The Trouble with Tropes

Manic Pixie Dream Girl LARP character sheet

By Corrin Bond

Maria von Trapp has been added to the list. Although she preceded the identification of this archetype by about forty years, The Atlantic’s Sophie Gilbert has declared that The Sound of Music’s female protagonist, like so many other cinematic iconoclasts, is a Manic Pixie Dream Girl. First coined in 2007 in film critic Nathan Rabin’s review about the movie Elizabethtown, the Manic Pixie Dream Girl is defined as a female fantasy character who “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.”

In the eight years since it first came to be, scores of characters have been classified as whimsical, quirky, carefree women whose sole purpose is to help the male character come to term with his emotions and find his way in life. In addition to Kirsten Dunst’s character in Elizabethtown and the recently initiated Maria von Trapp, notable Manic Pixie Dream Girls include Zooey Deschanel in (500) Days of Summer, Natalie Portman in Garden State, and Audrey Hepburn in Breakfast at Tiffany’s.

Rabin explained that he coined the phrase as a means of calling out cultural sexism to deter male writers from constructing characters onto which they can project their own fantasies. He later apologized for ever identifying the trope, as he feels that the awareness of such an archetype, combined with its rise in popular culture, has only perpetuated the stereotype. Lisa Knisley of The Daily Dot argues that while the MPDG was originally meant to “describe vapid, unrealistic women characters in films, the more the term got used the easier it became to describe seemingly any female film character as an MPDG in order to misogynistically dismiss her.”

Similar to Rabin’s Manic Pixie Dream Girl is the emergence of the Cool Girl––a trope defined by Gillian Flynn in her novel, Gone Girl. She signifies the attractive, intelligent, and funny woman who is interested in areas that are normally male dominated, such as football or comics, is overtly sexual, and meets the societal standard of beauty while still being able to consume copious amounts of food and beer. The problem with the Cool Girl archetype, as The Daily Dot writer Chris Osterndorf puts it, is that it “suggests a personality engineered solely to appeal to men.”

Archetypes are not a new device and have existed for centuries. Nearly every character falls within a certain archetype in order to enhance or highlight the theme of a piece. The problem is not with the formation of archetypes, but that these particular tropes are not devices which teach lessons or emphasize themes. Instead, they are purely fantastical. Both the MPDG and the Cool Girl, in and of themselves, don’t provide any kind of critical social commentary. Rather, they are a reflection of one’s fantasy, a blank template onto which other characters project their own desires.

Although Rabin tried to disown the MPDG trope, there is importance in the label as the identification of this reoccurring character is just another means of showcasing the sexism of the entertainment industry, as well as exposing the pattern of every generation creating new boxes into which individuals are meant to fit. An additional truth is that while cinematic and pop culture archetypes like the Manic Pixie Dream Girl and the Cool Girl do exist, there are also plenty of male archetypes floating around out there. As The Guardian film critic, Ben Beaumont-Thomas points out, men are subjected to tropes such as the “arthouse stud monkey” and the Plaid Gastronome.

The first, coined by Leslie Felperin, is the archetype of the sophisticated, well-groomed, worldly man who is sensitive and devout in bed. The second is a bit more millennial––the emotionally tumultuous and wayward hipster who hides his uncertainty with obscure trends. At the end of the day, regardless of which archetype it is, the construction of literary and cinematic tropes based solely upon fantasy as well as their application to everyday people is just another way that society organizes individuals into boxes. When characters follow these distinct patterns, it stunts the emotional depth of a piece and creates imbalance––with characters of one gender being more complex and developed than characters of the other. To step outside of these tropes is to not only allow for a greater depth in plot and character development, but also for the projection of the message that people are inherently complicated individuals and not just ideas.

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