Zooey Deschanel in 500 Days of Summer. Natalie Portman in Garden State. Any quirky girl who wears Modcloth dresses and serenades pigeons with Carly Simon before cartwheeling into the distance. This is the Manic Pixie Dream Girl, a sexist trope coined in 2007 by Nathan Rabin of The A.V. Club. The MPDG is whimsical and zany and helps the male main character along on his journey like a pastel Disney forest animal. Unfortunately, she’s one-dimensional and only exists in service to the dude’s self-discovery.
The internet chomped onto the Manic Pixie Dream Girl concept and didn’t let go. Something about it struck a chord (on the ole vintage ukelele, of course). On days when I’m not feeling badass and empowered and driven, it seems easy, tempting even, to find a floral thrift-store dress and be someone’s sidekick. After all, there’s nothing wrong with hula music, Mama Cass, or rollerskating through life (trust me, I would if I wouldn’t immediate break my neck). Needless to say, same for equal partnership where both people support and encourage each other. But letting a dude subsume your agency and identity out of fear and/or laziness is different; that’s what I don’t want to do.
So why is being a manic pixie dream girl sometimes so appealing?
Part of it is societal–women are taught to be supportive, nurturing. “Behind every powerful man is a woman,” or whatever that bullshit saying is. Why can’t the woman be in front? Why, as women (at least those of us who date men), do we define ourselves in relation to the men in our lives? How come there’s no male equivalent to the Manic Pixie Dream Girl? (Doy! Sexism!)
Another part of it is codependency. Some of us have the unfortunate compulsion to primarily look to others for our sense of self. I’m a compulsive people-pleaser; my tendency is to mold my life around other people. I try to anticipate what they want and what will make them happy as a way to keep myself safe and avoid pain. Somewhere stuffed down deep is what I actually want and what will make ME happy–but that’s scary, because (gasp) I might disappoint someone or (double gasp!) disagree with someone (conflict: the codependent’s least-fave thing).
So, thanks to tradish gender roles and codependency, some of us are especially vulnerable to the swan song of being a Manic Pixie Dream Girl. Not only do we get to help someone else, play a supporting role in their life, and define ourselves through them, BUT our weird, semi-embarrassing aspects are actually bonuses–our quirks make us uniquely suited for the MPDG role. It’s easier than figuring out who we are independent of others, and plus, we get all the goodies of the positive societal reinforcement (what a nice, helpful person you are!).
So how can you avoid becoming a Manic Pixie Dream Girl and, instead, transcend the role of mere plot device and become the main character in your own life? Here are a few things I’m trying:
Take time to journal, meditate, go to therapy, or otherwise be alone with your thoughts. What is motivating you? Why do you have the urge to be a Manic Pixie Dream Girl? What are you hoping to get out of it–some guy’s undying devotion? An ego boost? That somebody will be indebted to you? Sex? Whatever it is, take a second to reflect.
Put yourself first.
Take care of yourself. What do you need for self-care? Don’t sacrifice your well-being–make sure you’re sleeping enough, eating well, moving your body, having alone time. You don’t have to be at someone’s beck and call, even if they’re in the midst of a crisis. They have other people they can call. It’s OK to put your phone on silent when you go to sleep. At the end of the day, you have to take care of yourself. No one else is going to do that for you.
Don’t be a sidekick.
There’s a great quote from humanitarian/entrepreneur Leila Janah in a recent issue of Real Simple (surprisingly enough):
My biggest advice comes from Shonda Rhimes, and it’s to be your own sun. Women are socialized to think we need to be partnered, we need to have a family, we need to somehow be revolving around someone else. Instead, think of yourself as the sun, not the planet.
Sometimes it seems like type A and B people naturally attract each other. As a type B person, several of my most toxic friendships have involved a stronger, more outgoing, more confident (sometimes domineering) woman. Initially, I was attracted to her presence and strength, falling into a sidekick role and even being worshipful. I think I admired traits in her that I actually had in myself all along. Once I started growing and exercising my own power, she didn’t like it–I was threatening the unspoken balance of things. She got pissed. Me standing up for myself was never part of the plan, and our friendship dissolved.
Whether it’s a guy or girl, romantic or platonic, it’s dangerous to be a sidekick. Eventually you resent the person who has center stage. You get jealous of the attention. They seem ungrateful. You feel overlooked. You deserve to try out the more “type A” parts of yourself, even if you’re used to being timid and sweet. We all contain multitudes. Don’t resign yourself to being in someone else’s shadow.
Resist being a “fixer.”
It feels good to be a superhero, to swoop in and save the day. As a codependent, feeling needed and helping people were huge parts of my identity. I thought by helping others, I was making them owe me, and they HAD to be my friends. How fucked up is that?
The truth is, the only person who can fix or change someone is that person themselves. People change and improve when they’re ready, and not before. You can be supportive, be a good friend, give advice IF they ask for it–but you can’t fix anyone but yourself. Sometimes the compulsion to “fix” others means I have issues within myself I don’t want to address, and I’m looking for a distraction.
Needless to say, you can STILL be a good friend!
This might sound like I’m saying, “Be selfish! Fuck everyone else! Don’t help them! If they’re dying, ignore them because you need 9 hours of sleep!” Um, nope. There’s a difference between healthy relationships and being a codependent, fixer-y Manic Pixie Dream Girl. And personally, these days, I’m aiming for the former. Not always successfully, but that’s the goal! <3