Wednesday, December 21, 2016

Not Your Manic Pixie Dream, Girl

For most of this winter break I have been entirely alone in the apartment. It's been quite nice; quiet; I haven't been lonely. This is exactly what I've wanted for a long time, to have a while when there are no pressing concerns or things to do. I have all the time in the world to sleep. Time is very much a construct, when I wake up and don't know what day, let alone hour, it is. In the back of my mind I am well aware that there are a great many number of things that I need to do, but for now I'm making self care a priority.

Given that I have no obligations except the bare minimum to keep myself alive, I thought I might as well knock off a few movies from my list of life to catch up on. I chose these two movies, Paper Towns and The Notebook, because I thought they would be fairly light and easy to move on from, but my penchant for overanalyzing got the better of me. If you haven't watched them yet, be warned: spoilers below (and also wow this is a much longer post than I thought it would be).

I'll start by saying I am not a fan of John Green books. The Fault in Our Stars was bearable at best; An Abundance of Katherines was so boring to get through that I put the book down in the middle of a sentence and never looked back. That's not to say that people who enjoy his books are boring, it's simply that they're not my genre or reading style.

However, I was intrigued by how Paper Towns was intended to take down the trope of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl. Film critic Nathan Rabin, who coined the term, defines an MPDG as,
"that bubbly, shallow cinematic creature that 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."
Ever since I learned about the term in high school media analysis, I have been obsessed with that concept and its problematic implications in real life. I'm honestly surprised that I haven't published a post on the Manic Pixie Dream Girl trope, though I may have started and discarded a draft or two.

If you haven't read the book or seen the movie, the gist of it (the movie at least) is that a boy, Quentin (who goes by Q), lives next to and befriends a girl in elementary school, but as they grow older, Q becomes a lame nerd and the girl, Margo, becomes a popular high school queen bee. One night, Margo remembers that Q exists and breaks into Q's room to enlist his help in exacting revenge on her cheating boyfriend and backstabbing friends. They adventure across town carrying out pranks on those who betrayed her, all the while leaving quirky post-it notes with randomly capitalized letters in the middle of words. (Honestly, who in real life does that. Also, who in real life holds cigarettes in their mouths because "it's a metaphor." Is this who you imagine yourself to be, John Green?) The next day, after this exhilarating break from his regular boring life, Q finds that Margo has disappeared, and he vows to hunt her down and bring her back because she's special and he's in love with her so clearly it's meant to be.

And he finds her. Except it's not what he expected. Despite traveling for miles from Florida to New York with his friends, and deciding that he doesn't need prom because Margo is more important, she tells him she doesn't need saving. She goes her own way while Q is enlightened to his warped thinking, returns to Florida, and embraces life by partying at prom with his posse.

Despite its best intentions, here's where the movie fails to destroy the MPDG trope. We know no more about who Margo really is at the end of the movie than we do at the beginning. Her function in the story is to "teach [Q] to embrace life and its infinite mysteries and adventures." Margo herself may no longer be a "MPDG" in Q's mind, but she still is a MPDG in terms of plot device.

One of the side characters, Lacey, in her very limited involvement, does a better job of breaking down the MPDG trope than Margo in her entirety. Lacey, as Margo's former best friend, is initially depicted as any other shallow popular girl. She develops into more than just an idea of a person when she and Q share a moment in a bathtub at a party. Lacey is upset that Q and everyone else view her as just a pretty face, revealing that she's actually going to Dartmouth after graduation. She goes with Q and his friends to look for Margo because she has actual concern for Margo. Her decision to go to prom with Q's friend Ben, another nerd, shows that she's a human who wants to have fun, someone more multidimensional than that pretty, perfect, cookie-cutter girl character people assume she is. Her role in the story isn't to change any male character's life. She has her own incentives and objectives, which we see on screen. Contrast Lacey to Margo, who for most of the movie, exists as an idea in Q's head. An idea can never be a real person, thus confining Margo to being an MPDG.

