Archetypal Manic Pixie Dream Girl Zooey Deschanel.
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Laurie Penny on sexism in storytelling: I was a Manic Pixie Dream Girl

Men grow up expecting to be the hero of their own story. Women grow up expecting to be the supporting actress in somebody else's.

Like scabies and syphilis, Manic Pixie Dream Girls were with us long before they were accurately named. It was the critic Nathan Rabin who coined the term in a review of the film Elizabethtown, explaining that the character of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl "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". She pops up everywhere these days, in films and comics and novels and television, fascinating lonely geek dudes with her magical joie-de-vivre and boring the hell out of anybody who likes their women to exist in all four dimensions.

Writing about Doctor Who this week got me thinking about sexism in storytelling, and how we rely on lazy character creation in life just as we do in fiction. The Doctor has become the ultimate soulful brooding hero in need of a Manic Pixie Dream Girl to save him from the vortex of self-pity usually brought on by the death, disappearance or alternate-universe-abandonment of the last girl. We cannot have the Doctor brooding. A planet might explode somewhere, or he might decide to use his powers for evil, or his bow-tie might need adjusting. The companions of the past three years, since the most recent series reboot, have been the ultimate in lazy sexist tropification, any attempt at actually creating interesting female characters replaced by... That Girl. 

Amy Pond was That Girl; Clara Oswald has been That Girl; River Song, interestingly enough, did not start out as That Girl, but the character was forcibly turned into That Girl when she no longer fit the temper of a series with contempt for powerful, interesting, grown-up women, and then discarded when she outgrew the role (‘Don’t let him see you age’ was River’s main piece of advice in the last season). ‘The Girl Who Waited’ is not a real person, and nor is ‘The Impossible Girl.’ Those are the titles of stories. They are stories that happen to other people. That’s what girls are supposed to be. 

Men grow up expecting to be the hero of their own story. Women grow up expecting to be the supporting actress in somebody else's. As a kid growing up with books and films and stories instead of friends, that was always the narrative injustice that upset me more than anything else. I felt it sometimes like a sharp pain under the ribcage, the kind of chest pain that lasts for minutes and hours and might be nothing at all or might mean you're slowly dying of something mundane and awful. It's a feeling that hit when I understood how few girls got to go on adventures. I started reading science fiction and fantasy long before Harry Potter and The Hunger Games, before mainstream female leads very occasionally got more at the end of the story than together with the protagonist. Sure, there were tomboys and bad girls, but they were freaks and were usually killed off or married off quickly. Lady hobbits didn't bring the ring to Mordor. They stayed at home in the shire. 

Stories matter. Stories are how we make sense of the world, which doesn’t mean that those stories can’t be stupid and simplistic and full of lies. Stories can exaggerate and offend and they always, always matter. In Doug Rushkoff's recent book Present Shock, he discusses the phenomenon of “narrative collapse”: the idea that in the years between 11 September 2001 and the financial crash of 2008, all of the old stories about God and Duty and Money and Family and America and The Destiny of the West finally disintegrated, leaving us with fewer sustaining fairytales to die for and even fewer to live for.

This is plausible, but future panic, like the future itself, is not evenly distributed. Not being sure what story you're in anymore is a different experience depending on whether or not you were expecting to be the hero of that story. Low-status men, and especially women and girls, often don't have that expectation. We expect to be forgettable supporting characters, or sometimes, if we're lucky, attainable objects to be slung over the hero's shoulder and carried off the end of the final page. The only way we get to be in stories is to be stories ourselves. If we want anything interesting at all to happen to us we have to be a story that happens to somebody else, and when you’re a young girl looking for a script, there are a limited selection of roles to choose from.

Manic Pixies, like other female archetypes, crop up in real life partly because fiction creates real life, particularly for those of us who grow up immersed in it. Women behave in ways that they find sanctioned in stories written by men who know better, and men and women seek out friends and partners who remind them of a girl they met in a book one day when they were young and longing. 

