A couple of weeks ago, I wrote about “Mary Sue” and how it’s become a problematic, catch-all term for any female character who seems “too good.”
But in the last year, I’ve seen another term going around to describe and dismiss female characters: Manic Pixie Dreamgirl.
The Manic Pixie Dreamgirl, like the Mary Sue, had a genuine critical origin. The term was originally used to describe zany, freespirited female characters who exist solely to teach the depressed, overworked male protagonist how to see the brighter side of life. (Feminist Frequency goes into more depth here).
I say originally, because the term has mutated to the point that it is used even if a female character is well-developed and the center of her own story. It’s used to immediately dismiss any female character who is not completely mature and sensible, who is a bit hipster and unconventional, who has a sense of fun, as “not good enough.”
Take, for example, New Girl‘s Jess Day. Jess is the series’ main character. She is intelligent and accomplished in her job, with goals and interests and emotions all her own. But article after article criticizes her as a Manic Pixie Dreamgirl, because she “rocks polkadots,” wears ribbons in her hair, sings little songs as she goes about her day, is an elementary school teacher, and is, for all intents and purposes, the kind of female character we don’t usually see on TV.
And these things that are seen as unrealistic, as innately dismissible? They are traits that many real women also possess. Real women that I, at least, know. When my college roommate wears frilly skirts and big bows in her hair, is she being less acceptable as a woman? Would a TV show about our lives be criticized because we had giant soft toy strawberries on our futon and fairy lights all around the walls? My mother is a elementary school teacher, and she also sometimes sings about what she’s doing… my friends and I reference Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter all the time… and yes, I like to buy everything in a bright shade of pink. But I’m pretty sure that we are all real, worthwhile women, rather than examples of a trope.
In the end, “Manic Pixie Dreamgirl” has become another way of indirectly criticizing anything for being too “girly,” supporting the idea that women are only acceptable if they don’t act too radically feminine. By using the term Manic Pixie Dreamgirl in this way, critics, even feminist critics, imply that female characters (and so women in general) must be “mature” in a very specific kind of way to be acceptable. They must know what they want in life, have high-powered (or at least not-traditionally-feminine) jobs, dress sensibly, and shun anything seen as too girly or childish. Because girliness is still linked with a lack of intelligence, with shallowness, with a somehow lesser form of being. It’s something for real, mature women to look down upon and say, “You should respect me, because I am not like that. I am not like those other girls.”
As Jess herself says in New Girl:
I brake for birds. I rock a lot of polka dots. I have touched glitter in the last 24 hours. I spend my entire day talking to children. And I find it fundamentally strange that you’re not a dessert person. That’s just weird, and it freaks me out. And I’m sorry I don’t talk like Murphy Brown. And I hate your pantsuit. I wish it had ribbons on it or something to make it just slightly cuter. And that doesn’t mean I’m not smart and tough and strong.
Some people may find these female characters annoying, as they would be annoyed by any real person they met who had baby animals on their checks. And that’s OK. No one is obligated to like anybody, and we all have our pet peeves. But by seeing the somewhat whimsical, fun-loving female characters as nothing more than a negative trope, by giving them a label that immediately dismisses them as unrealistic and unwanted, we are creating yet more restrictions about what a real, acceptable women is allowed to be. We are buying into the expectations that women must be the mature, sensible ones, and that any shred of stereotypically femininity is an innately bad thing.
And that is not OK.