The Manic Pixie Dream Girl Trope: The Case of Ruby Sparks

ImageThe term “manic pixie dream girl” is not a new one. Critic Nathan Rabin coined it in his review of the movie Elizabethtown back in 2007 where he explains that a “manic pixie dream girl 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.”

You know the MPDG, you have encountered her many times in movies. From Kirsten Dunst’s Claire in “Elizabethtown” to Natalie Portman’s Sam in “Garden State and to a more recent Sam, Emma Watson’s character in “The Perks of Being a Wallflower”*. You will recognize her easily. She is free-spirited, quirky, mysterious, likes indie music and her sole purpose in these movies is to make the male protagonist’s life less monotonous and sad so they can figure themselves out. They are female-shaped epiphanies if you will. They are usually created with the idea of making the male protagonist rethink his life choices, this MPDG will teach our hero how to be more easy-going, how to enjoy the little things in life and take himself less seriously so at the end of the movie he will have become the MAN he was supposed to be.  Basically the MPDG is the woman as an idea.

ImageNow, the case I want to discuss today is something different. I watched Ruby Sparks some months ago and I haven’t been quite able to keep it out of my mind. Although I feel (and this is my opinion) that the movie ultimately fails at going all the way through with its message, I think it’s an important movie with a great idea at its core. Paul Dano plays Calvin Weir-Fields, a “one hit wonder” writer who wrote a great book at a very young age and has been trying to write another one and live to everyone’s expectations (and his own) ever since. While trying to come up with this book he starts dreaming about a girl- beautiful, quirky, free spirited…well, you get the gist, right? Calvin thus proceeds to write about her and make her the heroine of his new book. In the process he becomes so enamored of this dream girl that he believes he is falling in love with her. Until one morning he wakes up and his creation, Ruby Sparks (played by Zoe Kazan, who also wrote the movie) herself, is there on the flesh, living and breathing in his living room.

At the beginning everything is perfect. Ruby is everything Calvin dreamt of (because he actually wrote her that way). But little by little Ruby starts to want more. She wants to get a job, she wants her own friends, she wants to test herself…in sum she wants to live her life the way she pleases. But what she doesn’t realize is that she is trapped by Calvin’s idealized version of her so she cannot move forward. She cannot escape it and when she tries to do so things get really messy.

ImageSomewhere in the movie Calvin says about Ruby: “She is complicated. That’s what I like best about her.” He likes her being complicated as long as it’s the cute kind of complicated, you know? He likes the kind of messy that is endearing. Not the real fucked up one which all real people experience. He likes her being complicated so long as it doesn’t actually interfere with his perfect idea of her. She can build play forts, act child-like and jump into beautifully lighted swimming pools at night but she cannot be assertive and make decisions for herself that he does not agree with.

That’s Ruby Spark’s message, I think. Ruby, like everyone who begins a new relationship, starts off as an idea but little by little she becomes real. The first stage of a relationship is obviously going to be great but the natural progression of things dictates that little by little you will get to really know the person you are with. The greatest case against the MPDG is that they don’t grow, change or evolve. They are just a catalyst or a male fantasy in which the woman is forever stuck in that honey-moon phase of the relationship.

ImageNow, while I was halfway through writing this piece I stumbled upon an interview of Zoe Kazan in which when asked about the MPDG trope she said this; “That term is a term that was invented by a blogger, and I think it’s more of a term that applies in critical use than it does in creative use. It’s a way of describing female characters that’s reductive and diminutive, and I think basically misogynist. […] I think that to lump together all individual, original quirky women under that rubric is to erase all difference. Like, I’ve read pieces that describe Annie Hall as a manic pixie dream girl. Katharine Hepburn in Bringing Up Baby. To me, those are fully fledged characters that are being played by really smart actresses. I just think it’s misogynist. I don’t want that term to survive. I want it to die.”

While I do understand what she is saying and where she is coming from I don’t fully support it. I agree 100% on the fact that not all original and quirky women found in movies are MPDG and we should not try to group them all together. The cases she mentions (and the ones I have previously discussed) have been labelled so without really considering the many complexities of said women. You can be quirky, endearing and original AND be a complex and real woman. One does not exclude the other. But I also think that the trope exists because we’ve seen it in too many movies. It’s problematic and thus it should not be ignored. The problem doesn’t lie with the term, the term in not misogynistic.  What is misogynistic is that female characters are so predominantly featured as nothing else than plot devices.

