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20 July 2016

How Greta Gerwig challenges the Manic Pixie Dream Girl trope by brushing with it

Greta Gerwig's latest film Maggie's Plan offers a glimpse of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl, only to then shatter it.

By Rosie Collier

Nathan Rubin coined the term Manic Pixie Dream Girl in his review of the film Elizabethtown in 2007:

“That bubbly, shallow, cinematic creature that exists solely in the fevered imaginations of the sensitive writer and directors to teach broodingly soulful young men to embrace life and its infinite mysteries and adventures.”

Conjured up by directors and scriptwriters to help a male protagonist fulfil his dreams, the Manic Pixie Dream Girl possesses eccentric personality quirks and a “kooky” nature – the classic examples are Natalie Portman’s character in Garden State and the love interest Zooey Deschanel plays in 500 Days of Summer.

On the surface, Greta Gerwig, in playing the part of Maggie in Rebecca Miller’s film Maggie’s Plan, seems to be the latest Manic Pixie Dream Girl to brace our screens.

Warning: contains spoilers.

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Maggie’s Plan is the story of a young woman, who about to embark on her own pregnancy falls in and then out of love with her married colleague John (Ethan Hawke). Overshadowed by his wife’s (Julianne Moore) success, John falls for Maggie as she sits and reads his manuscript, giving him advice on his novel-in-progress. Scenes of Maggie and John reading his work together bring to life the image of Rubin’s trope, who “teaches broodingly soulful young men to embrace life”. Maggie is a platform that exists in order for John to fulfil his own dreams as a writer. She is the “kooky” young woman (just look at her mismatched knitwear and intriguing charm) and John is the brooding tortured soul who needs saving.

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But Maggie’s Plan offers a glimpse of the Manic Pixie, only to then shatter it. Maggie is not a one-dimensional cut-out of a young woman whose role is to save her lover from his unfulfilling relationship. Instead she is a character loaded with her own fears and faults.

“I’m terrified I’m falling out of love with him,” she declares, in an honest moment of self-realisation about her relationship with her self-absorbed colleague. In this fear, she attempts to set up her new partner with his ex-wife. It’s humorous, but it also reveals a human instinct to hold everything together when it seems as though everything is falling apart.

Maggie’s Plan feels a lot like a sequel to Frances Ha, written by Gerwig and partner Noah Baumbach and released in 2013. Frances (played by Gerwig) is an eccentric and warm twenty-something who dances and leaps through the streets of New York City to Bowie’s “Modern Love”. Her speech feels spontaneous and improvised (she describes herself and her best friend Sophie – played by Mickey Sumner – as “basically the same person. With different hair” and “a married lesbian couple that don’t have sex anymore”) and her character is someone we both laugh at, sympathise with, and relate to.

Frances makes mistakes (from shouting at her best friend in a bar to not having enough money to pay for the bill on a date) and like Maggie in Maggie’s Plan, she knows exactly what it feels like to be alone. There is something about Frances’ imperfections that make her an honest and truthful representation of a woman: a three-dimensional character, rather than a device.

It is easy to spot the influence of Woody Allen in many of the films starring and written by Gerwig. From their Manhattan settings, their eccentric characters, and the gritty black-and-white film of Frances Ha, there are hints of Allen everywhere. TIME magazine labelled Gerwig “a millennial Annie Hall” and yes, Gerwig possesses similar qualities to Diane Keaton’s character in the Woody Allen classic. Both are “quirky”, comic, intelligent and curious. Despite claims that Annie Hall fits the trope of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl , Keaton challenges this archetype as much as Gerwig. Both Gerwig and Keaton demonstrate that a female can be an oddball and simultaneously uphold her own independence and act as a character in her own right. She is not a device to help the male protagonist fulfil his aspirations, but a character with her own aspirations and desires.  

What unites much of Gerwig’s work is the absence of men in her films. In their writing of Mistress America and Frances Ha, Gerwig and Baumbach evade the stifling trope of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl by practically writing romantic relationships out of their script. Frances Ha and Mistress America are both stories of relationships, and yet the most significant relationships on screen are those between women. Men are the supporting act to the women’s story. Mistress America, released in cinemas last summer, captures this method. It tells the story of a friendship between two sisters, where 18-year-old freshman Tracy (Lola Kirke), is taken under the wing of her stepsister, Brooke (Gerwig). Frances Ha achieves the same. It is the tale of two best friends and what happens to a friendship when relationships, jobs and life get in the way.

Maggie’s Plan subverts the conventional romantic comedy. The most interesting relationship is that between Maggie and her lover’s ex-wife Georgette (Julianne Moore). They both overcome the resentment that is assumed to exist between ex-wife and new partner, and seem to enjoy each other’s company. I can’t help it – I like you”, Georgette tells Maggie.

There is something refreshing in these films that demonstrates the power and intricacies of female friendship. And with men being notably absent, there isn’t a Manic Pixie Dream Girl in sight.