I was watching the latest episode of Louie. I’d missed the first part of the, “Daddy’s Girlfriend” episodes, but wasn’t aware until after I’d finished watching it. I’d heard that the best part of Scream 3 and Superman Returns, Parker Posey, was going to be in the show but had no idea what to expect. She nailed it, and Louis CK, continuing to be far smarter an auteur than television deserves, taught us a thing or two.
I’m a fan of overthought discourse and analysing things beyond necessary reason. This episode of Louie, like a lot of them, does a good amount of analysis for us and is certainly worthy of overthinking. So why this episode in particular?
WHAT IS THE MANIC PIXIE DREAM GIRL?
The Manic Pixie Dream Girl is a waifish, eccentric, “adorkable”, childlike writing tool often played by Zooey Deschanel or Natalie Portman. She’s employed to get a moody, sensitive male protagonist out of his shell, to realise that life is worth living. Often, she ends up as the romance of the piece, too, but that’s a bonus prize at the end of the male protagonist’s journey.
The MPDG generally dresses in outlandish clothing, is rarely employed in anything serious, if at all. She rarely has any responsibilities, and therefore can spend all her time making the male protagonist realise how precious life is.
Garden State and Elizabethtown feature archetypical versions of the trope. You can see examples everywhere, not just with the garishly-dressed dorky childlike girls. Forgetting Sarah Marshall employ Mila Kunis in this fashion, even though she looks nothing like the standard appearance of the MPDG.
If the girl has at most one tie to the world (an ex-boyfriend maybe, or a moody sister, or a kooky business selling something charming like cupcakes), if she only really serves the purpose of moving the protagonist along his path without growing or changing herself, if she has no quantifiable flaws besides her charming eccentricity, then yes, the character is a Manic Pixie Dream Girl.
Louie is great television. It appears to be a stand-up comedian living a manic-depressive Seinfeldian life, but there’s so much more. Louis CK acts, writes, edits and directs the series. With this level of control, there’s so much which can be in every moment. Each episode is about 20 minutes, often split into two separate stories, bracketed with some of his stand-up. I find it difficult to show any of this to my younger flatmate, being that there might still be hope for him in the world. The older flatmate and I watch, we sympathise with the horror which the wisdom of age brings.
Louis CK often plays with the format of televisual episodes. I only realised what he was doing part way through episode five of season three, “Daddy’s Girlfriend, Part 2”. The fictional Louis CK was on a date in New York, with a pretty, but eccentric girl. She was older than a Portman or Deschanel, played by the wonderful Parker Posey, but had the same sort of quality. Like if Portman’s character was in her early 40’s. She dressed in the MPDG wardrobe, moved like some otherworldly creature, darted around from attention-getting thing to attention-getting thing. She dared the downbeat comedian to do all sorts of things, to put on a dress, to actively try to engage and help a homeless man. But then there were the warning signs. She wasn’t allowed to drink in some bars, her tics and eccentricities carried a certain level of uneasy instability. Discomfort is traditional in Louie, but when using the MPDG, the woman who lives her life by whim and impulse alone becomes a caution. When she’s on the edge of a rooftop, she genuinely could be smiling one moment and throw herself off the next.
Without speech, at the end, both on the rooftop and in the cold-close, Posey expresses the varying emotions, shifting, occasionally aware of what’s going on, but not really in control. The Manic Pixie Dream Girl isn’t a good life to lead for the girl herself. Liz, or Tape Recorder, as she calls herself when Louis tries to discover her name, is the perfect representation of that. Louis squirms, just as the audience do (representing the audience according to this article by Alan Sepinwall), yet he’s still under the charm of the MPDG, as the characters in her wake often are.
Zooey Deschanel is the living avatar of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl, with wide eyes, a bright wardrobe, playful demeanour and an aura of whimsy wherever she goes. New Girl was a sitcom by Elizabeth Meriweather, starring Deschanel as Jess, an MPDG type whose boyfriend cheats on her and is forced to live with three male characters. We know from the get-go, we know from the basic pitch, that her bouncy energy and eccentric ways will charm these three manboys into living great lives. The first episode pretty much sets this up, too.
As the show goes on, however, we realise a few things. The Manic Pixie Dream Girl can’t survive in a format where change has to happen, especially if she’s the lead. We already have three aspects about this MPDG. She’s a teacher, has a best friend and has been cheated on by her (now) ex-boyfriend. That’s two more things than most MPDG’s. I knew, going in, that she would either be adorable or cloyingly irritating. Jess manages to be both, but mainly some calm middle ground.
She’s flawed, and her MPDG ways are fortunately subverted by being shown as being as terrible as they are sometimes good. Jess learns from the other flatmates and her friend, rather than making it a one-way economy of life-lessons. She dates people, both serious and Manic Pixie Dream Guyish (the latter of which is awful). In the end, it’s a show as much about all of the main cast, as it is about Jess.
Most people expect that the character of Jess will simply be all Zooey Deschanel characters merged into one, but actually Jess is entirely Elizabeth Meriweather, filtered through a Deschanel. Listen to interviews with Meriweather and her voice, her structure, are all entirely Jess. She’s an interesting eccentric who is very aware of what she’s like, what the show comes across as and is evidently trying to make her cast more than one-note characters. I recommend the Nerdist Writer’s Panel interview with her.
CAN THE MANIC PIXIE DREAM GIRL BE USED POSITIVELY?
Yes, but this is true of all tropes. Even the list of tropes provided by Anita Sarkeesian, such as women in fridges, mystical pregnancies, smurfettes, demon women and yes, manic pixie dream girls, can be used right with the application of a little effort. It’s not easy, especially now we’re aware, but when they’re used as lazy writer’s shorthand, that’s when we get a character who is nothing more than a machine to drive a male plot forward. The worst part of all these tropes is when they are nothing more than a mechanic. The demon woman can be a fine trope (look at Morrigan in Dragon Age and Anya from Buffy for three-dimensional examples), but when they’re simply a mechanic to tempt and doom men, then something’s gone wrong.
The Manic Pixie Dream Girl is no different than any archetype in say, Campbell’s theories. The ‘wizard’ archetype is useless if used badly, providing an unconvincing mentor figure who we’re told teaches the young hero, but we see no evidence of it. Qui-Gon Jinn is an example of the ‘wizard’ archetype who is treated the same as the MPDG. He has no flaws, no character, no backstory in the films, nothing to say who he is. He simply serves the purpose of being said to be Obi-Wan’s teacher. His death is his only real action, and that’s to spur Obi-Wan into action. This is as bad as the Manic Pixie Dream Girl’s lack of depth, of identity besides her cloying whimsy, it’s just less present.
It sounds stupid to ask writers to remember to add depth to their characters, but if a character is amongst the top billing of your film, books, tv show or video game’s cast members, then they should all be more than simple narrative shorthand. Combine them with another genre type, give them flaws, idiosyncrasies. Have a think about the character and wonder what makes them unique. Even if the character is there specifically to get the lead character from point A to B, then they should still be a character and allowed to seem human. Characters are ALL narrative tools to tell a story, to drive it forwards, to make people feel or think, even to simply take them on a roller-coaster ride, and when people see behind the curtain, it detracts from the character, and it detracts from the story.
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A lot of good observations. I haven’t seen any of the shows but I know the trope very well. Some interesting deconstructions of it exist in literature too – the first example that springs to mind is John Green’s “Paper Towns”. The narrator paints a portrait of his childhood crush that is almost PAINFULLY Manic-pixie at times, then later comes to realise her complexity. Good solid YA, worth checking out if you aren’t familiar with it.