In defense of Susan, Summer and Cassie

Or an argument against their characterization as Manic Pixie Dream Girls.

The Manic Pixie Dream Girl is a stock character in film who are usually immature, “girlish” and quirky, who are the spark of life given to shake the (depressed) male lead out of said self-absorbed depression. The female character is static, dull and repetitive and doesn’t have a personality outside of completely the male lead’s fantasy of what a life partner on his journey to self-awareness should be.

I don’t like the Manic Pixie Dream Girl trope. Movies with MPDGs (notably Almost Famous and Garden State) severely warped my 15 year old mind concerning what relationships should be like and in the case of Garden State what mental health recovery looks like (see a blog post about this here). It took a while and a good dose of Rosalind Russell, Helena Bonham Carter and Meryl Streep to get me out of idolizing MPDGs and falling in love with self-destructive guys.

But sometimes I feel the MPDG label is applied too liberally by feminist film critics. So I am writing to defend three female characters that have been labelled MPDGs either in formal criticism or just fan ranting. Those characters are Susan Vance, from Bringing up Baby,  Summer, from (500) Days of Summer, and Cassie Ainsworth, from Skins.

Susan Vance as played by Katharine Hepburn in Bringing Up Baby

For those who haven’t seen this movie, here’s a quick recap: David Huxley (Cary Grant) is a paleontologist who has been working for some time assemble a skeleton of a dinosaur, and he has just secured the final bone he needs (the intercostal clavicle) and he is about to get married to a Miss Swallow, who is very uptight. He is also working on his first impression of a Mrs. Random, who has a great deal of wealth that could be given to his museum. He meets Susan Vance (Katharine Hepburn) by chance. Susan is free-spirited and wiley. Her brother has sent her a leopard from the jungle (the titular Baby) and David gets tied up in taking the leopard to Susan’s country home in Connecticut. Hijinks ensue, and Susan tries to keep David around because she is in love with him. But it all works out because Susan’s aunt is Mrs. Random and the museum gets the money and David falls in love with Susan as well.

Susan has been called the original MPDG, and she is a start contrast to the Main Line accented, haughty, domineering women Hepburn is known for playing (Tracy Lord in The Philadelphia Story being her best known). But Susan is not an MPDG.

Susan is not the out of control waif with knowing life advice like Natalie Portman’s Sam in Garden State nor is she placed upon a goddess pedestal by her male couterpart like Kate Hudson’s Penny Lane in Almost Famous.  Susan is a mastermind who is in complete control of her surroundings and is quick on her feet, manipulating her aunt, the town’s constable, a leopard and a yappy dog to arrive at her final plan: a life with the man she has fallen in love with. If anything, to me, Susan is just as in power as Tracy Lord and actually more self-assured.

David Huxley, as well, is not the male counterpart protagonist to the MPDG. He is not looking for himself, or depressed, or seeking something ethereal and problem solving in Susan. Objectively, she creates more problems for him than solves them.

I think the most damning thing to her characterization as the MPDG trope is her self awareness and control, and his lack of romanticizing her. The audience doesn’t get the male protagonist gazing thoughtfully and thinking about the uselessness of his life before her, with his mental health somehow improved because he meets her.

Summer Finn as played by Zooey Deschanel in (500) Days of Summer

This is the one I expect the most disagreement about. But it is also the case where I feel my argument is the strongest.

Before I get into this specific example, let’s establish something. A real person (like you, me or Zooey Deschanel) cannot be a Manic Pixie Dream Girl. That is because real people are not flat. They are not tropes. And while women (and men) can be deceived into thinking that the MPDG is the ideal of what they should be, or should be dating in a heterosexual relationship, that is never going to be what they are or what they get. Because the MPDG is a flat trope with limited motivations and characterizations who is defined by the man who idolizes her. And no person is defined by the way a singular other person views them. In real life, all gazes are equal, except for the prioritized one looking into the mirror.

The summary of (500 Days of Summer) is exceedingly simple. Boy meets girl of his dreams. He falls in love with her.  It doesn’t work out and he tries to figure out why.

The summary of Zooey Deschanel is a little more complicated. She is an actress and musician who has been idolized for her vintage fashion taste, blunt brown bangs and large blue eyes by the white subculture of non-quite hipster indie kids. I am going to admit right now that I have bought clothes because I thought Zooey would wear them, I have cut my hair because of her and I gushed when a lesbian couple told me at a She & Him (her band) concert that I looked like her. My opinion of Zooey is largely positive and that may color my analysis, so I wanted to be upfront.

