Holly Golightly: Did I tell you how divinely and utterly happy I am?
Paul Varjak: Yes.
A few months back during Fringe season I went and saw a show inside a real house. It was a lovely play with breakfast and beautiful writing and was based on Breakfast at Tiffany’s. (The book not the movie, in case you were wondering.)
This is a post I’ve wanted to write this post ever since then.
Not because the play was bad, because it wasn’t – it was wonderful actually, one of my favorites of the season – and though I loved the staging, the writing, the actors, so much about the experiment in dramatic form start to finish, despite all this afterwards when I sat in the car with my partner in viewing-crime discussing what we’d seen all I could think was:
“God I detest that female character.”
Not the actress, not the writing of her part, but that faux feminine charming and carbonated, silly yet exotic, tiny pink banged and attractive and mysterious and wild and ukulele playing, Natalie Portman-esque, devoid of any actual humanness cypher of girlishness. Film critic Nathan Rabin put it far better that I when he called her “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.”
Fucking manic pixie dream girl. I hate her so much.
I didn’t write this post back then because I liked the people who put the play on and I didn’t want to hurt them by bashing it when so much of it I truly enjoyed. Especially when I really didn’t have anything more to say on the matter than the fact that I really detest this trope, one I see as rooted in all kinds of shitty ideas about girls and women and the kinds of people they can be, one whose recent “emergence” in this particular form is cloaked in a kind of faux liberation. I think versions of her have been around far longer than we realize. The manic pixie dream girl (or MPDG as I will call her from here out) embraces a “seize life!” zeal but only in so much as it is thrown at her pent up male would-be partners. And while I find this odious and tedious in the extreme, while I have in many ways created my sense of aesthetic and artistic purpose to fly in the face of the MPDG’s twee triviality and lack of substance, at the time I didn’t really have much more to say on the matter. I just had my silent fervent hate.
However, this summer into fall, I have been spending an awful lot of time with women a fair bit younger than myself. Amazing, bold, incredible young women. Women whose ideas and humor have surprised and delighted me, who brought choices into classrooms I could never have predicted and who found inventive slants on characters I have seen performed dozens of times. I look at these young women with their incredible talents and wild and weird inner lives and it fills me with joy.
I admit that many of these fantastic people I underestimated upon first meeting. And I think that’s in part because it took some time to find the strange and silly underbellies that were hidden within them. Wild and wondrous senses of daring, humor and ridiculousness that I suspect are not often enough given space to be explored. And I wonder if this lack of space isn’t partly what constrained my seeing the wholeness of them. And then I think about the kinds of roles they will have available to them in a year or ten year’s time. I think about the shows that I have seen recently, the struggles of my female friends who are performers, the distance between the roles that they have truly loved and the ones they have had to suffer through to keep a face to their name in the acting world. I race in my mind for plays that I could bring to these lovely young ladies, works could lift them and their wildness up.
I have so much trouble doing so. There are more than none. But there are certainly not enough.
In high school when I got really serious about theater I committed to reading a play every week for two years. I raided my theater department’s library in hopes of finding the great roles that I wanted to inhabit someday. And while I found a few, I also realized that more and more there were plenty of stories that intrigued me, that tantalized and pulled me in, but had no women in them or only a few or none I personally wanted to be unless I was cast across my gender. And slowly over time one half of a dual cast narrator from Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, the hyperventilating Alma from Eccentricities of a Nightingale, Widow Begbick in Brecht’s Man is Man, even the beautiful and frustrated monologues of love from Twelfth Night’s Viola, these roles, despite being some of the best I could ask for, just didn’t feel quite enough any more. They were the stories that were made available, but none of them felt exactly enough mine to continue telling. And somewhere in the midst of this it occurred to me that I could tell some of the stories that excited me through the performers onstage even if I didn’t actually have to be that body up there in front of people.
