Contemporary Depictions of Alternative Femininity
By Julianna Joyce
Unnaturally colored hair, alternative style, an affinity for the Smiths, and just socially awkward enough to be lovable, the alternative girl has found her way out of the high school and college hallways and directly onto the silver screen. In the last twenty years, television and film have begun to feature the quirky, alternative female alongside the usual female characters who embody homogenized ideals of feminine beauty. Television shows such as New Girl, Girls, and even NCIS have featured the alternative girl as either a protagonist or an important secondary character. The acceptance of diverse and alternative female characters into mass media represents a move towards drawing in the “Indie crowd,” a now marketable demographic made viable by the hipster movement. The increase in the use of alterna-girl characters has created notable character tropes within the labeled classification. Despite the character’s alternative label, the trope assigns specific attributes to the character, therefore homogenizing any preexisting notion of difference. For example, the sub-trope of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl has gained particular notoriety in the last twenty years. Despite the alternative appearance, the Manic Pixie Dream Girl trope is well situated within the constructed female image in modern cinema; an image that is progressive enough to feign feminism but at its essence perpetuates post-feminist rhetoric. This character is depicted as a quirky, fun-loving, alternative girl whose life is devoted to the male protagonist. The Manic Pixie Dream Girl perpetuates the care-giving stereotype, in which women exist simply to cater to men, with her mythos and the subsequent characters existing in a realm of post-femininity, which subverts female progress by glorifying the role of the caretaker and typical women’s roles. The Manic Pixie Dream Girl exhibits no true desires of her own, does not have any real aspirations, and is simply there to help the male protagonist. She is easily amused, childlike in her social interactions, and seemingly incapable of truly taking care of herself without the male lead, i.e., her childlike ways give her the uncanny ability to raise the brooding (usually white) male from his failure-induced depression. Her inability to function separately from a male lead or rather constant need for male attention, in addition to her childish ways, again feeds into negative stereotypes, which undermine women’s intellectual ability. Her character exists within the post-feminist masquerade working to “re-secure the terms of submission of white femininity to white masculine domination”[i]. While off-beat plots and characters provide audiences with a different voice and an option outside of the mass produced “shoot-em-up blockbusters,” films including the Manic Pixie Dream Girl character tend to follow many of the same plot lines and perpetuate many of the same negativities as those criticized within traditional mainstream film. Although it seems that the inclusion of the alternative girl speaks to a changing view of women to a more encompassing and vaguely feminist understanding of diverse body type appreciation, many of the films featuring the alterna-girls perpetuate the same regressive stereotypes as those that precede them.
Methods and primary sources
In this paper I hope to further examine the role of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl within contemporary film, as well as her relation to the feminist movement. Close textual analysis was conducted on two contemporary “off-beat” films: Scott Pilgrim versus the World (Edgar Wright, 2010), and (500) days of summer (Marc Webb, 2009) in order to better understand the relationship between the male protagonist and the female supporting role. The close textual analysis was also used in order to look at the characters’ roles and evaluate if they were stereotypical and to examine the dialogue, dress, and general character traits as a way to assess the femininity of the characters and how they are expected to act. The qualitative analysis helped distinguish particular characteristics of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl, to compare them with feminist and post-feminist theory. The research was guided by the main question (1)How and where does the Manic Pixie Dream Girl situate herself within feminist theory? And where is she situated within representations of femininity and feminism? The research was then further supplemented by secondary questions: (1) What are the traits of the Manic Pixie Dream girls? (2) What is her role within the life of the male protagonist? (3)Does the character best fit into post-feminism and the idea of the “new young women” or is the image portrayed completely outside of feminism?