I think most people are well aware that MPDG characters are not "real" people and that they do not exist in real life. Maybe John Green and I interpret the definition of the MPDG differently. Green seems to think that the MPDG trope is about a guy idealizing a girl. For me, using Rabin's definition, the problem isn't that people romanticize versions of other people in their heads, the problem is that quirky, life-changing female characters are used excessively in lieu of having realistic female characters in literature. Margo is not a realistic female character. To destroy the MPDG, authors should write more stories with realistic female characters, not stories about guys who discover that their MPDG idea isn't real and become better people for making that realization. The intent of Paper Towns may have been to deconstruct the MPDG trope, but it misses the mark, especially in the movie — sorry John Green. Idealization does not make an MPDG. You may mean well, but you got it wrong. Furthermore, movie adaptations seem to have the extraordinary ability to become parodies of themselves.

To show how Green's definition is wrong, I now present how someone can be used as an MPDG without being idealized in another character's head. This, however, is best demonstrated through a slight twist in perspective: the Manic Pixie Dream Boy.

The Notebook, for all its dismissal as a shallow romcom as well as its actual flaws, does a lot more with its female characters. The "notebook" that the story is told from is written by the female protagonist, making the plot driven by the female gaze. In the movie, I would argue that Allie is the main protagonist — at least, her narrative is more engaging. We see her argue, her desire to be more than someone who marries rich, her seriousness in being a World War II nurse, her deep internal conflict. Noah is Allie's Manic Pixie Dream Boy, who swoops in and changes her life by encouraging her to break away from her highly structured life and do what she wants. However, Noah is not idealized in Allie's head. They fight, she screams at him and points out his flaws, and she is well aware that he is dirt poor. She is a dynamic character, progressing from a straitlaced daughter to her own independent person who chooses what she wants, through his help. Noah is fairly static, unswervingly devoted to Allie throughout the entire story and serving as a plot device to further her character development, making him the MPDB, without being idealized.

As a side note, it's a travesty that movies or any media intended for a female audience are disregarded as inherently worthless in both casual and serious media critique. I found The Notebook to have a number of deeper themes beyond its initial presentation as a love story. A subplot I found particularly compelling was Allie's relationship with her mother. She isn't afraid to point out the lack of passion in her parents' marriage, and when Allie must make her choice, she resents the option that she thinks her mother expects her to make. She doesn't know her mother's side of the story; Allie looks at her mother with surprise and curiosity as her mother gazes at her own version of Noah, and realizes that she has more in common with her mother than she thought. Her mother becomes more complex as a character, and their relationship gains depth as well. Additionally, The Notebook deals with the difficult themes of love despite disabilities — devotion in the face of dementia — a tad unrealistically, but it is a romance movie after all.

Watching these two movies and thinking critically about the MPDG trope also led to some important realizations about my own life. My avoidance of a "real" relationship stems from the fact that I refuse to let myself commit to a version of someone that I've idealized in my head (it is so uncomfortable to realize something like this about yourself; I physically recoiled from my computer and sat upright for a good minute after typing that out). I am painfully aware that I idealize people, and in an effort to avoid that "treacherous thing to believe that a person is more than a person," I subconsciously self-sabotage to preemptively avoid disappointment. I'm somewhat repulsed at the idea of "dating" because how can you really get to know someone in that artificial setting of a date? But the problem isn't solved by not idealizing someone and losing interest entirely; I have to actually get to know them. But that's too scary, so I don't.

TL;DR: The existence of MPDGs is as a plot device, not real people. The Paper Towns movie is confronting the consequences of idealizing a person, which is fine, but in doing so, uses an MPDG as a plot device. Destroy the MPDG trope by writing realistic female characters and let the reader know who they really are, not by writing male characters who discover that MPDG characters are not real and change for the better because of it.

I could go on at the other side of the MPDG coin — incorrectly labelling strong, dynamic, interesting female characters as MPDGs (Holly Golightly is the example that most infuriates me) — but that is a post for another day.

I wrote 1800 words on this because I am peeved that John Green feels triumphant that he has destroyed the trope, when the movie version absolutely has not. Welcome to my blog where I write about things that no one else cares about. ◊

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