When I heard that Greta Gerwig directed a film starring Saoirse Ronan, there was an immediate sense of excitement followed by me convincing everyone I know to come and see it with me. When I saw the poster, however, I hesitated. It showed the character of Ladybird and what particularly stood out for me was her pink hair. It is not that I do not like pink hair, but the moment that I saw Ladybird I thought: please no, not another Manic Pixie Dream Girl film.
The Manic Pixie Dream Girl (MPDG) is one of the most fascinating yet frustrating character tropes in contemporary Hollywood cinema. If you have never heard of it, you probably never noticed anything peculiar about the roles that are characterised as such. Take the following films: Breakfast at Tiffany’s, The Perks of Being a Wallflower, Almost Famous, 500 Days of Summer. What do all of these films have in common? A Manic Pixie Dream Girl.
The term was coined in 2007 by film critic Nathan Rabin whilst discussing Elizabethtown. Essentially, the MPDG is a (secondary) character whose main purpose in the film revolves around the character development of the (male) protagonist through a romantic storyline. The MPDG is ‘different’: she is quirky, does not ‘follow the rules’, and stands out by her dyed hair or her uncommon, quirky name. Movies that include a MPDG usually have a similar plot structure: a male protagonist who appears depressed meets a MPDG and falls madly in love. She teaches him how to live and love. Whether they end up together at the end is irrelevant, because she taught him how to be a better person.
The Manic Pixie Dream Girl is fascinating because once you know the trope, you start noticing it everywhere. Not just in films, but also in books and television shows. One might also discover slight variations from the MPDG, such as the Manic Pixie Dream Boy (Augustus in The Fault in Our Stars). But why is this stereotype so frustrating? To me, the most eloquent critique is put forward by spoken word artist Olivia Gatwood. In Manic Pixie Dream Girl, she mentions the ways in which the character becomes objectified to be exactly what the male protagonists needs. She is not real, she is merely an illusion that the protagonist has projected onto her. Everything that we know of the MPDG, we learn through the eyes of the male lead.
So when I saw the poster of Ladybird, with her dyed pink hair and unique name, there were immediate alarm bells in my head. However, I was intrigued to go see the movie because of the one major difference that the movie already had over other ‘traditional’ MPDG films: Ladybird was the protagonist. The audience is introduced to Ladybird’s perspective: her ambitions, thoughts, and emotions. However, the MPDG can also occur in different variations and Timothee Chalamet’s character Kyle appears to have elements of a Manic Pixie Dream Boy. Kyle is a young musician who is very anti-establishment. Ladybird falls in love with him and there are several scenes where she is seen observing him from a distance.
However, her relationship with Kyle is not the film’s main storyline. Neither is her relationship with Danny, the guy she previously dated who comes out as gay. Her romantic relationships do not define her development in this coming-of-age film. What does is Ladybird’s relationship to her mother and to her life in Sacramento. Ladybird rebels against the life that she has in Sacramento and longs for ‘more’, which often leads to arguments with her mother. Gerwig created a beautiful and relatable depiction of a mother-daughter bond that serves as the common thread throughout the film. The film is an ode to growing up and all the complexities that come with it. It shows how a stereotype so integrated in Hollywood can be deconstructed by a female director, who used her own experience and coming-of-age to create a character that feels real to the audience.
I left the cinema feeling excited and hopeful. Excited that my hesitations were in fact not confirmed. Ladybird is not a Manic Pixie Dream Girl, even though she has pink hair and is “from the wrong side of the tracks” as she mentions herself. She gave herself the name Ladybird, symbolising her agency and voice. In addition, the film created a sense of hope for me that perhaps there is a very simple solution to the MPDG: a female writer and director.
Eva Dieteren was born in the Netherlands and is currently pursuing a MSc by Research in Gender and Culture at The University of Edinburgh. Her research focuses on the representation of gender, sexuality, and race in contemporary popular culture.
Rabin, N. (2007, January 25). The Bataan Death March of Whimsy Case File #1: Elizabethtown. AV Film. Retrieved from: https://film.avclub.com/the-bataan-death-march-of-whimsy-case-file-1-elizabet-1798210595
Edited by Elise Walter