The Manic Pixie Ethos fits into Samantha Senda-Cooks’ theory of the Incomplete Woman. Between the Manic Pixie Girl mythos and the Incomplete Woman theory one major difference exists, the character’s sense of agency. The character established within the Incomplete Woman theory has a sense of agency in that she is driven to pursue a career. The characters are usually fairly successful within their career, but must choose between it and the male love interest. Although the plot line usually involves the female character managing to keep both a job and their love interest, there is still the conundrum of choice. The situation presents a form of semi-feminism: she has career aspirations which give her a progressive feminist edge, but her willingness or consideration to give up her career for a man seems regressive. Senda-Cook, blames the “double bind” on patriarchy, “A patriarchal society expects women to go to college and plan a career, but forego or amend that possibility when the opportunity for a family arises.”[ii] However, the Manic Pixie Dream Girl does not have to worry about the “double bind;” her lack of agency, career aspirations, wants, and desires outside of catering to the male protagonist, ensure that she has no choice. The MPDG fits into Senda-Cook’s argument that “films explicitly encourage women to complete their lives by becoming less professional or more feminine and engaging in a heterosexual romance[iii]”. The MPGD’s complete abandon of personal aspirations is regressive and represents a move towards a more traditional understanding of femininity. Angela McRobbie’s theory of post-feminism can also be applied to the project given the role the women play in a relationship setting and in the larger context of the film itself. McRobbie sees the current trend in postfeminist media as engaging in a post-feminist masquerade, which she explains “is a new form of gender power which re-orchestrates the heterosexual matrix in order to secure, once again, the existence patriarchal law and masculine hegemony, but this time by means of a kind of ironic, quasi feminist staking out of a distance in the act of taking on the garb of femininity” (89). Her discussion of the post-feminist masquerade continues to encompass the role of young women as they establish themselves within a world that has fought past feminism, won, and can now reap the benefits. The young women of which the author speaks are those who have come of age through the struggles of recent feminist movements. They often reject the school of thought because of its unpopular or rather strict stipulations. They now exist within a feminist masquerade which gives the pretense of feminism without tangible equality. McRobbie discusses three figures within the masquerade and their relation to what she calls a “new sexual contract: the phallic girl, the working girl, and the global girl”[iv]. McRobbie’s phallic girl stands to represent the sexual freedom provided by the feminist struggle in a young female who now treats her sexual life in a way similar to that of her male counterpart. She sees sex as sport, and adopts many of the habits of a male “drinking, swearing, smoking, etc.”[v] Although she challenges gender and Judith Butler’s theories of gender performance, the phallic girl and her actions don’t call male hegemony into question, and are actually “disparaging of feminism.[vi]” Ultimately, the post-feminist construct of the phallic girl represents a move away from traditional feminism in order to give women enough freedoms to placate them but within a limit which still follows patriarchy’s agenda.
What defines a Manic Pixie Dream Girl?
The Manic Pixie Dream Girl manifests herself as the dark brooding protagonist’s eccentric love interest. The character stands as the new form of the muse, which has existed in literature, art, and science, seen as early as the Ancient Greeks’ nine Muses. Much like the Muses, the Manic Pixie Dream Girl lives in a world where her sole purpose is to cater to and inspire the male protagonist. The term was originally coined by film critic and blogger Nathan Rabins in his discussion of Kirsten Dunst’s character in the film “Elizabethtown.” Rabins defines the MPDG:
existing solely in the fevered imaginations of sensitive writer-directors to teach broodingly soulful young men to embrace life and its infinite mysteries and adventures. The Manic Pixie Dream Girl is an all-or-nothing-proposition. Audiences either want to marry her instantly (despite The Manic Pixie Dream Girl being, you know, a fictional character) or they want to commit grievous bodily harm against them and their immediate family.