The Manic Pixie Dream Girl trope demonstrates our culture’s compulsive need to categorize people.
Coined by critic Nathan Rabin, it initially referred to an eccentric female character whose sole purpose is to teach a brooding man to appreciate life — a long-existing phenomenon in film and television, and one that became more apparent once we had a way to describe it. But as often happens with catchy terms, the definition eventually distorted, and every quirky woman got put into the MPDG box. So we assumed Jessica Day would, too, after Fox plastered the word “adorkable” all over promotional materials for “New Girl” in 2011.
Thankfully, we were wrong.
“New Girl” has defied expectations over the years, and Zooey Deschanel’s character cleverly subverts the notion that being whimsical and multifaceted are mutually exclusive. As the series’ end approached — the final season premiere aired Tuesday night — it seemed as though the MPDG had started to disappear from mainstream discourse altogether.
Rabin introduced the term in 2007 to describe characters such as Kirsten Dunst’s airline stewardess in the Cameron Crowe movie “Elizabethtown.” He wrote in an essay for the A.V. Club that you are intended to either hate or love MPDGs — there is no in-between. Dunst, playing the MPDG to Orlando Bloom’s depressed shoe designer, fell into the former category. Natalie Portman, who had similarly stepped into the role for Zach Braff’s lonely actor in the 2004 film “Garden State,” fell into the latter.
Portman played Sam, one of the most frequently used examples of an MPDG and a pathological liar who blurts out every thought that passes through her troubled mind. But we don’t get to explore the deeper reasoning behind her behavior; we are exposed only to her eccentricity and girlishness. Sam exists to expose Braff’s restrained character, Andrew, to meaningful life experiences and cool bands like the Shins.
Deschanel had previously fallen into this category, having played the indie, Smiths-loving heroine of “(500) Days of Summer” just two years before the debut of “New Girl.” And Jess, a doe-eyed teacher who refuses to do a normal version of the chicken dance — she pecks! — seemed destined for an MPDG existence, as well. After discovering that her boyfriend is cheating on her, she finds new roommates on Craigslist: the grumpy Nick (Jake Johnson); cocky Schmidt (Max Greenfield); and Coach (Damon Wayans Jr.), whom the slightly neurotic Winston (Lamorne Morris) replaces after the pilot. The men could all use some improving, and Nick, the emotionally immature roommate, emerges as Jess’s love interest.
The writers played up Jess’s twee personality in the beginning, focusing too much on her eccentric behavior. But they seemed receptive to the inevitable backlash, as Jess increasingly became self-aware. Soon, she was just a realistically awkward person.
When Nick’s lawyer girlfriend Julia (Lizzy Caplan) refers to Jess’s personality as “this whole thing” in the first season, Jess fires back: “I brake for birds. I rock a lot of polka dots. I have touched glitter in the last 24 hours . . . . And I hate your pantsuit. I wish it had ribbons on it or something just to make it slightly cuter, but that doesn’t mean I’m not smart and tough and strong.”
And the guy that a stereotypical MPDG version of Jess would have “improved”? He’s just as weird. In the third season, Nick and Jess trade facts about themselves that would ordinarily define the trope. She has been banned from Lake Ontario, and he is sexually attracted to ladybugs. Her doctor says she might grow another foot and a half, and he believes horses are from space.
She is also independent and ambitious, eventually becoming the principal of a private school in the sixth season.
Though Jess emerged from the first few seasons of “New Girl” unscathed, Deschanel wasn’t so lucky. Public opinion of the actress polarized in the same way that Rabin had described when defining the MPDG, and her rise to fame arguably popularized the term. In a New York magazine profile published the month that “New Girl” premiered, writer Jada Yuan said of women: “They either covet her bangs or they resent her for seemingly playing into the male fantasy that women are only attractive when they act like girls.”
“Adorkable” didn’t help. While the word attracted curious viewers, it also latched onto Deschanel’s already contentious public persona. As she told HuffPost in 2015, the term was a marketing ploy and only “describes the character that I play, not me.”
More and more actresses whose characters have been categorized as MPDGs have spoken out against the label, perhaps contributing to its quiet disappearance. Zoe Kazan, an indie filmmaker who most recently starred opposite Kumail Nanjiani in “The Big Sick,” played the title character in 2012’s “Ruby Sparks,” which she also wrote. It centers on an isolated writer named Calvin (Paul Dano) whose fantasy girl — described on the film’s poster as someone who likes Phil Collins and John Lennon, hates hypocrites and roots for the underdog — comes to life.
While the character description and plot made it seem as though Kazan had created a MPDG, she told Vulture in 2012 that anyone who saw her character that way misunderstood the movie.
“I think it’s more of a term that applies in critical use than it does in creative use,” she said. “It’s a way of describing female characters that’s reductive and diminutive, and I think basically misogynist. I’m not saying that some of those characters that have been referred to as that don’t deserve it; I think sometimes filmmakers have not used their imagination in imbuing their female characters with real life.”
Asked about her “Garden State” character, Portman said in 2015 that she viewed Sam as “wacky and interesting.” But she also commented on how the MPDG term highlights poor writing more than anything.
For what it’s worth, Rabin had published an essay in Slate the year before, apologizing for having invented the term in the first place. The term “benefited from a certain specificity” in 2007, he wrote, but its expanded, convoluted form does no one any good.
“Let’s all try to write better, more nuanced and multidimensional female characters: women with inner lives and complicated emotions and total autonomy, who might strum ukuleles or dance in the rain even when there are no men around to marvel at their free-spiritedness,” he suggested.
So, basically, let’s write more Jess Days.