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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Owen Smith interview: “I’m pretty red”

The Labour leadership challenger is struggling to win over a left suspicious of his past. 

The south Wales valleys embody the history of the labour movement: its victories, its defeats, its heroes, its villains. It was this resonant location that Owen Smith chose for his speech on the morning of 22 August. Labour Party members had that day begun voting on whether the 46-year-old Pontypridd MP should replace Jeremy Corbyn as their leader.

“Our history, our party was literally hewed from the hillsides around where we sit today,” Smith told a small audience at the Ely Valley Miners Welfare Club in Tonyrefail, a short distance from his home. The Welshman cited the Taff Vale judgment of 1901, which ruled that trade unions could be sued for losses caused by industrial action. It was this decision that spurred on the establishment of a Labour Party in parliament to repeal the law (as it would do in 1906 in alliance with the Liberal government).

Smith spoke later of marching with miners from the Maerdy Colliery as a 14-year-old, on the day they returned to work at the end of the 1984-85 strike. “I saw that they were utterly unbowed,” he recalled. “But they were ultimately defeated.”

Such moments, he concluded, proved the need for Labour to win power and to maintain “a powerful voice in parliament” – something he believes Jeremy Corbyn is incapable of providing. On 28 June, less than a year after Corbyn’s landslide victory, 172 MPs (81 per cent of the Parliamentary Labour Party) endorsed a no-confidence motion in him. Sixty-five shadow ministers, including Smith (who was then the shadow work and pensions secretary), resigned from the front bench.

Yet though Smith enjoys the overwhelming backing of the PLP, few believe he will prevail among members. He achieved only 53 constituency nominations, against the leader’s 285. On social media, where internal party contests are increasingly decided, Smith’s reach is minuscule compared to that of Corbyn (who has 795,000 Facebook fans to his 14,000).

The day before Smith spoke in south Wales, he won the endorsement of Sadiq Khan, the Mayor of London and Labour’s most senior elected politician. He was subsequently also backed by the Scottish Labour leader, Kezia Dugdale. Neil Kinnock and Ed Miliband have trumpeted his cause. Yet Smith-supporting MPs fear that such declarations count for little. “It’s like the Remain campaign and the Archbishop of Canterbury,” one told me, suggesting that Labour members, like Leave voters, ”weren’t listening” to such grandees.

Corbyn’s allies and foes alike are already preparing for the aftermath of the leader’s anticipated victory. The former warn that rebel MPs put themselves at risk of deselection by members. In response, some have threatened privately to form a parliamentary breakaway group and bid for the status of the official opposition.

Smith, unsurprisingly, insists that he can win. “I think the CLP [Constituency Labour Party] nominations don’t truly reflect the views in CLPs,” he told me when we spoke after his 20-minute address. The challenger, dressed in his favoured combination of dark suit and open-necked white shirt, welcomed the black coffee proffered by his aide. “They reflect the fact that some of the people who are new members and are supportive of Jeremy were very organised . . .

“Anybody who knows the Labour Party knows that selections are very often won by the sleepers: the people who don’t go to CLP meetings and don’t necessarily shout from the rooftops.” Smith’s hopes rest on those who share Oscar Wilde’s view: “The problem with socialism is that it takes up too many spare evenings.”

Cartoon: George Leigh

Smith first publicly revealed his leadership ambitions in an interview with me back in January. “It would be an incredible honour and privilege,” he said. I wrote then of a widespread view among Labour MPs that the next leader “will at least need to be from the party’s soft left to be acceptable to the party membership”. When the rebellion against Corbyn came, it was this consideration that proved decisive. Smith was embraced as a Miliband-esque socialist and a parliamentary “clean skin”, untainted by the New Labour years, having been elected in 2010. By contrast, his initial rival, Angela Eagle, had been an MP since 1992 and voted for the Iraq War.

However, Smith proved to have a more ambiguous past than some of his backers anticipated. Corbyn’s supporters swiftly unearthed a series of interviews from 2006 in which their opponent made a notably centrist pitch. Smith, then a by-election candidate in Blaenau Gwent, south Wales, defended Tony Blair (suggesting that they differed only over the Iraq War), supported private-sector involvement in the National Health Service and praised city academies. “I’m not someone, frankly, who gets terribly wound up about some of the ideological nuances,” he told Wales Online.

Since then, he has struggled to reconcile these positions with his increasingly left-wing programme: opposing private provision in the NHS, returning academy schools to local authority control, banning zero-hours contracts and imposing a wealth tax of 1 per cent.

“To be honest, my opponents have extrapolated rather a lot in an attempt to brand me as a ‘Blairite wolf in sheep’s clothing’,” Smith told me. “Well, I’m nothing of the sort, I’ve always been a democratic socialist and I always will be. My views haven’t really changed at all, I’m someone who has been on the left of the party.

“My dad [the Welsh historian Dai Smith] is someone who’s been on the left of the Labour movement all his life. I’m someone who’s been surrounded by people who’ve been on the left of the Labour movement all their lives. It should come as no surprise that I’ve come out of that background and I’m pretty red. Because I am.”

Yet a former shadow cabinet colleague told me that Smith did not stand out as “a radical” in meetings: “The only time that I remember him becoming really animated was over further tax-raising powers for Scotland and the implications for Wales.”

What Smith believes in most, some say, is himself. The shadow chancellor, John McDonnell, described him as “one of the most ambitious career politicians I’ve met”. Others have dismissed him as a “Big Pharma lobbyist” because of his past as head of policy and government relations for Pfizer.

