The Manic Pixie Dream Girl

Wild things: 16 films featuring Manic Pixie Dream Girls

by Donna Bowman, Amelie Gillette, Steven Hyden, Noel Murray, Leonard Pierce and Nathan Rabin

The Onion A.V. Club, August 4, 2008

1. Elizabethtown (Kirsten Dunst)

Ah, the Manic Pixie Dream Girl, that sentient ray of sunshine sent from heaven to warm the heart and readjust the attitude of even the broodiest, most uptight male protagonist. In his My Year Of Flops entry on Elizabethtown, Nathan Rabin coined the phrase “Manic Pixie Dream Girl” to describe that 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.” In Elizabethtown, Kirsten Dunst plays the archetypal Manic Pixie Dream Girl, a flirty, flighty chatterbox stewardess who razzles and dazzles brooding sensitive guy Orlando Bloom. Coked up, or merely high on life? You be the judge. Though Dunst in Elizabethtown and Natalie Portman in Garden State epitomize the contemporary Manic Pixie Dream Girl, the strangely resilient archetype has its roots in the nutty dames of screwball comedy. For every era, there’s a Manic Pixie Dream Girl perfectly suited to the times.

2. I Love You, Alice B. Toklas (Leigh Taylor-Young)

Like the Magical Negro, the Manic Pixie Dream Girl archetype is largely defined by secondary status and lack of an inner life. She’s on hand to lift a gloomy male protagonist out of the doldrums, not to pursue her own happiness. In the late ’60s and early ’70s, MPDGs often took the comely form of spacey hippie chicks burdened with getting grim establishment types to kick back and smell the flowers. In that respect, they mirrored mainstream culture’s simultaneous suspicion and fascination with the open sexuality of the emergent counterculture. With the help of pot-laced brownies, I Love You, Alice B. Toklas‘ groovy free spirit Leigh Taylor-Young helps transform uptight Jew Peter Sellers from a stone-cold square to a swinging proponent of free love and sense derangement. But what does Taylor-Young ultimately want? As is usual with Manic Pixie Dream Girls, the filmmakers don’t seem to have given the matter much thought.

3. Garden State (Natalie Portman)

Pharmaceutical companies have made billions peddling antidepressants to twentysomething white people who are, like, totally stressin’ over people not appreciating them enough. Zach Braff did similarly well peddling two unusual but no less popular antidepressants in Garden State: The Shins and Natalie Portman. Braff’s character is completely transformed when the latter introduces him to the former in a doctor’s waiting room, with the plucky, annoying promise, “It’ll change your life, I swear.” Of course, anything sounds profound coming from such a dreamy woman. Oh, Natalie, your unconventional ways are so inspiring, and your beauty is surprisingly non-threatening! In Garden State, she’s a loveably eccentric little angel in the body of a smokin’-hot goddess, spreading good cheer and tuneful indie rock to depressed boys everywhere.

4. Butterflies Are Free (Goldie Hawn)

Hawn began her acting career playing the ditz on TV comedies like Good Morning World and Laugh-In, but by the end of the ’60s, her bubble-headed persona became less a figure of fun and more a love-generation ideal. She was the uncomplicated free spirit, unduly hassled by the establishment. Hawn won an Oscar for bringing that character to film in 1969’s Cactus Flower, and then in 1972’s Butterflies Are Free, she played a happy hippie who helps blind lawyer Edward Albert learn to live on his own and stand up to his fretful, frightful mother. Hawn’s boyfriend doesn’t care for her friendship with Albert, but what can he do? Hawn is a butterfly, man.

5. Almost Famous (Kate Hudson)

In Cameron Crowe’s gilded memories of being a teenage rock critic on assignment for Rolling Stone magazine, his protagonist’s muse is an idealistic groupie named Penny Lane. With blinkered idealism, the boy-critic gets all starry-eyed at her visions of the power of music, the freedom of life on the road, and the fantasy of staying young and beautiful forever. Even though Penny’s incandescent charisma gets tarnished by that sex she claims she isn’t having, not to mention an overdose that might not have been accidental, Crowe’s stand-in has been transformed enough to defend her version of rock ‘n’ roll against the cynicism, infighting, and weariness of the band who won’t return her devotion.

