I loved John Green’s writing in middle school. When my seventh-grade crush took my hands and said, “You remind me of Margo from ‘Paper Towns,’” my brain produced so many endorphins that it completely altered the way I saw myself. Margo wasn’t like other girls — she was cooler. She went on quirky adventures, was weirdly seductive for a teenager and spit out aphorisms like it was nothing. She seemed to be complex and enigmatic, though she didn’t actually harbor any complexities. As a 12-year-old wholly unsure of my identity, I viewed Margo as a guide to the woman I wanted to become. Who cared if the trope was regressive? This was what men wanted.
Later, I came to realize that all of John Green’s heroines had one thing in common: they were all manic pixie dream girls. Sitting in a theater watching the film rendition of “Paper Towns,” everything that was wrong with the trope hit me. Cara Delevingne saunters across the screen as yet another object of male desire, just shrouded in enough layers of mystique to make her seem like a fleshed-out character. She helps the film’s brooding protagonist learn how to have fun and then promptly disappears from his life. Her strength and her character are nothing but ruses to disguise her real role in the story: a plot device. To the men in “Paper Towns,” Margo’s disappearance is as crucial to her appeal as any aspect of her personality — it protects them from the intricacies of actually getting to know her.
The manic pixie dream girl is a trope that feeds off of women’s unhappiness. Nathan Rabin coined the term in 2007 to describe characters that “exist solely in the fevered imaginations of sensitive writer-directors to teach broodingly soulful young men to embrace life and its infinite mysteries.” Popular examples include “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind’s” Clementine, the titular character of Green’s “Looking for Alaska” and almost every character portrayed by Zooey Deschanel.
Furthermore, the manic pixie dream girl is intrinsically tied to the romanticization of female mental illness. Her attractive spontaneity goes hand-in-hand with depressive episodes that are designed to be easily solved with love. When these characters become beyond “rescuing,” the protagonist usually moves on to the next phase of their life, unburdened with the responsibilities of loving a mentally-ill woman.
The trope is nowhere near as prevalent as it was when current college students were teens and preteens or, in other words, extra sensitive to pop culture’s influence. But the women who were raised in the shadow of this trope are still dealing with its emotional ramifications. By perpetuating the idea that women are ethereal muses meant to introduce color into the lives of male protagonists, the manic pixie dream girl’s influence has left modern women as plot devices in their own love lives.
In the 2010 film “Scott Pilgrim vs. the World,” women are placed on a spectrum of male desire. One end is embodied by Ramona Flowers, the quintessential manic pixie dream girl, and is the object of every man’s (and woman’s) desire: she’s erratic, mysterious and irresponsible — but she’s also hot. On the other end of the spectrum lies Knives Chau, a stereotypically portrayed Asian woman, trying her best to emulate all of Ramona’s qualities due to her lack of appeal to sensitive white men, including her own boyfriend.
The manic pixie dream girl trope simply puts down girls who don’t fit the blueprint. Manic pixie dream girls — or rather, the men who write them — feed off of female insecurity and force them to try to become a person that simply doesn’t exist.
This manic pixie dream girl couldn’t be further from reality. No amount of black-and-white photographs or poetry can immediately solve depression. Women don’t need a thoughtful artist to kiss their scars and tell them they’re beautiful — we need concrete solutions that don’t mock our complexities. The idealization of the manic pixie dream girl creates unrealistic expectations for women and should no longer play a part in defining what is desirable. The manic pixie dream girl is a fictional device, and shouldn’t be treated as anything more.
Opinions expressed on the editorial pages are not necessarily those of WSN, and our publication of opinions is not an endorsement of them.
A version of this article appeared in the Monday, Nov. 18, 2019 print edition. Email Ashley Wu at [email protected]