Dreamgirls Decoded

The Manic Pixie Dream Girl is a sweet member of the character archetype class, the girl that sits in the middle of the room blowing bubbles with her gum, drawing all over her notebooks and resting her colourful tight-clad legs on the desk. At least until the bell rings, then she flings herself from her seat and into the befuddled arms of her resident love interest. Bonus points if she does so while singing, or exits through the classroom window.

She means well but she’s a problem student, mostly because she’s more about freedom of expression than logic and wants to have class outside all the time. A factor also affecting her school performance is her unwavering devotion to her love interest… and the fact that she really can’t possibly exist.

Now, Manic Pixie Dream Girl is a name-of-shame too often slapped on the wrong people, but this is not a post that aims to point the finger and tack the accusation onto female characters who dare to act free-spirited and quirky. It’s also not a post that complains about the archetype, whatever it may be called, because I’ve done that already. It is, however, a post that rejoices over the general acknowledgement that the trope itself is deeply flawed and shallow.

Ruby Sparks

What respect and logic is there, after all, in a character that exists purely to fulfil a fantasy (be it male or otherwise)? Continuing with my business of finally getting my butt around to watching recommended movies that came out ages ago, I viewed Ruby Sparks recently—a story about a man who literally conjures up his dream girl, and then has to work out what to do with her. Suffering from severe writer’s block, Calvin starts tapping out drabbles about the adventures of a wondrous, eccentric, bubbly, artistic character named Ruby and the man she’s falling in love with, who Calvin shyly admits ‘has a lot of me in him’.

Things get interesting when Ruby appears without explanation from anyone (including the cosmos and the movie writers) in Calvin’s kitchen, eating his cereal and wearing his shirt and acting as though they’re in a long-term relationship. Once he figures out that he isn’t losing his mind and other people can not only see but interact with Ruby, he’s left with a dilemma. What do you do when your dream girl becomes reality?

Upon discovering that he can change and control her with his writing, Calvin and his much more world-wise brother get into a discussion about what to make of her. Calvin at first staves off the notion that he can make his magical girlfriend literally do anything he wants… until she starts acting a bit too independently, seeing other people, shaping her own life and hinting that she might actually feel there are problems in their escapist relationship.

Panicking at the idea of actually having to deal with Ruby as a human being and not just a pretty concept, Calvin goes through the motions, with trial and error, of writing her into several versions of the perfect girlfriend… only to discover that neither of these shiny stereotypes functions very well in the real world.

The point this movie, and Calvin’s brother, make is that women like Ruby do not exist and if we ever did try to live in an actual relationship with them, it wouldn’t work out. You cannot ignore the human side of a person in favour of the concept they embody, that of the perfect girl—this idea is played with in much less literal terms in 500 Days of Summer, where yet another bubbly, spontaneous, quirky young woman with shockingly vibrant blue eyes whisks a lacklustre hero into the heart-warming hurricane of her affections.

500 Days of Summer

Summer is Tom’s perfect girl, he declares this to the world as soon as he meets her… their relationship, however, is over before the movie even begins, and the story is spent jumping back and forth through the rise and fall of their romance to see exactly what went wrong.

After stumbling after Summer with starry eyes, Tom has to face the music when problems and tension arise within their relationship, which, as she’s his ~dream girl~, takes him very much by surprise. I mean, you never argue with your soul mate when you’re fantasising about them, do you? Tom, in the end, has to be a man and admit that maybe his relationship with Summer was doomed from the start since he saw it as such a fairy tale and little else.

More than one John Green hero has been thrust into a coming of age tale over this very concept, both Miles from Looking For Alaska and Q in Paper Towns, coming up rather shocked when the adorable, effervescent, colourful girl they’ve been idolising does something unexpectedly flawed and human. Q has to come to terms with the idea that you can never really know somebody if all you see are the ‘windows and mirrors’ view of them, the façade they want you to see and the one you impose on them too. Miles has to admit, begrudgingly, that he will never truly understand his dream girl Alaska (not just because of her unexpected depth he was blinded to by his crush, either… no spoilers, but it won lots of awards).

It hasn’t quite happened yet, but what I’d really like to see or read is a story from the Manic Pixie Dream Girl’s point of view. What exactly does go on in that rainbow-filled, messy head of theirs, and how do they cope with their own eccentricities as well as being expected to drag a wide-eyed male hero into adventure and light? It can’t be easy, and that’s without this whole newly explored issue of not being able to live up to anyone’s dreamy expectations.

Scott Pilgrim does come close, with the colourful and adventurous Ramona Flowers first appearing literally in the hero’s dreams (she’s using them as a subspace highway to make roller-skate deliveries for Amazon… don’t ask), but then over the course of the six volumes showing she has her own fathoms of depths and issues that she’s combatting. As Scott develops from his experience in the relationship, so does she, and it turns out that they’re both complete messes who need to grow up and face their problems down instead of shoving them aside.

Scoot Pilgrim and Ramona Flowers

One of the many reasons I adore Scott Pilgrim is that the relationship at the heart of it is actually realistic, despite the factors that would make you think otherwise, i.e. Ramona’s mystical persona and colourful hair, the subspace passageways, the epic video game-esque battles for her favour between Scott and her Seven Evil Exes… it starts off seeming very typically ‘twenty-something slacker has to fight for the girl of his dreams’, but develops with heart and humour into something far deeper.

The Dream Girl has three dimensions and there’s more to sustaining a relationship with her than fighting the challengers for the right to date her (which, quite frankly, she isn’t very impressed with)—it requires actual solid work, from both parties, and the acknowledgement of each other’s flaws. The future of Scott and Ramona is even left a bit ambiguous at the very end, with them simply promising hopefully and seriously to try again after all the madness they’ve been through over the past year. There’s no ‘and they lived happily ever after’, though the readers may hope for it, just a final image of the two of them jumping hand-in-hand into subspace and the great unknown.

Because that’s what a relationship is, isn’t it? As often as we try to make it so in our hearts and heads, love is not a certainty and it does not always follow the conventions of a story. We can’t know what’s around the corner, just as we can’t predict and direct the actions and personality of our significant other. As Ruby Sparks showed, if we did have that power it would be very easily abused, dehumanising the human being we’ve fallen for in the first place.

All of these works make the point that though you may idolise someone, you do not and cannot own them, or govern their behaviour and emotions by your own dreamy-eyed ideals.  The trope of the dream girl is becoming less and less well-received these days, which is reassuring—people do understand, escapism aside, that falling in love with the shallow, brightly-toned ideal of a person is not the way to go in actual relationships.

It’s also reassuring the girls of the world that they don’t have to be an eccentric, magical mystery to be attractive. I’m certainly not being anyone’s MPDG. It looks like far too much work for little appreciation, and I don’t own nearly enough coloured stockings.

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8 Comments

Filed under Archetypes and Genre, Pop Culture Ponderings

8 responses to “Dreamgirls Decoded

  1. That sounds like a very cool movie! I’m kind of jealous that I didn’t get the idea to write a story like that.

  2. Ruby Sparks is one of my favourite movies. As a writer it really felt like it hit home. 500 Days of Summer is pretty fantastic too. It’s interesting how the guy’s dream girl always turns out to be the quirky one!

    • I guess that’s where the trope comes from, this idea that all these mediocre men just need a sparkly, manic girl to pull them into adventure and give them self-worth with their attention. I dunno, it’s odd!

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