To describe what a Manic Pixie Dream Boy is, one must first know the definition of a Manic Pixie Dream Girl. Ladies first, after all. So, what exactly is a Manic Pixie Dream Girl (MPDG)? I’m always surprised when people ask me this question because the phrase, coined in 2007 by film critic Nathan Rabin to describe Kirsten Dunst’s pervasively bubbly character in Elizabethtown, has firmly entrenched itself into our pop culture lingo. Rabin has since expressed regret for coining the term but, despite his wishes, it looks like the “Manic Pixie Dream Girl” is here to stay and is becoming as clichéd as the girls the term describes.
Long story short, a MPDG is an exceptionally quirky and eccentric force of femininity usually used as a Mary Sue character in films to ameliorate the life of the Brooding Male Lead.
Here are some of the general defining characteristics of the trope:
Joie de vivre
Even when their circumstances don’t necessarily call for it, MPDGs are generally full of life, charm, and wonder at the world around them.
But they are also often flawed in some way
This is so that the broody moody dude can take care of/fix them. They’re not always flawed, but some of the most common problems are that they are flaky, flighty, free-spirited, fiercely independent, neurotic, afraid of commitment, or haunted by something in their past.
Somewhat elfin in nature
Or generally otherworldly, ethereal, and energetic, like a woodland sprite. That’s where the word “pixie” comes into play in MPDG.
Quirkiness out the wazoo
‘Cause the best kind of girl is a quirky girl. Each MPDG will have their own special quirks to spin with that make them interesting to the Brooding Male Lead.
Unique but cute style
Whatever that style may be, it’s a strong one and a large part of her identity. Berets and sequined vests? Why not. Feminizing men’s wear? Sure. A large part of the MPDG is her physical appearance, which is always attractive (usually leaning toward the cute side of things) with definite flair.
Mary Sues with a Purpose
Unfortunately, the whole idea of a manic pixie dream girl is pretty sexist. I mean, it’s right there in the name: a “dream girl.” That means that not all “quirky” girls are necessarily MPDGs. To earn that title, she can’t have many of her own complexities, but rather serve as a girlish force of nature to cheer up and be the romantic interest to the Brooding Male Lead.
Some (but not all) of the famous manic pixies. I should just go ahead and say right now that there are some major SPOILERS in here.
- Holly Golightly from Breakfast at Tiffanys: Audrey Hepburn plays an enchanting social climber in New York who is constantly throwing lavish parties with the glittering literati and artistic crowd of Manhattan in attendance. She earns her cash by going on dates with men, asking for money for the powder room, and then sneaking out the window. Her style is decidedly glamorous and mod (she essentially invents the LBD paired with a french-twist beehive and giant sunglasses) but she’s also not afraid to answer the door in pigtails, a men’s tuxedo shirt, tassel earplugs, and a sleep mask with glittering eyelashes. Enter Paul Varjak, ennui-ridden writer who really earns his keep by being the kept man of a wealthy married woman. Depressed and emasculated by his situation, he’s fascinated by Holly’s liveliness and childishness and desperately wants to “fix” her by making her fall in love with him instead of surviving on the “super rats” she dates. Oh, and she did the whole singing with a ukulele thing way before Zooey Deschanel did.
- Claire Colburn from Elizabethtown: The woman that started it all. While she certainly wasn’t the first MPDG to ever exist in film, she was the first one to be described using the term. Orlando Bloom plays our Brooding Male Lead, Drew Baylor, a man who was fired from his job after making a mistake that cost his company millions of dollars and is attempting suicide just before finding out that his father died and he has to return home for the funeral. So . . . yeah. He’s got some issues to brood about. On the flight home to Kentucky he meets perky Claire (Kirsten Dunst) a flight attendant with an outgoing personality and a love for life. The two hit it off and she gives him her number. Later she impulsively joins him on his trip, and after he tells her about all his mistakes and how he doesn’t deserve to live, she tells him that all his problems have to do with money and not his actual life. At his father’s funeral, Claire shows up with a box for Drew with a map and a playlist (there’s nothing Brooding Male Leads love more than mixtapes) to help him “find his way home.” The custom-made road trip leads him through quirky sites and eventually to the world’s second largest farmer’s market and, of course, to Claire herself.
- Zooey Deschanel in pretty much anything, but specifically 500 Days of Summer: Like Elizabethtown, this movie was directed by Cameron Crowe. (Huh. I wonder if he has a type.) This film, however, seems to criticize the idea and creation of the MPDG. Deschanel plays a quirky employee at a greeting card company who becomes the obsession of hopeless Romantic (note the capital R), Tom, played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt. Tom sees Summer as what he wants to see: his perfect woman. She’s a beautiful girl with retro style and a love for the Smiths. Be still, his poor little heart. They go on appropriately quirky dates like pretending they live in the IKEA showrooms, shouting the word “penis” in a public park, and browsing record stores where he learns that her favorite Beatle is (of course) Ringo. The catch? Summer isn’t interested in a committed relationship with Tom. Tom chooses to see this as part of Summer’s MPDG-ness, her tragic foible being that she’s afraid to become vulnerable and take the leap of love and commitment. But, that isn’t actually the case. He optimistically believes that she is falling in love with him over time and that they will probably end up married despite her apprehensions, but instead they break up and Summer eventually marries someone else. Poor Tom, he should have actually listened instead of projecting his MPDG fantasy.