6. Joe Versus The Volcano (Meg Ryan)

Ryan plays three roles in 1990’s Joe Versus The Volcano, only one of whom is a self-described “flibbertigibbet” (a sort of antiquated version of the MPDG). But since all Ryan’s characters are aspects of the same dream woman, they all sport a little flibber. Their collective goal? To get mopey, nebbishy Tom Hanks to overcome his fears—including his concern that he’s about to die from a fatal “brain cloud”—and enjoy life for a change. But if Hanks doesn’t make it out of the film alive, no worries. The chipper, ever-life-altering Ryan will be waiting for him in Sleepless In Seattle and You’ve Got Mail, too.

7. The Apartment (Shirley MacLaine)

All Jack Lemmon wants to do is ascend the corporate ladder, even if that means loaning his bosses his terrific bachelor pad for their illicit trysts. Then one day he comes home to find that the peppy elevator operator he likes is lying comatose on his sofa, feeling suicidal after an affair gone wrong. He nurses her back to health and she turns his life upside down, talking a blue streak until she convinces him to adjust his values. This kind of troubled, worldly, yet surprisingly ebullient character became Shirley MacLaine’s stock in trade throughout the late ’50s and early ’60s, in films like Some Came Running and Two For The Seesaw. Three years after 1960’s The Apartment, she reunited with Lemmon and director Billy Wilder for Irma La Douce, in which she played the ultimate MPDG: a prostitute who corrupts the policeman trying to save her from the streets.

8. Bringing Up Baby (Katharine Hepburn)

For the bulk of her career, Katharine Hepburn played strong-willed patrician types who defied convention, but still maintained a baseline gravity. But in Howard Hawks’ 1938 screwball comedy Bringing Up Baby, Hepburn let gravity go, playing a giggly, scatterbrained heiress who torments stuffy scientist Cary Grant with her crazy demands and pet leopard. By the end of the film, Hepburn has turned Grant as nutty as she is, and as they hang from a crumbling dinosaur skeleton, he confesses that following her manic whims has led to the best day of his life.

9. What’s Up, Doc? (Barbra Streisand)

In Peter Bogdanovich’s 1972 homage to Bringing Up Baby and Looney Tunes cartoons, Streisand plays a pesky chatterbox who endeavors to help dreary musicologist Ryan O’Neal get the grant he’s after, but instead succeeds in driving a wedge between O’Neal and his fiancée, and getting him embroiled in espionage and jewel thievery. Streisand’s character never really has any plausible motivation: She’s just an anarchic change agent, pitched halfway between a screwball heroine and a cartoon character. Yet after spending a weekend with her, O’Neal is in a better place financially, romantically, and career-wise. Funny how things work out.

10. Annie Hall (Diane Keaton)

The grand champion of the MPDG fighting league, ’70s division, just might be Diane Keaton as the title character in Woody Allen’s most good-natured film. The fact that she pulled this off in a world that let Goldie Hawn run around loose is just a further testament to how completely Keaton filled out the role of what otherwise could have been a shallow wish-fulfillment fantasy. Her character certainly does have wish-fulfillment elements. But while it’s hard to believe such a woman could exist, it’s very easy to believe that if she did, she’d be a perfect match for Allen’s prototypically nebbishy character, Alvy Singer. If ever there was a comedian who needed to lighten up, it was him, and if there was ever a woman who could make him do it with just a “la-di-dah,” it was her.

11. Breakfast At Tiffany’s (Audrey Hepburn)

In Truman Capote’s short novel Breakfast At Tiffany’s, Holly Golightly is a sexually adventurous woman who jumps from man to man, living off the gifts she extorts from them, and changing casually with the seasons. In the film version, Audrey Hepburn plays Holly as a chaste party girl who shares her opinions easily, but keeps her affections to herself (and her cat). Nevertheless, Hepburn-Holly charms writer George Peppard to such an extent that he’s able to give up the rich older woman who helps subsidize his work, and instead offer his devotion to his erratic dream woman—who improbably, in contradiction to Capote’s book, accepts.

12. Something Wild (Melanie Griffith)

Straitlaced corporate drone Jeff Daniels desperately needs some screws loosened: His life sucks, and his family is suffocating him. But in the movies, there’s always a MPDG around to show the buttoned-up bores how to live. In this case, it’s crazy Lulu—later transformed into demure Audrey—who kidnaps him and pushes him into a road trip, complete with assumed identities and murderous mobsters. For a generation of young urban professionals, the indelible image of Griffith ripping her tank top apart while straddling a mortified but excited Daniels forever defined what kind of mania they wanted to see in their pixie dream girls.

