by Jennifer Quist
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.