For me, Manic Pixie Dream Girl was the story that fit. Of course, I didn't think of it in those terms;  all I saw was that in the books and series I loved - mainly science fiction, comics and offbeat literature, not the mainstream films that would later make the MPDG trope famous - there were certain kinds of girl you could be, and if you weren't a busty bombshell, if you were maybe a bit weird and clever and brunette, there was another option.

And that's how I became a Manic Pixie Dream Girl. The basic physical and personality traits were already there, and some of it was doubtless honed by that learned girlish desire to please - because the posture does please people, particularly the kind of sad, bright, bookish young men who have often been my friends and lovers. I had the raw materials: I’m five feet nothing, petite and small-featured with skin the color of something left on the bottom of a pond for too long and messy hair that’s sometimes dyed a shocking shade of red or pink. At least, it was before I washed all the dye out last year, partly to stop soulful Zach-Braff-a-likes following me to the shops, and partly to stop myself getting smeary technicolour splotches all over the bathroom, as if a muppet had been horribly murdered. 

And yes, I’m a bit strange and sensitive and daydreamy, and retain a somewhat embarrassing belief in the ultimate decency of humanity and the transformative brilliance of music, although I’m ambivalent on the Shins. I love to dance, I play the guitar badly, and I also - since we’re in confession mode, dear reader, please hear and forgive - I also play the fucking ukelele. Truly. Part of the reason I’m writing this is that the MPDG trope isn’t properly explored, in any of the genres I read and watch and enjoy. She’s never a point-of-view character, and she isn’t understood from the inside. She’s one of those female tropes who is permitted precisely no interiority. Instead of a personality, she has eccentricities, a vaguely-offbeat favourite band, a funky fringe. 

I’m fascinated by this character and what she means to people, because the experience of being her - of playing her - is so wildly different than it seems to appear from the outside. In recent weeks I’ve filled in the gaps of classic Manic Pixie Dream Girl films I hadn’t already sat through, and I’m struck by how many of them claim to be ironic re-imaginings of a character trope that they fail to actually interrogate in any way. Irony is, of course, the last vestige of modern crypto-misogyny: all those lazy stereotypes and hurtful put-downs are definitely a joke, right up until they aren’t, and clearly you need a man to tell you when and if you’re supposed to take sexism seriously. 

One of these soi-disant ironic films is (500) Days of Summer, the opening credits of which refer to the real-world heartbreak on which writer-director Scott Neustadter based the character of Summer" 'Any resemblance to people living or dead is purely coincidental. Especially you, Jenny Beckman. Bitch.'  

Men write women, and they re-write us, for revenge. It's about obsession, and control. Perhaps the most interesting of the classics, then, is the recent 'Ruby Sparks', written by a woman, Zoe Kazan, who also stars as the title character. It’s all about a frustrated young author who writes himself a perfect girlfriend, only to have her come to life. When she inevitably proves more difficult to handle in reality than she did in his fantasy, the writer’s brother comments: "You've written a girl, not a person."  

“I think defining a girl and making her lovable because of her music taste or because she wears cute clothes is a really superficial way of looking at women. I did want to address that,” Kazan told the Huffington Post. “Everybody is setting out to write a full character. It's just that some people are limited in their imagination of a girl.”

Those imaginative limits, that failure of narrative, is imposed off the page, too, in the most personal of ways. I stopped being a Manic Pixie Dream Girl around about the time I got rid of the last vestiges of my eating disorder and knuckled down to a career. It’s so much easier, if you have the option, to be a girl, not a person. It’s definitely easier to be a girl than it is to do the work of being a grown woman, especially when you know that grown women are far more fearful to the men whose approval seems so vital to your happiness. And yet something in me was rebelling against the idea of being a character in somebody else’s story. I wanted to write my own. 

I became successful, or at least modestly so - and that changed how I was perceived, entirely and all at once. I was no longer That Girl. I didn’t have time to save boys anymore. I manifestly had other priorities, and those priorities included writing. You cannot be a writer and have writing be anything other than the central romance of your life, which is one thing they don’t tell you about being a woman writer: it’s its own flavour of lonely. Men can get away with loving writing a little bit more than anything else. Women can’t: our partners and, eventually, our children are expected to take priority. Even worse, I wasn’t writing poems or children’s stories, I was writing reports, political columns. I’ve recently been experimenting with answering ‘fashion’ rather than ‘politics’ when men casually ask me what I write about, and the result has been a hundred percent increase in phone numbers, business cards, and offers of drinks. This is still substantially fewer advances than I receive when I the truthful answer to whether I wrote was: “sometimes, in notebooks, just for myself.”

