Scott Pilgrim vs. The Manic Pixie Dream Girl Problem: Or, Why I Don’t Like Zooey Deschanel
Look at this face. You probably like this face, yes? Look at those eyes. Yes, you like this face, because this face likes Ringo Starr and sings “The Time of My Life” and is precious and twee and does cute things.
I don’t like this face. Why?
Because this face belongs to a Manic Pixie Dream Girl. And I hate Manic Pixie Dream Girls.
Some of you are probably asking yourselves, “What is a Manic Pixie Dream Girl? (henceforth known as an ‘MPDG’)” Well, fear not! I come bearing definitions, and it might be a good idea to know what an MPDG is before, you know, reading this post and stuff. An MPDG is an archetypal-ish female character in film that is cute and precious and quirky and swoops into the life of a sad and lonely boy to brighten his existence. Sometimes she leaves him, sometimes she doesn’t. I picked Zooey Deschanel as an example of an MPDG for a few reasons, mostly 1) because she was in a movie called Manic 2) She is pretty much the only respected working non-child actress today that people still apply the word “cute” to 3) She is the wide-eyed fantasy of many a plaid-wearing soft-spoken indie kid and 4) Her performance in (500) Days of Summer, New Girl, and pretty much everything else she has ever been in defines the character type.
The main thing I don’t like about MPDGs is that they represent a certain weakness in the development of original characters and a strange hipster-y objectification of women. MPDGs have overtaken or at least influenced women in film so much lately that many female characters are defined only by a list of their quirks. This has become a major problem for two reasons, I think, the first being that Hollywood still doesn’t quite know how to give women top billing in major films. As shown by the success of Bridesmaids (which I haven’t seen) last year, women are entirely capable of creating and starring in films that are both financially and critically successful, but the film industry doesn’t seem to be quite willing to let anyone who is not white, male or heterosexual near a big-budget film without placing them into traditional stereotypes or similar conformist roles. Most of this is because a healthy percentage of the films that see a domestic release (or at least those that do so with the backing of a major studio) are targeted toward white teenage males, dragging suitcases full of crude humor and explosions into most cinematic situations. However, I think that films that don’t necessarily quite fit traditional blockbuster formulas can have success; they just need to be found, financed, and marketed in the right way. Bridesmaids definitely showed that.
I mentioned earlier that most films are marketed toward teenage boys, and many (or at least some) teenage boys subscribe to the church of hipster-ism, which creates the second reason, “the strange hipster-y objectification of women” I talked about earlier. Studios are going to give boys what they want, and if they want a crazy girl who listens to The Smiths, they are going to get it. But these fantasies are turning “indie girls” into objects, because guys only want them for their tastes, interests, and habits, and they don’t seem them as fully-developed humans/characters. Rather, they’re more like talking action figures who listen to the same music as you. I find this objectification a little unusual as most “hipsters” usually tend to be more liberal in thought, so it is surprising to see those who advocate for equal rights try and turn people into perfect cardboard cutouts. But when you look past political and social ideologies, it honestly makes sense, since most people usually have a “dream boy/girl.” While most of us would probably love to be with this imaginary person, we probably would refuse to see their flaws and insecurities and instead place them on a pedestal and paint an inaccurate portrait of who they really are. This is exactly what happens with Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s character in (500) Days of Summer and why I have trouble with it as a film. Summer leads Tom (Gordon-Levitt) on when she really doesn’t care for his affections at all. She never listens to his mix-tape and treats him as if he’s worth absolutely nothing, even though there is definitely physical intimacy between them. Tom, on the other hand, is just a mopey idiot who doesn’t listen to Summer’s warnings and objectifies her. (500) Days perfectly displays everything I hate about MPDGS, and also shows why I think creating a “dream girl” is not a good idea. While it’s not necessarily a bad film, it just makes me mad, and it turns its main female character into a flat object.
On the opposite end of the spectrum but still on the same plane as Summer is Ramona Flowers in Scott Pilgrim vs. the World. Ramon equally annoys me because she is a somewhat disappointing love interest for Scott. He fights for her but still ends up getting hurt because she gave him a lie that he ate up. Though she may not show the qualities of a typical twee MPDG, I still include her (at least for the dream girl part of the equation) because she is fake. This is a key part of MPDGS. They are fake, with Summer pretending to be “cute” and Ramon being all Hot Topic “hardcore” and such. Male characters devour their lies and get hurt because of it, so maybe part of my problem is how they turn guys into angsty, brainless idiots. I think Scott Pilgrim does a better job of portraying the dangerous side of MPDGS because it shows that you have to view people as actual human beings. Once Scott starts respecting himself, he is able to quit viewing Ramona as an 8-bit fantasy and start seeing her as a 32-bit person. Yay for technology-related metaphors that slightly resemble the cheeky seasonal metaphor of (500) Days of Summer!
Another reason for the rise of MPDGs is how a large percentage of pop culture has started to become a reference to something else, which is especially true in hipster culture. A perfect example of this is a scene in Scott Pilgrim which plays out exactly like a scene from Seinfeld: the familiar popping bass plays over an establishing shot of Scott’s apartment, followed banter between Scott and his roommate and a typical laugh track. This scene adds absolutely nothing to the film except to make it more of a reference to something pop culture-related/cool, which is why Scott Pilgrim is almost like Scream for hipsters (Though I definitely prefer Scott Pilgrim’squirky sensibility and offbeat visual style to any movie in which Fonzie dies). Pop culture lately seems to be an effort to go back and rehash/replicate earlier eras, as shown by numerous films from last year like The Artist, Hugo, and War Horse. While some films are able to do this in a way that is interesting and new, most fail and became stranger relics at the intersection of time. A book was published on this recently, Retromania or something like that, and a flurry of articles were written on the topic, but I haven’t read the book, so yeah. A great example of this rehashing of pop culture is last year’s book Ready Player One, by Ernest Cline, about a dystopian future where everyone loves the 80s. Though I didn’t think it was particularly well-written, I kept reading the novel because it was almost comforting to see past pop culture phenomena I enjoy show up in a different place or way, which is why I think this recreation of the past has became so popular. And this is where the MPDGS come in. MPDGS are essentially a throwback to women such as Katherine Hepburn in Bringing Up Baby and Barbra Streisand in What’s Up, Doc? but displayed in a new way. I think it is this push for slight familiarity in storytelling that makes them so popular. It’s also what scares me about them, because it represents the stagnation of new and original characters.
As you can probably tell, I really don’t like MPDGs. They annoy me in a way that is incredibly difficult to explain, but I think I might have done so. They create female characters who are wooden and unoriginal, and they help to turn females in films as a whole into objects. Women have always been a part of cinema and they will always have something to contribute to the art form. Unless, of course, they’re Zooey Deschanel.