She enamored me. A red-haired freckled girl, who loved forests and had already experienced oceanic adventures with her seafaring father. She had indomitable confidence, an effervescent personality, complete disregard for convention, and seemed capable of overcoming any challenge, with an infinite optimism that held my pre-adolescent heart enraptured. She lept from rooftops, and I recall watching her effortlessly lift a horse with her bare hands, giggling while doing it.
Pippi Långstrump or Pippi Longstocking, as she is known in the United States, was one of my earliest fictional crushes. Although she predated the term Manic Pixie Dream Girl, she bred within me a concept of romantic love that would later be reinforced by films like 500 Days of Summer, Ruby Sparks, and Garden State. Nathan Rabin, who allegedly coined the term in 2007, decried how the concept overtook Hollywood, calling for “the death of this patriarchal lie”, saying that the trope was “a fundamentally sexist one, since it makes women seem less like autonomous, independent entities than appealing props to help mopey, sad white men self-actualize.”
Rabin defines this fantasy figure as one 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.” Women are no doubt the most frequent victims of this storytelling. Still, this line of thinking is employed by men and women, to the detriment of all of us, regardless of sexual orientation and gender, in part, evidenced by the Manic Pixie Dream Guy, an articulation of the centuries-old white knight archetype.
This construct may not perfectly apply to Pippi, who acted more as a youthful and easy-going version of Mary Poppins, turning stale worlds upside down, wreaking havoc and fun, helping entire families live a little more bravely and joyfully. She existed to awaken others to a higher state of consciousness, then vanished. Pippi was far more developed than the traditional MPDG archetype, but she imprinted upon my young mind enough of the concept. In her, I saw a charming friend, carefree, unaffected by the rules of adults and societal expectations, a girl who made me smile and filled me with a hope that most of what I wanted in life could be accomplished with her in it.
Women are no doubt the most frequent victims of this storytelling. Still, this line of thinking is employed by men and women, to the detriment of all of us, regardless of sexual orientation and gender.
As a young adult, I saw the runaway success Garden State. Natalie Portman enchanted the audience as she portrayed a quirky, kind, love-interest to Zach Braff’s character, Andrew Largeman, a twenty-something who can’t figure his own way out of his problems. She shakes him from his heavy depression using her non-conformist antics and a billboard-sized grin. She’s a savior with a single dimension. She was irresistibly endearing, the film’s success suggesting one of two things to me: either this story resembled a reality others had experienced, or it resonated with a large number of men who had bought into this damaging myth, along with the women who have had to experience its consequences.
Depth psychologists, like Carl Jung, suggest this empty vessel view of the feminine attracts young men who haven’t integrated parts of their unconscious self into their conscious ego. Their immature psyches revel in the prospect of a woman who will consume all of their masculine projections, fulfill all their unmet needs.
When a young man allows himself to accept this outlook, he puts unrealistic expectations on romantic partnerships, and worse, inflicts cycles of hurt upon the women who inevitably fail to live up to the ideas ruminating in his mind.
Ruby Sparks captures this well. The film creates a MPDG in attempts to subvert the concept. Our protagonist, played by Paul Dano, is a struggling novelist who is mired in self-doubt and writer’s block. The narrative begins with him consulting his therapist, revealing to us a young man who is lost on his own, incapable of tackling existence pains without a proper muse. In a flurry of deep-seated desiring for a more fulfilling life, he wills into existence his own fantasy girl. In a sort of literary-nerd version of Weird Science, he discovers he can modify the characteristics of his dream girl with the power of his typewriter, making her a polyglot beauty, his personal chef who can charm any crowd, somebody who calms his every insecurity.
At first, all is well for our hopeless romantic, but he soon learns that for every trait he bakes into his creation, she exhibits something messy. Something human. Her outgoing personality compliments his own introversion, and wins over his family. But, when she becomes saddened by how much time he spends reading and writing, rather than with her, which makes her sad and distant, he rewrites her emotions into a happy state. When her fabricated attentiveness unintentionally turns her into a manic-clingy girlfriend, his edits to her personhood spiral downward. The ease of the relationship turns shaky and he is incapable of dealing with it. His attempts to morph her into a being who can meet his every need, with few demands on himself, backfires. To his devastation, every effort to re-correct for her human-ness, creates more difficulties. When she learns the ultimate reality surrounding her existence, his absolute manipulation, she disappears, and he learns a truth that is difficult for his malformed psyche to integrate–romantic partners are complex, wonderful, and terrifying beings.
They’re people, not ideas. They don’t exist as accessories, means to one’s grasping ends.
The tragedy for the male psyche in 500 Days of Summer indents early in the central character’s youth. The film’s narrator informs us upfront that “this is a story of boy meets girl. The boy, Tom Hansen of Margate, New Jersey, grew up believing that he’d never truly be happy until the day he met ‘the one.’” The narrator suggests that Tom falls prey to this myth as a result of “early exposure to sad British pop music and a total misreading of the movie The Graduate.” This self-referential introduction, arguably, tells the audience what we’re about to watch is another attempt to subvert the MPDG myth. It’s there if you’re looking for it, but if the viewer isn’t careful, the film further inculcates the dangerous paradigm it seeks to challenge. Untrained hearts may be led to believe that Tom is a person to emulate. His frustrations resonate with young over-idealizing minds, stroking their immature egos. Joseph Gordon-Levitt, who portrays Tom Hansen, cautions these fans who may idolize its romantic hero, pointing out that the character is “selfish…he develops a mildly delusional obsession over a girl onto whom he projects all these fantasies. He thinks she’ll give his life meaning because he doesn’t care about much else going on in his life.”
