Saturday, November 13, 2010

Next semester I'm teaching a 2200 level course with the "Theme" of Tragic Romances.  

So, because I've been reading and planning for this course, I've been doing a lot of thinking about female archetypes.  Juliet, Cathy, Eleanor, Anna, Emma, Marianne, Jane, Brett, Nora....these are the women I will be hanging out with for the next six months.  And, in many ways, they exemplified THE woman of their time/culture.  They were "that" girl.... the woman every man wanted and every woman wanted to be.

Which got me thinking...who is our Tess?  Who is our Isabella Archer?  What's the "It" girl like in 2010? And is that a good thing?

And before you go that direction, let me just say that I don't think it's Paris Hilton or Kim Kardwhateverthefuckhernameis.  Because really?  Do WOMEN like them? MOST women? Like, your friends and your friends friends? No.

Listen, I am very, very familiar with "The Majority."   I teach at two drastically different colleges and so see a broad range of 17-30 year old women every day.  And they let you know what they like.

And girls like Anne Hathaway.  Girls want to be Natalie Portman.  Kristin Stewart is their role model. They feel an affinity with Zooey Deschanel and they respect Scarlett Johansson.  And the boys? Well, that goes without saying. After all, these are gorgeous women we are talking about.

But what do they really all have in common?  

The answer, my friends, is that they are all "Manic Pixie Dream Girls."  Do you know this term?  You should. As defined by Wikipedia:

Manic pixie dream girl (MPDG) is a stock character in films. Film critic Nathan Rabin, who coined the term after seeing Kirsten Dunst in Elizabethtown, describes the MPDG as "that bubbly, shallow cinematic creature that 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."[1][2][3][4] MPDGs are said to help their men without pursuing their own happiness, and such characters never grow up, thus their men never grow up.[2]
MPDGs are usually static characters who have eccentric personality quirks and are unabashedly girlish. They invariably serve as the romantic interest for a (often brooding or depressed) leading male protagonist. A prime example is Natalie Portman's character in the movie Garden State, written and directed by Zach Braff.[4][2][5] Kate Hudson's character in Almost Famous has been called a MPDG.[2] Another example is Maude from Harold and Maude.[2] MPDGs are also called "Amazing Girls" by Sadie Stein, describing the type as "ideal muses whose beauty, sweetness and gentle, studied eccentricity renders them entirely docile." [6]
Rabin points to Katharine Hepburn's character in Bringing Up Baby as one of the earliest examples of the archetype.[1][2] Zooey Deschanel's roles in (500) Days of Summerand other films have also been typified MPDG.[7][8] A British equivalent is the character Cassie Ainsworth in the E4 teen drama Skins.[9] Kate Winslet's role in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind has also been suggested.[citation needed]

The definition is a good one, mainly because it points out the the MPDG isn't a "new" idea. It's just taken on a new form.  Female archetypes get recycled and re-used. One type becomes popular again and leaves another to fall out of favor.

And, while you weren't looking, the MPDG became our generation's Femme Fatale. These girls became the Hearth Angel.  They became the Venus Adonis. 

So, how should we feel about this?  

Listen, I hear you. I get it.  When I started thinking about this blog entry, David was quick to the draw.
Our conversation went something like this.


L: "So, I've been thinking about female ideals and how they change from generation to generation."
D: "Like, body image?"
L: "No, not really that. More like the 'personality type' that makes a woman really desirable."
D: "And...?"
L: "Well, isn't it the MPDG?  You know, that girl whose all like 'Oh, look. I'm quirky and weird but totally cute and fun in my strangeness.' And there's nothing actually threatening or challenging in the weirdness."
D: "(Long pause) do you think you came off when I first met you? (Looks at me and grins.)"
L: "(Irritably) Well, yeah, but that's just an act. You know better now."
D: "True."


And that just proves my point. There IS always a type of "dream girl." We know what both men and women want and so we adapt ourselves to "fit" that mold (at least for a little while).  But eventually, shit gets real and we stop sending our representative.

But is the MPDG a good thing to even "want" to be?  

In her article "Manic Pixie Dream Girls Are the Scourge of Modern Cinema," Sadie Stein (of Jezebel notoriety) points out that the MPDG really only exists to make men happy.  She doesn't get to have "real problems" or "real opinions."  Sure, she may have 'down' days, but even those aren't really that big of a deal because, even when she cries, she's just so damn cute and quirky.  Kind of like a playful puppy who trips down the bottom two stairs, the MPDG isn't immune to reality, pain, and disappointment, it's just 1.)Not that big of a deal and 2.) renders them more loveable in the end.

And that, my dear readers, is the definition of condescension.

So...what SHOULD the female archetype be?  And, can an example of her be found in culture right now?

I want to hear your opinions and thoughts about this.  I really, really do.  Because, I can only give it my personal and limited guess.

I think the female archetype that is trying to emerge right now is one that is 1.) more powerful and 2.) more serious than the MPDG model.  And that's as it should be.  

So what would this woman look like?  Who is this new role model?  I believe the answers come from the same place they always have: literature and film.

For me, it starts with Ree Dolly (Winter's Bone).

This girl is strong.  And she has problems. Big ones.  But she handles them the best way she knows how.  Does she handle them perfectly?  No.  But, she takes care of business because, in her own words, "There a lot of stuff you have to get over being scared of."  

And women should be allowed to retain pieces of themselves.  In the age of instant access to information, reality television, and famewhores, Mystery is a rarity. Women (like Hilton and that Kimfuckwhatever) will give every bit of themselves away to whoever asks for it, public or private.
 But Mystery is so powerful.  Take Effy from Skins.  This girl is SMART. She's the smartest character.  But she never shows her hand.  In fact, for the first two seasons, Effy never speaks.  Literally.  Her character never says a single word. She only acts.  

It was only at the end of season two (!) that we learned why she quit talking in the first place.  And even then, she chose to tell us in a metaphor.  Because, in a world where language is broken, often times symbols are the truest signifiers.

Unseen Skins 108 - Pop
Uploaded by Gossip-girl17. - Full seasons and entire episodes online.

So, here's what we have.  We want women who are Smart, Brave, Active, and Self-Protective.  
In short, we are back to Athena.  Goddess of Wisdom, Justice, Battle, and Strategy. 
The Classic Female.

Now it's your turn! Sound off below!

1 comment:

  1. Love this post. Its like everything thats been floating in my head has finally settled and been arranged perfectly in what you wrote. I'VE never heard of a MPDG but after reading this my first reaction was a resounding YES! EVERYWHERE I look in the media I am faced with this woman I feel pressured to be like yet she is not who I want to be. I see this in friends around me-- them and their forced quirkiness and pouring themselves into guys, offering themselves up as these vulnerable weaklings who seem to want to be this wounded alternative to an "average" girl all so that the guy can feel better? Or strong? I'm not sure but its frustrating. I love mystery, stoicism, strength! I was trying to think of characters I could think of from movies that I feel really brought breath to these strong female characters found in literature of the past and the first two that came to mind were Clarissa played by Meryl Streep in the movie The Hours and Hanna played by Kate Winslet in the movie The Reader. Both of these women seemed incredibly strong. Full of emotion and yet sturdy and not easily destroyed by or for the men around them. Perhaps even Emily Blunt in the movie The Young VIctoria.

    So i guess besides completely agreeing with you I'd say yes. We want (at least those who really think of ourselves and not who we want to impress, attract or what not....) Athena, Elizabeth Bennett, and hey maybe even a little bit of Harriet the Spy ;)