There are so many other examples: Natalie Portman in Garden State, Barbara Streisand in What’s Up Doc?, Ramona Flowers (sort of) in Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World, etc. But you get the picture.
So what then makes a character a Manic Pixie Dream Boy (MPDB)? This is a little harder to pinpoint, since most hollywood screenwriters don’t purposefully set out to create one. It’s not as established as a trope. In an article for grantland.com, Molly Lambert says “Manic Pixies are archetypes of early teenage desire,” which I think can apply equally to both male and female Manic Pixies. What sort of boyfriend/girlfriend did you yearn for through your angsty, misunderstood-teen years? It was probably a Manic Pixie.
Here are some qualities I’ve compiled of masculine Manic Pixie-hood:
The male version of “free-spirited.” Men sans major life goals and ambition, but in a kind of charming way.
This one isn’t quite as important as it is for MPDG, nor is actual “mania”, I think. But having a quiet quirkiness about him is a plus for any MPDB. It’s generally a less in-your-face type of quirky.
Childlike (along with that comes selfishness/petulance)
Because the true MPDB is Peter Pan. He never grows up, settles down, and accepts adult responsibility. He waffles in arrested development.
THIS IS THE MOST IMPORTANT THING. The thing that makes him a “dream boy” is how long he’ll wait, and how hard he’ll fight, for the woman he loves. He’s also willing to put up with any amount of crap his woman puts him through. Like Sandy in Grease, the MPDB is hopelessly devoted to you.
If he’s not particularly quirky than you can be darn sure that he’s at least creative and romantic. He probably reads Beat poetry or can craft a perfect likeness of your face out of breakfast cereal.
Whether it’s his quick wit, crooked smile, or unique way of looking at the world, something about the MPDB is bound to charm the socks right off of you.
So, who are the MPDBs?
The Quirky Guy
Duckie, “Pretty In Pink”: Anyone who calls your ensemble “volcanic” and lip syncs Otis Redding a propos of nothing is pretty quirky.
Mork “Mork and Mindy”: God bless Pam Dawber for never breaking while facing a never-ending stream of Robin Williams in rainbow suspenders.
Ferris Bueller “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off”: So choice.
Benny “Benny and Joon”: Silent Buster Keaton impressions and making grilled cheeses with irons.
Chris Chros “30 Rock”: He may never grow up, but it did make him the perfect house husband for Liz Lemon.
Will “About a Boy” (more the TV series than the film): Apparently writing one hit Christmas song will give you enough royalties to buy all the beer and video games your heart desires.
Prince Naveen “The Princess and the Frog”: True love can change a man from a ukulele-plunking playboy into a frog and eventually into a responsible husband.
Sean Spencer “Psych”: Catchphrases, juvenile behavior, lying, and a motorcycle.
Nick Miller “New Girl”: He can’t clean, he can’t cook, he’s probably going to be a bartender for the rest of his life, but at least he’s charming.
The “you are my only interest”. . . I mean, “devoted boyfriend”
Augustus Waters “The Fault in Our Stars”: No means no, Augustus!
Noah “The Notebook”: I’m sorry, but being engaged to James Marsden is way better than running off with the alcoholic weirdo who pines for his teenage relationship with you.
Lloyd Dobler, “Say Anything”: Lloyd has no interests other than Diane Court. Diane Court is his life! Well, that and kickboxing.
Tom “500 Days of Summer”: Summmmmmer! Why won’t you love meeeee?!
Edward Cullen “Twilight”: I may be hundreds of years old, incredibly intelligent, and smokin’ hot but for some reason I am only interested in this extremely average 16-year-old girl. I particularly enjoy watching her sleep.
Just like with MPDGs, the MPDB is problematic because MPDBs are the embodiment of certain negative qualities that are then idealized as “perfection” or “the dream.” Don’t get me wrong, I actually really like a lot of movies featuring MPDGs and MPDBs. I love me some MPDBs. In fact, I think Sean Spencer is incredibly adorable and Will from “About A Boy” defending Marcus from bullies made my ovaries explode. But would actual relationships work out with any of these fictional men? The quirky guys, maybe, if their only crime is being quirky, but the man-children and stalkers are a different story. Will a man who doesn’t know how to feed himself make for a good life partner, or even a long-term boyfriend. Yuck, how much work would that be? You’d always have to take care of him. I think they kind of shine a light on this in “New Girl.” Jess is the ultimate MPDG and Nick is a Peter Pan MPDB but both of them are in their 30s and still have trouble holding long term relationships and functioning as adults. Her overwhelming quirkiness and his inability to do, well, pretty much anything ruin their relationship. A negative future can also be assumed of Lloyd from “Say Anything.” Can he really expect to be happy following a girl he just started dating to another country only to be her live-in boyfriend/manservant? Are we supposed to believe that men like that actually exist? Or, how about Duckie? He’s the quintessential “nice” guy. You know, the quirky and adorable guy who self-proclaims to be “nice” and dotes on a woman hoping for a romantic relationship only to become bitter and hateful when she still rejects him.
Long story short, ladies, they may be fun in rom-coms but avoid these guys in real life. If you find out one of your ex-boyfriends is building you a house even though you’re with someone else, run! If you go over to his apartment and he owns everything written by Jack Kerouac but no forks, run! If the longest he’s ever held a job is six months, run!