The way Zooey is depicted in media and thought about is probably the closest thing real life has to a MPDG. She has been called so on a lot of feminist film blogs I read because she tends to play MPDGish characters (though I’d like to know when ones they are thinking of other than Summer. In Elf, Buddy may be the closest thing in film we have to the MPDG(uy). And Trillian from A Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy is probably a MPDG, but still her character was more dynamic than Trillian from the book.) But I’d like to say again: No person can be a Manic Pixie Dream Girl. Zooey Deschanel herself is not one-dimensional, no matter how she is thought about by most 15-25 white not quite hipster indie kids.

However, that does not prevent her characters from possibly being a MPDG. But in the case of Summer Finn, I think the same thing that happens Zooey Deschanel in real life happens to Summer Finn in the film.

There is one scene in the film where the narrator talks about something along the lines of the “Summer Finn Phenomenon” giving examples of her unexplained magnetism, like that when she chose a Belle & Sebastian quote as her senior quote, the sales of their record increased exponentially in her home town. This is not unlike me (and about 12 other girls in my high school) either keeping their brown hair, or dying it brown and cutting their bangs straight across.

The whole movie after the break up leads up to the point when Tom (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) realized that he has romanticized Summer’s existence to fit the mold of who he felt he needed. He was trying to make a real person into a MPDG, which can never work. He was  blindsided by her breaking up with him because he had ignored all of her feelings that make her a real person because in his mind she is the flat, but perfect, quirky girl in his mind. That’s why their relationship didn’t work out.

So yes, the Summer that the audience sees for 488 days is a MPDG. But this is through the lens of the male protagonist, and that lens is condemned by the main females of the movie, both Summer and the protagonist’s younger sister, Rachel.

The saddest thing about this movie is that just like when Summer and Tom go see The Graduate and Summer thinks it is a sad ending and Tom thinks it is a happy ending (a catalyst to her ending the relationship), Tom is once again ultimately oblivious to his nostalgic and romantic lens.  In the last scene where Tom is interviewing for an architecture job, he meets a girl who happens to be named Autumn and Tom gives a cheeky grin to the camera. This is again Tom turning his life into a romantic comedy where the women are secondary characters intended to fill the voids in his plotline. What could’ve been a subtle critique on how culture still pigeonholes what women can be, the writers went instead for a cutesy ending. And I don’t think that critique and the romcom ending have to be mutually exclusive.

But Tom’s perception of Summer does not make her a MPDG. It just makes him kind of misogynistic and short-sighted.

Cassie Ainsworth as played by Hannah Murray in Skins (UK Gen 1)

This one I just don’t really get.

Skins is an UK show about teenagers in Bristol, England. It is very dirty and grimy and the kids have lots of sex and do drugs. And the kids’ personalities are all relatively relatable. So what is lacks in production value, it makes up for with being charming and realistic.

Cassie is the resident kook, who at the beginning of the show has just been released from treatment for anorexia. Supposedly, she will sleep with anyone as one of her many distraction from food. So Michelle and Tony, the it couple, encourage her to deflower their good friend Sid. Of course, Sid is in love with Michelle. Cassie sees this immediately and points out to Sid that Michelle knows. They don’t sleep together but Cassie falls in love with Sid.

Throughout the show, we follow Cassie and Sid’s relationship. But we also see Cassie’s struggle with her family and their obviousness to her crumbling mental health, her strained friendship with Michelle, her developing friendship with eventual roommate Chris and her finding her place in a tight knit group of friends.

Cassie on Skins is quirky and out there and girlish, but the whole point of the MPDG is that she is defined by the male protagonist is his terms. And that isn’t what Sid and Cassie’s relationship is. Also, the premise of Skins is that all the kids are the protagonists equally. So Cassie is given equal weight as her love interest. Another problem of the MPDG is that we don’t see her relationships outside the male protagonist (admittedly, this is one facet true of Summer Finn). But with Cassie, her friendships with Chris and Michelle are some of the most moving of the first generation.

I think Cassie gets the label because of her “oh, wow” moments and her girlish clothes. But being ditzy and feminine are not inherently bad characteristics. Only when they are the only characteristics does the character become problematic. Cassie is also clever and empathetic and strong willed.

But alas, ultimately how I see the Manic Pixie Dream Girl is that we (we being movie watching women) don’t want our characters, the ones we love, to be labelled it by other feminists. So we feel the need to defend (like I just did) our characters that we identify with. And I think sometimes we forget that calling the characters out is not nearly as important as imploring the male screenwriters to write more realistic women, or the male producers and directors to use female written scripts, or the studio execs to employ female producers and directors.

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