The luxury of being ordinary

“You know what I do when I feel completely unoriginal?” asks Sam, before leaping to her feet and flailing her arms above her head, making squeaky, nonsensical noises, “I make a noise or I do something that no one has ever done before, and then I can feel unique again, even if it’s only for, like, a second.”

This is a scene from the 2004 film Garden State, in which Andrew, played by Zach Braff, encounters Sam, Natalie Portman’s character, and falls in love with her. Andrew begins the film a depressed, heavily medicated twenty-something, returning to his hometown from L.A. after the death of his mother. After meeting Sam, his life changes for the better, and he has a series of epiphanies that lead him to forgive his estranged father, abandon prescription medication, and go out into the world to pursue “something greater.”

The scene is meant to show the originality of Portman’s character — a unique young woman, endearing to Andrew and the audience for her ability to embrace her strangeness in a genuine way.

But this same character has also been criticized as a fundamentally inauthentic archetype. Many terms could describe Portman’s character in the film — quirky, energetic, spastic, whimsical. Film critic Nathan Rabin would use all of these, and one more: Manic Pixie Dream Girl (MPDG).

Anatomy of a Manic Pixie Dream Girl

Rabin coined the term in 2005, describing Kirsten Dunst’s character in the film Elizabethtown: “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.”

Once the term was coined, it was applied by many film writers to a number of female characters found in film: Kate Hudson in Almost Famous, Diane Keaton in Annie Hall, and virtually every character Zooey Deschanel has played in the last five years.

The trope’s existence is clear, but whether it is problematic is less so. A group of U of T students were asked to watch clips from Garden State and give their initial impressions.

Some students recognized the trope present in Portman’s character immediately. Lauren Dineley, a fourth-year student minoring in cinema studies, watched the clip and promptly added a link to the Wikipedia description of MPDGs. Dineley defined the type as: “Not realistic — idealistic for the demographic of the film — indie hipsters who think they are different but really aren’t.”

Two other students who were shown the clip were able to identify the trope, and even some who didn’t were skeptical of the authenticity of Portman’s character. “I would describe her as a romanticization of a person,” said Sarah Bowser, a third-year English specialist.

Characters identified by critics as MPDGs are considered both authentic-seeming characters by some and romanticized figures by others. However, the problem with the trope doesn’t lie in the audience’s perception of the MPDG as realistic or not. The problem with the artificial nature of the character is the reason for which she is contrived in the first place — to capture the imagination of the male protagonist.

Words used by critics to describe the MPDG were echoed by U of T students: quirky, whimsical, witty, cute, likeable. Whatever else the trope may be, it creates a girl who is undeniably interesting — but her entire personality is designed to captivate her oh-so-sensitive, bookish male protagonist.

The male protagonist does not have to be extraordinary — he does not need to justify himself as the titular character or inspire a love interest to make himself worthy of the audience’s attention. The Zach Braffs of the film world revel in how downright ordinary they are. It is up to the MPDG to provide spark and life to the male’s story — she doesn’t have the luxury of being ordinary.

The MPDG trope has implications outside of the fictional world in which it was created. It’s natural for us to grow up idolizing characters in the media we consume and in the fictional stories we are told. It would make sense then for viewers to internalize the MPDG as both someone to desire and someone to imitate. If the only type of woman being put forward in a film matches the MPDG model, it is not a great a leap to assume that actual women growing up watching such characters might change themselves to emulate them. They may think that they will only be valued if they conform to a fantasized version of their gender.

The MPDG trope creates a world in which, if women are to serve a purpose, they must capture the attention of men; to achieve that end, they may end up being denied the privilege of being themselves.

4 thoughts on “The luxury of being ordinary”

  1. “The MPDG trope creates a world in which, if women are to serve a purpose, they must capture the attention of men” I think you are assuming much in the relationship between the MPDG character and the male protagonist. While the trope directly references women, it is not necessarily the case that only women can be MPDG. For example, Howl from Miyazaki’s film “Howl’s Moving Castle” has many MPDG traits and is actually a male. The female character in the movie is equally bland and Howl and his ever changing hair colour and clothes seems to fit your definition of a romanticized MPDG character quite well.

    Despite all of this, what does it even mean to be yourself? A person’s idea of themselves doesn’t change yearly, or even monthly, but by the second as according to their mood and experiences. If a person wishes to adopt MPDG-type traits it could be because they want to make themselves into a better person, and they do this because they believe it is in their identity rather than fitting into a stereotype despite having a different identity.

  2. I do not mean to argue with you, rather I wish to say that your opinion is one among many, and you do not address the fact that there are many ways of seeing a literary trope. Without this it seems you are suggesting this is the only way of seeing this issue, and this makes your argument less convincing.

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