A basic introduction to myself: My name is Rodessa (Dessa) Caguioa and, since middle school, I’ve had a fascination with tropes. I’m talking about the clichés you see in the media such as damsels in distress, the sick person, Chekhov’s gun — you get the idea. To be more specific, I love watching all these tropes get twisted, subverted, and played with by creators to the point where they transform both the trope itself and the story they’re in. And, frankly, I love talking about and analyzing tropes. So, that being said, if you have any suggestions as to what tropes I should talk about, feel free to email me at firstname.lastname@example.org or DM me on Instagram at @dessaduckie.
As a young girl, I always thought that soulmates were a real thing and that all I needed in life was to find “The One” to live happily ever after with, a white picket fence, and a happy home. This idea stuck with me for a long time, even while I battled through depression and rough times. All I needed was my soulmate, right? As time went on, I realized that all of the people who I thought were my soulmates weren’t going to magically fix my life by being in it. In reality, my ideal soulmate was basically a manic pixie dream girl.
So, what is a manic pixie dream girl? The manic pixie dream girl is a stock character whose sole purpose is to uplift the (usually male) protagonist. Usually, stories involving the manic pixie dream girl start with the protagonist leading a mundane, ordinary existence devoid of any real meaning whatsoever. Enter the manic pixie dream girl, solely there to add spice and meaning to the protagonist’s life through a whimsical adventure that thus makes up the whole story. What makes this girl different from other girls in media, however, is that the manic pixie girl has almost no other character development other than to lift up the protagonist. Zero. Zilch. Nada. The story thus ends with the protagonist realizing that they should live a little, even starting up a relationship with said manic pixie dream girl. Here I will look into four examples: Beatrice from Dante’s La Vita Nuova, Jack from Titanic, Summer from 500 Days of Summer, and Margo from Paper Towns.
Example 1: Beatrice from La Vita Nuova by Dante Alighieri (Photo: Beata Beatrix by Dante Gabriel Rossetti)
One of the last guides in Dante’s journey in his Divine Comedy is a lady named Beatrice, most prominently seen in the last book, Paradiso. Here’s some more background information on Beatrice: she was an Italian woman Dante met twice who thus became the inspiration for his Vita Nuova,a prosimetrum (combination of prose and poetry) expressing the limits of courtly love — aka secrecy, respect, and unrequitedness.
Here, Beatrice is seen purely from Dante’s point of view as his inspiration and muse. To Dante, Beatrice is his salvation; he later touches on this in his Divine Comedy. Even so, the reader only gets to see Beatrice as Dante sees her, a perspective which, frankly, is idealized to the point where Dante describes her as “she who confers blessing.” Dante imposes a personality on Beatrice that makes it so that she could do no wrong in his eyes, perfect to the point where in the book, an angel admits to God that heaven is flawed without her. It is only through his idealization of her that Dante expresses himself and his views toward love itself. Furthermore, through this idealization, Dante’s character within Vita Nuova is completely dependent on Beatrice, making his character one of the passive protagonists seen in media involving manic pixie dream girls. Granted, this is the 1290s, and courtly love was highly emphasized during that time, but it still equates Beatrice, a real person, to something akin to ultimate beauty and grace. Even so, this image of Beatrice has inspired many works of art, such as the photo above.
Example 2: Jack from James Cameron’s Titanic
Picture this: Rose Dewitt-Bukater (Kate Winslet) is a miserable rich girl chained to an arranged marriage in order to cover her family’s death. Jack Dawson (Leonardo DiCaprio) just won tickets to America in a poker match. Both go aboard the ill-fated Titanic (I think you can see where this is going). After Jack saves Rose from committing suicide, the two enter a whirlwind romance where Jack essentially teaches Rose how to live. And then the ship sinks and Jack dies.
This is a gender flipped example played straight for the most part. Jack’s whole purpose in the narrative is to save Rose and teach her how to live life to the fullest. His character has no other motivations or goals besides that. Jack won his ticket aboard the Titanic in a poker match, loves drawing, and … that’s basically his whole character apart from his and Rose’s relationship. This is why Jack dies at the end of Titanic; when he sinks into the sea, Rose resolves to live, thus fulfilling Jack’s narrative purpose. So yes, Leonardo DiCaprio lovers, that’s why Jack had to die.
