusionment, they ultimately come out stronger for it on the other side.
Here’s the thing, though: if Deirdre was anything but a manic pixie dream girl, she wouldn’t have been able to help James through his darkest hour. It’s her bouncy enthusiasm, clumsy excitement, and unfailing optimism that draws him out of his callused shell. Without those characteristics, the story—and her character—wouldn’t have worked.
In short, I believe that the manic pixie dream girl trope very much has a place, and isn’t inherently sexist or mysoginistic at all. It can be, if done poorly, but when done well it points to the reality that men need women just as women need men, and that’s actually a good thing, no matter what the feminists say.