Friday, January 10th, 2014

Manic Pixie Dream Mom

If real Manic Pixie Dream Girls existed outside movies and pop culture critiques, eventually, in the course of the male ego stroking to which they owe their being, they’d wind up producing some sons and heirs. Being nubile, impulsive, and brimming with consent is essential to the Manic Pixie dream, so Manic Pixie pregnancy has got to be inevitable. It’s all right. A vital element of male self-obsession has always been the belief that their DNA must abound on the Earth forever and ever. Who better to make this a reality than dream girls already conjured out of male self-obsession?

In maternal form, the trope of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl would still be a flattened character in need of no inner life—not when her sole interest and pursuit is crafting a whimsical, shining, safely adventurous world for her sons. Like her pre-pregnancy persona, dream mom would be bright and happy, always available, perky, and so much fun. In the words of Nathan Rabin (the first person to write the words Manic Pixie Dream Girl all at once), the greatest life lesson she offers is “to teach broodingly soulful young men to embrace life and its infinite mysteries and adventures.” With spunky grace, she’d fix everything so her sons could reach their full potentials as artists or thinkers or other kinds of beautiful people who hardly ever need to wash their hands.

This isn’t all hypothetical. Manic Pixie Dream Moms already exist in fluffy entertainment products aimed at children and teenagers. They’re meant for an age group where a little egocentricity is appropriate, developmentally necessary, and (if all goes well) steadily waning as kids grow up. If you’re dorky enough, remember Ash Ketchum’s mother in "Pokemon." She’s pretty, fluttery and doting but she’s also free-spirited enough to let her ten-year-old son roam around yelling, fighting and learning about friendship, or whatever. Molly Weasley from the Harry Potter series is grittier and busier but her character is still happily home-bound, magically cooking and knitting, completely invisible outside her children’s lives.

None of this is great for feminism but at least these stories are presented as overt, childish fantasies. Their characters aren’t explicitly put forward as real possibilities that boys should expect girls to emulate in adult relationships. Let’s hope we all understand a Manic Pixie Dream Mom is more like a legendary Pokemon than like a real woman.

It’s when boyish egocentrism gets dragged out of childhood, out of overt fantasy, and into adult life that the Manic Pixie Dream Mom shifts and becomes a Manic Pixie Dream Girl. Unlike real life where people grow old along with us, the MPDG lifecycle spins in reverse. Dream women get younger as the men who imagine them grow up, moving from being moms to being lovers. The dream girl can’t do magic anymore—sex is her magic now. Yet she remains a compelling fantasy and a distorted mother-figure.

Maybe this trope has never really been about dream girls. Another woman came first. The Manic Pixie Dream Mom is actually the fantasy male-writers have been craving all along.

The idea occurred to me as I was reading about a film I’d never seen. I’m part of its demographic target audience but somehow I missed Garden State. I found a summary of it pasted into an article denouncing MPDGs. Reports of the movie’s flaws were what finally interested me enough to watch it.

The movie’s lead character (played by the same young, white, privileged male who also wrote and directed the film) meets his Manic Pixie Dream Girl while he’s grieving for his newly-dead mother. I’m no psychoanalyst but even that first bare-bones telling of Garden State’s trope-defining MPDG plotline struck me as a fairly obvious Oedipal scenario. A closer look only heightened the similarities between notorious MPDG films and the backstory of every Freudian’s favorite Greek tragedy. That’s Oedipus Rex, the drama where boys are cast as suitors for their mothers and rivals for their fathers.

The theme of a mother who fails and abandons her boy—by dying, falling mentally ill, dating his classmates, or simply ignoring him—recurs throughout the Manic Pixie canon. The plots of both Garden State and Elizabethtown—the film that sparked Rabin's Manic Pixie backlash in the first place—are grounded in lost mothers. Malevolent fathers are another recurring Oedipal theme in MPDG films. Bad dads alienate and neutralize their sons with guilt, psychiatric medication, and plain old hostility. Pay attention. It happens in MPDG movies with a consistency verging on eerie—or boring.

Still, no one’s had much new to say about Freud’s crusty psycho-sexual Oedipus Complex lately. At least, we haven’t been talking about it by that name. Maybe an Oedipus Complex is what we really mean when we rant about Manic Pixie Dream Girls.

It might go like this.