Example 3: Summer from Marc Webb’s 500 Days of Summer
Tom Hansen (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is working at his office job at a greeting card company when he meets his boss’s zany new assistant, Summer Finn (Zooey Deschanel). After a general conversation in the elevator and some other hijinks, the two enter into a relationship. The clincher here is that while Tom wants a long term relationship while Summer is not looking for anything serious. With this mismatched foundation, this relationship is ultimately doomed to fail, and it does.
The main thing to note about this film is that it’s told from Tom’s point of view. That being said,
Tom views Summer as his soulmate, the one specifically made for him. Summer, however, doesn’t see Tom in that way. The film, being in Tom’s view, only shows Summer and their relationship from an overly rosy lens. When examined closer, viewers can see that Tom is not listening to Summer and her desires, making this relationship completely one-sided. Summer is her own person outside of her relationship with Tom, and because Tom only sees her as his soulmate, her desires are completely ignored, which ultimately leads to them breaking up.
Example 4: Margo Roth Spiegelman from John Green’s Paper Towns
John Green loves playing with this trope, which is clear if you’ve ever read any of his works. Here I’ll be using Margo as an example of this. In Paper Towns, the protagonist, Q. Jacobsen, embarks on an adventure to find Margo when he discovers some clues she left behind as to where shemight be. When he and his group of friends eventually find her, however, Margo essentially calls Q out for trying to be a hero when she did not want to be found in the first place. This leads Q to realize that the image he had of Margo was nothing more than an illusion he created, and thus leaves her be.
John Green himself states that he hates this trope played straight. Thus, in his works he subverts and deconstructs this trope so that his protagonists realize that the image of their love interests is ultimately not equal to the real life person that they are. Most notable of these are Looking for Alaska and the aforementioned Paper Towns. In both of these novels, the protagonists realize that they fell in love with an over-idealized vision of their respective love interests rather than the person behind those illusions.
Interestingly enough, a lot of princess stories (mainly Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, and Snow White) follow a structure similar to the manic pixie dream girl story, only the prince serves as a manic pixie dream girl. Think about it. The princesses in these stories are basically trapped in terrible situations and usually end up waiting for a prince to save them somehow. It can be argued that the princesses in these stories never take any action to change their lives either; they are simply trapped in bad situations (ah, the Damsel in Distress trope — a tale for another time). Perhaps the manic pixie dream girl became a sort of modern Prince Charming, only this time instead of rescuing people from terrible lives, they are saving the protagonist from a mundane existence, making the protagonist basically another damsel in distress. From the feminist era onward, perhaps this could be blamed on authors not knowing how to write strong female characters while still catering to their specific audience.
In recent years the manic pixie dream girl trope has been played with, deconstructed, and subverted in popular media. As seen in movies such as 500 Days of Summer, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, and the recent film adaptation of Paper Towns, viewing someone as a magical person that can change lives ultimately leads to disappointment, because in the end that person is nothing more than an ordinary person. John Green’s Looking for Alaska especially highlights this when the protagonist willingly ignores and even encourages Alaska’s self-destructive tendencies because they don’tfit his image of her. People today are realizing that this idea — the idea that a special person out there can fundamentally change your life — is nothing more than an elaborate illusion they construct so that they don’t have to take action to change their lives. After all, all you have to do is wait for Manic Pixie Dream Girl to come along and suddenly you’ll find meaning in your life, right?
It’s clear that the manic pixie dream girl is a reductive way to look at people, and yet it’s still a lasting belief that a lot of people have. However, this is a flawed idea. Relationships between others only work if both people are willing to accept their partner for who they are rather than an idealization of them. After all, idealizations are nothing more than illusions, and illusions will ultimately fall to reality. Despite this, many are still waiting for their soulmate to come find them so that they may learn how to live again. This idea is why stories involving the Manic Pixie Dream Girl are so popular; they play into the idea that all you need is that special someone. However, that responsibility falls solely on the person living, rather than some potential love interest that’s out there in the world. Thus, we must realize that we are the Manic Pixie Dream Girls in our own lives.
- The main source I used for this was a page on TV Tropes that has a lot more examples than what I have listed here, plus some common ways the trope is played with. As such, it’s pretty much the base of this column. It’s also very easy to get sucked into it.
- That being said, even after writing this article, I still have no clue what to title this column (at the time of writing this, I have this article saved as “something about manic pixie dream girls”). If you have any title suggestions, once again, feel free to DM me on Instagram or email me at the addresses on the top of this article.
- There is a lot to unpack with manic pixie dream girls, but this article is already over 1600 words which was already a lot more than what I was intending while writing this. The TV Tropes page is a good place to start though! For further reading I suggest looking at The Take on YouTube and their take on this.