In his A.V. Club column “My Year of Flops”, Nathan Rabin coined the term “Manic Pixie Dream Girl” as a way of describing the cute, quirky women prevalent in dramedies aimed at post-college, pre-real-job losers whose nightly prayers consist of begging their god-of-choice to send them a beautiful girl who wears Kooky ™ t-shirts and wants nothing more in life than to make them mix tapes of forgotten/unheard of bands.
After the sixth viewing of Garden State (cleverly renamed Elizabethtown, The Last Kiss, and Juno), I began to wonder if there were any Manic Pixie Dream Guys. I was, after all, a miserable post-college girl working at the mall and living in a crummy apartment in Binghamton (City Motto: “The New Jersey of New York!”). Surely, there had to be a man whose sole ambition in life was to dedicate Smiths songs to me at the karaoke bar that I didn’t want to go to in the first place. Where in the movies were the dreamy tropes who wanted to pull a girl from the depths of her post grad-school crisis and lived for nothing more than doing a silly dance for her? I’m not talking about the romantic dramedy Lover Boy with wavy ash-blonde hair and sculpted-but-non-threatening pecs who swoops in to rescue women from the horrors of the corporate working world or the tragic death of our husband/child/best friend/dog. Why isn’t anyone calling us on a hamburger phone?
To qualify as a Manic Pixie Dream Guy — or MPD Guy, for short — a male role must have a few basic characteristics. For starters, he needs to be good looking. Not the type of good looking where he divides his time between the gym and the hair salon, but good looking enough that he doesn’t have to wear a paper bag over his head. He should smile a lot and crinkle his eyes up when he does. He should be a little on the skinny side, but not a rail-thin hipster. Ideally, he’d wear one or two eccentric articles of clothing to show that he is self-assured and no slave to societal trends — a thrift-store suit jacket with a vintage t-shirt and Doc Martens, for example, or a funky hat and Pee-Wee Herman watch. After all, we’re not looking for Napoleon Dynamite. A good soundtrack is a must, preferably a clever collection of old school under-the-radar (think Tom Waits and Warren Zevon) and post-punk, with some silly one-hit wonders and new wave thrown in for the quirk factor. Pretty in Pink had the Smiths, Echo and the Bunnymen, and the Psychedelic Furs. Edward Scissorhands had a Danny Elfman score that was pure ethereal magic, with a little Tom Jones thrown in for a curve. Compare this to Garden State, which had… the Shins. I rest my case.
The heroine of the movie is important to crafting an MPD Guy as well. In order for the chemistry to work, she has to be likable — sweet, good-natured, a little on the dippy side, but ultimately genuine. The audience doesn’t want to hold an intervention for her; we want to have a slumber party with her. Contrast this to the male protagonist of movies with an MPD Girl, the hero of which is simply a sad bastard with greasy hair and stupid clothes. He is constantly on the verge of crying, and his main hobby is moping around and staring thickly at nothing. And we’re supposed to sympathize with him out of fear that if we don’t, he’s going to write about us in his blog.
Though increasingly rare, the Manic Pixie Dream Guy does exist in the female moviegoers parallel. The ultimate template for the MPD Guy is Jeff Goldblum in Earth Girls Are Easy. As the alien Mac, he literally drops out of space (with his two dumb buddies Jim Carrey and Damon Wayans in tow) into the recently-dumped Val’s (played by Goldblum’s then-wife and Oscar-winning MPD Girl Geena Davis) pool. He parrots anything he hears, at one point asking Val, in all earnestness, if he and his friends are “limp and hard to manage.”
In the end, just as Mac’s ship gets ready to head back to Jhazzalan, Val suddenly turns and confesses her love. “I am Mr. Right?” Mac calls down. His intentions are true, but in typical MPD form, he is simply telling her what she needs to hear, recycling her own words back at her. It’s romantic until you really think about it. Yet what sets it apart from a typical romance movie is that Val makes the decision herself. By meeting Mac, Val realizes that there’s literally another world outside the Valley, and she hops aboard a giant hairdryer to find it.
