He is unknowingly despondent, working an unfulfilling office job by day and ordering takeaways by night in his drab, Ikea-furnished apartment, most likely in the midst of the anonymity of a huge urban sprawl like London, New York or LA. He probably calls his parents every week, but only sees them a couple of times a year. He is also probably still getting over the break-up of his last long-term relationship, a year previous. He is sleepwalking through life without quite realising how.
Then she turns up! Straight outta a small town and ready to take on the big, wide world in all its beauty and variety and thrills, she wears polka dots and has a fringe and doesn’t care what other people think about her. She is impulsive and she is unafraid. She owns a Polaroid camera. She deliberately never stays in a job more than a few months, and probably works in a book shop or a kindergarten.
They meet under quirky, semi-coincidental circumstances. He falls for her immediately, and he intrigues her. He is something of a project. She sets out to make him happy. Fulfilled. To change him. She succeeds.
She could, of course, be a character in any number of movies. It was film critic Nathan Rabin who first christened her the Manic Pixie Dream Girl (MPDG), and critics claim to have spotted her in everything from 500 Days of Summer to Scott Pilgrim vs. The World to Elizabethtown to Ruby Sparks. Some have named Annie Hall as her earliest incarnation. Cinema loves MPDGs.
Except that Rabin himself disowned the term earlier this year. He originally came up with it to describe a situation in which a female character only exists in order to change a male character — to give him a new lease of life or show him the error of his ways. She has no aspirations of her own, nor does she seem to have her own family, friends or career. There are undeniably instances when female characters fill this trope, but more often than not, the myth is deconstructed by the girl, who proves not to be the saviour the leading man thinks. The Pixie Girl is essentially a fallacy of a character.
It’s clearest in films like 500 Days of Summer and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. 500 Days’ Summer and Eternal Sunshine’s Clementine both meet men who are stuck (Tom and Joel respectively). Tom “could be a great architect if he wanted to be”, Summer remarks as he wastes his talents writing greeting cards, and Joel is an introverted, ultra-shy loner until Clem brings out the spontaneity and confidence hidden beneath his sensitive surface. The two female characters fit the Dream Girl bill to a tee, breezing in to change the men’s lives for the better, until we see that they soon grow tired or frustrated in their relationships and move on. Tom and Joel become wrecks; Summer and Clementine move on (one finds a new guy and gets married, the other has all her memories of the relationship erased medically); it’s clear where the agency is, and which characters know what they want and how to progress towards it: the women.
Annie Hall is the same. Ruby Sparks writer and star Zoe Kazan pointed out, when confronted with the term, that the apparent poster girl for the Manic Pixie Dream Girl is actually largely based on Diane Keaton, clearly a subtle, nuanced and very real person. To brand such a seminal character in the genre of romantic comedy with a label as lazy as that of the MPDG speaks volumes about our lack of respect for both the character and the genre itself. Ultimately, it is Clementine who, as she does so often in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, speaks sense on the matter when she tells Joel: “Too many guys think I’m a concept, or I complete them, or I’m gonna make them alive. But I’m just a fucked-up girl who’s looking for my own peace of mind; don’t assign me yours.”