But What Does It Mean is a running item that takes a closer look at others’ creative works.
I was watching the immensely talented Anita Sarkesian and her web series Tropes vs. Women today and came across the pilot episode detailing the Manic Pixie Dream Girl.
As most would probably expect, Garden State’s Sam (Natalie Portman) is described with language similar to the title to this entry. I think the world of Sarkesian, but if there’s any failing to be said of her, it’s that she often foregoes nuance for brevity. You can’t really break down the nuances of one character in a five minute video, let alone half a dozen, but any longer and you risk producing something that few on the internet have the patience to watch. (Personally, as I think Sarkesian is talented and I do enjoy her videos, I think a 20ish minute half hour TV slot type format would work well. At the very least, I think she needs to supplement her videos with the written word when possible and necessary.) But I digress.
The term Manic Pixie Dream Girl was coined by film critic Nathan Rabin to describe the unpredictable, vivacious, and shallow character that exists solely to make a depressed male character not depressed.
“[The MPDG is] 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.” – Rabin
“[The MPDG is] an effective description of one-dimensional female characters who only seek the happiness of the male protagonist, and who do not deal with any complex issues of their own.” – AllMovie Critic Cammila Collar
Obviously there is going to be some failing in describing a large body of characters with one term. In fact, actress and screenwriter Zoe Kazan criticized the term as misogynist in itself: “I think that to lump together all individual, original quirky women under that rubric is to erase all difference.” To add my criticism, I would point out that there is a difference between a character with no personality outside her male counterpart and a story that is told from a first person, male point of view. Certainly no one would describe any characters in The Hunger Games as existing solely to satisfy Katniss Everdeen, the story is just told entirely through her eyes.
Thus Sam isn’t a Manic Pixie Dream Girl, she’s simply encountered solely through the protagonist Andrew Largeman…because it is his story. Sarkesian describes the MPDG as having little to her own life other than fulfilling the happiness of her male counterpart, and while that is true in that Sam is only seen with with Largemen, the subtext of the movie destroys accusations of the MPDG trope. If you watch Garden State without any nuance, it’s about a depressed guy who meets a quirky girl and is no longer depressed at the end of the movie. Ironically, Sarkesian appears to have failed to investigate the depths of this woman, something she often rails against. (Or she just hasn’t seen the movie more than one time a few years ago.)
Almost immediately the MPDG label begins to crack. Yes Sam comes into the life of a depressed Largeman, and yes she is a little…manic, but she has her own personality and trappings that have nothing to do with Largeman. We see that she’s a compulsive liar with a head injury that has yet to be (and in fact never is fully) explained. Moreover she’s an adult twenty-something who still lives with her mother creating an underlying complexity to her that extends beyond most MPDG characters. She’s obviously struggling with the forces that pull her in opposite directions: being an independent human being capable of making her own decisions, and the responsibilities (and issues) that tether her to home. One of the first things we see is the death of her hamster because she forgot to take the wheel out of his cage showing that the latter continues to make fulfilling the former difficult.
Sam seems like the type of person that says she’s going to get the hell out of her small town every day as a minor and yet winds up still living in the same house with her family ten years later. It’s clear that her purpose for existing isn’t to find a man, or to elevate Largeman, but to feel unique in a world that has changed very little for her over the years. (You can even make the case that by fostering Titembe, that Sam’s mother struggles with these things as well.)
In fact, we’re introduced to much of Sam that has absolutely nothing to do with Largeman in a short span. Her mother insists that Largeman sit down to watch a video from Sam’s youth of her ice skating, complimenting her abilities and also inadvertently revealing that she has epilepsy. It’s unclear how these things fit together and perhaps this is a topic Sam and Andrew explore, but just because we don’t get to see that part of the story doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist and by extension it doesn’t mean that Sam is a shallow character. That Sam’s mother brings this up, and that it bothers Sam so much lend further credence to the assertion that Sam’s core struggle is with finding a unique place in a world that keeps throwing the same damn things at her. It can be difficult to break free of your childhood when your parents keep dragging you back to it as “better days.” (Note: Also a key part of Largeman’s struggle.)
Additionally, so much of Largeman’s story exists outside of Sam’s influence, even when she is physically present. It’s not shallowly about him being brooding and depressed and finding a girl that makes him not those things, it’s about coming to terms with his incredibly complicated relationships with his (now dead) mother (and her accident) and (still alive) father. We learn that Largeman got in a physical altercation with his mother when he was a child, resulting in her partial paralysis when she slipped and hit her head. His father, a psychiatrist, put him on lithium and anti-depressants to combat the supposed anger issues that led to the altercation (and to punish his son and to fulfill his own guilt at his failures as a father).
Andrew’s journey throughout the movie is tied inextricably to the above and Sam exists as neither a prize to be won, nor a useless accessory. She is (gasp) an actual human being with her own problems and her own desires. That one of those desires ends up being Largeman (and vice versa) in no way makes her a shallow or weak character. Nor does quirky + love story make a Manic Pixie Dream Girl. Largeman’s journey and subsequent transformation is as much aided by his relationship with his friend Mark as it is by Sam. I would say that the real key to Andrew’s transformation is being able to see his friend in a new light as he works to track down his mother’s locket.
Assigning Sam the MPDG label is based on the exact kind of shallow analysis of women that opponents of the MPDG trope criticize. She is not his prize, nor his accessory, nor his solution. Yes, she is a piece to Largeman’s life puzzle, but that fact is predicated on the story being told through Largeman’s eyes, not sexism. It is clear through the events in the movie that she has a puzzle of her own, of which Largeman is also a piece. You can argue that Largeman helps “fix” Sam just as much as she helps “fix” him…which is kind of how good relationships work.