For inexplicable reasons in the last couple months I saw three movies accused of featuring manic pixie dream girls (MPDGs), the most beloved and reviled of 21st-century stock characters. For those unfamiliar with the term, film critic Nathan Rabin defined it as a woman 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.” Rabin “retracted” the term in 2014 because, as one might expect, any trope leveled at female characters is rapidly deployed indiscriminately against all of them. But retractions be damned! For I write in good faith.
I thought it might be fun to stack the three MPDG characters together and see how they matched up. To be clear, though, these movies aren’t regarded as paragons of the trope, so this post is more of an exploration than indictment.
In chronological order we have:
- Danielle – The Girl Next Door (2004)
- Summer – 500 Days of Summer (2009)
- Ramona Flowers – Scott Pilgrim Versus the World (2010)
Seasoned readers will undoubtedly predict that I would be partial to Scott Pilgrim for its ’80s fan service, but I’m on the level here: Bias is bad. Here are three brief, spoilerific plot synopses.
The Girl Next Door: High school overachiever Matthew (Hm.) is caught peeping on the slightly older, attractive Danielle, who is house sitting next door. She goads him into spending time with her—after tricking him into running naked in the street—and encourages him to skip school, trespass in other people’s swimming pools, and go to a party that disallows uncool kids like him. Matthew kisses Danielle, proving he is capable of impulsiveness.
Then for some reason the movie keeps going for, like, another 90 minutes, and we learn that Danielle is actually an adult film model who needs saving and whom Matthew saves. Matthew also gets into a load of trouble from which he claws his way out. (The movie is actually a soft remake of Risky Business (1983).)
500 Days of Summer: In a non-linear narrative, preppy architect-cum-greeting-card-writer Tom, a romantic idealist, meets Summer, the woman he believes is The One. He charms her at an office karaoke night, and after agreeing to be friends, she makes out with him in the office copy room, things progressing from there. Tom is happy, but months later Summer breaks up with him and changes jobs. Tom is miserable, but he serendipitously encounters Summer again on the way to a co-worker’s wedding. Summer declines to tell Tom about her new boyfriend and spends the wedding with him. She invites him to a party she’s throwing where, fantasizing about winning her back, Tom finds out she’s engaged. Embittered, Tom quits his job to try to be an architect again, but he runs into Summer one last time, and she tells him he was actually right to be a romantic idealist.
Scott Pilgrim Versus the World: Scott Pilgrim is an unemployed hipster bassist, who believes he’s blameless in all his past relationships’ failures. He falls for Ramona Flowers, whose seven evil exes ambush Scott one by one Street Fighter-style to prevent her from being with him. In defeating them, he learns that he’s actually been a jerk to everyone around him all along, particularly to his previous girlfriend, Knives Chau, whom he cheated on with Ramona and who spends most of the film trying to win him back. Scott finally wins over Ramona, even though it feels unearned and the movie never really establishes why she likes him.
So, let’s compare these MPDGs.
- Are these characters really MPDGs, or are they false positives?
It’s a fair question because arguments are made that Summer and Ramona don’t fit the term; Danielle’s fate is pretty much sealed. To aid in answering, let’s establish who an MPDG is and what she does. As a person, the MPDG is a vaguely defined character. Where she comes from doesn’t matter; she frequently has no social or family life of her own (though this may be a common trope in romances); she doesn’t have many goals for herself. In the movie she must be the sine qua non of the male protagonist’s transformation from brooder into man with a destiny.
Danielle fits the term so well that she disappears for much of the last two thirds of The Girl Next Door after it’s revealed that she’s made adult films. She practically becomes a MacGuffin, and we spend more time with the film’s antagonist, Kelly, Danielle’s ruthless producer. Given audience perceptions of adult models, we don’t expect Danielle to have much more of a backstory, but she certainly doesn’t have her own ambitions. She is, however, definitely necessary for Matthew’s transformation.
