prolegomenon to “the american infant as manic pixie dream girl”

The title of this post presents a concept that I’ve been tossing around the last day or two. It feels like, if I’m going to bother at all, it ought to be in the context of a reasonably well-thought-out essay, rather than the off-the-cuff crap I usually post here. But, in tossing around the concept, I naturally consulted the repository of all human thought. Although the entry on “infants” contained no germane material, the entry on the Manic Pixie Dream Girl reproduces an interesting interview with Zoe Kazan on the topic:

Do you think of Ruby as a manic pixie dream girl?

[Makes a face.]

What? What do you think of that term?

Well, I am not a fan. Look, I don’t think of her as that; I hope other people don’t think of her as that. I think if they do they’re misunderstanding the movie. That term is a term that was invented by a blogger, and I think it’s more of a term that applies in critical use than it does in creative use. It’s a way of describing female characters that’s reductive and diminutive, and I think basically misogynist. I’m not saying that some of those characters that have been referred to as that don’t deserve it; I think sometimes filmmakers have not used their imagination in imbuing their female characters with real life. You know, they’ve let music tastes be a signifier of personality. But I just think the term really means nothing; it’s just a way of reducing people’s individuality down to a type, and I think that’s always a bad thing. And I think that’s part of what the movie is about, how dangerous it is to reduce a person down to an idea of a person.

Well, yeah, there’s a line in the movie that basically questions the idea of manic pixie dream girls: “The quirky, messy women whose problems make them appealing are not real.”

Sure. What bothers me about it is I think that women get described that way, but it’s really reflective of the man who is looking at them, and the way that they think about that girl. Not about who that girl really is or what her personality actually is. I think that to lump together all individual, original quirky women under that rubric is to erase all difference. Like, I’ve read pieces that describe Annie Hall as a manic pixie dream girl. Katharine Hepburn in Bringing Up Baby. To me, those are fully fledged characters that are being played by really smart actresses. I just think it’s misogynist. I don’t want that term to survive. I want it to die.

It is perhaps obvious that I use the term “interesting” euphemistically, mostly.

I mean, I’m in sympathy with the idea that seeing the world through TVTropes-colored glasses is not always a good thing. But the whole thing is such a shambles that you can sort of only begin at the beginning.

“Look, I don’t think of her as that; I hope other people don’t think of her as that. I think if they do they’re misunderstanding the movie.”

Because the creator’s conscious motivations are the Rosetta Stone? Maybe you wrote her that way unintentionally. (Really, would anyone write a character that way intentionally?)

“That term is a term that was invented by a blogger…”

Objection: Relevance?

“… and I think it’s more of a term that applies in critical use than it does in creative use.”

Right. Noticing a trend that organizes lots of art is a critical act, not a creative one. Is this a problem?

“It’s a way of describing female characters that’s reductive and diminutive, and I think basically misogynist.”

This (skipping merrily past the questionable use of “diminutive”) is the grammatical Necker cube that buys Kazan the appearance of an argument. It is correct inasmuch as the MPDG archetype is an instance or possibly a consequence of (presumptively usually unconscious) misogyny. This sentence is constructed, perhaps also unconsciously, to deflect that misogyny onto anyone who deploys the concept. It’s easy to see how this ramifies later on.

“I’m not saying that some of those characters that have been referred to as that don’t deserve it; I think sometimes filmmakers have not used their imagination in imbuing their female characters with real life. You know, they’ve let music tastes be a signifier of personality.”

Here she lets slip an understanding of the term’s actual etiology and use.

“But I just think the term really means nothing; it’s just a way of reducing people’s individuality down to a type, and I think that’s always a bad thing.”

Notice who’s being reduced. Not characters; people. Who are we talking about here?

“What bothers me about it is I think that women get described that way, but it’s really reflective of the man who is looking at them, and the way that they think about that girl. Not about who that girl really is or what her personality actually is. I think that to lump together all individual, original quirky women under that rubric is to erase all difference.”

The last sentence is plainly wrong; categorizing things doesn’t preclude acknowledging differences. But again we see it: “women” get described that way. It’s reflective of how a man thinks about “that girl,” not about who she “really” is. Kazan has taken a term explicitly defined to characterize some women in fiction and asserted that the term is pernicious because it diminishes women in reality. It goes bizarrely unacknowledged that anyone who thinks the MPDG archetype is useful would agree resoundingly that it doesn’t describe real people. The very reason to have a term for it is to make it easier to understand this particular, problematic way that fiction systematically deviates from reality.

I have no opinion about RUBY SPARKS, Katharine Hepburn in BRINGING UP BABY, or Diane Keaton in ANNIE HALL; Kazan may be more than justified in defending her movie and those actresses. But it is nothing short of fascinating to me that Kazan both wrote and played the very character who occasioned this rodomontade—and, more amazingly, that character is literally a fictional character made real. It is patently crackers and yet nearly unquestionable that this whole torrent of denial and self-contradiction is secondary to Kazan’s conflation of herself with Ruby Sparks. When Sparks is attacked, she feels attacked; when Sparks is stereotyped, she feels stereotyped.

And where I’m trying to go with this is there seems something strangely universal about it, and I’m struggling to articulate what. It’s something like: We are all romantic leads in our own movies, prey to an audience prone to “misunderstanding.” Sometimes they point out that our characters are adhering to some script that is insultingly worn-out or simplistic, so much so as to have a derogatory name affixed by a group of bronies and tentacle-porn connoisseurs. We’re insulted by this, because sometimes people really act that way or it’s subversive or if you knew what I knew you’d understand. Because we’re up to our ears in the motivation we’ve worked out in our heads, and we’ve conflated it with the script we’re reading.

But the RL Trope is one back from the TV Trope, of course. RL Tropes create TV Tropes. This is critical. The RL Trope is thinking of women as vessels of a particular kind of pleasure and redemption; the TV Trope is the MPDG. It is sexist to apply the TV Trope to a real person; to apply the RL Trope to a real person is to accuse that person of sexism, which may or may not be justified but is not of itself sexist.

But if you can’t tell the RL Trope from the TV Trope, you might think it was.

So this is where I am, some wibbly-wobbly idea that people think (e.g.) acknowledging racism promotes racism because of this confusion between script and character, essence and extension, the fundamental attribution error, something. Some idea that you can’t see fiction that way unless you see real people that way; you wouldn’t perceive these correlations if you didn’t at some level endorse them.

Which actually might arise from a certain childlike trust in the provenance of fiction.

Or maybe it’s just a backfilling Yalie phoning it in. I don’t know, and I’m up too late. But it feels like there’s something here, still waiting.

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