I don't often write about love and sex on a personal level these days, even though I spend a great deal of time thinking about it, like everyone else in the It's Complicated stage of their twenties. Lately, though, as I've been working on longer ideas about sexism and class and power, I keep coming back to love, to the meat and intimacy of fucking and how it so often leads so treacherously to kissing. I flick through a lot of feminist theory in the down hours where some people knit or go jogging, and I was prepared for the personal to be political. What I didn't understand until quite recently was that the political can be so, so personal.

There was never a moment in my life when I decided to be a writer. I can't remember a time when I didn't know for sure that that's what I'd do, in some form, and forever. But there have been times when I didn't write, because I was too depressed or anxious or running away from something, and those times have coincided almost precisely with the occasions when I had most sexual attention from men. I wish I’d known, at 21, when I made up my mind to try to write seriously for a living if I could, that that decision would also mean a choice to be intimidating to the men I fancied, a choice to be less attractive, a choice to stop being That Girl and start becoming a grown woman, which is the worst possible thing a girl can do, which is why so many of those Manic Pixie Dream Girl characters, as written by male geeks and scriptwriters, either die tragically young or are somehow immortally fixed at the physical and mental age of nineteen-and-a-half. Meanwhile, in the real world, the very worst thing about being a real-life MPDG is the look of disappointment on the face of someone you really care about when they find out you’re not their fantasy at all - you’re a real human who breaks wind and has a job.

If I’d known what women have to sacrifice in order to write, I would not have allowed myself to be so badly hurt when boys whose work and writing I found so fascinating found those same qualities threatening in me. I would have understood what Kate Zambreno means when she says, in her marvellous book HeroinesI do not want to be an ugly woman, and when I write, I am an ugly woman. I would have been less surprised when men encouraged me to be politer and grow my hair long even as I helped them out with their own media careers. My Facebook feed is full of young male writers who I have encouraged to believe in themselves, set up with contacts, taken on adventures and talked into the night about the meaning of journalism with who are now in long-term relationships with people who are content to be That Girl. I would have understood quite clearly what I was choosing when I chose, sometime around the time I packed two suitcases and walked out on Garden State Boy, to be a person who writes her own stories, rather than a story that happens to other people. 

I try hard, now, around the men in my life, to be as unmanic, as unpixie and as resolutely real possible, because I don’t want to give the wrong impression. And it’s a struggle. Because I remain a small, friendly, excitable person who wears witchy colors and has a tendency towards the twee. I still know that if I wanted to, I could attract one of those lost, pretty nerd boys I have such a weakness for by dialling up the twee and dialling down the smart, just as I know that the hurt in their eyes when they realise you’re a real person is not something I ever want to see again. I still love to up sticks and go on adventures, but I no longer drag mournful men-children behind me when I do, because it’s frankly exhausting. I still play the ukelele. I wasn’t kidding about the fucking ukelele. But I refuse to burn my energy adding extra magic and sparkle to other people’s lives to get them to love me. I’m busy casting spells for myself. Everyone who was ever told a fairytale knows what happens to women who do their own magic.

So here’s what I’ve learned, in 26 years of reading books and kissing boys. Firstly, averagely pretty white women in their late teens and twenties are not the biggest, most profoundly unsolvable mystery in the universe.  Trust me. I should know. Those of us with an ounce of lust for life are almost universally less interesting than we will be in our thirties and forties. The one abiding secret about us is that we’re not fantasies, and we weren’t made to save you: we’re real people, with flaws and cracked personalities and big dreams and digestive tracts. It’s no actual mystery, but it remains a fact that the half of the human race with a tendency to daydream about a submissive, exploitable, transcendent ideal of the other seems perversely unwilling to discover.