Lost your mom, sad, trendy movie guy? It’s not all bad. You can make a new mom with a new woman. No, don’t just paste in a copy of the same old peevish lady—the one with her own job, your laundry, and your stupid, needy dad in her face. This time, make your perfect mother. You’ve already got the fantasy, lying latent somewhere in the depths of your childhood lizard brain. Trot it out. Show us your dream mom scaled up to the dimensions of a dream girl. And don’t stop the fantasy at actually getting to smooch your dream mom—er, girl. Go ahead and create the ultra-attentive, indefatigable, sparkly fairy you deserve. You can even suit her up in the vintage dresses your mom used to wear—or that someone’s mom must have worn.

Which brings us to Zooey Deschanel’s character in 500 Days of Summer. Let’s be frank. This character is a thinly veiled cute mom. Her mommy-blog would probably be adorable. She dances with kids in public, plays duck-duck-goose, shops at Ikea, cheers for her boy’s bad singing, and has bothered to pick a favorite Beatle, for some reason. She’s whimsical but earthy. She wants her boy to sit down and finish his pancakes. She’s fun but through it all, the balance of social power is tipped completely in her favor. Though she clearly loves her boy, she won’t let him become an equal, romantic partner. Also, she becomes married to someone else. In the movie, the taboo that hobbles the relationship is obscured in some vague rambling about whether love exists. In real life, without the philosophical smokescreen, the true taboo is her maternity.

Wondering if I was a throw-back Freudian sicko, I did what anyone would do and typed “Manic Pixie Dream Mom” into Google to see what other people were saying about it. There were a few relevant search results before it all turned into a Zooey Deschanel witch-hunt. One was an article about James Franco’s mom and how naively awesome and amazingly lucky she must be to have raised a family of artsy, dreamy boys who don’t seem to have any sense of their own limitations. I also found the term used as the title for a blog dedicated to one woman’s passion for hand-sewing, knitting and endlessly photographing her little daughters’ outfits.

What I didn’t find in my search was anything about Oedipus or Freud. And maybe that’s fair enough. Male angst gets a lot of ink—it gets most of the ink—and some of us have had enough. But please indulge me. Let me call out the wistful, sublimated incest that’s been quietly propelling the Manic Pixie Dream Girl through our cultural atmosphere.

All those MPDG-loving writer-boys aren’t just fudging uncomplicated conjugal relationship fantasies. They’re pining for the magical maternal figure they may or may not have ever had. A Manic Pixie Dream Girl is not the fantasy of manly, brooding, old-souls. It’s a little boy’s longing for the glowing paradise found only on the gorgeously contrived mommy-blogs and pop-up detergent ads of today’s media. It’s a paradise without a second shift or post-partum depression or menstruation or any snitty feminist ideas that might cast a shadow on a properly androcentric world.

If Manic Pixie Dream Moms existed in real-life, beyond Ms. Franco, they’d wind up telling their boys to always believe in the beauty of their dreams, or something. So don’t be self-conscious about those Oedipus complexes, male-writers. There’s nothing embarrassing in admitting your scripts are really about being hung up on your moms. Just keep on believing. Keep dreaming. Everything will be fine. I’m no literature professor but I’m pretty sure the original story of Oedipus Rex comes with a healthy, happy ending.

Jennifer Quist is in Canada, raising her young sons to expect very little of her. She’s the author of flamboyantly titled lit-fic novel Love Letters of the Angels of Death.

14 Comments / Post A Comment

alsomike (#2,396)

It's a very plausible reading, but some would argue that it is an authoritarian one. For Freud, what separates the child from the mother is the castrating paternal authority that brings prohibitions, sexual repression, obedience and conformity to the Law. So to give up the idealized mother is to submit to the paternal authority.

That's what you might say if you were a follower of Wilhelm Reich, who was highly influential in the 1960s counterculture. It's no coincidence that these movies are so often about rejecting dull conformity and becoming an artist.

Patricko (#257,505)

I don't think a statistically relevant amount of men have ever, ever, ever watched Garden State, Elizabethtown, 500 Days of Summer or anything with Zoey Deschanel in it — as anything except date night or maybe a compromise movie for family night with the in-laws. We don't really like these movies. We definitely don't think about them much, regarding the boring (to men) male or female characters and their boring relationships.

