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Why the Manic Pixie Dream Girl Has Stayed Off Our Screens Since Ruby Sparks

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The early 2000s will be remembered for many things: low-rise flared jeans, flip phones, and young people having a chance at becoming homeowners, to name a few. The Manic Pixie Dream Girl — a brief and unfortunately dominant film trend depicting a certain kind of totally unrealistic woman — is right alongside them.

The Manic Pixie Dream Girl (or MPDG, as we’ll call it from here on out) was coined by film critic Nathan Rabin in a review for The A.V. Club about Cameron Crowe’s Elizabethtown (2005), starring Orlando Bloom and Kristen Stewart as the MPDG in question.

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The MPDG “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,” he wrote. Natalie Portman’s character in Garden State and Zooey Deschanel, who made a whole career out of being these “soulful young men’s” MPDG fantasy, most notably in (500) Days of Summer, round out the most popular examples. An MPDG can be spotted in the wild by her quirky haircut, whimsical outfits consisting of flirty skirts and thick-framed glasses that she probably doesn’t need, and by having no discernible personality other than to make her male companion realize his true calling.

By 2012 we were thoroughly sick of the MPDG, culminating in the Zoe Kazan-penned and -starring vehicle, Ruby Sparks.

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Zoe Kazan in ‘Ruby Sparks’ ©Fox Searchlight/Courtesy Everett Collection.

Ruby Sparks follows tortured prodigious novelist Calvin (Paul Dano) as he struggles to write a sophomore novel. He starts writing about a mysterious woman who “got kicked out of high school for sleeping with her teacher” (sexual misconduct at best and statutory rape at worst) and whose “last boyfriend was 49” (also deeply problematic). When Calvin shows his gym bro brother Harry, played by the always delightful Chris Messina, what he’s been working on, even he can see that “women are not going to read this. Quirky women whose problems only make them endearing are not real…”

“Women are different up close… [They’re people.] You don’t know jack shit about women,” he continues, finishing up his thinly-veiled tirade against the men who have written MPDGs over the years. 

Then, one day, Calvin’s own personal MPDG Ruby comes to life. The viewer could initially be forgiven for thinking Ruby’s manifestation was a figment of the writer’s psychotic break, but when Harry can see her too is when things start to get really interesting.

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Paul Dano in ‘Ruby Sparks’ ©Fox Searchlight/Courtesy Everett Collection.

Despite Calvin writing Ruby to life, she is her own — often irritating — person who starts to seek fulfillment outside of her relationship with Calvin, which leads Calvin to break out the pretentious typewriter (because of course) and start manipulating Ruby through his writing. When Ruby does something he doesn’t like, like seek independence through seeing friends and looking for a job, Calvin becomes threatened. Each time he smoothes over the aforementioned quirks that make Ruby, as Harry identifies it, a “real person,” a different so-called undesirable characteristic pops up in its wake.

Thanks to the strength of Kazan’s script and award-winning director duo Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris, Ruby Sparks shows how damaging the MPDG was in the hands of the anguished white male creatives who exalted her in what is ostensibly the last MPDG.

Since 2012, the landscape of Hollywood has dramatically changed with a host of non-straight white male creators bringing to life dynamic characters that don’t cater to them. For example, the newly launched Netflix Originals slate changed television history with Orange Is the New Black (and subsequent Jenji Kohan female ensemble efforts) that showed a plethora of women and their experiences on screen in a way never done before. The 2014-2015 broadcast season saw a slate of diverse offerings like Fresh Off the Boat, Empire, Jane the Virgin, How to Get Away With Murder, and Crazy Ex-Girlfriend revolutionize network TV, replete with complex female characters leading the charge. Ava DuVernay made waves with Selma (also 2014) and paved the way to Hollywood for women of color creators, specifically in her OWN series Queen Sugar, each episode of which is directed by a woman, the majority of whom are women of color.

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Samira Wiley, Danielle Brooks, Pablo Schreiber, Lea DeLaria in ‘Orange Is the New Black’ ©Netflix/Courtesy Everett Collection.

Along with these rising stars within the film and TV industries, cultural shifts like the #MeToo movement and renewed awareness of systemic racism have kept the pressure on Hollywood to continue to deliver diverse stories, and not revert to their old ways. #OscarsSoWhite trends most years around the time of the Academy Awards — good in that we’re calling it out, but bad in that we still have to call it out. #MeToo ushered in the downfall of many white male power players who facilitated things like the MPDG trope on screen and did far worse things when the camera stopped rolling. And the rise of streaming opened up opportunities for different storytellers, meaning that at any given moment most viewers can pull up content that reflects their lives rather than the cis, white, thin, conventionally attractive, and able-bodied Manic Pixie Dream Girls and other female characters that were written by and for the male gaze for so long.

For all these hard-won reasons, Ruby Sparks was not only a direct rebuke of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl, but one of the very last iterations of the trope we ever saw. Once upon a time, a small contingent of tortured white men dictated so much of what we got to see on screen — and as that changes, the types of characters we get to see are gloriously changing too.

Before you go, click here to see movies directed by women you should watch right now. 
Zazie Beetz


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