Secondly, you can spend your whole life being a story that happens to somebody else. You can twist and cram and shave down every aspect of your personality that doesn’t quite fit into the story boys have grown up expecting, but eventually, one day, you’ll wake up and want something else, and you’ll have to choose. 

Because the other thing about stories is that they end. The book closes, and you’re left with yourself, a grown fucking woman with no more pieces of cultural detritus from which to construct a personality. I tried and failed to be a character in a story somebody else had written for me. What concerns me now is the creation of new narratives, the opening of space in the collective imagination for women who have not been permitted such space before, for women who don’t exist to please, to delight, to attract men, for women who have more on our minds. Writing is a different kind of magic, and everyone knows what happens to women who do their own magic - but it’s a risk you have to take.

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.

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Angela Merkel's call for a burqa ban sets a disturbing precedent

The German chancellor's plan for a partial ban of the full-face veil is a clearly political move, which will do more to harm those women who wear it than protect them.

 

In these febrile times, women’s freedom and autonomy has become a bargaining chip in the poker game of public propaganda — and that goes double for brown, Muslim and migrant women. Angela Merkel should know as well as any other female politician how demeaning it is to be treated as if what you wear is more important than what you say and what you do. With the far-right on the rise across Europe, however, the German chancellor has become the latest lawmaker to call for a partial ban on the burqa and niqab.

We are told that this perennial political football is being kicked about in the name of liberating women. It can have nothing to do, of course, with the fact that popular opinion is lurching wildly to the right in western democracies, there’s an election in Germany next year, and Merkel is seen as being too soft on migration after her decision to allow a million Syrian refugees to enter the country last year. She is also somehow blamed for the mob attacks on women in Cologne, which have become a symbol of the threat that immigration poses to white women and, by extension, to white masculinity in Europe. Rape and abuse perpetrated by white Europeans, of course, is not considered a matter for urgent political intervention — nor could it be counted on to win back voters who have turned from Merkel's party to the far-right AFD, which wants to see a national debate on abortion rights and women restricted to their rightful role as mothers and homemakers.

If you’ll allow me to be cynical for a moment, imposing state restrictions on what women may and may not wear in public has not, historically, been a great foundation for feminist liberation. The move is symbolic, not practical. In Britain, where the ban is also being proposed by Ukip the services that actually protect women from domestic violence have been slashed over the past six years — the charity Refuge, the largest provider of domestic violence services in the UK, has seen a reduction in funding across 80% of its service contracts since 2011.

It’s worth noting that even in western countries with sizeable Muslim minorities, the number of women who wear full burqa is vanishingly small. If those women are victims of coercion or domestic violence, banning the burqa in public will not do a thing to make them safer — if anything, it will reduce their ability to leave their homes, isolating them further.

In the wake of the Brexit vote, racist and Islamophobic attacks spiked in the UK. Hate crimes nationally shot up by 42% in the two weeks following the vote on 23 June. Hate crimes against Muslim women increased by over 300%, with visibly Muslim women experiencing 46% of all hate incidents. Instances of headscarves being ripped off have become so common that self-defense videos are being shared online, showing women how to deflect the “hijab grab”. In this context, it is absurd to claim that politicians proposing a burqa ban care about protecting women: the move is transparently designed to placate the very people who are making Muslim women feel unsafe in their own communities.

When politicians talk about banning the burqa, the public hears an attack on all Islamic headscarves — not everyone knows the difference between the hijab, the niqab and the burqa, and not everyone cares. The important thing is that seeing women dressed that way makes some people feel uncomfortable, and desperate politicians are casting about for ways to validate that discomfort.

Women who actually wear the burqa are not invited to speak about their experiences or state their preferences in this debate. On this point, Islamic fundamentalists and panicked western conservatives are in absolute agreement: Muslim women are provocative and deserve to be treated as a threat to masculine pride. They should shut up and let other people decide what’s best for them.

I know Muslim women who regard even the simple hijab as an object of oppression and have sworn never to wear one again. I also know Muslim women who wear headscarves every day as a statement both of faith and of political defiance. There is no neutral fashion option for a woman of Islamic faith — either way, men in positions of power will feel entitled to judge, shame and threaten. Either choice risks provoking anger and violence from someone with an opinion about what your outfit means for them. The important thing is the autonomy that comes with still having a choice.

