Monday, July 15, 2013

Manic Pixie Dream Girls and Good Men

I don't think I'll be getting that new door installed today because it's supposed to be raining off and on all day, and it sort of defeats the purpose of weatherproofing an enclosure to remove the temporary closure while it's raining. At least, that's my logic. They may or may not agree with me. I'm loving the rain, though. The temperatures are in the 70s in mid-July. Between that and all the back-to-school ads in the newspaper yesterday, I'm afraid my body is trying to tick over to "fall" mode and will be terribly disappointed when summer inevitably returns for another couple of months. I'm anticipating getting a lot of writing done today because this is Good Writing Weather.

During yesterday's rain, I found myself re-watching Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day because it was on HBO, and I can't seem to resist that movie (yes, I have it on DVD, but watching on HBO is even easier). It's also a good rainy day movie. Seeing this movie this weekend after last weekend's Manic Pixie Dream Girl movie got me started thinking. What's the female equivalent of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl?

In case you aren't familiar with the term, a Manic Pixie Dream Girl is a character most often seen in a male-focused romantic comedy, romance or coming-of-age story. She's an adorable (or adorkable) woman/child (a childlike free spirit with a woman's body and sex drive) with a collection of quirks instead of a real characterization who guides the hero on his emotional journey. Zooey Deschanel is generally considered to be the poster girl for this character type (particularly in 500 Days of Summer), though I believe the term was coined for the Kirstin Dunst character in Elizabethtown. Another frequently cited example is Natalie Portman's character in Garden State. In Seeking a Friend for the End of the World, she's got a weird combination of hypersomnia and insomnia, so she has trouble getting to sleep but once she's asleep she can sleep through absolutely anything. She's in her twenties but loves vinyl records, and when it looks like her building could burn down (and the world's ending in about a week anyway), she grabs her collection of albums instead of her purse with her ID and money. She's so ditzy that she managed to miss the last plane that would take her to see her family before the world ended, and she never got around to delivering her neighbor's mail that was mistakenly put into his box, so he never got the letter from his old girlfriend that could have changed his life. But she's also so winsomely charming that she can get whatever help they need on their pre-apocalyptic road trip, and being with her solves all the hero's emotional problems.

I'm not sure when this character type first appeared, and I wonder if it's a misread of some classic characters. The Katharine Hepburn characters in Holiday and Bringing Up Baby fit some of the characteristics, but I'd say they're Fake Manic Pixie Dream Girls in that in both cases she's deliberately putting on the extreme quirkiness, perhaps out of an awareness that this is a male fantasy, while having a distinct agenda (a Manic Pixie Dream Girl usually doesn't have a real agenda of her own -- she may state a goal, but she'll always sacrifice that goal for the hero). Holly Golightly in the film version of Breakfast at Tiffany's looks like a Manic Pixie Dream Girl, but she has her own character arc. She may resolve the hero's problems, but then she has even bigger problems that he then has to help her deal with. It's that actual character arc that's usually missing from the Manic Pixie Dream Girl, who only exists as an accessory to a man's life.

There doesn't seem to be a Manic Pixie Dream Guy, unless you count those Frat Pack type romantic comedies in which the hero is an overgrown manchild, but that doesn't strike me as a female fantasy. That's more male fantasy/fear -- she has to loosen up a bit, but she's still in the role of mean mommy making him grow up. I think the female equivalent is the Good Man. In most of the movies I can think of that are centered on the woman's journey, it comes down to her having to learn what a Good Man really is. There's the guy who's Good On Paper, who seems to be just what she wants, but then she's thrown up against a true Good Man who may not fit her checklist, but who proves himself to be honest, loving and loyal. You see that in classic screwball comedies and in a lot of the current ones. There's Katherine Hepburn having to choose among her ex-husband (whom she may have misjudged), a passionate reporter and the seemingly solid businessman in The Philadelphia Story, only to learn that her ex is the man who will stand by her in spite of -- or even because of -- her human frailties. In Miss Pettigrew, there's the wealthy man who can keep her in luxury, the connected man who can make her a star, and the penniless but talented and honest man who loves her for herself. Even going more modern (since Miss Pettigrew was based on a book written in the screwball era), there's While You Were Sleeping, in which the heroine has to choose between the slick, handsome Prince Charming type and his hardworking, less glamorous brother. Or more recently, Leap Year, in which she has to choose between a superficial doctor and a hardworking Irish pub owner. Notting Hill was also on TV yesterday, and although it does seem more of a male-focused movie, it's clearly aimed at a female audience, so it's about a Good Man who has to prove to the heroine that he's a Good Man once she realizes that a Good Man is what she needs.

But while I think the Good Man is a strong female fantasy, the interesting thing is that in the screwball era, during the Depression, it was also playing into a male fantasy. The ordinary working man managed to win the heart of even a spoiled heiress because of his inner good qualities that made him a better man than a playboy or a social climber. And to add to the fantasy, usually the tycoon father also approved of him as a good man and often gave him an opportunity (never money, though -- the Good Man always rejects handouts, but he'll take a job he's proven himself worthy of). And maybe that's why the trope has stood the test of time. It plays into everyone's fantasies. Yeah, it's a high standard for manhood, but being honest, loving and loyal is probably more achievable for the average guy than being fabulously wealthy and powerful. On the other hand, it seems that women generally find the Manic Pixie Dream Girl irritating. Why go to a movie to watch a crazy chick mess with a guy's head when you can watch that so often in real life?

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