It’s likely that most people will have come across a 'manic pixie dream girl' character whilst reading. It’s the name given to those slightly zany, idiosyncratically dressed girls who waft around novels and plays, doing things that are 'interesting' and 'out there'. They are both innocent and entirely worldly, likely to be in possession of an exceedingly dark backstory or engage in low-level criminal activity while still being enthused by cats and rainbows, and altogether representing a literary trope that needs to be retired.
Don’t get me wrong, as an avid reader of young adult fiction in my early teens, I loved the manic pixie dream girls. I wanted to be a manic pixie dream girl. They represent the girls who didn’t quite fit in; the girls who are slightly quirky and eccentric, and the fact that these kinds of characters were foregrounded at the centre of so many stories was both validating and exciting for thirteen-year-old me. Yet, as I take a retrospective look at these female protagonists (think Alaska from Looking For Alaska, Hannah Baker from Thirteen Reasons Why, or the Lisbon sisters from The Virgin Suicides), the more I realise how entirely problematic and flawed their depictions truly are.
In most cases, the manic pixie dream girl does not exist outside of the male gaze. She is fetishised and sexualised beyond belief, coming to represent the object of conventional heteronormative male desire as opposed to being a girl who simply wants to do her own thing. For although the entire concept of the manic pixie dream girl hinges on the vomit-inducing sentiment that she is 'not like other girls', it is interesting to note that the physical descriptions of these young women all seem to comply with typical, Westernised, patriarchal standards of beauty: slim and dainty with long, straight hair and porcelain skin. She is more often than not narrated by a male protagonist, which ensures that the reader’s relationship with the manic pixie dream girl is often one akin to voyeurism – we see her as her male counterpart does, through a lens tinged with desire and a need to secure her romantic affections.
One of the most frustrating things about the manic pixie dream girl trope is her lack of an independent purpose. She is placed into narratives not to achieve things in her own right, but to help the male protagonist make a certain epiphanic revelation or solve his own problems. John Green’s Alaska assists the novel’s main character in realising the importance of differentiating between reality and idealised imagination, Jay Asher’s Hannah Baker enlightens Clay on the immensity of our actions and interactions, and Jeffrey Eugenides’ Lisbon sisters serve as a definitely creepy source of fascination for the group of unnamed male protagonists, bringing them together in their quest to be the ultimate white knights and bring to safety the manic pixie dream girls over whom they have indefatigably lusted. We are not encouraged to see the manic pixie dream girls as autonomous, but as characters who are dedicated to facilitating the actual protagonist’s journey through the narrative.
Let us deconstruct the notion that the manic pixie dream girl must be a teacher, whose carefree antics are aimed entirely at being enlightening for the whiny Holden-Caulfield-type friend with whom she is lumbered. Give me a novel in which the eccentric, off-the-wall female character wears neon flashing socks just because she wants to, or walks barefoot through the streets at night reading Tolstoy simply because it makes her happy. Just let the manic pixie dream girl live.