Monday, 1 July 2013

The pitfalls of being a pixie dream girl

In life, people aspire to be archetypes, but usually end up as stereotypes. Or indeed clichés.

Zooey "Im such a manic pixie" Deschanel
I wasn't actually aware of the phrase "manic pixie dream girl" until I read Laurelia's broodingly soulful piece of self-diagnosis yesterday, but of course I instantly recognised the type. As pinned down with lepidopteristic precision by Nathan Rabin in a film review, she's the young lady 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." She's Zooey Deschanel, in other words, though Penny somehow manages to get through the entire article without dropping that name once.

I wonder if Nathan Rabin, like many analysts and indeed creators of Hollywood narratives, has been reading too much Joseph Campbell. His enumeration of the manic pixie dream girl's functions makes her sound like an avatar of Campbell's goddess:

Woman, in the picture language of mythology, represents the totality of what can be known. The hero is the one who comes to know. As he progresses in the slow initiation which is life, the form of the goddess undergoes for him a series of transfigurations: she can never be greater than himself, though she can always promise more than he is yet capable of comprehending. She lures, she guides, she bids him burst his fetters.

Or, in Laurie's case (for she too was once a Magic Pixie Dream Goth) sets him up with contacts and talks into the night about the meaning of journalism. All while playing the ukelele.

Laurie's complaint about the archetype isn't just that in her younger years she wasted too much time on "sad, bright, bookish young men" impressed by the fact that she played the ukelele and resembled something left on the bottom of a pond (her words) but mainly that she (the manic pixie, that is, not Laurie) is a male fantasy in a "story that happens to somebody else" - to the male hero, that is. Like most women in fiction (and life) the dream girl isn't the main focus:

We expect to be forgettable supporting characters, or sometimes, if we're lucky, attainable objects to be slung over the hero's shoulder and carried off at the end of the final page. The only way we get to be in stories is to be stories hourselves. If we want anything interesting at all to happen to us we have to be a story that happens to somebody else, and when you're a young girl looking for a script, there are a limited selection of roles to choose from.

The manic pixie exists to "save" the brooding hero rather than being a person in her own right, Penny complains. Indeed, she has no interior life, being merely merely a collection of ditzy attributes, conventionally unconventional music tastes, and non-corporate hair styles. She's no role model for a successful modern woman (would Goldman Sachs employ her?). To become a serious writer - and a serious person - Laurie had to wash the dye out of her hair with the same grim fortitude Nellie Forbush displayed in attempting to shower away Emile in Act One of South Pacific. And it's a struggle, because her inner pixie keeps reasserting itself at inconvenient moments. If only she'd known at 21 that becoming a writer would also mean intimidating men she fancied - which is, I suppose, another way of saying that the men she fancied were such drips.

Because it takes two. It always takes two. If every soulful guitar-strumming post-adolescent male needs a manic pixie girl to teach him the meaning of life, so every manic pixie girl needs a soulful guitar-strumming geek to rescue. And then they both grow up. Usually, at any rate. Occasionally the soulful guitar-strummer fails to grow up and turns into Jeremy Forrest, which is even worse for him than it is for the women in his life. Movies, of course, are full of such cases of arrested adolescence, even if the objects of their crushes, for reasons of propriety, are invariably "legal". Hence, I suppose, the phenomenon of grown women acting inappropriately twee that so offend's Laurie's feminist sensibilities.

I do wonder how she can be so casually dismissive of the women her ex-crushes end up with. "My Facebook feed," she complains, "is full of young male writers who I have encouraged to believe in themselves, set up with contacts, taken on adventures and talked into the night about the meaning of journalism and who are now in long-term relationships with people who are content to be That Girl." Is this really true? Do these men's girlfriends not have careers and interior lives of their own? Are any young women, especially middle-class, educated young women who I assume are sharing their lives with (and may well be financially supporting) Laurie's male Facebook friends really content to be "That Girl" any more?

The lost boys need rescuing for the same reason that the manic pixies need to wear floaty clothes: because they're passing through that liminal life-stage in which adulthood has physically and legally arrived but hasn't yet been fully achieved. Both are stock characters; neither has any more or less interior life than the other. It depends on who's telling the story. And most of these stories - the indy rom-coms - are told for (and sometimes even by) women, or to be more accurate, teenage girls, for whom the guitar-strumming soul-owner is a more resonant fantasy object than he would be for a grown woman, in fiction as in life. The manic pixie is the object of fantastic yearnings mainly at a remove: she's the type of girl that the soulful guitar-strummer or depressive hero is supposed to want, or need, but she's a female ideal of a female ideal. Even soulful guitar-strumming men tend to find the type, and the films in which she looms large, profoundly annoying.

As for Laurie's claim that "men grow up expecting to be the hero of their own story [while] women grow up expecting to be the supporting actress in somebody else's", that may have been largely true once, when the only long-term career open to most women was marriage and motherhood, but surely isn't any more. I suppose there are quite a few young women who dream of becoming WAGs, but even for them WAGdom is almost and end in itself: it's the lifestyle, the shoes, the foreign travel that appeals. The footballer appeals, too, but as much another designer accessory than as a flesh-and-blood human being: for the wannabe WAG he's a means to an end, rather than someone in possession of a rich interior life (which, in the case of footballers, may be largely true). He is the supporting character in her story, just as Mr Darcy was a supporting character in Lizzie Bennett's (Pride and Prejudice was never about him.) Whoever thought, "I want to marry a footballer just so I can support my husband's career"?