13. Sweet November (Charlize Theron)

Terminally ill Earth mother Charlize Theron makes things easy for uptight business-dude Keanu Reeves in 2001’s Sweet November, an appropriately maudlin remake of the 1968 tearjerker. She enters Reeves’ life, imbues it with meaning, then leaves, saving her new beau from the agony of watching her perish. Theron promises to change Reeves’ life in a single month, and through highs, lows, and rampant quirkiness, she does just that. By the time she’s exited his life, he’s regained his joie de vivre and has been blessed with a haunted, vulnerable look that will be catnip to future MPDGs looking for a man to inspire.

14. Autumn In New York (Winona Ryder)

See above. Joan Chen’s directorial debut, Autumn In New York, is a strange cross between Sweet November and the culture-clash square-dude-meets-hippie-chick romantic subgenre of the Woodstock era. In 2000’s Autumn In New York, the square dude in question is uptight businessman Richard Gere, and the charming minx who breathes life into his sorry existence and reawakens his libido is delightful pixie/crazy free spirit Winona Ryder, who, like Theron, nurses the tragic secret that she’s terminally ill. They live, they love, and then that whole tragic-early-death thing enters the equation. Bummer city.

15. The Last Kiss (Rachel Bilson)

Noted MPDG magnet Zach Braff went to the wedding in the pivotal scene of The Last Kiss soaked through with 30s ennui, and with the oppressive, leaden weights of adulthood, responsibility, and attractive, utterly devoted girlfriend Jacinda Barrett hanging around his neck. Clearly, he needed an escape from his prison of a life. Trailed by a cloud of flowing brunette hair, in walks Rachel Bilson, a chatty, smiley, flirty college student who is actually so diminutive that she’s technically a regulation-size pixie. They laugh, they chat, they exchange meaningful glances, and Braff discovers that she’s everything his girlfriend isn’t: short, 22 years old, and carefree. Unfortunately, Bilson is also manic, and her mania doesn’t surface until after they have sex in her dorm room, once Braff’s regret is in full, watery-eyed bloom.

16. My Sassy Girl (Elisha Cuthbert)

We’re speculating here, since this forthcoming MPDG movie is currently only available in trailer form, but if there were an assembly line for Manic Pixie Dream Girls—and there probably is somewhere—Elisha Cuthbert went straight from the manufacturing facility and onto a subway railing to be saved by Jesse Bradford in My Sassy Girl. From the endearing way she slaps him without provocation to the adorable voices she seems to hear in her head, Cuthbert puts the “charming” in “charmingly mentally impaired.” She’s just the dash of acute manic depression that a staid, sensible-sweater-wearing guy like Bradford needs. As Bradford’s token chubby best friend reminds him, “She’s a nutjob!” Bradford’s response, “But I love her.” Those lines fully sum up the plot of any movie featuring a MPDG. 

In Defence of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl

Liza Minnelli as Sally Bowles

A year ago, The Onion’s film blog The AV Club featured an article describing a particular type of film character: the Manic Pixie Dream Girl. “Who’s she? Tinkerbell?” you may or may not be wondering. It’s pretty straightforward to explain the concept, because she’s simply…That Girl. You know, that archetypal charming free spirit who periodically wisps soulfully across the silver screen, captivating the hearts of gawky male leads and audience members alike. Nathan Rabin coined the term to describe “that 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.”

The trouble with the Manic Pixie Dream Girl (MPDG) is that repetition has made her into something that any MPDG worth their salt would revile: a cliché. When a film shows us a lonely and frustrated young man looking wistful, we can guess that a beautiful girl will change all that by simply encouraging him to let go, live a little, be happy. It’s quite possible that she will ask him to run away to Morocco with her (Penny Lane in Almost Famous), dance, sing or scream spontaneously (cult favourite Harold & Maude, Garden State, Cabaret), and be somehow seductively fragile (Factory Girl, Breakfast at Tiffany’s, pretty much any film mentioned in this post, etc.). Quite a lot of the time the girl will have no particular reason for taking an interest in these sad-sacks, beyond the fact that their very unconventionality is supposedly what allows them to really “get” the sensitive poet-soul lurking beneath the grey suit of their lover. Such slight motivation tends to make the MPDG more of an event than a convincing character. She is what happens to our hero, as refreshing and insubstantial as a summer breeze. The classic MPDG has subsequently earned scorn from feminist-minded film critics for managing to be both overwritten and underwritten at the same time. She will either be idealised without being understood, or – even worse – eventually be understood ‘all too well’ and so reviled by our hero for trifling with his feelings as lightly as she trifles with social mores.