[vii]Although the character is fictional and her traits are relatively harmless, it is important to consider her role as subordinate to the male lead. Not only are MPDG the secondary character, their frequent use has made them a trope - a common pattern in a story or recognizable attribute in a character that conveys information to the audience. A trope becomes a cliché when it’s overused. Sadly some of these tropes perpetuate negative stereotypes. The Manic Pixie mythos and its subsequent characters exist in a realm of post-femininity, which subverts female progress by glorifying the role of the caretaker and typical women’s roles. Women play a secondary role to male protagonist within the trope in a way which speaks to a more traditional role for women and ignores feminism and women’s progressive rights. Although there are glimpses of feminist discussion intermixed into the female character’s dialogue, the glimpses only provides a bit of luminosity on the subject rather than a full examination or argument in favor of women’s rights. Despite the alternative appearance, the Manic Pixie Dream Girl trope is well situated within the constructed female image in modern cinema; an image which is progressive enough to feign feminism but at its essence perpetuates post-feminist rhetoric. The Manic Pixie Dream Girl perpetuates the care giving stereotype, in which women exist simply to cater to men. The Manic Pixie Dream Girl shows no true desires of her own, she does not have any real aspirations, and she is simply there to help the male protagonist see a more fun style of living. Her ability to raise the brooding, usually white, male from his failure-induced depression comes from her childlike ways. She is easily amused, childlike in her social interactions, and seemingly incapable of truly taking care of herself apart from the male lead. Her inability to function without a male or rather constant need for male attention, again feeds into negative stereotypes of dependency on males as well as childish ways, which undermine women’s intellectual ability. Her character exists within the post-feminist masquerade working to “re-secure the terms of submission of white femininity to white masculine domination.”
(500) Days of Summer:
Following the life of protagonist Tom -played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt, (500) Days of Summer chronicles the pre, post, and during periods of an amorous off-beat relationship between the protagonist and the girl of his dreams. In this film, the MPDG trope is visible in Tom’s dream girl andco-worker, Summer - played by Zooey Deschanel. The two characters meet at a greeting card company where Tom works as a writer and Summer is an assistant/secretary. The female character’s job as a secretary plays into power dynamics often seen in films from the 1940s-60s and now in retro-based shows like Mad Men, where men play dominant roles in the workplace. Women were often hyper-sexualized within these roles on screen, showing a subservient, sexualized image of women in the workplace. By sexualizing the career-minded women, the images obfuscated women’s struggle to gain employment and the fight for equality, thus normalizing patriarchy as the correct dominant force. Summer’s job as a secretary plays into this role, even though Tom is not her boss. Simply by being a secretary and because of their frequent copy room escapades, Summer plays into the subversive role. Therefore Tom is established as more dominant, despite how their non-traditional relationship unfolds.The traditional sequence of the off-beat plotline involving the trope is inverted in this film. Instead of moving from a place of despair into happiness with the help of the MPDG, the character finds himself destroyed by her
absence and must rebuild himself on his own. Despite her non-traditional participation in the well-being of the character, Zooey Deschannel’s character, Summer, still embodies the MPDG trope, particularly in aesthetic qualifications. During the positive period of their “relationship”, Summer dresses in a vintage style, with bows in her hair, high-waisted pants, and classic 1950s dresses. To complete the aesthetic image of 1950s or vintage, Summer sports what Tom refers to as a “1960s haircut.” Her total image is similar to a modern pin-up, an image embraced in hipster and alternative circles. Summer’s love of The Smiths and Belle and Sebastian, also place her as a consumer of indie or alternative music, thus completing her alternative image.
Despite dressing according to the alternative fashion style, Summer’s personality is not completely representational of the MPDG trope. In contrast to the rather vapid opinion-less Claire whom Rabins critiques in Elizabethtown, Summer is not afraid to express her views on relationships and her role within them. The film offers a view of the characters more feminist side, in a scene where Summer, Tom, and another co-worker have all gone to the bar after work. The co-worker asks Summer if she has a boyfriend, to which Summer answers no, leaving the two men baffled.
McKenzie: [drunk] So do you have a boyfriend?
McKenzie: Why not?
Summer: Because I don’t want one.
McKenzie: Come on; I don’t believe that.
Summer: You don’t believe that a woman could enjoy being free and independent?
McKenzie: Are you a lesbian?
