Manic Pixie Dream Girls: A Cinematic Scourge?



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Who's just as cute as a button? Who's the most deliciously delirious young woman, always up to her false eyelashes in madcap romps?

It's the Manic Pixie Dream Girl, of course.

Film critic Nathan Rabin coined the term after seeing actress Kirsten Dunst in the 2005 movie Elizabethtown. The Manic Pixie is, in his words, "that bubbly, shallow cinematic creature that 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."

The Manic Pixie Dream Girl isn't a recent creation: You've seen her in plenty of movies, including some real classics. (Rabin and his colleagues at the Onion A.V. Club came up with a list of the Top 16.)

That list, not surprisingly, triggered cranky responses from various corners of the Internet — notably the Web site Jezebel, which called the MPDG "the scourge of modern cinema."

But then Manic Pixie Dream Girls are nothing if not provocative. Comment boards seethe with heated debate: Does Kate Winslet in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind count as an MPDG, or does she evince signs of an inner life? What about Maggie Gyllenhaal, in Stranger Than Fiction? Is Ruth Gordon, in Harold and Maude, too old to be an MPDG?

And is there such a thing as a Manic Pixie Dream Guy?

You tell us: We'll look forward to hearing about your favorite (and least favorite) MPDGs — and to responding to your comments below.

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There are certain characters in the movies that we always recognize, the mad scientist, the hooker with the heart of gold, the girl next door, these types. Add to that list the Manic Pixie Dream Girl. She's a daffy, dazzling ray of sunshine. Her sole purpose is to enliven the hearts of those around her. You can see her latest incarnation in the move opening Friday called "Happy Go Lucky."

Unidentified Woman #1: Yeah, I was just enjoying the silence.

Ms. SALLY HAWKINS: (As Poppy) I did that.

BLOCK: That's the zany London school teacher named Poppy, played by Sally Hawkins. As NPR's Neda Ulaby reports, Poppy is just one in a long line of Manic Pixie Dream Girls.

NEDA ULABY: The idea of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl came to film critic Nathan Raven after he watched a movie called Elizabethtown. It's about a girl who perks up a mopey guy with her wacky, lovable antics, including an eight hour long cell phone conversation.

Unidentified Man #1: (unintelligible)

Unidentified Woman #2: Yes, it does.

Unidentified Woman #3: And I have to get up in two hours and be charming.

ULABY: That kind of upbeat ingenue was familiar to Raven, who writes for the (unintelligible) AB Club. He'd seen her on screen in movies like "Breakfast At Tiffany's," "Amelie," "Almost Famous," and innumerable other films with young women crawling out of windows and jumping on the bed.

Mr. NATHAN RAVEN (Film Critic): My God, that's what Manic Pixie Dream Girls do. They don't live lives. They don't have jobs or career. They just frolic and have fun and meet new people with a sense of life's infinite possibilities.

ULABY: Primarily, Manic Pixie Dream Girls persuade the hero to live a little.

Mr. RAVEN: Well, they kind of exist to help the protagonist. They don't really have a life of their own, and they've got inner conflicts.

ULABY: Exhibit A: Natalie Portman in the movie "Garden State."

Ms. NATALIE PORTMAN: (As Sam) You know what I do when I feel completely un-original? I make a noise, or I do something that no one has ever done before, and then I can feel unique again even if it's only for like a second.

ULABY: Exhibit B, the flighty heiress in "Bringing Up Baby." Katharine Hepburn goads Cary Grant's uptight professor into chasing leopards throughout the Connecticut countryside.

Ms. KATHARINE HEPBURN: (As Susan Vance) Oh, look, baby, I lost my heel. Look at me walk. Para-pampa-pam-pam-rapa-pampapam...

Mr. CARY GRANT: (As Dr. David Huxley) Susan...

Mr. RAVEN: Manic Pixie Dream Girls, they have no use for suicidal conventions. And men in these movies, they are like, oh, they're, you know, working, and they've got mortgages to worry about, and then these women just seem to exist.

Unidentified Man #2: (Singing) Butterflies are real

ULABY: Every decade, says Raven, has a Manic Pixie Dream Girl of its own.

Mr. RAVEN: '60s and '70s are sort of hippie chicks to fulfill this archetype and sort of taught a lot of straights how to loosen up and have fun.

ULABY: Hence, Goldie Hawn, a sort of professional Manic Pixie Dream Girl, in movies like "Cactus Flower" and "Butterflies Are Free."

Ms. GOLDIE HAWN: (As Toni Simmons) They're love beads, and I want you to have them. They look groovy on you, especially when I fix your hair. Come on.

ULABY: Some of us find these charming creatures irritating. Critic Nathan Raven.

Mr. RAVEN: A lot of these MPDG's, as we call them, are incredibly divisive for either, like, wow, she's amazing; I'm in love with that character, or you're like, I want to strangle her in her sleep.

Ms. GOLDIE HAWN: (As Jill Tanner) I can tap dance. You want to see me tap dance?

Mr. EDWARD ALBERT: (As Don Baker) I would love to see you tap dance.

ULABY: The Manic Pixie Dream Girl is a fundamentally dishonest character, says Raven, a male fantasy of a playful girl woman who arouses creativity and uncomplicated joy. But she is, in amusing, muse. Neda Ulaby, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.