Having said all of this, however, I have to admit: I love the Manic Pixie Dream Girl. Sure, some of the films that feature her truly suck. The Jude Law version of Alfie (2004) beautifully illustrates how outdated and misogynistic the whole concept can be: Alfie’s hollow, montaged relationship with Sienna Miller’s hedonistic character feels positively stone age in its unreconstructed disgust for a woman unable to live up to unrealistic expectations. But not every film about an MPDG is so unreflective. In fact, several films that play with the MPDG trope are some of the most emotionally intelligent and entertaining I can think of. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004) is essentially a deconstruction of the idea of That Girl, the one who will save you from your own personality. Clementine warns that “too many guys think I’m a concept, or I complete them, or I’m gonna make them alive. But I’m just a fucked-up girl who’s lookin’ for my own peace of mind; don’t assign me yours.”  To which hapless Joel confesses “I still thought you were gonna save my life… even after that.” 

In Cabaret (1972), the “divine decadence” of nightclub performer Sally Bowles initially holds a similar power over relatively buttoned-up English tutor Brian. Instead of feeling trite, the flighty MPDG dynamic between the two is realistic, likely due to the film’s autobiographical source material (Christopher Isherwood’s autobiographical Goodbye Berlin). Even though Sally’s vivacity charms Brian, he never loses sight of the fact that she is “about as [femme] fatale as an after-dinner mint!” It gradually becomes clear that Sally’s seductive front is as much an attempt to deceive herself as it is to enchant those around her. In the end, it’s self-delusional Sally, not sensible Brian, who has the guts and the wisdom to point out that attention-seeking narcissists and bookish types are usually incompatible. That honesty has a bittersweet consequence, earning her both liberty and loneliness; it also makes her loveable again. You wouldn’t think from reading the definition of a MPDG that they make Oscar winning roles for actresses, but watching Liza Minelli sing ‘Cabaret’ with desperate bravado is proof that in this case, they do. Purists would argue that Sally Bowles isn’t actually a MPDG (she’s too well-written, for a start) but really, what is Sally Bowles if not manic and pixie-esque? She’s the taboo-breaker that sexually experimental Brian dreams of, so is she not a dream girl?

Very similar things can be said about Holly Golightly in Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961). Holly doesn’t exist solely to stroke the ego of Paul, her admirer; it’s made clear why she chose to be a call girl rather than a domestic doormat. Like Sally, she can be grating and self-absorbed. As every realist knows, in real life, this is pretty difficult to find endearing. But for some reason those flaws don’t much bother me when they’re contained within a film. In a way, the MPDG is the perfect character; she’s always there to captivate your attention with her wit, her beauty, her ephemeral quality – but she will never outstay her welcome.

So yeah, she is my cinematic guilty pleasure. I know that, by and large, such female characters pander to the male gaze, and that their brief presence is part of their allure to men who dread commitment, and that they perpetuate the sexist male artist/female muse dynamic solidified over centuries of art. The MPDG is often lazily written and prone to spouting cringy lines like “I can tap-dance. You wanna see me tap-dance?” (and that’s courtesy of a relatively good MPDG film, Garden State! Best not to dwell upon what lesser films offer up as quirky cuteness…). Sure, MPDGs kind of suck in theory, and sometimes, even I can admit, in practice. See the aforementioned Alfie/ Factory Girl for further evidence of recent offenders. All that aside, though, which from this list of films is truly rubbish? None of ‘em, I say!

Jules et Jim (1962)

Breakfast at Tiffany’s

Harold & Maude (1971)


Annie Hall (1977)

Almost Famous

Garden State

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind

(500) Days of Summer (2009) (this one just about carried it off by making Summer into such a blank slate it felt almost like a meta-MPDG narrative intending to show us just how soppy and deluded an MPDG suitor can be. Or so I like to tell myself. Anyway, I liked it.)

Whilst every single one of these films takes the male character as the de facto protagonist, he rarely goes beyond being a sympathetic prop. Having said that, he will probably be curious, caring and thoughtful. He will like books and music instead of homo-erotic male bonding and fart jokes, which instantly makes him infinitely preferable to any male romantic leads in films produced, directed, written and possibly even watched by Judd Apatow. So the male leads aren’t as terrible as some feminist critics make them out to be, in my humble opinion. But the true virtue of these films is simple: the best of the Manic Pixie Dream Girls are stars. I’d rather watch any of these films multiple times, rather than one more ‘female-friendly’ romantic comedy that labours under the delusion that Mr Big is my dream date. As if! At the risk of straying beyond the claustrophobic corral of hetero-normative preference, I say give me a heartfelt performance of ‘Cabaret’ any day.


Click for NPR story and video on the Manic Pixie Dream Girl.

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