Summer: [laughing] No I’m not a lesbian. I just, don’t feel comfortable being anyone’s girlfriend. I don’t actually feel comfortable being anyone’s anything
Summer: Ok. I, like being on my own. I think relationships are messy and people’s feelings get hurt. Who needs it? We’re young, we live in one of the most beautiful cities in the world; might as well have fun while we can and, save the serious stuff for later.
McKenzie: You’re a dude. [to Tom] She’s a dude!
Tom: Ok but wait–wait. What happens, if you fall in love?
Summer: You don’t believe in that, do you?
Tom: It’s love, it’s not Santa Claus.
In a way, the film has reversed the traditional understanding of love and relationships, placing the female as less receptive to amorous life and the male character as more of a hopeless romantic. Summer’s retort to being perceived as strange or a lesbian speaks to the feminist movement. Summer is in control of her sex life and does not substantiate her own worth within male companionship. Her reluctance to become seriously involved with the male protagonist and sexual freedom aligns the character with McRobbie’s post-feminist figure of the “phallic girl.” Summer is both aesthetically and emotionally feminine, while exhibiting more masculine traits. In the scene previously described, the character speaks out against love, right after happily accepting a beer, which the drunken friend, McKenzie, sees as a more masculine beverage, as evidenced by his insistence on switching her drink because she’s “a chick.” Although it seems ridiculous to assign gender performativity to alcoholic preferences, the gendered image usually associated with marketing campaigns for beer is largely male-oriented. Her desire to keep her relationship with the male protagonist casual seems to contradict the understanding of the nurturing, loving, mother figure, which women are expected to become. Instead, she conducts herself and her sexuality in a more masculine way, focusing more on “recreational sex” over “reproductive sex.[viii]” Summer even takes on a masculine role when describing her relationship with Tom by saying that she is the Sid Vicious of the relationship, leaving the male protagonist to be Nancy, the feminized victim. Summer therefore establishes herself metaphorically as the “phallus bearer”[ix] by assigning the masculine role to herself. Her sexual morality and tendency towards traits deemed more masculine (such as willingness to watch and reenact adult films) further establish her adoption of the phallus as her own. The character’s choice to dress in vintage 1950s style takes on a more playful role, when Tom and Summer take a trip to an Ikea and play house in a showroom kitchen. Summer plays the role of a housewife, and pretends to prepare a meal for Tom. During the scene, Summer mockingly praises Tom for being so smart, pretending to reward him by waiting for him in bedroom. The scene satirizes the 1950s social construction of gender expectations in the household. The mockery implies that both Summer and Tom understand the absurdity of the assigned roles. Additionally, because the non-relationship they share is inversed according to gender perceptions, the acting out of traditional roles seems to speak to the “new backlash” in the feminist movement which points out “the ridiculousness and unnatural nature of our contemporary gender relations.” By mocking traditional gender roles, the film attempts to normalize Tom and Summer’s gender-switched relationship.Summer as a character sits in a place of feminist ambivalence. She is both subversive and progressive, in ways that situate her best within post-feminist rhetoric. Despite her short burst of feminist rhetoric, the character’s “phallic girl” understanding of relationships and sex as well as the ultimate decision to get married, seems to undermine the initial burst. In fact the feminist rhetoric she espouses may best be represented by Merri Lisa Johnson’s argument for female pleasure and third wave feminism. Summer appears content in the “relationship” because it functions in her control. She is in control of the pleasure received from the relationship, rather than simply catering to the sexual needs of the male character. Like Third Wave Feminist, she is empowered through her own control of pleasure rather than being controlled by patriarchy[x]. However, Summer never raises herself from the secondary role she plays to Tom, she appears to have no real aspirations of her own, and despite establishing herself as having strong opinions on relationships, she ultimately falls into traditionalism, thus undercutting the strength of her initial argument. Because she does benefit from her control over her own pleasure and sexual life, but still plays a secondary role without agency, Summer best embodies post-feminism.