All this to show us that the films we consume matter. They hardly exist just to entertain. They brand themselves on us, particularly at young ages. If we’re not given the proper tools, we may also ‘misread’ the media we devour.
Tom endures a long struggle to mature his view of love, losing his dream girl, weathering all the stages of grief, and eventually, finds within himself that he must create happiness on his own. He takes the steps necessary to land his dream job, indicating he has found that “something else” in his life. The film’s ending remains somewhat ambiguous, though. With the rather dream-like introduction to a woman named Autumn, while interviewing with an architecture firm, we wonder if Tom hasn’t learned his lesson at all, projecting, again, too many hopes onto a potential romantic partner.
The most problematic element of the MPDG isn’t that she’s a crippling fantasy, it’s that we take the symbolic literally.
Contemporary western culture doesn’t use metaphorical thinking enough and suffers from an incredible miseducation surrounding mythology. We are inundated with naturalism and literalism. Just as many abandon religion because the metaphysics contradict naturalistic sciences, we’ve become frustrated with the socially-regressive MPDG storylines because they contradict our social sciences, or at least, our social consciences. This trope ceases to injure romantic partnering and becomes empowering when understood through a mythological lens.
When she learns the ultimate reality surrounding her existence, his absolute manipulation, she disappears, and he learns a truth that is difficult for his malformed psyche to integrate–romantic partners are complex, wonderful, and terrifying beings.
According to Joseph Campbell, in The Hero with a Thousand Faces, near the height of the drama, during the lowest point of the protagonist’s personal journey, he has a Meeting with the Goddess. The hero encounters the feminine divine, he experiences an unconditional love that has enough power and significance, akin to that felt by a fortunate infant with his or her mother, to catalyze change. She inspires him to complete his quest toward self-actualization. This should sound familiar, for it almost echoes Rabin’s critique. However, Rabin was talking about the MPDG as a literal person, whereas Campbell points to a mythical figure who represents internal aspects of the hero himself.
Life is too complex, and usually, too mundane to be well-captured in film or literature; interpersonal relationships are nonlinear, beyond narrative arcs. The real power of stories resides in their ability to make more concrete the psychological aspects of our experiences.
The MPDG represents the traditionally feminine force within a person, or anima. The hero must accept himself, including all his admirable and unsavory parts, and from it create a source of unconditional love and support which inspires him to fulfil his heroic act. In other words, he must develop self-acceptance. Psychologist Juliana Breines asserts that self-acceptance, “viewing yourself as a basically good person who is worthy of love, without needing to prove yourself or outshine others,” is requisite for healthy relationships. That’s what the metaphorical Summer Finn does when she affirms Tom’s appreciation of The Smiths, his witty holiday-card crafting, or praises his architecture skills. Ruby Sparks validates Calvin’s writing in the most real way possible, being willed into existence through his creative force. These muses provide our mopey young men with the power to complete their quests.
Tom quits his dead-end job, for which he has no passion, to pursue a career as an architect–the thing he truly wanted all along.
Calvin overcomes his writer’s block and publishes a successful book based, in part, on his meeting with the goddess; but, more importantly, it exhibits his journey of self-acceptance, the boon which enables him to achieve his ultimate goal–self-actualization as a writer.
Through Sam, Andrew Largeman abandons the psychotropic drugs he’s led to believe he needs, and comes to terms with the paralyzing guilt he feels surrounding his wheelchair-bound mother. He liberates himself by forgiving and letting go: a quintessential act of self-love.
The MPDG trope appears to have diminished in Hollywood with the rise of more multi-dimensional female characters, and films demonstrating an ethos centered in narratives where we become personal saviors, less dependent on external forces. The hero saves himself, or herself. By doing so, they transform into counterexamples to those who might succumb to broken myths, suggesting that ultimate satisfaction in life comes from within rather than without.
Still, this many generation legacy of one-dimensional muses remains. What can we do to change the myth, to empower others to have more complete romantic relationships? Inoculation and education are a start.
We’d be remiss to ignore or outright reject these phenomenal films. In fact, with a little teaching, they can serve as precautionary tales which allow us to see them more as tragedies and less as entertaining comedies. If somebody had held a dinner table conversation with me about this damaging myth as my young heart was pining over Pippi, or had pointed out to me the problematic paradigm in Garden State, I may have been able to dislodge it earlier. If we can educate one another, particularly our young ones, in the power of myth, we can learn to live more independent and meaningful lives. But, in order to do this, we must familiarize ourselves with archetypes and narratives, many of which predate written history. We must learn to see psychic forces in the characters acting on our screens, that each of these individuals represents internal and archetypal aspects of ourselves.
We ignore metaphorical thinking at our own peril.
We inherit myths from our culture and ancestors, but it’s our responsibility to remake them, to adjust them to the challenges of our current circumstances. If we fail to introduce children to the great traditions of world mythologies, or decline to explore them ourselves, we ignore millennia of wisdom and deeper understandings of human psychology. We ought to develop these tools if we want to truly engage with one another, to love in more authentic, meaningful, and realistic ways.
Jeffrey is the founder and editor-in-chief of Erraticus, as well as host of the Damn the Absolute! podcast.
He is a former mental health professional and educator, whose research interests center around localism, American pragmatism, and bioregionalism. He primarily covers education, philosophy, psychology, and religion.
He lives in Cascadia.