In Benny and Joon, Johhny Depp’s portrayal of oddball Sam borders on the sublime, far from the overwrought, ham-fisted performances that would make him famous in more recent years. Sam does not acknowledge his existence in Joon’s world as her social savior, he simply wanders around doing the generally quirky things that MPD People are supposed to do in order to prompt the protagonist into self-acceptance and happiness. Cue random cartwheels and dinner roll dance routines.
But, like Ellen Page and Jason Bateman’s tepid pseudo-affair in Juno, things don’t always turn out so hot, and not every MPD Guy gets to put his hand on Geena Davis’ thigh. Requited love is not a prerequisite for salvation. Though ill-fated from the start, Johnny Depp’s titular Edward Scissorhands’s quiet presence awakens the better senses of suburban cheerleader Wynona Ryder (who, despite being pixiesque, almost never stoops to that level) from the spell of the handsome (but surprisingly beefy) Anthony Michael Hall. Though they cannot be together, her previously-shallow, callous outlook on life is forever changed in a slow-motion shower of ice shavings.
Thora Birch would like to think she’s an MPD Girl in Ghost World, but she’s a store-bought misfit, complete with black-framed glasses and a bored outlook on life not dissimilar to a Zach Braff character. It’s Steve Buscemi who, through old blues records and inevitable heartbreak, gives her the strength to follow her dream of getting on a bus with a single vintage suitcase and going… wherever. He’s not handsome, he’s not charming, he’s awkward and horrible, and in the end, he remains awkward and horrible, but the important part is that she’s no longer stuck in her life, even if freedom came at the cost that he is. Like an MPD Girl, Buscemi’s whole existence revolves around making sure Thora Birch’s irritable shrew can crack even a faint smile at the end of the day.
Jon Cryer’s immortal Ducky serves a similar purpose in Pretty in Pink. Though quirky and unique and utterly unafraid of being Ducky, he is relegated to serving as a hankie and an arm upon which to escort Molly Ringwald, against his will and everything he stands for, to her sacred prom. The favor is immediately returned when she ditches him in favor of Andrew McCarthy (who I wouldn’t go to prom with if you gave me Oingo Boingo backstage passes and a swimming pool filled with Swatches) and Ducky simply smiles, like a good MPD Guy. He has served his purpose. He can vanish now.
The MPD Girl has overstayed her welcome and would be best advised to pack up her Rainbow Brite dolls and go elsewhere, leaving the door open for a clever quirky guy to dance through. Filmmakers need to start seeing women as a viable audience and instead of force-feeding us swoon-centered garbage revolving only around wholly-unlikable “Mr. Big” characters (Chris Noth, by the way, was replaced on Law and Order: Criminal Intent by none other than Jeff Goldblum) and give female moviegoers the sort of icons we can take out of the theaters and back to our dating lives. The repetition of romantic icons that are unattainable and unreliable until tamed by the right woman should have dropped dead post-feminism. This reinforcement of “He can change, he changed for Carrie Bradshaw!” is what continues to encourage women to eschew perfectly nice MPD Guys for better-looking men with fatter wallets who will inevitably leave her on her 40th birthday for his 20-something (and possibly MPD Girl) secretary, as you know Molly Ringwald will find out in Pretty in Pink II: The Revenge of Ducky.
While men claim to want Jessica Alba, the continuous remake of Garden State proves otherwise — men want a girl they can talk to about music, a girl who appreciates their collection of G.I. Joes, a girl who isn’t going to avoid sex because it’s been two days since she’s shaved her legs.
Just as Val turns down her gorgeous (but unfaithful) fiancé for the slightly-less-handsome, but ultimately more lovable Mac, women need to put their popcorn dollars towards films that encourage the MPD Guy. He’s not a perfect reflection of our full romantic hopes and dreams, but he’s a much better starting place. The MPD Guy harkens a new era of feminism, one where Prince Charming sits at home on prom night and women are looking for a mate who challenges her to reach beyond the boundaries of societal expectations and norms. So what if he wears duck shoes and a bolo tie? So what if he’s Steve Buscemi? There’s a connection there, and that connection is more infinitely important than any Jimmy Choos.