Have you seen the series "Justified" or a movie with Jason Statham in it? Sin City? 300? These are movies and tv shows that a lot of men do choose to watch by themselves. There aren't that many "manic pixie girls" in them. Generally women in shows that men choose to watch are steely, tough ladies with impressive sounding jobs who like having sex without a lot of talky-talky. These women also like helping the male protagonists in their quest to shoot many other men. And it's completely cool if these tough, assertive women also like shooting people.

This article sort of seems like a male author complaining about the unfair male/female dichotomy in Skyrim or Fallout 3, and blaming the hordes of women gamers for foisting these concepts upon him. Because that would also be silly.

I personally advise all women reading this essay to take a stand against "magic pixie stuff" and never watch a romantic comedy again. Or ask anyone else too. Please.

mattalope (#257,571)

@Patricko : Re: Justified . . . Where is Raylan Givens's mother? Oh, that's right, she's dead. How about the healthy relationship with his father . . . oh, that's right, his father literally tried to kill him. But I'm sure Raylan has a stable relationship with an well-adjusted woman . . . nope. At least he had a daughter and not a son.

17804286@twitter (#257,626)

@Patricko So it was a woman who wrote and directed Garden State, Elizabethtown, and 500 Days of Summer, right? (Incidentally, 500 Days of Summer is pretty clearly a reaction against the MPDG stereotype, so I'm not sure why the author brought that up at all.)

I find it hilarious that all the examples you chose of manly media with manly men that manly dudes watch are incredibly homoerotic. Seriously, you're going to go with Justified? Do you think that Raylon Givens's jeans are for the benefit of your manly heterosexual eyes?

Patricko (#257,505)


If things are macho, they're probably also homoerotic. We know — pirates, cowboys, barbarians, soldiers, heavy metal, sports. Got it. It's 2014. You can't make dudes feel bad about that more, Obama's president and stuff. Go gay Justified fans! Everything's cool.

I don't know who wrote Garden State, but I definitely think we should just assume that male misogynists write all romantic comedies, and never watch one again.

438588228@twitter (#257,573)

Nailed it.

I think the writer of this thinks too much and should just go outside more often.

lbf (#2,343)

This could be so good if it were edited in the least.

skyslang (#11,283)

@lbf An edit, a second draft, another edit, another draft. Then this piece would have a chance.

joa (#257,673)

Freud usually gets all of the attention but the Jungian archetype of the anima (or the female aspect of the male psyche) seems to fit the Magic Pixie Dream Girl much better.

62928304@twitter (#257,704)

"Molly Weasley from the Harry Potter series is grittier and busier but her character is still happily home-bound, magically cooking and knitting, completely invisible outside her children’s lives."

Except that the Harry Potter books were only even tangentially about her children. So why would it matter that she had a life outside of them in the context that the books were about the childhood friend of one of her kids?


Ralph Haygood (#13,154)

I've never seen any of these movies (Garden State, Elizabethtown, etc.), and therefore the term "manic pixie dream girl" makes me imagine Tinker Bell on meth, which is terrifying.

"Molly Weasley from the Harry Potter series is grittier and busier but her character is still happily home-bound, magically cooking and knitting, completely invisible outside her children’s lives."
I'm gonna let you finish building your straw man of an argument with the rest of your essay, but how DARE you bring Mrs. Weasley into this! She was a founding member of the ORDER OF THE GODDAMN PHOENIX. She watched half her friends die trying to eradicate Voldemort from the Earth in the first go-round, lost one of her boys in the second, and another one got attacked by a werewolf & almost died. So don't you lump her in with Zooey "Fluffernutter" Deschanel like she's just some dork with a ukulele.

That got way too real for defending a person who a) does not exist and b) lives in a magical world that is also make believe.

CasualElegance (#231,723)

UGh this is just. So. Much. I'm just as interested in a discussion about the Manic Pixie Dream Girl trope as the next 'pinner but I think this tried to do too much. First of all the author throws Zach Braf under the bus for being 'white male and privileged' and for writing Garden State. From what I recall – a lot of people really liked Garden State – white, male, privileged, or otherwise. Secondly, the part that tried to convince me that Zooey Deschanel in 500 days of Summer is a mom figure because she shops at Ikea, and cheers for her boyfriend during karaoke is ludicrous. Everyone shops at Ikea, and if you don't cheer for your boyfriend (or your friends, or anyone else for that matter) at karaoke your just an asshole.

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