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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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books that made me

I may be giving the tomes too much agency. But I think most English majors have the book that made them an English major. So I think it is a logical conclusion that books made me into other things as well.

Well, here they are.

the books that made me:

  1. Emma-by Jane Austen: Probably no other book has edited my personality more. I saw the film adaptation in 1996 because I was five and I was very self-conscious about my name NOT being Emily. I really felt my parents had gypped me because I did not know anyone name Emma. But Gwyneth Paltrow was lovely and fabulous and had great hair and period clothing and from that moment on I was in love with Jane Austen. It also helped that Gwyneth wore a pink ball gown right out of my imagination to the Oscar’s that year. Sometimes I wonder where Emma myself really ends and where Miss Woodhouse begins. But I don’t worry about it too much because though Emma Woodhouse is manipulative, judgmental and catty, she overcomes these faults  to learn to accept other people, though she never changes completely like Lizzie Bennett who has “been so blind” and alters her personality for a man.
  2. From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler-E.L Konigsburg: The reason I’m minoring/majoring in Art History. If Emma Woodhouse is who I want to be now, Claudia Kincaid is the 12 year old I wanted to be when I was 8. Unfortunately, when I was 12, I was terribly rude and annoying and co-dependent on my equally annoying group of friends, while Claudia is independent and adventurous. I love the quote when she says “I guess I like complications.”
  3. The Eyre Affair-Jasper Fforde: This book convinced me that there were other people who had literary based humor outside of my family. It is set in an alternate universe where jumping into books is possible.
  4. A Tree Grows in Brooklyn-Betty Smith: Francie Nolan and I could not live more separate lives. I grew up in a little bubble of suburbia and Francie grew up of the slums of Brooklyn. But I could read this a thousand times and I still cry every time. Though I grew up wanting to be Emma Woodhouse, I think I’m really much more like Francie Nolan. And I think this mother-daughter relationships is the most realistic ever written.
  5. Little Women-Louisa May Alcott: I haven’t read this book in years because I thought it was the greatest novel ever for the time I was 7 to about 14 and I’m so afraid I’m going to go back and reading it. I was a vegetarian for eight year because Louisa May Alcott didn’t eat meat, so that’s a pretty big influence. Plus Jo March is probably the reason I’m an English major. This book was the first “classic” I read and after it, I read a ridiculous amount of Victorian novels from both sides of the ocean. Thus I read Austen, Charlotte and Emily Bronte and Dickens a lot earlier than I would have in school. And if you don’t want to be an English major after Jane Eyre or Wuthering Heights then I don’t think there is much hope for you.
  6. Bunnicula by I don’t know who-This book did not influence me because it was so good, more because it was so bad. This was the first book I ever was supposed to read for school that I didn’t. And with that, I realized that not all teachers were good and kind and smart. Because when Mrs. Johnson chose this idiotic book, I knew she was not looking for my best interest as a 4th grade student.
  7. One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez-When I picked this out I knew it would challenge me. This book is probably the most cited as the greatest book of all time, and I knew I wanted to read but it is flat out hard. But it also opened me up to the world of Magic Realism that I absolutely adore. And after I read this, Garcia’s short stories were a lot less intimidating.
  8. Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf: I have a somewhat destructive relationship with Virginia Woolf. If I read her when I’m depressed, I get more depressed. But never has an author so captured what I know bipolar feels like. Except maybe the screenwriters for M*A*S*H. I love Virginia Woolf’s novels so much, but this one is my absolute favorite because I feel all the characters are just different manifestations of a single, bipolar woman. The banner on my blog is actually cropped from the Vanessa Bell (Virginia’s sister) cover of Mrs. Dalloway. And because of this book I love Bloomsbury!
  9. Selected Poems of W.H. Auden by W.H. Auden: The book I carry with me always. I love Auden’s poetry so much, I’m convinced he is completely underrated and in the shadow of T.S. Eliot because he is. I cry just because it is so beautiful.
  10. “Whoso List to Hunt”-Thomas Wyatt: But I wouldn’t have that reaction with this sonnet which we read in my AP Literature class. Before this poem, I was super intimated by poetry except for like lyric, Romantic stuff that is full of pretty simple images, like Wordsworth. This poem no one in my class could figure out, including me, but I looked at the text and looked at the words and I figured it out. And I think that feeling of figuring out what an author has down in a novel or a poem is the greatest in the world, and that’s probably why I am an English major because I am always chasing that “a-ha” feeling I get when I find something new in a book or a poem.

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newspapermen in film

Examples of people working in one medium that is being eaten by another.

You know how women whose fathers are doctors always have a thing for doctors? I guess I’m kind of that for newspapermen. I love movies when you can see a newsroom. They always look so exciting. I’m on the newspaper at Agnes Scott, and it isn’t exactly hectic or hard-hitting. But I love it. And I love the way old movies make newspapermen appear as angels of justice and words. But they are also sassy. and nearly always the good guys. Except maybe Citizen Kane. but he is a publishing giant, not really a journalist, per se.

Number one all time favorite newspaper movie? His Girl Friday. Rosalind Russel is the perfect Howard Hawkes heroine and has the best hats ever. As well as 1. gets the story before the bumbling, poker-playing, lazy journalist. 2 makes dirty jokes “shot him in the ads”…”no, ADS” 3. runs after the story, literally, in five inch heels. She is wonderful. Then there is Cary Grant as Walter Burns. He is suave, controlling, manipulative, but only in the sweetest way ever. This movie is also not copyrighted for some reason. So it is on TV all the time. And is now available on instaplay on Netflix and Fancast.

Another oldie, but a goodie: It Happened One Night. Doesn’t take place in a newsroom at all, much less exclusively like His Girl Friday which I believe has a total of three or four scenes that are not in a newsroom/newspaper headquarters. But Clark Gable as a newspaper man and Claudette Colbert as an heiress before they weren’t all cray-crazy? Delicious and witty. Also the ultimate road trip movie. Actually that may be The Grapes of Wrath or Little Miss Sunshine [really the same thing] but those are a bit of a downer. TGoW more so. But It Happened One Night is uplifting and portrays a lovely love/hate relationship between journalist and editor.

Anything with Superman. So Bruce Wayne and Peter Parker don’t always have the best relationship with the press. But Clark Kent IS the press. That is pretty badass.

A more serious movie, All the President’s Men, definitely the best movie about newspaper ever. Also the best/worst political scandal to be uncovered by newspaper. Plus Robert Redford-yum.

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