Scott Pilgrim vs The World:
Based on the graphic novel by the same name, Scott Pilgrim vs the World chronicles protagonist Scott Pilgrim’s – played by serial indie-film protagonist Michael Cera- battle to win the love of his dream girl, Ramona Flowers – played by Mary Elizabeth Winstead. Scott is a 22-year-old thin, white, male whose love life takes a turn for the worse after his girlfriend “breaks his heart and turns into a super bitch.” The male character is girl-obsessed (to the point of skipping band practice to go on a date), unemployed, and living in a one-room basement apartment with his gay roommate. Scott does not initially seem to fit the traditional characteristics of the male protagonist within the Manic Pixie Mythos, mainly because he is not visibly depressed. However, the audience quickly learns that his break up, which occurred over a year ago, has left him a bit unstable, both romantically and emotionally. Additionally, Scott has created an image of a perfect female in his mind, who manifests herself into his life. Thus, the protagonist has his dream girl.
The dream girl, Ramona Flowers, is an American native, dyed hair, hipster girl who moves to Canada in order to escape her past. Her fashion aesthetics connect her strongly to the alternative or hipster scene, an aesthetic which the movie’s dialogue addresses frequently. Her fashion and hair closely resemble many of the styles seen within the riot grrrl movement in the early 90s.
Steam punk goggles on her head, brightly colored tights under plaid pleated skirts, and combat style boots, seem to be the character’s general aesthetic. The steampunk[xi] and riot grrrl[xii] styles add an edgy level to the character’s personality. Her clothing is feminine, but strongly alternative, which, aside from its edginess, also lends a more masculine air to her persona. Her bomber jackets and asymmetric haircut detract from the traditional sense of female beauty because of its historically male perception and appropriation by the character. To add to her alterna-girl aesthetic, Ramona’s ever-changing hair color mimics that of fellow Manic Pixie Dream girl Clementine, in “The Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.” The wildly colored hair is a fashionable trend within alternative scenes, particularly within emo and scene kid aesthetics. Her involvement with the music scene and frequency in dating musicians also aligns her with a more alternative scene, given that most alternative scenes tend to align themselves with particular genres of music, i.e. punk, emo, etc. Ramona’s alternative style and tie to the music scene aligns her with several Manic Pixie Dream Girl aesthetics.
Aside from her aesthetic identity within the MPDG, Ramona’s character plays a secondary role to the male protagonist, despite showing herself to hold more power in the relationship. In a telling scene, Scott, the male protagonist, is shown wearing an apron and cooking dinner for Ramona. He speaks to his roommate, about all of the emotions and anxieties he is having about Ramona coming over. His banter seems stereotypically female in the way that he quickly becomes over-emotional and worries about his body image. This scene places the relationship dominance in the hands of Ramona and masculinizes her character. Additionally, Ramona clarifies early on that all sexual power is hers to control. This is established after Ramona and Scott’s first date once they end up in Ramona’s bed:
Ramona V. Flowers: I changed my mind.
Scott Pilgrim: Changed it to what? From what?
Ramona V. Flowers: I don't wanna have sex with you, Pilgrim. Not right now.
Scott Pilgrim: Okay.
Ramona V. Flowers: It's not like I'm gonna send you home in a snowstorm or anything. You can sleep in my bed. And I reserve the right to change my mind about the sex later.
Much like Summer in 500 Days of Summer, Ramona embodies the characteristics of McRobbie’s “phallic girl”. Ramona is both in control of her sexual life, as evidenced by the first date scene, and exhibits a willingness to use violence when necessary. According to McRobbie, the “phallic girl,” besides engaging in a sexual lifestyle which is reminiscent of patriarchal male prowess, will also engage in masculine habits such as “smoking, swearing getting into fights, having casual sex...[xiii]”. Ramona is shown to have several battle scenes where she defends herself and/or the male protagonist. Although this show of strength and power is a more masculine trait, there isn’t true equality between the male and female characters. Ramona only fights the female characters, which gives the impression that women would be unable to fight against a male. The male protagonist expresses this idea when fighting Ramona’s female ex - from her “bi-curious,” or as Scott calls it, her “sexy” phase. When informed that he would have to defeat the female ex Scott insists that he can’t fight a girl because “they’re soft”. The image of the strong fighting woman who is willing to defend herself and those she cares for is undermined by the female-on-female battles which insinuate that women are too soft to fight men.
