I said yesterday that I hold Studio 60 near and dear to my heart because its female lead bears more of a resemblance to my own life than most women on television, but I think even she falls into one of the major categories of pop culture girls, that which film critic Nathan Rabin terms the manic pixie dream girls, in the sense that her talent and unique personality helps Matthew Perry’s character discover his talent for writing and take his work to the next level. It isn’t about her talent. It is about how she makes him better.
Because so much of my sense of how the world works comes from watching way too many TV shows and movies, adolescent me concluded that my romances in life would be very manic pixie dream girl-esque (MPDG). As a creative and reasonably quirky chick, this was the category of pop culture where I fit in the most, though I am sure several other girls would agree there were other categories of movie and TV girls that we wish we were a little more like. Those personalities were unattainable though, because let’s be real, you can’t have more than one aspect to your personality and be a female in a popular movie or TV show. That would be cray.
Katherine Heigl knows this better than just about anyone. She made the mistake of criticizing how her character of Izzy Stevens seemed to veer way off course from the person the girl portraying her thought she would be. Then she did many, many romantic comedies, several of which were awful, but those were the kinds of roles she was offered once she got pigeon-holed into that genre.
Most notably though, Heigl got in trouble for badmouthing the Judd Apatow comedy she starred in, Knocked Up. She pointed out that her character, Alison, has to not only be the straight (wo)man in this flick, she has to be a total buzzkill the entire time too. I am not going to defend everything Heigl has done or said in her life, but when it comes to this movie, she is pretty spot on. Alison is fun in certain scenes, but from the get go she is driving her nieces to school scolding them not to do all sorts of things like Google “murder”.
Meanwhile, Seth Rogen’s character is not a lovable schlub, he is a total nightmare. He has no job, no skills, no money, little personality, and truly horrible friends. I get that this is supposed to be funny and Apatow certainly portrays this man-child in a positive light as he learns to grow up a little. Meanwhile though, we don’t really know much about Alison at all. She is around to complain about Rogen being a mess, that is about it. Her sister, played by the lovely Leslie Mann, even advocates Alison nagging him until he is forced to change.
And this is a movie about how both Alison and Ben (Rogen) need to change and grow in order to be parents, which is pretty unfair. Alison has a job, friends, direction in her life and is a little uptight. Ben has no source of income, no job, no plan to either earn money or get a job, and these problems are portrayed as relatively comparable. They portray Alison and her sister as women who need to learn to be more accepting because their biggest flaw is trying to change their guys and make them something they aren’t. Essentially, they are supposed to be every sitcom wife, lovingly putting up with their husband’s flaws, only occasionally pushing them to be better.
This is a useful lesson, learning to accept people for who they are, but there is a fine line between loving a person flaws and all and settling for a person you just fundamentally don’t like. But Alison gets all sorts of crap for being uppity and thinking she is “better” than Ben. I am going to give it to you straight here: she is. She can and should do better, but instead the moral of this story is that driven successful girls are really just chicks who are snobby, complain a lot, and need to learn to settle.
Knocked Up is an example of a relationship where it seems the woman has the upper hand in the career, intelligence, and looks department, but she loves her adorable loser of a significant other because he makes her laugh. These are typically shows where the protagonist is a man though. In shows with a female protagonist, like ABC Family’s Greek, the scenario is much different. If it is an ABC Family show though, the traits are remarkably consistent. Here are the key ingredients, established by Greek, then employed in basically every show the network has come up with since then:
- A female lead who is smart, but not in that naturally smart sort of way. She is a girl who studied, took impeccable notes, is socially savvy, is accessibly pretty, and you just know she is that girl who has perfect handwriting.
- An African-American best friend who rarely has anything going on in her own life and who seems to display little to no interest in Black culture.
- A sibling or close friend who starts out hetero, but ends up experimenting with their sexuality
- A romantic interest introduced in the pilot who is always, I repeat, always smarter than her or better at what she is good at while still appreciating her smarts and talents because they are great and, more importantly, not threatening.
- A second romantic interest who is the exact opposite of the first guy, who brings out the girl’s spontaneous side, getting her to loosen up and channel her inner shrew-less free spirit.
- A love triangle that culminates in an end of Season 1 boyfriend switcharoo, but a dynamic that will continue for the duration of the series.
This is Greek, an early ABC Family foray into original programming in which the show’s female lead Casey (Spencer Grammar) juggles her love life, her important role in her sorority, her friendships, and her future and career plans. She is funny, but never the funniest. She is bright, but never the smartest. She is pretty, but not gorgeous. In other words, she is definitively above average, but never exceptional.
It is an interesting tightrope that most girls are encouraged to walk. You need to be pretty and bright and fun in a way that never makes your co-workers, your friends, and, most importantly, your boyfriends feel intimidated. While Alison in Knocked Up is supposed to enjoy the challenge of helping Ben grow up, the only time you see guys take up a challenging girl in pop culture is typically when these girls are promising but damaged, intimidating because they are so screwed up instead of because their life is so together, perhaps even more together than the guy pursuing them.
For guys who like who they are and are looking for a compatible partner, girls like Casey are the ones they are encouraged to choose. For immature guys who like living their lives with minimal changes in attitude, they need to find a shrewish girl like Alison and change her, make her learn to live a little and not give the guy a hard time. If you are a guy looking for someone to bring out the best in you though, you need a manic pixie dream girl.
The Plain White Tees ballad Hey There Delilah is an ode to the MPDG, not a song about a long distance relationship like many people think. It is actually based on a real person, Delilah DeCresenzo, who never dated the guy who wrote the song. Instead, it is a song about a girl this guy has manifested as his dream girl, the one who can make him better, fix his life, and change everything. She is Kate Hudson in Almost Famous or Natalie Portman in Garden State. This bright shining light that will take your kind of crappy existence and transcend your world into something incredible.
Sounds like a whole lot of pressure, right? The funny thing about MPDGs is how they are supposedly so special they can turn a world upside down, but none of this magic is about them, it is about the effect they have on the guy who loves them. Hell, the chorus of the song pretty much sums it up: “Oh, it’s what you do to me.” Unlike the girls who need to learn to relax or the girls who are impressive in an unintimidating way, there is no rule book for how to be a MPDG because it isn’t about you at all and there is not exactly a guide book on how to make a guy think you are the one who can change his troubled existence. Full disclosure, I am one of those suckers who buys into this ridiculous trope. It isn’t like I am above it. If some dude wrote a song like this about me, I would gladly tattoo MPDG on my person and play the part. I just know it is a pretty impossible standard to set for both guys and girls.
People have written about MPDGs so much, Rabin admits he regrets ever coining the term, so rather than go into this archetype once again, I just want to offer one final thought. What does it say about the roles females can have in pop culture that the only way you can be yourself is if you are the real life version of Pinocchio’s Blue Fairy, literally transforming a guy’s life from emptiness to making it real? If you’re smart, you have to act dumber. If you’re pretty, you can’t be too pretty. Be driven, but don’t be critical. That is, unless you can rock some dude’s world. Then you can be pretty much anything you want.