MPDG: The Cut-out Catalyst | Martha Hegarty


It’s a well-known fact that tropes are useful narrative tools in cinema. Like stock relatives who turn up without fail at Christmas get-togethers, they operate as recognisable figureheads or conventions to frame whatever other shenanigans will take place within said frame. But does the continuation of certain tropes within mass media encourage the stereotypes they portray? As instruments for establishing a recognisable standing ground for the audience, does their status as signifier flatten out their subjects into nothing more than a cardboard cut-out catalyst? Case in point: the trope character of Manic Pixie Dream Girl.

The term was coined by film critic Nathan Rabin in 2005, and, though this may seem timely considering the burgeoning subculture of Hipster and every Wes Anderson lovechild that came thundering along with it, the depiction of MPDG has actually been around for much longer than current yoof. To understand what exactly a MPDG is, you need only combine an Ellen Page deadpan drawl with Zooey Deschanel’s wardrobe and a façade of a wide-eyed wildchild wordiness over the promise of endearing inner instability. MPDGs listen to an irresistibly adorable combination of The Smiths, The Shins and a band you’ve never heard of and they exist exclusively to facilitate the angsty, apathetic hero’s self-realisation through a combination of living in the moment airiness and the oh-so-stylish view from a pedestal.

Essentially it’s a rubric which dismisses any eccentric, creative or potentially stand-out female as nothing more than a criminally underwritten vehicle, and therefore promotes the dismissal of these real-life females themselves.

1The cliché of passive female muse and functional male is in no way a new one – just Google Pygmalion and Galatea – however, it’s one that is becoming, especially in contemporary cinema, the increasing norm and is therefore overlooked as the distortion it is. For example, take (500) Days of Summer: a hilariously unabashed plagiarisation of Annie Hall. It’s similar in cinematic style, plot, wardrobe, characterisation and humour, but it ludicrously chooses to subvert the motivations, evolution and vigour of the title character. Instead of being on level pegging with her male counterpart, Summer is a watered-down Annie void of admirable strengths and fleshed-out complexities. But, hey, she still has the kooky clash of bows and androgynous waistcoats, so what of it?

The appeal of the MPDG lies in this surface frothiness, but like cakes made with Splenda, the initial high of sugary charm quickly subsides into a puzzlingly vacuous low. With contours and dimensionalities left undefined, the character type represents a sexless fantasy whose only details are quintessential quirk and romanticised, but essentially vague and two-dimensional, array of troubles.

Has so-called ‘indie cinema’ become so reductive that females are appearing more and more as flatly predictable archetypes, the realistic depths of a character blurred away in the whirlwind of appealing wardrobes and servitude? So much so that even rhetorical questions in an article written by a real-life female are evocative of a Carrie Bradshaw voiceover?

However, there is hope through revealing the seams. The unrealistic farce of the MPDG can be conveyed through subverting and playing on the set trope, as well as a coined phrase by which female roles can be defined in opposition.

While parody videos like ‘State Home for Manic Pixie Dream Girls’ achieve this, one example of an overt criticism in cinema of this trope is Kate Winslet in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. In one scene, she blatantly expresses her frustration at the fact that men see her as a colourful kook who can redeem them, expecting her to abandon the search for her own peace of mind in order to service theirs.
Our very own Dramat parodied the MPDG in October’s production of Indie Movie, revealing the ridiculousness of set arty film tropes. The courtship of the unattainable hipster girl which leads to the male protagonist’s self-realisation is set in motion when he ‘trumps’ social anxiety by reverting back to childhood conversational topics (in this case Sega Mega Drive preferences), highlighting the deep-seated Peter Pan nature of these protagonists.

While some argue that Holly Golightly in Breakfast at Tiffany’s is a MPDG, this is not so: she’s a character written with all the psychological expanse distinctive of Truman Capote’s writing, and her seeming joie de vivre is far more tinged with dread and depth than the average Stepford WAG.

Still, this assumption is testament to the increasing acceptance, as well as assignation, of the stereotype beyond the boundaries of the actual stereotype itself. Quirky is a broad church, with occupants ranging from Marlene Dietrich to Björk. It may sound dramatic, but to encourage the MPDG stereotype within our culture is diminish such women into nothing more than ineffectual clotheshorses. Culture saturates our consciousness, and what else is reality but consciousness?