Saturday, September 5, 2009

Anatomy of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl

So Sara and I went to see (500) Days of Summer last Thursday. This was not technically her desire, because she could see that it was a wet, sappy, soppy, sorry hipster mess just from the soundtrack of its trailer. It was my desire, because I read how it subverted some cliches of the romantic comedy -- and because I secretly love romantic comedies, as long as they weren't so predictable.

Days of Summer (apparently you can remove the 500 without damaging the title) recycles the classic notion of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl, a cliche whose recent history I'd like to trace here. It all begins with that beautiful wish-fulfillment fantasy of guy-meets-girl, guy-is-brooding, girl-teaches-guy-how-not-to-brood, a fixer-upper relationship, thanks, you can drive him off the lot now. It works because the guy is vulnerable and scared of rejection and smart and deep and hard-working but has trouble with the opposite sex and hey guys that's just like me! And so we sit down in the theatre and we empathize -- and then the guy gets the girl finally, or the girl dies and the guy becomes a doctor or an architect and then visits her grave. (either way, you win?)

I choose, for lack of an ur-text, to start with Zach Braff's Garden State, whose cute dreamgirl--played by Natalie Portman--rescues a Sad Ostracized Boy who's been on valium or prozac or other-generic-mindbalancer for a portion of his life, and is now waking up to the universe around him. They first meet, rather tellingly, at a psychiatrist's office; he's shy, she's tomboyish, they bond over The Shins' latest album. Forget therapy! you just need to find a girl, SOB. Wanna know why guys are diagnosed with depression at half the rate of women? because guys don't go to see psychiatrists? maybe, but also because when they do, they tend to pick up girls there who are as devoted to solving their problems as any Psy.D, and at half the cost.

The MPDG stories often settle for strange versions of shorthand: a shared interest in "X obscure pop culture reference" equals true love and quirkiness. Now, Days of Summer's Summer bonds with the SOB over The Smiths -- a coincidence that elicits a "holy shit" from the hero once she leaves the elevator -- and she also likes Ringo Starr best of The Beatles. Haha! how strange! isn't she delightful? The cachet of the reference rises, of course, the more obscure it is -- which gains terminal velocity apotheosis in a movie like Juno, the MPDG who tells her own story, where a 17-year-old talks like a 29-year-old cultural studies hipster, except for when she sounds like she's ten.

This is always where my suspension of disbelief derails: I mean, I'm waiting for a movie where the two kids are listening to their iPods that their parents bought them and one overhears the other and leans forward and says, "HEY! Is that Coldplay? You like them too?! Weird." (Hint: the first song in Garden State is a Coldplay song. I noticed. way to go!) "Next! Let's go see that new Transformers movie, okay? And then walk through the Wal-Mart and maybe get a smoothie."

Days of Summer circumvents some of these problems: it springs for the grand epiphany that (ahem) "it isn't all about you, SOB." It riffs on how the SOB doesn't get the sad ending of The Graduate, how he works for a greeting card company, how quickly he can shift to "I wonder if she's single" to "whatever, man, forget her, she must be a bitch." It juxtaposes fresh dates with stale ones, the joys of having first scored with the despair of having first broken up.

But it also fails because in order to play this game of not knowing to knowing, it has to create a veritable vacuum of mature friends -- the only friend he has in a committed relationship has been dating her since elementary school, his other friend is worse than he is, and so the only people capable of saying "she's just not that into you" are his little sister and (finally! the climax!) Summer herself. The only way to craft a story in which the SOB understands himself in some beautiful epiphany is to banish all self-awareness from the men, and to displace it into the women (three in all!) with their knowing smiles and deadpan epigrams.

There's a scene near the end where the men all fumble around to describe love -- his friend who doesn't know, his friend who admits that it was easy for him, his boss who uses a greeting card cliche, and the main character SOB who just stares sadly into the screen. It encapsulates the impulse behind the MPDG storyline: even in our wish-fulfillment tales, we guys outsource our feelings.

- Ryan

1 comment:

  1. I think that's true ... women are rarely the same level of quiet, deep Everyperson as men, because something about their mere womanhood highlights them as special and unique and mature and knowing. Which is bull, but, whatever. Also it's kind of a bone thrown to women, maybe, like how black characters are often Godly and mystical-magical in lieu of being self-actualized human beings. Or something.