The term "Manic Pixie Dream Girl" means basically a one-dimensional female character who is a little like Peter Pan. She's childlike, optimistic, quirky, artistic. She is different than other people in a way that is fascinating to men – she is a mystery. She is like a real-life fairy. She makes the man describing her fall in love with life. We can all see why men would be invested in this fantasy. And it's men who invented it. But what about the women who want to be Manic Pixie Dream Girls?
Throughout high school and undergrad, I saw myself as That Girl. The carefree, quirky girl who believes in fairies and paints and twirls around in her handmade dresses. I worked hard to cultivate that image – and I was wildly successful. Dozens of men fell in love with me. I was a serial monogamist, in one serious relationship after another throughout high school and college, and no matter who I was dating, there were always at least three other guys waiting for me to break up with whoever I was with and telling me they were in love with me. They called me their muse. They said I was The One. I guess I was The One for a lot of people, because at least 8 different people said that to me over the course of 4 years. And of course it was flattering.
Why did I do it? What was so appealing about the MPDG "type" that I would put that much effort into being one?
I was brought up in a home where everyone had to fit in boxes, but women had to fit in the smallest ones. My family was extremely conservative – my dad's friends were all Quiver-Full types. Submission from women was a given. So was sexual "purity." Marital rape was normalized throughout my childhood, and my parents' marriage was abusive in multiple ways. I was always the more rebellious child, the one who talked back. I was regularly called "unsubmissive" and, when I was older, "slutty" (without ever having had sex). It was a pretty confining box for me, a naturally inquisitive and academically gifted woman who didn't have much interest in raising children or doing anything my community told me was "a woman's role."
As a teenager I rebelled as much as I could from the boxes they put me in. But I could only rebel so far – if boxes were my world, I could only think of the box that was furthest from the one they had tried to put me in. And that new box still had to meet an important psychological requirement: I had to be noticed. I wanted to be nothing like my parents, but the idea that I was worth less than men, and therefore worth more when men noticed me, was so deeply engrained in me that I didn't even recognize it for years. So I found a new way to be. Obviously the term Manic Pixie Dream Girl was not common parlance at the time, so I never thought of it in those terms. But I knew I was sick of being sad, so I tried to be happy all the time. I knew I wanted the fairy tale "happily ever after" no one in my life had ever had, so I made it a huge part of my identity. I knew I wanted to be noticed, and I wanted to be noticed in a positive way. I had a mantra: "see the beauty in everything." I tried hard to follow it. I did "quirky" little things and I read about fairies a lot, and I chose to major in English so that I could study the Middle Ages, which to me meant fantasy, a forbidden genre when I was growing up because of its reliance on magic. I painted. I identified with the Romantic poets and dreamed of living in Italy and painting on balconies. I thought I was so different and artistic and creative when I was really just like every other Manic Pixie Dream Girl – I had not an original thought of my own. I was a screen for other people to project their fantasies on, because my fantasies had no substance, no reality.
Fantasies with no substance often make you vulnerable to those who would manipulate you. After awhile, I met someone who used my dreams against me to the fullest possible extent. After two years living under the thumb of a man who told me I was ugly and worthless and not good enough in every possible way, I was no longer a Manic Pixie Dream Girl. I was a dead girl. It's impossible to "see the beauty in everything" when there's no beauty to be found. But the pain of my dead dreams forced me to face the truth - about my abuser, and also about myself and my fantasy. What I realized was that the MPDG is just another incarnation of the original box I was stuck in. It's the sneaky version: it looks like the epitome of freedom, the girl who can twirl in a field with the wind blowing through her hair and love life. But it's really just like the box I left. In either case, women aren't valuable without a man to confirm it.
That's not the box I belong in. To be truly free is to recognize that no box can hold me, no mantra can describe me, and I am not a role for a man, whether that role is someone's "helpmeet" or someone's "muse." I belong to myself.
But this was a realization that did not come simply, or without cost. It's incredibly scary to leave the boxes behind. I've seen a lot of judgment toward women who try to present themselves as Manic Pixie Dream Girls, here, and from others I know in real life. And I don't think that judgment is undeserved. There is no doubt that during that period of my life I was shallow, I appropriated and participated in racism and sexism (including toward myself) without knowledge of what I was doing, I was elitist, I was a bad friend, I was unfair to my significant others. I don't think you should cut me, or them, any slack. Being told I was wrong, outright, was probably one of the things that ultimately led me to leave the box behind. But at the same time, save some compassion for the women who want only to be Manic Pixie Dream Girls – because they hate themselves, and they are a product of the misogyny that has been directed at them.