Adolescence is a difficult time for everyone. All young people struggle to find themselves and to define their identity. However, while adolescent females struggle to develop their sexuality and identity in a society where they are expected to sexy but not to have sexual feelings of their own, or rather they are supposed to be sexual objects but not sexual subjects (Tolman 153-158), males also face many difficulties because they are very restricted by a need to protect their masculinity by never appearing too feminine or weak. If boys lapse or deviate from the social standards, they risk becoming a target for unrelenting homophobic harassment. In order to avoid this, most young boys work very hard to convince others of their heterosexuality at all costs.
The manic pixie dream girl (MPDG) archetype is recurrent in numerous films. The most popular and recent examples of the MPDG are in 500 Days of Summer, Love & Other Drugs, Garden State, and Almost Famous, which we covered in class a while ago. The narrative of the MPDG follows a typical pattern. According to Wikipedia, they are cinematic “creatures” that are usually bubbly, weird, and quirky, and they exist solely to uplift and support a sensitive, brooding man. For the purpose of the film, MPDGs are typically static characters that serve as the romantic interest for the person that really matters, the male protagonist. They are girly and cute and encourage men to embrace life by teaching them about the happiness and adventure that life brings.
I can’t speak for anyone else’s experiences, but regardless of how much of a feminist critique I can offer on the MPDG, I still love movies featuring this stock character. I always end up liking her, rooting for her, or seeing parts of myself in her. I assume that lots of women and girls feel the same way when they watch films with MPDGs. Moreover, I also assume that men also like the MPDG, considering her desirable and attainable. This is troubling and potentially problematic because it relates back to issues of sex, power, and “compulsive heterosexuality,” topics that feminist scholars Adrienne Rich and Catherine MacKinnon explore in depth.
All aspects of society, as Adrienne Rich argues, act as social forces toward heterosexuality. In other words, society romanticizes and normalizes heterosexuality. Rich calls this “compulsive heterosexuality,” and it’s a way of thinking and behaving that goes unquestioned. For Rich, every sexual desire and behavior in a patriarchal society is related to gender dynamics and ultimately expresses male dominance or women’s resistance. Catherine MacKinnon goes one step further and insists that sex is a tool used by men to control and manipulate women.
“To the extent that men have the power to define what desires, feelings, and behaviors are sexual, they can define women’s sexuality in a way that positions them as subordinate. […] Women’s sexual liberation involves fashioning a sexual life that reflects their own needs, feelings, and desires.” What does the MPDG have to do with what these feminist scholars have to say?
Kristen Barber, “Sex and Power”
MPDGs are defined in terms of men and their purpose throughout a film is to help men pursue happiness. They are assumed to have already figured themselves and the world out, and as a result, MPDGs are static characters who are not concerned about themselves, only their male interests. MPDGs, with their eccentric personalities and their hyper-femininity, are the center of male desire. What does it mean that the MPDG is super feminine and cute? What does it say about her gender and sexuality that she exists to serve a man.
As we’ve learned in class, the film industry is like a microcosm of the larger patriarchal society and they have a lot of power and influence in media and culture. Those in the film industry send subtle messages about culture to the public, especially creators of movies with MPDGs because these films with this stock character are inherently structured around particular values about gender and sexuality.