This is the part where I talk about Manic Pixie Dream Girls and how I disagree (to an extent) with the Zoe Kazan interview that’s been making its way around the Tumbies. Kazan told Vulture:
(1) ”[“Manic Pixie Dream Girl”] is 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. (2)You know, they’ve let music tastes be a signifier of personality. But I just think (3) the term really means nothing; it’s just a way of reducing people’s individuality down to a type, and (4) I think that’s always a bad thing.”
I want to focus on the bolded text, because, while I agree that the term itself is harmful, especially in application to real life people (I’m one of those), I also think that it can be a beneficial trope. Which brings me back to (500) Days of Summer:
(1) “MPDG” is reductive, diminutive, and basically misogynist: Kazan is spot-on here in her analysis of the term. The characterization of any ~quirky young woman as a Dream-anything necessarily reduces her to a collection of ideas inside someone else’s head. She is no longer a cool, spunky awesome individual; she is somebody’s dream. The term is not merely reductive – it strips women (and less frequently men) of their agency. In that sense, the label is indeed misogynist. It says, “your identity depends on mine,” and that’s really not okay.
In the movie, we see on a number of occasions that Tom’s own perception of Summer is very different from reality. The “expectations vs. reality” scene is probably the most obvious example of this. Based on all of Summer’s past behavior, including her admittance that she isn’t ready for commitment and her continued disinterest in him during their relationship, Tom still EXPECTS her to want him. He expects her to greet him with love and affection after all that time, because he’s just the nicest guy, you know?
In reality, she’s a smart, thoughtful twenty-something with Zooey Deschanel’s Big Blues™ who knows herself well-enough to know that this guy is not the one for her. She initially turns him down, which should have been the Big Damn Signal of Truth and Destiny (“dude, she’s just not that into you”). But Tom is persistent, and she is, presumably, lonely.
Another great example is the conversation between Tom and lil’ sis Chloe G. Moretz, when she tells him to basically get over it and grow the eff up. Here we clearly see just how much Tom had been projecting his own Manic Pixie Dream onto Summer. I mean, look at how quickly he vilifies Summer for what he had preivously found praise-worthy about her. Her birthmark is now disgusting, her knees too knobby, her smile crooked, her laugh obnoxious. People see what they want to see, and this movie is all about Tom’s perception.
(2) Music taste as a signifier of personality: Again, Kazan is spot-on. The now infamous elevator scene is the greatest example of this issue, and it’s one of the reasons I hold (500) Days so high. Summer and Tom share an elevator. She sings along to the song on his iPod. Tom falls head-over-heals infatuated with Summer. It doesn’t really matter that it’s a Smiths song (if you think Morrissey is obscure, I pity you). All that matters is that Tom thinks it is important, and that Tom uses it to project all sorts of Bonus Girl-Points onto Summer (because he just met her and this is super crazy).
(3) The term means nothing: Ehhhhh…I obviously don’t think Zoe Kazan is trying to say that when combined, the words Manic, Pixie, Dream, and Girl are actually rendered meaningless; instead, I think she’s trying to hit home the point that the term, in application, does not define the girl but the perception of the girl. And I can get behind that! But I also think it’s counterproductive to claim that the term itself lacks real meaning. Because, boy, does it pack a punch.
The term means everything. I mean, it says literally everything that needs to be said. The “Manic” and “Pixie” allude to the whimsical, carefree, quirky nature of the girl it typically describes. She doesn’t actually need to be whimsical, carefree, or quirky, but she is perceived as such. “Dream” tells us that the label depends entirely on perception. “Girl” tells us that she is…a girl. That’s exciting! So, without knowing anything about MPDGs in pop culture or their vast tradition of perceived unobtainable perfection (reaching all the way back to rad chicks like Katherine Hepburn), a person can know that the label refers to a girl whose identity has been imagined.
(4) “MPDG” is always a bad thing: Well, I disagree. I think that the term can be a really, really good thing, but only if it’s being used to actively showcase the problems caught up in the label. Like I’ve said, (500) Days is a fantastic movie, and there are two basic reasons for that:
- it takes the “nice guy” and shows us how crappy he is,
- it takes the “quirky girl” and gives her her own happy ending.
While I despise the last three minutes of this film with all my heart (why is Minka Kelly here? why is her name Autumn?), I love, love, love that Summer and Tom don’t end up together. If Summer had not moved on to someone else (someone we never even meet), the movie would have lost all meaning. She defies all of Tom’s internal logic (which is also largely the logic of the film, because we’re dealing with his perspective), and she does what she wants to do. The first time I saw this movie, I didn’t get it.