A law which treats women like children who cannot be trusted to make basic decisions about their bodies and clothing is a sexist law; a law that singles out religious minorities and women of colour as especially unworthy of autonomy is a racist, sexist law. Instituting racist, sexist laws is a good way to win back the votes of racist, sexist people, but, again, a dreadful way of protecting women. In practice, a burqa ban, even the partial version proposed by Merkel which will most likely be hard to enforce under German constitutional law, will directly impact only a few thousand people in the west. Those people are women of colour, many of them immigrants or foreigners, people whose actual lives are already of minimal importance to the state except on an abstract, symbolic level, as the embodiment of a notional threat to white Christian patriarchy. Many believe that France's longstanding burqa ban has increased racial tensions — encapsulated by the image earlier this year of French police surrounding a woman who was just trying to relax with her family on the beach in a burkini. There's definitely male violence at play here, but a different kind — a kind that cannot be mined for political capital, because it comes from the heart of the state.

This has been the case for centuries: long before the US government used the term“Operation Enduring Freedom” to describe the war in Afghanistan, western politicians used the symbolism of the veil to recast the repeated invasion of Middle Eastern nations as a project of feminist liberation. The same colonists who justified the British takeover of Islamic countries abroad were active in the fight to suppress women’s suffrage at home. This is not about freeing women, but about soothing and coddling men’s feelings about women.

The security argument is even more farcical: border guards are already able to strip people of their clothes, underwear and dignity if they get the urge. If a state truly believes that facial coverings are some sort of security threat, it should start by banning beards, but let's be serious, masculinity is fragile enough as it is. If it were less so, we wouldn't have politicians panicking over how to placate the millions of people who view the clothing choices of minority and migrant women as an active identity threat.

Many decent, tolerant people, including feminists, are torn on the issue of the burqa: of course we don't want the state to start policing what women can and can't wear, but isn't the burqa oppressive? Maybe so, but I was not aware of feminism as a movement that demands that all oppressive clothing be subject to police confiscation, unless the Met’s evidence lockers are full of stilettos, girdles and push-up bras. In case you're wondering, yes, I do feel uncomfortable on the rare occasions when I have seen people wearing the full face veil in public. I've spent enough time living with goths and hippies that I've a high tolerance for ersatz fashion choices — but do wonder what their home lives are like and whether they are happy and safe, and that makes me feel anxious. Banning the burqa might make me feel less anxious. It would not, however, improve the lives of the women who actually wear it. That is what matters. My personal feelings as a white woman about how Muslim women choose to dress are, in fact, staggeringly unimportant.

If you think the Burqa is oppressive and offensive, you are perfectly entitled never to wear one. You are not, however, entitled to make that decision for anyone else. Exactly the same principle applies in the interminable battle over women's basic reproductive choices: many people believe that abortion is wrong, sinful and damaging to women. That's okay. I suggest they never have an abortion. What's not okay is taking away that autonomy from others as a cheap ploy for good press coverage in the runup to an election.

This debate has been dragging on for decades, but there's a new urgency to it now, a new danger: we are now in a political climate where the elected leaders of major nations are talking about registries for Muslims and other minorities. Instituting a symbolic ban on religious dress, however extreme, sets a precedent. What comes next? Are we going to ban every form of Islamic headdress? What about the yarmulke, the tichel, the Sikh turban, the rainbow flag? If this is about community cohesion, what will it take to make white conservatives feel “comfortable”? Where does it stop? Whose freedoms are politicians prepared to sacrifice as a sop to a populace made bitter and unpredictable by 30 years of neoliberal incompetence? Where do we draw the line?

We draw it right here, between the state and the autonomy of women, particularly minority and migrant women who are already facing harassment in unprecedented numbers. Whatever you feel about the burqa, it is not the role of government to police what women wear, and doing it has nothing to do with protection. It is chauvinist, it is repressive, it is a deeply disturbing precedent, and it has no place in our public conversation.

 
 
 
 

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.