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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Wrists, knees, terrible rages – I felt overwhelmed when Barry came to see me

I teach my registrars to be aware how a consultation is making them feel: that can give valuable clues to the patient’s own emotional state.

To begin with, it seemed that Barry’s wrists were the problem. He told me about the pain he was experiencing, the pins and needles that came and went in his hands. I started to examine him. His palms were calloused, his fingers thick and stubby, veterans of the heavy work he’d undertaken throughout his 57 years. Even as I assessed this first problem, he mentioned his knees. I moved on to look at those. Then it was his back. I couldn’t get to grips with one thing before he veered to the next.

I teach my registrars to be aware how a consultation is making them feel: that can give valuable clues to the patient’s own emotional state. Barry was making me feel overwhelmed, the more so as I learned that he’d been experiencing all these problems for years.

“Why are you coming to see me about them now,” I asked, “rather than six months ago – or in six months’ time?”

“I need some time off, doc.”

There was something about the way he wouldn’t meet my gaze. And again, that feeling of being overwhelmed.

“What’s going on at work?” I asked him.

His tone hardened as he told me how he’d lost his temper a couple of days earlier. How one of the others had been winding him up, and something inside him had snapped, and he’d taken a swing at his workmate and landed a punch.

Barry had walked out and hadn’t been back. I tried to find out if he’d heard from his boss about the incident, if he knew what was likely to happen next.

He told me he didn’t care.

We talked some more. I learned that he’d been uncharacteristically short-tempered for months; his partner was fed up with being shouted at. Sleep had gone to pot, and Barry had taken to drinking heavily to knock himself out at night. He was smoking twice his usual amount. Men like Barry often don’t experience depression as classic low mood and tearfulness; they become filled with rage and turn in on themselves, repelling those closest to them in the process.

Depression is a complex condition, with roots that can frequently be traced right back to childhood experiences, but bouts are often precipitated by problems with relationships, work, money, or health. In Barry’s case, the main factor turned out to be his job. He’d been an HGV driver but at the start of the year his company had lost its operator’s licence. To keep the business afloat, his boss had diversified. Barry hated what he now had to do. He was now a “catcher”.

I didn’t know what that meant. Getting up at the crack of dawn, he told me, driving to some factory farm somewhere, entering huge sheds and spending hours catching chickens, thousands upon thousands of them, shoving them into crates, stashing the crates on a lorry, working under relentless pressure to get the sheds cleared and the birds off to the next stage of the food production chain.

“It’s a young man’s game,” he told me. “It’s crippling me, all that bending and catching.”

It wasn’t really his joints, though. Men like Barry can find it hard to talk about difficult emotion, but it was there in his eyes. I had a sudden understanding: Barry, capturing bird after panicking bird, stuffing them into the transport containers, the air full of alarmed clucking and dislodged feathers. Hour after hour of it. It was traumatising him, but he couldn’t admit anything so poncey.

“I just want to get back to driving.”

That would mean landing a new job, and he doubted he would be able to do so, not at his age. He couldn’t take just any old work, either: he had to earn a decent wage to keep up with a still sizeable mortgage.

We talked about how antidepressants might improve his symptoms, and made a plan to tackle the alcohol. I signed him off to give him some respite and a chance to look for new work – the one thing that was going to resolve his depression. But in the meantime, he felt as trapped as the chickens that he cornered, day after soul-destroying day.

Phil Whitaker’s novel “Sister Sebastian’s Library” will be published by Salt in September

This article first appeared in the 21 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The English Revolt