The Damaging Trope of the Modern Muse
After going to see The Fabelmans a few weeks ago, I did my usual post-watch wade through the reviews. In one review, Mitzi, the mother, was described as a “manic pixie dream mom”. The whimsical and ethereal counterpart to her mellow and sensible husband, she certainly embodies many of the characteristics of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl (MPDG); she is, however, far from two-dimensional. The term was originally coined by Nathan Rabin in 2007 to mean a “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”. While cinema thankfully seems to have moved on from the employment of women as merely plot devices to aid the development of male characters, this reviewer’s casual use of the term to describe someone who is eccentric and slightly unhinged indicates the term remains just as prevalent. However, its use has shifted entirely. So, I want to reflect on how this damaging trope still lives on, now not in fiction, but in reality.
While the trope certainly feels distinctly noughties, the MPDG is by no means a contemporary phenomenon. Holly Golightly in Breakfast at Tiffany’s, Judy Maxwell in What’s Up Doc?, and even Maria Von Trapp in The Sound of Music are some of the earliest examples of the stock character. Now, trust me when I say I’m the last person to find any issue with Robert Wise’s masterpiece and the characterisation of these women definitely doesn’t hinder my enjoyment of these films. These characters can be justified as ‘of their time’, yet it is concerning that this archetype was still regularly cropping up more than 40 years later in films like Almost Famous and Elizabethtown, fuelling notions that women must be plot devices in the stories of men, rather than agents of their own. The prevalence of these characters in film is not just damaging for women, but also for men. For women, these characters teach them that their value is derived from male desire. For men, these characters suggest that they first require a woman's love and guidance in order to truly discover themselves and live life to the fullest.
However, for me, the trope reached its most problematic when it became something women idolised. Idolisation alone, however, is not necessarily the problem. These women’s divergence from conventional femininity is marked as desirable — an opportunity to revere those who defy the norm — but only when the woman in question is still white, skinny, and conventionally attractive.
In this way, I feel the idolisation of the MPDG has bred internalised misogyny, with this want to be ‘not like other girls’ definitely shared by many young women, even if not openly. The MPDG and the consequent hailing of quirkiness frame common female interests and stereotypical womanhood as inferior or less desirable. Now I am not suggesting that everyone’s eccentricity is founded on a desire to be different. But, in recent years there has certainly been a palpable fear of being basic which hinges, to some extent at least, on the cultural influence of the MPDG. This association renders the offbeat and the alternative a more appealing mode of femininity in the eyes of men. It need not be said but it is impossible for a real human woman to be a MPDG. It is a fantasy that can only exist in art. Real women possess their own issues, complexities, and dreams.
Nathan Rabin has since stated he regrets ever using the term, now so often misused and has in fact itself become misogynistic, with many people using it to criticise someone’s difference or group together all alternative women. When interviewed about Ruby Sparks, which deconstructs the idea of the MPDG, the writer Zoe Kazan deemed the term “a way of describing female characters that’s reductive and diminutive, and I think basically misogynistic”. Referring to real people as MPDGs, I agree, is inherently misogynistic, yet I still support the term when used to criticise film and fiction. Its existence as a reductive term aids its function in a critical context by signalling just how dismissive the trope itself is. Such a term encourages male directors and writers to question their approach and not to view female characters as concepts, but to present them as rounded and realistic people.
Please don’t stop listening to The Smiths, or dyeing your hair, that is far from my aim. It’s more than okay to possess some of the characteristics of the MPDG, in fact, I wholeheartedly encourage fringes, ripped tights and chipped black nail polish. Embrace your eccentricity, but not at the cost of your own desires.
Illustration: Lauren McAndrew