The Manic Pixie Dream Girl is a stereotype of the quirky (yet strangely helpless) female character that serves to enable a male character to grow and change. You’ll recognize the type in these videos:
Here’s the problem with saying “I’ll just avoid this (or any) stereotype”: Excluding all things reminiscent of the stereotype can be just as artificial as the stereotype itself. Or to paraphrase Donald J. Bingle: “Big-breasted bimbos do exist in the real world, and can in your fiction. But if all (or even most, or really, more than a few) of your fictional women are big-breasted bimbos, you’ve got a problem.”
Yes, we’re looking at you, comics industry.
Anyway, I have been a fan of Tom Robbins’ earlier books — Even Cowgirls Get the Blues and Another Roadside Attraction in particular — for about 15 years. Both books have a female character who is… well, quirky. The female lead in Another Roadside Attraction in particular, if you only look quickly, might look like just another Manic Pixie Dream Girl. She even relishes walking in the rain at one point.
But there’s a difference.
I would like to suggest two metrics that differentiate these fictional women (and others) from the banal MPDG trope.
1. Agency. The female protagonists in Even Cowgirls Get the Blues and Another Roadside Attraction have their own stories. Whether or not another person is enlightened or brought to greater understanding is not the sole purpose of their existence; they have their own story. Yes, they may enlighten or inspire others (even men) – but they do not exist to fulfill those men. Quick differentiating tip: If the (probably male) narrator does not get the girl, she probably isn’t a MPDG.
2. Transgression. As in: levels of. The degree of societal transgression in Robbins’ books is rather, um, high. His characters transcend (sometimes literally) common societal norms, and sometimes quite visibly. And when I say transgressive, I mean deviant. And, for Robbins at least, that includes sexuality, and the woman being the master of her sexuality. The other characters impacted by this transgressive example then, in turn, become transgressive themselves.
That’s not the case with a MPDG. While elements seem similar, it’s a matter of degree. The MPDG herself, while still socially transgressive, is so in a much more neutered way. (DBoth literally and figuratively. With MPDG’s, the character (note: singular, and pretty much always male) impacted by the MPDG is not inspired to transgress societal norms. Instead, he is depicted as starting out as far more repressed than most members of society. The MPDG is not even a vessel for change, but a vessel for normalization.
So let’s take Chasing Amy. The personality traits of Alyssa (the female protagonist) could be mistaken for a MPDG-lite. Her existence in the movie has a transformative effect on Holden (the male protagonist). Yet she – not Holden – is in charge of her own sexuality. She is sexually transgressive (fingercuffs), and states clearly that her choices are hers. She does not end up with the transformed man. Her career success is clearly independent of Holden and her emotional life goes on without him (she calls him “Oh, just some guy I knew.”).
Toward the end of her video, Sarkeesian says:
The Manic Pixie Dream Girl is really a muse who exists to be the inspiration for the troubled, tortured man. In fact we should talk about this whole idea of a muse which is the foundation for this trope. For centuries male filmmakers, writers, painters, artists of all kinds have often cited women as the inspiration for their brilliant masterpieces.
I swear if I hear one more story like this I’m going to scream. Or puke. Or both.
Women are not here for men’s inspiration or celebration or whatever else. We are musicians and artists and writers with our own brilliant and creative endeavors. But you wouldn’t know that from the Manic Pixie Dream Girl trope.
And that’s the rub. Someone can be inspiring – but that is only a part of who they are. Someone can inspire you – but they do not exist for the purpose of inspiring you. They are a real person, with their own real feelings and lives and hopes and dreams and fears.
Ultimately, for us writers, relying on tropes like this boils down to creating cardboard characters and crappy writing. Up your game.