Like the Magical Negro, the Manic Pixie Dream Girl archetype is largely defined by secondary status and lack of an inner life. She's on hand to lift a gloomy male protagonist out of the doldrums, not to pursue her own happiness. [...] But what does [the MPDG] ultimately want? As is usual with Manic Pixie Dream Girls, the filmmakers don't seem to have given the matter much thought.
-- from Wild Things
This is one of the biggest challenges when writing fiction: you need to include characters who are unlike yourself. The simplest thing is to write what others look like to you -- without giving a second thought to what they look like to themselves. It's not just a problem for men writing female characters (though they're frequent offenders), but for all sorts of writers writing all sorts of "other" characters: white people writing black characters, gay people writing straight characters, religious people writing atheist characters (and vice-versa), etc.
Practically every time I watch a movie, I analyze the portrayal of female characters. Which is why I was surprised that I'd never noticed the "Manic Pixie Dream Girl" archetype -- even though there's one at the center of one of my childhood-favorite movies: What's Up Doc?. And, although people can expect to be forgiven for their childhood tastes, in this case I still like the movie -- and I see it as a (jokingly-exaggerated) version of my romance with my husband.
Of course I don't mean the comparison seriously, and if I did, it would be less complementary to my husband than it is to me. The film definitely fits squarely into the genre that my friend Holly describes as: "the wild-yet-innocent cutie-pie who uses her childlike delight to entice some young male sad sack into a candyland of cutting work and skinny-dipping."
My husband is partial to the earlier version of the same movie, Bringing up Baby -- essentially because Katharine Hepburn and Cary Grant did a better job of acting than Barbra Streisand and Ryan O'Neal. (He specifically complained that O'Neal was only cast for his tan). Despite that point, I like "What's up, Doc?" better because I think the script is better, and the underlying screwball situation in "What's Up, Doc?" (with the four identical suitcases) is funnier than the thing with the leopard. I think "What's Up, Doc?" suffers from many of the flaws of the "manic pixie dream girl" formula, but redeems itself in a few ways.
The Barbra Streisand character actually does have some motivation, as is explained in the film. She's been expelled from a string of universities -- she's bright and does well, but "something always seems to go wrong." After blowing up a classroom while studying chemistry, she had set off to go back to her parents' house, but was hesitant to face them. So she was wandering around, essentially homeless (looking for opportunities to steal food), and trying to decide what to do next.
And how did she get from there to spicing up the life of an absent-minded professor...? That's a question she answers directly:
"Because you look cute in your pajamas."
Her situation is absurd, but you have to keep in mind that every character in the film is absurd. There's the professor (doing very serious research that involves tapping rocks with a tuning fork), the eccentric rich guy who has set up a foundation in his own name to fund this sort of silly research, there are jewel thieves working for the hotel, and a couple of spy-vs-spy guys battling over secret government documents, not to mention a guy driving a convertible who smilingly says "Oh, all right" and joins into a crazy car chase just because some guy jumped into his car and said "Follow that cab -- I'm with the government!"
Then, there's the professor's fiancee (played by Madeline Khan), who is the funniest character in the film:
Despite the fact that she represents the terrible fate the professor must escape from, she find her own new-and-better boyfriend by the end of the film.
So, from a feminist perspective, the film could be better, and it could be worse. Streisand's character sets out for adventure and finds it (even if it is just the usual adventure female characters get: romantic comedy).
Personally, as a Mormon girl, I was brought up immersed in the mindset that Holly describes in the article Forever Your Girl: I was encouraged to embrace the pursuit of a man as being "the only passion, the only pursuit, the only goal" that really matters for a girl. I didn't have it quite as bad as that -- I was encouraged in other goals and talents -- but I'd internalized the pervasive message that a woman's own accomplishments are consolation prizes compared to a woman's one true success: snagging a successful man. (I've portrayed this mindset in the novellas Youth Conference and Saturday's Warrior.)
Another old favorite that doesn't hold up quite as well is Harold and Maude. This film makes an appearance in my novel in a way that I (still) think is reasonable:
However, I clearly see Holly's point about the film:
Maude even claims the youthful role of life’s cheerleader, standing up and shouting, “Go, team, go! Give me an ‘L.’ Give me an ‘I.’ Give me a ‘V.’ Give me an ‘E.’ L-I-V-E. LIVE!”
But her cheering is in service of someone else’s life: Despite the fact that she’s healthy, passionate, and vibrant, Maude takes her own life on her 80th birthday. She justifies the act by asserting that 80 is an ideal age to die: “Seventy-five is too early,” Maude tells Harold, “but at 85, well, you’re just marking time and you may as well look over the horizon.”
But the real reason for Maude’s suicide is that it leaves Harold not just richer and wiser, but unencumbered. Maude’s willingness to disappear ultimately serves male development and autonomy. Her embrace of Harold and discarding of her own life are just what is needed to transform the formerly morbid, macabre boy — and that, of course, is also the ultimate goal of Fascinating Womanhood.
If you're going to be a character in someone else's dream, it's fun to be the exciting, adventurous character. But it's also fun to dream your own dreams. :D