Monday, February 15, 2010

Me and my inner "manic pixie dream girl"

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


littlemissattitude said...

I love that you wrote about these two films. I actually saw them together, with Harold and Maude as the second feature to What's Up Doc, and liked them so much that I went back twice more that week (that was back in the day when movies played for a week, not ad infinitum like some do today) to see them.

Now, admittedly, I was in ninth grade at the time and not really much into feminist critique, but I do think both films hold up tolerably well, at least much better than most films from that time.


C. L. Hanson said...

Hey LittleMissAttitude!!!

What a great coincidence! Feminist critique notwithstanding, they're both fun movies -- and have good reason to retain their popularity!

As for Harold and Maude, ever since reading Holly's article, I keep wondering whether it was necessary to have her die. She could have just moved on -- been "on her way" like the free-spirit she was. Harold could easily have learned a valuable life lesson from that. But I guess it wouldn't have gone well with the whole morbidity/death vs. embracing life theme they had going.

... or would it?

Anonymous said...

This might be completely irrelevant, but I played a news reporter in a TV movie with one of the guys who played one of the two main Elders in Saturdays Warrior. lol

MBW said...

Awesome post. It makes me mindful of how often I slip into the "manic pixie dream girl" persona myself. The article in Bitch is just awesome. Thank you for sharing!

sam-i-am said...

It seems to me that the MPDG is necessarily a secondary character because there is no crisis inherent in her. She's whole, secure in her own purposes, hidden though they may be.

From that perspective, she is a great feminist example even if she's not a a particularly interesting character.

C. L. Hanson said...

Hey Xuxana!!!

Unrelated, but amusing nonetheless. ;^)

Hey Mel!!!

Glad you liked it!


Yes, exactly. I think in feminist terms the MPDG is quite ambiguous. On the one hand, the story is about the male protagonist learning something (and it would be nice to see stories about female characters growing and learning something). On the other hand, you're right that the MPDG is "whole, secure in her own purposes" -- indeed has a sort of wisdom about life to impart. As female characters go, you can certainly do a lot worse!

littlemissattitude said...

That's an interesting question...whether Harold and Maude would have worked if Maude had decided not to move "beyond the horizon" and instead just moved on.

It's something I'll have to think about for awhile.


Anonymous said...

What's Up Doc is hilarious. I quote that movie all the time. I can't wait until my kids are old enough to appreciate it.
As for feminist, you could say that both Eunice and Bernsy (that is, the one who is not Eunice and the one who is not Bernsy) are both very strong women who know what they want and go after it. These are not sleeping beauty who are comatose during all the action.
And I love how the old lady throws herself to the ground sobbing "Theives, robbers!" in a spoof o the typical overdramatized old movie style of women getting upset and everyone just kinda looks at each other wondering why she is acting like a toddler.

C. L. Hanson said...

Hey Anonymous!!!

So true!! My kids already like the film, and they're only six and eight years old. :D

The Sinister Porpoise said...

This is a problem with writing all characters. The worst example of an author making his characters fit his own ideas, is Robert A. Heinein's _I Will Fear No Evil_. (Horrible book. Don't read it. Go pick up Starship Troopers or The Moon is a Harsh Mistress instead.)

Then again, I don't think I could realistically write characters that are deeply and passionately interested in sex, either. The best I could do is intellectual curiosity.

angryyoungwoman said...

What's Up, Doc has been a favorite since I was a very young child. I've only seen Harold and Maude once (when I was a teenager), but I remember the gist of it.

I read a write-up of the MPDG article elsewhere, but it's nice to get your take on it. I find myself often playing that role when I date men (not so much when I date women). It tends to backfire when the relationship deepens and they find out that I'm not some cheery little sprite who exists only to serve them and teach them how to be carefree.

I don't know what that says about me. :)

C. L. Hanson said...

Hey AngryYoungWoman!!!

I kind of relate. I think that's why the question of "What's her motivation?" never really bothered (or even occurred to) me earlier...