When parody wrestles with the generic tropes it seeks to destabilise, it can be easy to perpetuate, rather than supplant, stereotypes. It’s a criticism Rihanna’s “Bitch Better Have My Money” video endured, and Amy Schumer faced with her GQ cover: when does subversion end and submission begin? How do you kill a trope in a mainstream story? How do you solve a problem like Margo Roth Speigelman?
This is the struggle at the heart of Paper Towns, John Green’s bestselling YA novel and, now, summer blockbuster. Margo, played wonderfully by Cara Delevingne, is mysterious, beautiful, troubled, and spontaneous. Like other flat stock characters, such as Elizabethtown’s Claire and Garden State’s Sam, Margo has all the required characteristics to qualify as a Manic Pixie Dream Girl, “that bubbly, shallow cinematic creature that 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”.
Margo Roth Speigelman, always referred to by her full name, lives oppostite the protagonist of Paper Towns, high school student Quentin Jacobsen (played by Nat Wolff in the film). Once childhood friends, they now barely speak, because Margo has become (gasp) popular. Until, of course, one evening, when Margo bursts through Quentin’s bedroom window promising a wild night of elaborate pranks and romantic gestures. They rattle around Orlando in Quentin’s mum’s car, committing acts of revenge on their awful, shallow peers.
Quentin falls quickly into the role of observer. In the book, he thinks to himself, “I kept taking glances at her… quick snapshots: a photographic series entitled Perfection Stands Still While Mortals Walk Past.” The film lingers on glamorous slow-motion shots of Delevingne’s windswept face as she leans out of the passenger window.
So far, so typical. The first third of Paper Towns constructs this stereotype, Green argues, in order to deconstruct it later:
Paper Towns is devoted IN ITS ENTIRETY to destroying the lie of the manic pixie dream girl… I do not know how I could have been less ambiguous about this without calling the novel The Patriarchal Lie of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl Must Be Stabbed in the Heart and Killed.
When Margo runs away from home the next day, she seemingly leaves hints of her whereabouts in places only Quentin would find them (think of it as Gone Girl without the horrific mental and physical torture). She disappears from the plot, but remains ever present in the narrative. Quentin staunchly refuses to detach his thoughts about Margo from his thoughts about his friends, his school, or his family. It’s a state that Chris Kraus, in her novel I Love Dick, affectionately calls the “psychosis of adolescence”:
Living so intensely in your head that boundaries disappear. It’s a warped omnipotence, a negative psychic power, as if what happens in your head really drives the world outside.
Quentin convinces himself that if he concentrates hard enough, he’ll figure out the clues he assumes Margo has left for him, they’ll reunite, and everything will be different. (He never asks himself quite how things will be different, but he commits to the puzzle nevertheless.) In fact, Quentin’s journey almost entirely happens inside his head: his physical search simply mirrors it. When he first finds graffiti left behind by Margo saying, “YOU WILL GO TO THE PAPER TOWNS AND YOU WILL NEVER COME BACK”, he concludes that the paper towns are the many abandoned new-build subdivisions around Florida, or what Quentin calls “pseudovisions”.
As he drives around, internally breaking down his idea of Margo, the towns become less and less developed: the first ghost town he visits is complete, only without people, the last simply a sign in the dirt. His understanding that the mysterious, perfect girl who swoops in to save him was always a fiction comes after he discovers that the “paper town“ Margo really hides in is a town that only ever existed on paper: a mapmaker’s copyright trap.
Fearing that she might be planning to commit suicide, Quentin goes in search of Margo anyway, bringing his friends along with him. Their road trip to Agloe is an opportunity for Quentin to think about his previous idea of Margo, what it might have meant for him to project so much on her, and the ethics of such projection. To pass time in the car, Quentin and co. (Ben, Lacy and Radar) play a game called “That Guy is a Gigolo”, which involves inventing an elaborate backstory for the stranger in the adjacent car.
“The thing about That Guy Is a Gigolo,” Radar says, “I mean, the thing about it as a game, is that in the end it reveals a lot more about the person doing the imagining than it does about the person being imagined.”
The difficulty of translating this slow, evolving understanding to the screen (it’s a cute metaphor, but I’d rather not spend a significant chunk of a teen movie watching a confused high school student spend hours driving to different unpopulated towns) results in Paper Towns the movie skipping this character development entirely. Instead, Quentin reunites with Margo full of dreams for their magical new life together. “I love you,” he tells her. “You don’t even know me,” she says, baffled. It’s the first time Quentin even considers the idea that Margo might not have wanted him to follow her: or worse, that she might not have considered him at all.
The pain of this movement passes quickly, and Quentin is soon smiling has he waves goodbye to someone he professed his undying love for five minutes previously. The film never makes its characters feel truly uncomfortable, and so they never really confront their own absurdities. When Quentin, in Green’s novel, thinks, “What a treacherous thing to believe that a person is more than a person,” he seems to be speaking far more specifically to himself than the movie’s vague voiceover.
When we leave the novel, Margo still isn’t given a voice. In the movie, Quentin acknowledges that Margo could be anywhere in the world by now, “but that’s her story to tell”. Of course, the film finishes before she has the chance. We know less about her at the plot’s close than we did at the start, only, now, we know we know less.
I’m pleased that young people now have a wealth of literature that points out the hypocrisy of the cardboard-cutout visions of women that surround them, but I can’t help but wonder: is a Manic Pixie Dream Girl not a Manic Pixie Dream Girl when her sole function is to teach a brooding, soulful young man that his understanding of women is flawed? Yes, Paper Towns works hard to demolish the fiction of the perfect, mysterious woman. But that act is unsatisfying if, ultimately, that woman still only exists to help a man come to a greater understanding of himself, and the world around him, before exiting the story forever.
Now listen to Anna discussing Paper Towns on SRSLY, the pop culture podcast from the New Statesman: