Showing posts with label manic pixie dream girl. Show all posts
Showing posts with label manic pixie dream girl. Show all posts

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

album review: 'heartthrob' by tegan & sara (RETRO REVIEW)

Let's talk about the Manic Pixie Dream Girl.

Now, before any of you leap down my throat at why on earth I'm even mentioning this topic in connection with Tegan & Sara, well, be patient. For starters, I feel the concept needs to be clarified a bit and expanded upon beyond its TVTropes definition. But in case you have no idea what a Manic Pixie Dream Girl is, here's the cliff notes: a Manic Pixie Dream Girl is an attractive, 'high-on-life' female character that seems overstuffed with quirk and personality, and who typically is (for some ungodly reason) attracted to the main male character. Originally coined by acclaimed film critic Nathan Rabin (formerly of the AV Club) in 2005, he viewed the trope as grating and a little insufferable - and having sat through all of Garden State and seen Natalie Portman's performance in that movie, I could well agree. 

However, Anita Sarkeesian (of the now somewhat notorious Feminist Frequency) has in the past deemed the trope simply a disguise for shallow female characters who use their quirk and their spontaneity to disguise their need for male companionship. And while I'll definitely agree with this assessment for the worse entries in this genre, I think it only touches on the surface of this trope and needs to be examined further (yes, I will get to talking about the Tegan & Sara album, give me a few minutes).

Really, the term 'surface' is what becomes important in discussing the Manic Pixie Dream Girl, because it's a classic case of writers failing to deepen their characters beneath the surface impression, particularly in the modern age of the Internet. In the worst cases, it's used as shallow stereotyping of female characters for the male love interest, but I'll raise the deeper problems that occur even with the better examples of this trope, mostly because it still relies on a surface categorization.

You see, you can have a character with quirks and weirdness and who does odd things for no apparent reason who might seem to fit the Manic Pixie Dream Girl mold, but I argue the second you begin providing a rationale why that character behaves like she does, the categorization doesn't quite fit anymore. Take Luna Lovegood from the Harry Potter series - by all intents and purposes, she could be described as a Manic Pixie Dream Girl, at least on the surface. She's spacey, she's not quite engaged with everyone else going on, she's distinctly weird amongst a society full of wizards, but as you get to know the character, you realize there are reasons for her oddness (broken family, her father's a nutcase, isolation and loneliness, I could go on) and a deep underlying sadness to her character. And once you find out all of this, she's not really a Manic Pixie Dream Girl anymore, but a fully fleshed-out three-dimensional character. 

But for a character to remain a typical 'Manic Pixie Dream Girl', it all needs to remain on the surface. To me, there's an underlying shallowness to that persona that is quite revealing - the random quirk needs to be for its own sake or for completely arbitrary/nonsense reasons, otherwise the character becomes more fleshed out and loses everything but a surface connection to the trope. But that also becomes part of the problem when introducing female characters adhering to this trope into the typical narrative - because I find it hard to take any of the 'insight' that these characters are typically written to carry as all that profound, or even genuine. Once again, all that random inanity is on the surface, and while occasional nuggets of wisdom might fall out by accident or coincidence (both of which tend to be the worst kind of plotting), I don't really find that character as attractive as I used to.

I think it needs to be noted, however, that the majority of people don't agree with me on  this subject, because the Manic Pixie Dream Girl archetype is big right now, particularly in the age of the Internet. It's why Lunajacking became a meme, Jennifer Lawrence has an Oscar for that reprehensible bit of shit Silver Linings Playbook, and Zooey Deschanel has a career. And once again, I get the attraction to random quirkiness - it's interesting and catchy, at least on a surface level, and I certainly get the attraction to it. Hell, some people who know me would argue I've dated Manic Pixie Dream Girls in the past.

But here's the big point that needs to be raised in defence of those girls, and the reason I come down harder on the Manic Pixie Dream Girl trope than probably even Sarkeesian: it's not real. The girls I've dated who might seem like the traditional Manic Pixie Dream Girls on the surface have all turned out to have depth and complexity and something to say that justifies their quirkiness - and as I described above, that doesn't make them Manic Pixie Dream Girls anymore, it makes them fucking human beings. Sure, people can be shallow and do things for inexplicable reasons, but deep down, there is a rationale governing their behaviour which lends humanity beyond the stereotype. To come back to why I hate Silver Linings Playbook so goddamn much, the reason that film fails is because it initially tries pretty hard to portray Bradley Cooper's and Jennifer Lawrence's mental ailments as real as possible - and then phones it in the third act to craft the crowd-pleasing Hollywood rom-com bullshit that strips Lawrence's character of depth so she becomes just another Manic Pixie Dream Girl. It's dishonest filmmaking, and as I stated in my essay regarding transgressive art, if you want to make your transgression work, you have to pay it off realistically. Silver Linings Playbook doesn't do this, and instead gives us a very 'Hollywood' portrayal of mental illness that's pretty damn insulting at the end.

But putting aside Silver Linings Playbook, I'll still argue the Manic Pixie Dream Girl archetype is pretty alarmingly sexist on both sides, as it becomes rather revealing of some uncomfortable prejudices for both men and women. On the female side, particularly for girls who might see these characters as role models or an image/style they might find appealing, how is this any different at the root than other prevailing cultural attitudes and likes defined by male tastes? Is adapting what is inherently a surface level trope defined by being at surface level what you want? Do you want your views to be marginalized and shoved to the side and not taken seriously because they're viewed as 'cute' or 'quirky' or 'precious'? Do you want to be treated like girls rather than women?

And I didn't touch on this previously, but I think it needs to be raised now, particularly when addressing male preferences for the Manic Pixie Dream Girl, particularly the emphasis on the last word in that phrase. Outside of very specific cases, this speaks to a sexual immaturity with men looking not for women who can match them as equals, but girls. Does this mean male obsession with the Manic Pixie Dream Girl reveal a desire for girls who are immature by definition and thus need that assertive male guidance, but just quirky and random enough to evoke a sliver of surface thought so we can delude ourselves we're desiring someone who is 'deep'? 

Frankly, the more I think about this issue, the more I think it reflects a lot worse on male preferences than anything. And while it definitely doesn't surprise me the arsenal of man-children who fill the Internet like a bad fungus have embraced this trope, it's a lot more worrying and uncomfortable to see girls and particularly women embrace it without consideration of the implications. And once again, I think part of this links back to the hipster problem I've talked about at great length, and while I will always stress it's a great thing that more people have the freedom to express themselves and be different, it should come from genuine emotion. Not a desire to be different for the sake of being different or fit a certain group - or, to put it another way, quirky just for the sake of being quirky or fit a certain stereotype.

And with all of that, we finally come to Tegan & Sara, indie rock's own Manic Pixie Dream Lesbians.