SprklsAt one point in Ruby Sparks Calvin, struggling with his success as an author and the idea the public has of him, says, “Women aren’t interested in me, they’re interested in some idea of me.” Well that’s really what it’s all about for the MPDG.

Now, while I think that Ruby Sparks creates a great case against the Manic Pixie Dream girl trope, I don’t think it was written with that idea in mind (and the words of Zoe Kazan are a testament to that) and thus that’s why I think it ultimately fails at it. I don’t want to spoil the ending for anyone but for me, it kind of invalidated the whole premise of the movie and the message that it had so strongly made a case of. At the end the movie ends up being a tad too forgiving of its male protagonist and the viewer is supposed to just forget how poorly Calvin treated Ruby. This is Hollywood after all and romantic comedies do get their happy endings.

*I want to analyze the cases of Summer in “500 Days of Summer” and Clementine in “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” in a more in-depth article further down the road. While I agree that they would fit into MPDG trope at first glance but I think they are set up to subvert it somehow because we are not meant to fully trust the views of the male protagonists of said movies. After all, the first thing Clementine tells Joel in Eternal Sunshine is “I’m not a concept. Too many guys think I’m a concept or I complete them or I’m going to make them alive, but I’m just a fucked up girl who is looking for my own peace of mind. Don’t assign me yours.”

 

You can read María’s latest article here.

The Bechdel Test

The Bechdel Test is a concept that was coined by Alison Bechdel in her comic “Dykes to Watch Out For” in 1985. What the test consists of is of analysing the female presence in a film following three simple steps: First, are there two (named) women in the film? Second, do these two female characters speak to each other? And finally, do they speak about something other than a man?

tumblr_miah09l6nw1qfhzgyo1_500You would think that is an extremely and ridiculously easy thing to accomplish but it is actually not. What I particularly love about the Bechdel Test is that it is a very useful tool to point out the present problem of feminism (and by feminism I mean “equality between men and women”) in nowadays’ society. It is something extremely simple, something that surely happens daily in ‘real-life’ yet something that is difficult to achieve in the so-called representation of society through fiction. Because of the little amount of films being made today (especially in Hollywood) that pass this test, it is impossible to deny that we still live in a society ruled by an industry that continues to tell stories that are told and lived by men.

tumblr_miah09l6nw1qfhzgyo2_500The Bechdel Test, however, is only an anecdote, an easy and fast way to point out a problem. It is true that at the end of the day such a simple test will not be able to deconstruct a film or to decipher what the film truly is about. A film may pass The Bechdel Test and still be incredibly problematic in its portrayal of its female characters, and a film may not pass such a test and still be able to portray a female character in an incredible and necessary way. But it is an interesting concept, because it points at Hollywood filmmakers, and it asks them about the kind of faked reality they are trying to build. It is a reality where women are barely in films as individuals, where there is little depth put into these characters. It is not a problem about the female presence in Hollywood, it is obvious that actresses get work, it is about the kind of characters that are being written, the kind of stories these characters are in.

              What fascinates me the most about The Bechdel Test is that I am a absolutely sure that I have never known a woman that does not pass this test in her real life, on a daily basis. It therefore is not only extremely preoccupying but it seems completely surrealist to me that it seems impossible for the great majority of films produced and released every week, to not even have a scene that contains two women talking to each other for less than two minutes, in the average hour and forty-five minutes of duration of such films.

               The stats at the official Bechdel Test website say that in their database they have 3479 films, out of which 1876 (53.9%) films pass the test completely (that is the three questions/steps). 386 (11.1%) of these films would pass two of the questions of the test, while 852 (24.5%) would pass one of the questions, and 365 (10.5%) films would not even have more than one woman in them. Taking into consideration that during 2012 and only in America 253 films were released, I’d say that doing the math, the problem is still present.

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So, while it may have its faults, I am a great fan of The Bechdel Test, because I firmly believe society can be reformed through fiction, I firmly believe that the first step to reforming society, is reforming such fiction, and if our current fiction cannot even be a representative of our reality, I do not think things are looking particularly well for our future.

If you’re interested in reading more about the Bechdel test, visit the official website, which has a lot of useful information, as well as more statistics. You can also take a look at the video Feminist Frequency did, right here.

Read Cristina’s last article here.