To further align the Ramona character to the phallic girl, it is important to note the character’s previous relationship with another female. Because Ramona discredits the relationship by calling it simply a “phase”, she is aligning herself with the more taboo side of the phallic girl, “who is not averse to having sex with other girls[xiv]”. However, like the phallic girl, the relationship is just a fling rather than an acceptance of bisexuality or homosexuality. By calling it a bi-curious phase, the relationship still accepts heterosexuality as the normative orientation, and thus does not take away from the patriarchal power dynamic. Were Ramona to accept the validity of the relationship and her possible feelings, the relationship may have been a threat to her potential heterosexual relationships. She is therefore still an object that is conquerable for males. The fling fits into a more “sexy” understanding of lesbian desire, which is perpetuated by modern media. Additionally, her sexual life, which she appears to be in control of, is expressed to be more focused on “recreational sex” rather than “reproductive sex”. When her past relationships are discussed she speaks of them without any real attachment or regret. Her relationships seem to be based on recreation rather than any level of emotional attachment.
This taken into account, it can be said that the Ramona character fits into views of sexuality and third-wave feminism. Not only does she fit into Johnson’s argument in favor of female pleasure being empowering for women, she also can be aligned with Naomi Wolf’s argument on promiscuity. Although McRobbie might see recreational sex as outside of feminist rhetoric, Naomi Wolf argues that by embracing one’s “shadow slut[xv]” one is embracing one’s own power of patriarchy. Wolf argues against the policing of female sexuality and says that, by embracing the often-shunned promiscuous aspects of one’s personality, women are actively fighting against standard ideologies of female sexuality. Ramona is shown to be unabashed in her sexual freedoms as well as in the number of relationships she has participated in. By embracing her “shadow slut,” i.e., not acting accordingly to standard perceptions of female chastity, Ramona fights against it.
In both films, it is possible to see how the trope of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl can sit in a liminal space between feminism and post-feminism. Despite the ephemeral glimpse of strong feminist rhetoric by both of the characters, the ultimate decisions to give up personal morals and desires for a heterosexual relationship delegitimizes their feminist argument. Because the trope has established itself as placing the male lead as the protagonist, it is difficult to argue for its feminist power, regardless of the strength of the supporting female role. This can be seen within 500 days of Summer and Scott Pilgrim vs the World, since both of the characters give a glimpse of feminist rhetoric, but ultimately adhere to patriarchal notions of feminine comportment. Because they adhere to the gender power distinctions perpetuated within the Manic Pixie mythos, both women set themselves as subversive characters. Their lack of true agency in favor of inspiring the brooding male protagonist further depicts their character as secondary and almost less important to the male. This need to care for the male protagonist emulates the antiquated notion of women as caretakers or homemakers. Ultimately, the trope best situates itself within post-feminism and the theories of the new sexual contract as discussed by Angela McRobbie. The characters do benefit from the past struggles of feminism as noted by their enjoyment of sexual freedoms and pleasure without many repercussions. They also show themselves to be more traditionally feminine, wearing girly clothing and worrying about their future within a committed heterosexual relationship. The trope’s placement within the alternative scene aligns it with an expectation of greater leeway within the freedoms of the female body and femininity. However, femininity as a construct and the female body, regardless of the labeled perception (i.e. mainstream, riot grrrl, feminist, post-feminist, etc.) when depicted on screen, must adhere to the patriarchal concept of idealized femininity.
Cover photo: Scott Pilgrim vs. the World