“I’m not ashamed that I had a life outside politics before I became an MP,” Smith told me. “Yes, I worked for Pfizer and I also worked as a BBC journalist and as an adviser to the last Labour government on the peace process in Northern Ireland.

“People don’t want career politicians – they want men and women who have had experience of working in business and in the different sectors that make up our economy. Critics may use it against me, but my time in business has helped me understand what’s wrong with it and how we can make it work better.”

Corbyn’s supporters, however, allege that Smith’s left-wing pledges would not withstand contact with centrist colleagues. The degree to which the challenger has rebutted this charge shows that he recognises its potency.

He has offered to make Corbyn party president or chair if he wins, to allow Corbyn to act as “a guardian of Labour’s values”. In his speech, Smith vowed to increase member influence by making conference votes binding on the leadership.

Throughout the 1980s, another soft-left Welshman, Neil Kinnock, struggled to assert authority as the hard left retained control of vital bodies. Smith’s proposals risk replicating this conflict. But he told me that he would respect Labour’s conference even if it endorsed stances such as Trident abolition (Smith joined CND as a teenager but later renounced unilateralism). “I do think in order to reassure members that, under my leadership, we would listen hard to them and act in accordance with their views, conference does need to become sovereign once more,” he said.

Tony Benn’s dream of internal democracy appeared to be within reach. I asked Smith whether he would support other reforms such as a reduced MP nomination threshold for leadership candidates (Corbyn allies have proposed a cut from 15 per cent to 5 per cent). “All of these things can be debated,” he told me. “I’m not sure it should be 5 per cent: I need to look at it when we get closer to it. But I am convinced that the left needs to be able to put up candidates in this contest, I’ve always felt that.”

Smith’s assertion is contradicted by a colleague who described him as having been “furious”, “apoplectic” when Corbyn made the ballot last year (he supported Andy Burnham’s campaign).

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Smith is less equiovcal over the mandatory reselection of MPs. “That would be a really retrograde step for the party,” he told me. “It would be an uncomradely way for us to do business.” He is critical of the Corbyn-aligned group Momentum, some of whose members are spearheading deselection efforts. “I fear an attitude within Momentum that they are a separate organisation and they shouldn’t be,” he told me. “It’s hard to argue that they’re loyal and supportive if they’re organising a bloomin’ great really in the same town at the same time in competition to the Labour Party” (the group will hold its own four-day conference alongside Labour’s in Liverpool).

Some of those close to Corbyn, such as John McDonnell, have unhesitatingly described themselves as Marxists (in 2006, the shadow chancellor named Marx, Lenin and Trotsky as his “most significant” intellectual influences). I asked Smith whether he believed Labour could encompass such views. “Yes, I think we’ve always been a broad church and there have always been people who’ve come from that tradition,” he replied. “There are two broad traditions: the extra-parliamentary tradition, that has always seen parliament as a compromise and parliamentary socialism as a compromise, from [the trade unionist and theorist] Noah Ablett here in south Wales with The Miners’ Next Step through to Ed Miliband’s dad [Ralph, a Marxist historian] ... and the mainstream social democratic tradition that I came from.”

He added: “We’ve had this battle in the Labour Party over the ages, haven’t we? Except now I think it’s more serious because there is a very real danger, with Labour at such a low ebb and politics fragmented more broadly, and so many more parties and so many options for people and such a lesser tribal attachment to the Labour Party, that we can’t afford those fractures.

"If we splinter, there’s lot of other places for people to put their vote.”

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Though they will not say so publicly, some of Smith’s supporters believe Labour would remain unelectable under his leadership. A former shadow cabinet minister told me that he was offering a “warmed-up Ed Milibandism, which was rejected by the voters”. Smith naturally contests this analysis. “I don’t think that we lost the last election because we were too left-wing,” he said. “The proof is that the Tories have engaged in all sorts of these policies ... Theresa May’s opening speech upon becoming leader was to talk about social injustice, economic insecurity, lack of security in the workplace. Labour values, Labour words in a Tory mouth, evidence that the broad story we’re telling about Britain is right.”

Smith said that, unlike Corbyn, he would resign if he became leader and lost a confidence vote by MPs. “Yes - I would [resign]. We are a party that believes in parliamentary democracy and, as such, it is only right that the leader commands the support of his or her colleagues in the Commons.”

Should Corbyn win the contest, as expected, Smith will not return to the shadow cabinet but act as “a loyal backbencher”.  He pledges to resist any breakaway: “I'm Labour, I've always been Labour and I will never stop being Labour," he said. 

Speaking of his fear that Corbyn would seek to remain leader even if the party lost the next general election, he said: “I’m deeply worried about it. I think he’s determined to hang on come hell or high water. And what does that say about him? ... I think he is more concerned with his version of the Labour Party being sustained and being victorious than he is with the Labour Party being victorious in elections. I think he is actually prepared to sacrifice unity and victory - two great words that have traditionally been emblazoned on Labour banners through the ages - in order to secure control of the party.”

The trouble for Owen Smith is that, for all his combative talk and appeal to the left, he is trapped between his past pragmatism and his present radicalism. 

Tony Benn, Corbyn’s late mentor, divided politicians into “signposts” and “weathercocks”: those who shape opinion and those who are shaped by it. He would have branded Smith a “weathercock”. Even if he wins, Smith risks being remembered not as a politician who resolved his party’s contradictions, but as one who embodied them.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser