Lately, Zooey Deschanel has gotten a lot of flak for being girlishly cute or “adorkable”. Some have even nominated her as the reigning queen bee of all Manic Pixie Dream Girls, a term that Nathan Rabin defined as a madcap film heroine who serves to inspire the hero to shake himself out of his funk, embrace life’s mysteries and get on with his life. She is a wacky, enchanting gossamer creature and figures such as Katharine Hepburn in “Bringing Up Baby” and Ruth Gordon in “Harold and Maude” have been pegged as such. The MPDG is accused of being a passive agent of the hero’s desire, a plot device more than a character, a tendency that has earned it general scorn. (What female archetype in mainstream movies isn’t, though?) She plays at being a pretty, wacky, free spirit solely to attract male attention. Worst of all, she is accused of blunting her power by being forever child-like, even infantile.
The one thing that strikes me in this whole discussion is the lack of nuance that modern models of womanhood offer. On the one hand, we have the serious killjoy wife character who serves as the catalyst for the man-boy to put on his real man pants and grow up once and for all. (Two examples are Katherine Heigl and Lesley Mann in “Knocked Up”.) Here we’re offered a view of womanhood that’s all grim seriousness and competence. Beautiful she may be and she is definitely powerful but she’s also, frankly, a total drag. Enter the Manic Pixie Dream Girl as counterbalance, an effervescent sunny creature armed with a smile and a ukelele. Playfulness is her middle name. In this instance, it’s the guy’s overly serious demeanor that needs shaking up. Either way, I think this tendency to see MPDGs everywhere is going too far; it strikes me that nowadays any female character who is optimistic, bubbly, and quirky is automatically designated as such regardless of any other character trait or level of independence.
This lack of nuance makes me suspect that the trend goes beyond gender roles and male and female stereotypes. There’s something deeper going on: Both the MPDG and the Apatow man-boy point at the tremendous anxiety we in the U.S. have come to feel about adulthood.
I remember a conversation I had with a friend when were both in our early 30s. She was a real-life pixie girl, alternately fun and infuriating for her knack of getting in over her head and needing rescue at the last minute. (Not exclusively from men, by the way. Those of us who’ve known real-life MPDGs know they’ll cast anyone in the role of rescuer.) My friend mentioned that she never wanted to be an adult because it meant “the end of fun.” This association between adulthood and stoicism surprised me; as a kid in Venezuela, my family was deeply dysfunctional, but one thing that was never lacking was a sense of irreverent fun.
My great-aunt Gladys is so notoriously funny that she’s made almost all my cousins pee in their pants. (I still remember having to clean up the urine stain I left on the carpet the one time I tried to teach her English.) She also taught me how to pick produce at the market, how to make change, how to read, and how to do calisthenics every morning. (This was years before Jane Fonda donned jewel-toned leotards.) An uncle who was a professor of economics at Universidad Central de Venezuela once gave a macroeconomics lecture using a hand-puppet dubbed Discrepa. (He was trying to get a reaction from a particularly unresponsive set of students. All it got him was the nickname El Loco Narváez.) Now that I think of it, part of my childhood was equal parts 30s screwball comedy and Latin American magic realism. My intent in re-examining the MPDG is not to brag about my wacky kin, but simply to ask: Isn’t it possible that women too have a need to be silly and playful? Is it really that difficult to fathom that a woman can be eccentric, optimistic, and warm and still be forthright, honest, and hard-working? Why do we have such a black and white view of adulthood? Must we really give up playfulness and childlike wonder in order to be empowered?
If we’re going by the cinematic evidence, once upon a time American adults were also allowed to be both mature and light-hearted. Anyone who’s ever watched a Cary Grant movie can attest that, yes, the man was always in a suit (or, more often, a tux), yet he never let that fact keep him from executing a perfect pratfall, should the spirit move him. If anything, a great part of his enduring charm is his ability to be both sophisticated and silly. Grant, for all his fame, good looks and legendary glamour never took himself too seriously, which is precisely what makes him such terrific company to this day. He’s not the only star of the silver screen to strike that balance: Barbara Stanwyck, Claudette Colbert. Really, there’s no need to go further. At one point in American history, banter, wit, and downright silliness were perfectly acceptable traits in grown-ups. Interestingly enough, that point coincided with the Great Depression and a major world war.
Yes, the MPDG can be utterly annoying, I won’t deny it. But maybe what really makes her so troubling is that she embodies both a desire to remain youthful with a fear that in such a quest we will only become ridiculous, pathetic creatures trying to hold on to our faded youth. (Think Bette Davis in corkscrew curls and knee socks singing a love song to her Daddy.) On the other hand, if Ruth Gordon is an MPDG in “Harold and Maude” as some have claimed, then she’s the kind of old lady I want to be when I grow grey. Relentlessly creative, resourceful, independent and gregarious, Maude has definitely transcended her past suffering during the Holocaust (a fact that’s revealed simply and gracefully by having Harold glance at the tattooed numbers on her forearm). She’s entirely grounded in the present and doesn’t disguise her age, while simultaneously refusing to let it define what she can or cannot do. Can you imagine this lady having a public tantrum about how unfair it is that men get better-looking as they age, while women don’t, the way Mann’s character does in “Knocked Up”? Maude’s an imperfect person in the movie and, yes, she is only a catalyst for Harold’s awakening, but it is also clear that she has her own life, her own interests, and full control over these. As far as trying to hook a man, it’s quite clear that Maude lives alone and has for a long while, and if she has kids or grandkids, we never see them. What’s more, she doesn’t seem particularly lonely or bitter about being alone in her old age, certainly one of the greatest fears many women have. As a model for aging gracefully as women, we could do worse than to look to Maude.
If anything, I’d argue that we women need to inject a little whimsy in our lives now more than ever –- I point to the Mommy Wars and the relentless media scrutiny to which famous ladies are subjected as proof of that. Or the fear shared by parents of either gender that if our children don’t get into the right kindergarten, they’re doomed for life. Does being a good mother, a responsible citizen, and an ambitious career woman have to be such a white-knuckled serious business? Can we, in short, cut ourselves a break? We have become so invested in doing everything perfectly that instead of teaching our kids that women can do it all, we may be teaching them that women should do it all while they sit back, relax, and snack on edamame. We may also be teaching them that taking on responsibilities is an unpleasant, soul-destroying task. Neither are incentives to being a real grown-up.
Ask anyone who’s lived through the Depression or survived a coup d’etat: Life is simply too motherfuckin’ tough to be taken so seriously. Take it from my Aunt Gladys, a woman who is competent, disciplined, and can still make a whole comedy routine out of falling while camping in La Gran Sabana at 78: There’s nothing wrong with a little pixie dust now and then.