Summer is introduced with a backstory, but it plays no real role in the movie. She moves to Los Angeles out of boredom. We’re told (and I’m not sure why) that she’s popular and radiant, but we don’t see her friends until the end of the movie, and it’s clear Tom never meets them when he is involved with Summer. Does she transform Tom? Actually, I don’t think so. In the penultimate scene he professes his cynicism and looks at her like she’s an unstable airhead for marrying a man she’s only known for several months. Yet in the final scene, Tom nevertheless musters the courage to ask out the architect with whom he’s competing for a job, Autumn. It may be that Summer lifts Tom out of his cynicism, in which case 500 Days defies the MPDG framework by depicting Tom as the soulful brooder in the middle of the narrative and not its beginning. Or the final encounter between the two central characters may just be coincidental.
Ramona moves from New York City to Toronto to escape the heartbreak from the last of her evil exes. Before then, she’s also a mystery. She has no friends, standing uncomfortably alone at the party where Scott first meets her, and she too has no goals. We only learn about her through flashback expositions about her exes. How does she affect Scott? She doesn’t really teach him to enjoy life but offers him a moral lesson on himself instead. If we broadened the definition of MPDG to include men who aren’t “broodingly soulful” then Ramona fits the definition better as a necessary agent of Scott’s growth.
- How do the female characters’ MPDGishness disserve these movies as romances?
Danielle – Girl Next Door is so bad that it’s actually better when the movie focuses on just Danielle’s and Matthew’s MPDG romance. Danielle’s most cringeworthy moment is when she tells Matthew, “This is what I am,” referring to her adult modeling. Damsel, meet distress.
Summer – I didn’t really catch why Summer falls out of love (if that’s what you’d call it) with Tom. Their relationship just fizzles out on her end, and she moves on. Although the movie wants us to see Tom as unreasonably naïve, I found myself sympathizing with him more than Summer, who escalates a relationship with Tom knowing that he wants something more from her than she’s willing to offer. (Tom isn’t blameless because he lies by saying he’s happy to just be friends with her.) She then deceives him by not disclosing her relationship with her new boyfriend, whom she marries after knowing for only a few months. If anything, I’m surprised Tom’s final encounter with Summer doesn’t reinforce his cynicism about romance. Summer becomes the caricature of naiveté that Tom is at the beginning of 500 Days.
Ramona – Scott Pilgrim‘s biggest failure is not including a montage scene showing Scott and Ramona falling for each other, something the other two movies did well. We don’t get why she likes him. Worse, as the plot progresses, we get the sense that Ramona treats men like disposable toys. Complicating the film even more, Ramona has the most power over the plot and does the least to change it. She doesn’t try to discourage her final evil ex, who’s their boss, from calling the others off from attacking Scott, nor does she break up with Scott just to save him. She adopts more of a passive-aggressive let’s-you-and-them-fight attitude. I’m left finding Knives Chau the most sympathetic character in the movie.
- Despite their MPDGishness, what endearing qualities can we find in these romances?
Girl Next Door – The May-July age difference between the protagonists is what makes the first act of the plot believable. It gives Matthew a reason to feel intimidated by Danielle and willing to go along with whatever she asks.
500 Days – I think this one had the most believable romance with the least amount of cringiness. Too often romances don’t explain why two characters would be attracted to each other, especially the female participant. Tom dresses well, he shares interests with Summer, and subtly he’s fun to her too. I also appreciated that 500 Days kept the awkward, embarrassing male dialogue to a minimum. In fact, it gave some to Summer, e.g., “In college they called me Ms. Anal.” The line itself is juvenile, but few romances are willing to place their female protagonists in such an awkward light.
Scott Pilgrim – In a way Scott Pilgrim does a better job of achieving what 500 Days set out to do: Smack down the male protagonist for idealizing the woman he’s fallen for. We learn through the incessant attacks by each of her exes that Ramona really isn’t so stable herself. That Scott goes off with her at the end anyway is just bad writing.
I could write more, especially about how the female characters are established by their romantic (or pornantic) pasts rather than their other facets, but I’m going to stop here. As I said at the top, these films are not necessarily great examples of manic pixie dream girl movies, but they were all very different stories. Girl Next Door is a coming-of-age story, 500 Days is a romance, and Scott Pilgrim is an action flick. This genre breadth made this post interesting to think through.
However, none of these women compete with the best MPDG, Tyler Durden from Fight Club.
And you thought I only wrote about Star Wars movies. Ha.