YA Friday: Tropes Spring Eternal - The Manic Pixie Dream Girl
A monthly feature where I examine various reading tropes and share some books that use the trope in their plots.
Blue Hair, Don't Care
Although we see less of it these days, The Manic Pixie Dream Girl (and Boy) trope was once one of the most pervasive literature, television, and film. Coined by Nathan Rabin in 2005 while describing Kirsten Dunsts' character in his review of the movie Elizabethtown: "The 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." And while the term exploded in popularity and has been used to reduce some female characters to their quirks, Rabin explained in an article where he regrets his invention of the phrase, that he was trying "to call out cultural sexism and to make it harder for male writers to posit reductive, condescending male fantasies of ideal women as realistic characters”.
The Manic Pixie Dream Girl (and Boy) generally has two main features:
- They are attractive with an offbeat, eccentric personality,
- And they function in the story as a catalyst for the protagonist’s growth, while remaining essentially a static character themselves, with no story arc of their own.
And while there are many Manic Pixie Dream Girls (and Boys) in YA fiction, many of John Green's early novels have heavily relied on the trope to drive the protagonist's story. Looking for Alaska, which won the Printz award in 2006, is named for a character but isn't her story. Instead it is the story of Pudge and his obsession with his female classmate, Alaska. She is beautiful, quirky, mysterious, and unpredictable. Alaska's relevance only comes in terms of his story and his infatuation.
Green addressed, or at least tried to, the issue of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl (and Boy) in one of his subsequent novels, Paper Towns. The story revolves around a boy named Q who is in love with is next-door neighbor Margo, and after a crazy night of pranks with each other, Q obsesses over her disappearance. In his blog, Green wrote that the book was about the "Manic Pixie Dream Girl lie, and the danger of the lie–the way it hurts both the observer and the observed. In order to uncover Margo’s fate, Q must imagine Margo as a person, and abandon his long-held Manic Pixie Dream Girl fantasies."
Below are a collection of YA books that feature the Manic Pixie Dream Girl (and Boy) trope and some that directly call it out and aim to turn the trope on it's head.
Quentin Jacobsen, 17, has been in love with his next-door neighbor, Margo Roth Spiegelman, for his entire life. A leader at their Central Florida high school, she has carefully cultivated her badass image. Quentin is one of the smart kids. His parents are therapists and he is, above all things, "goddamned well adjusted." He takes a rare risk when Margo appears at his window in the middle of the night. They drive around righting wrongs via her brilliant, elaborate pranks. Then she runs away (again). He slowly uncovers the depth of her unhappiness and the vast differences between the real and imagined Margo.
Henry Page fancies himself a hopeless romantic, but the kind of love that he's been hoping for just hasn't been in the cards for him. He focuses on his grades, on getting into a semi-decent college and finally becoming editor of his school newspaper. Then Grace Town walks into his first period class on the third Tuesday of senior year and he knows everything's about to change. Grace walks with a cane, wears oversized boys' clothes, and rarely seems to shower. It's obvious there's something broken about Grace, but he wants to help her put the pieces back together again.
In response to a college application question (“What was the single most important experience of your life?”), Parker Santé, a mute, Hispanic 17-year-old, writes an incredible story. When he steals a wad of cash from a silver-haired, sharp-witted girl named Zelda, who is planning to throw herself off the Golden Gate Bridge, Parker isn’t sure what to make of her. After agreeing not to jump until her money is spent and Parker promises to apply to college, the two embark on a breakneck tour of parties, shopping, and confrontations with Parker’s mother, an alcoholic consumed by memories of her deceased husband. Parker may not believe that Zelda is, as she claims, 246 years old, but there’s no doubt that she helps him rediscover a longing to participate in the world.
Ezra Faulkner believes that everyone has a tragedy waiting to happen that will be their life-changing moment. In the summer before seventh grade, his best friend, Toby, had his moment when he inadvertently caught the severed head of a boy who was decapitated on a ride in Disneyland. Ezra ended his friendship with Toby after that. Now 17, Ezra encounters his own tragic watershed event: he finds his girlfriend cheating on him and then has a car accident that ends his tennis career. He returns to school for his last year a broken boy who has shunned his jock friends and just wants to make it through life unnoticed. By reconnecting with Toby and developing a relationship with Cassidy, a new girl who has a secretive past and home life, Ezra gets the chance to remake himself into someone who lives rather than just exists.
Williamsburg, Connecticut, is a one-stoplight town where everything interesting happened in the past—until a cool Brooklynite from the other Williamsburg turns up. High school juniors Ray and Simon are used to being outcasts—so utterly insignificant that they are ignored by peers, no longer even important enough to be bullied. Until Jane Doe (her name changed for privacy) walks into biology class, sits down beside Ray, and upends the order of the universe. Jane, who dresses in black, listens to obscure folk music, loves conspiracy theories, and has a troubling history she won't discuss, is won over by the duo as history buff Ray and vampire-loving, milk-guzzling Simon introduce her to the highlights of "Burgerville," including the legend of the vicious green cows. While Ray and Jane fall in love—and set Simon up with Mary, his first girlfriend—even the caring attention of a sincere boy cannot rescue Jane from depression.
For Bea, the Manic Pixie Dream Girl, that quirky adorable ray of sunshine sent to make a man’s life better, was just a trope . . . until one (named Toile) flitted into her homeroom in a granny cardigan and affected French accent and stole her boyfriend, Jesse. But never fear: math genius Bea devises “the formula,” a foolproof (and mathematically proven) route to high-school popularity, which propels her bullied friends Spencer and Gabe to the top of the hierarchy and turns Bea into Trixie, the Manic Pixie Dream Girl of her ex’s dreams. But at the end of the day, is that what Bea really wants?