This frustration was the one of the forces that ultimately pulled me out of acting and into directing. In the latter space, one in which the stories I told were not limited to the options others presented to me, it felt like I had more I could say and more ways I could say it. And I found the plays, fewer and farther between than I’d have liked, that highlighted the female roles I’d wished I’d been offered. And when I eventually realized that even beyond these lay the opportunity to create new stories that were entirely of my own imagining, I finally believed that there was enough substantive food for a life of digging into artmaking.
The problem I see with the MPDG and princess and all the other lame female counterparts in much of our contemporary storytelling is that they teach women (and the girls who grow up to become them) that these are the extent of the roles that we have available to us. In art, and I think also in life. I read a study about how the greatest predictor of the number of girls that will grow up to work in science and technology-based fields is hugely correlated with how many women are working in these fields in their community. Not even how many they personally come into contact with, but the number that exist generally in their sphere of being. I would guess that the increase has something to do with a young person’s sense of awareness that such a thing is possible.
It is hard to imagine beyond anything that you know of or have seen. Our narrative context fuels so much of the imagination we later have available to us. So what you see and what you encounter in the stories you take in, especially in formative artistic years will inevitably shape the possibilities that you allow yourself in the future. I fear and I worry that the amazingly bold and smart and incredible young women I have met will be limited to becoming the most amazingly bold and smart and incredible versions of MPDGs and princesses and nurses and ingénues rather than applying those same forces of will and intellect towards the multitude of other avenues that might be available to them. I worry that if some aspect of them is too hard to squeeze into those narrow shapes that they will be excluded. I worry that if they do fit inside them that some of the other incredible parts of them will be pushed out so that they fit more neatly within.
My first year out of college, when I had so few moorings, so little outlet for the stories I wanted to tell, I flirted with becoming the MPDG. I became enraptured with a boy and then became enraptured with my ability to construct a persona that I thought was charming and alluring. And I, despite my feminist upbringing, despite my experience crafting my own stories, despite my sense of myself as a strong and independent person, found it easy to default to a narrative that seemed pre-designed for me. I could sense this trope and its effervescent power and in little bits and pieces I began playing and becoming her. I felt her narrative pull and began to conform my outer self to match it. Then one day this boy gave me a movie and told me that a character in it reminded him of me. And at the end of that movie I realized in no small amount of horror that he wasn’t wrong, that I had made myself to resemble this precious punky person and that I had created a vision of my life in my own mind in which I was a side character.
It was only when that version of my life story and the caricature of myself that I’d formulated within it began to fail that I realized how little of my whole self I’d really offered.
This is the power of art and narrative, whether we make it or consume it. It shapes our sense of ourselves in the world. It can limit not only our sense of being in the works of art themselves, but it can transform our ability to conceive of ourselves in the world at large. A new incredible story at its best helps us change the way we think. It offers us a vision of a world that we might hope to live in. And when we limit our narrative selves to these paltry simplistic women, we limit the kinds of women we imagine we can be. And by passing those stories on, we teach our younger female counterparts that this is enough to be satisfied with.
I worry for these young ladies that I have met over these past many months. I worry that their outward forms will dictate so much of their inner artistic work. I worry that they have grown up on these stories that do not contain the entirety of them and I worry that they will be forced to shrink themselves down to fit inside the ones that are made available. I want to grab them and tell them that they should demand huge spaces in their artistic lives. That the stories we tell are the way we make sense of the world around us. That creating visions of how we can be is how we begin to become that. That they owe it to themselves and the women they will become.
That they are more than MPDGs and her static character counterparts. For she is singularly dimensional. She does not advance through the course of the story. She is there to shift the inner workings of others. She is inwardly inanimate like a rock. The manic pixie dream girl has no opportunity to change or shift or grow or move.
There are a lot of reasons that I make my own work. This is one of the biggest ones. It’s why I write this post now, several months later, not because my singular dislike of this character matters very much, but because I want to tell them they are not like she is. That they can do so much more than any of these things.