Tuesday, May 29, 2012

How many memorable female characters exist outside the Femme Fatale or Manic Pixie Dream Girl trope?

This very long video sparked some friendly internal debate with myself:

(Created by SpareOm, who makes some excellent points, but be warned there are SPOILERS to some great old films)

For those without ten minutes and twenty-nine seconds at their disposal, "Women in Film: Femme Fatale vs. Manic Pixie Dream Girl" argues that the tradition of men imposing their viewpoints in movies often creates a dichotomy of character types for woman: the sexually carnivorous, evil or at least morally ambiguous Femme Fatale, or the sugary, quirky, awkward-but-with-the-gleam-of-magic-in-her-eye Manic Pixie Dream Girl.

Y'know, the age-old "Ginger the Sociopath vs. Mary Ann the Thrift Store Shopping Smiths Fan" scenario.

I'm sure there are those who argue that the Manic Pixie Dream Girl (MPDG) is the more modern concept, stemming from such bohemian indie girls as Natalie Portman in Garden State and Zooey Deschanel in just about anything. However, Nathan Rabin, the writer who coined the term MPDG, traces their appearance in films as early as Katharine Hepburn in Bringing Up Baby, and presumably all the other screwball heroines of the '30s to beyond. Hell, many people think the ultimate MPDG is the other Hepburn's Holly Golightly.

Yet while I often find myself cringing at Deschanel's antics, I certainly loves me some Kate in Bringing Up Baby, and am always quick to defend such spacy dames as Dora Spenlow and Gracie Allen--who, like the classic MPDG stereotype, lighten their male half's perspective, providing a dizzying distraction from the humdrum ordinariness of life that's bogging down the male protagonist.

But maybe the difference here lies in context. George and Gracie are a comedy team, with George as the straight man; if serving as the comic foil to the straight man qualifies you as an MPDG, does that make Costello one to Abbott? It's important to remember that when they tried out their act on stage in Vaudeville, Gracie was to be the straight man, but her comic timing made her a better fit for the ditz.

As for Dora Spenlow, Dickens, well, spoiler, kills her. That's obviously problematic. But maybe I can overlook the fundamental pixiness of her character because before Dickens chickens out and offs her, he let us--and Dora--know that cavorting around like a girlish infant not only wears thin, but can exhaust a partner rather than uplift him. I like Dora because, hey, she's charming (and MPDG's are charming, otherwise their type wouldn't be so popular), but also because she knows that in the long run, you can't live a full life or create a full identity if that's the behavior you're limiting yourself to.

Therefore I find her efforts to become more mature, to take more charge in her life poignant, and wish that Dickens had seen her through rather than just sorta say, "Nah! She's hopeless." I mean, transforming her from a kook who plays with her dog to a refined, composed Agnes Wickfield wouldn't have felt right either, but why not maintain her playfulness while also letting her mature slightly as a person, maybe? No? Stillbirth? Okie-doke.

As for Bringing Up Baby, maybe the commenter "Kathryn" at The AV Club says it best. This is in reply to Rabin's review of Elizabethtown, where he first brought up the MPDG stereotype in reference to Kirsten Dunst's character:
...the endearingly deranged love interest is much more fun in a slapstick romantic comedy than in sad-sack coming-of-age-too-late tales. "Garden State" would have been much improved had Zach Braff been chased by a leopard.
(To which "Bum Russia With Glove" replied "...then mauled and eaten by one. The end.")

Plus, let's face it, Cary Grant's character (along with George Burns and other screwball heroes) has a distinct, fumbling, and awkward persona of his own. The problem with the male characters in modern MPDG movies is that very "coming-of-age" blandness, the drippy moodiness and Vaguely Troubled Past that makes them such unbelievable downers, that, in comparison, make the MPDG look even more shockingly, cloyingly deranged and cutesy.

Now, in the MPDG's defense, very often she asserts her independence, in a sorta-kinda way. I haven't seen the movie, but from what I've read, Kate Winslet's character in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind states up-front that she's sick of men seeing her as a concept and solution to their problems. Yet too often, this growth is only seen in context of how if affects the man. Her maturity is tied up in his maturity, and we end on his personal growth, not hers.

Take this down-and-outer man and also add "chump" in capital letters a block wide, and there stands the male half of the Femme Fatale equation. On the surface, if you ask me which of the two tropes I prefer between Manic Pixie Dream Girl and Femme Fatale, I would automatically go, "Femme Fatale! Femme Fatale!" Because let's face it, just as MPDGs are charming, Femme Fatales are cool. 

It's okay for a female character to be sexy. It's okay for her to be manipulative and evil. It's okay for us to like the Femme Fatale. Of course it's okay to like the MPDG. But it's important to spot icky, encroaching trends that threaten to fetishize and therefore dehumanize what we like in these characters.

And again, the answer lies in how the male character is affected by the Femme Fatale. As the video points out, the male is either absolutely wrecked by the sheer will-power of evil that is his Fatal Female, or his manliness proves stronger than her empowered womanliness, and she repents. Y'know how criticism of Twilight centers around how Bella is a big moody blank of a character, an "insert-yourself-here" cut-out whose unique...somethingness turns the bad boy good? Just reverse the genders, and that's the worst-case scenario for the Femme Fatale.

 I wouldn't lay the whole blame on male filmmakers. They might have started the trend, but I think women can and have perpetuated these stereotypes. Sometimes it's by merely reversing the genders, like Stephanie Meyers did with Twilight, or else they can feed right into the female roles already outlined for them--especially where the Manic Pixie Dream Girl is concerned, which might be why I have more problems with her than the Femme Fatale.

Whereas the Femme Fatale displays an unattainable level of sexiness and awesomeness, the Manic Pixie Dream Girl is deemed attractive because of "imperfect" qualities much easier to imagine having: she's goofy, awkward, and childlike. She's a nerd. She doesn't quite fit in. But boy, how her free spirit flies far above the muck of this world, and it just takes that special guy to realize this and be changed forever! Hell yes, that does sound appealing, for both men and women. The guy gets a cute girl. And the girl gets to be worshipped without having to grow up or develop mature emotions of her own. Both sides totally forget that in their combined efforts to be loved unconditionally, the Manic Pixie Dream Girl has no concrete desires or ambitions of her own.

Yet how many girls idolize Audrey Hepburn based completely on Holly Golightly? Zooey Deschanel's TV show The New Girl, which is the most overt display of MPDG celebration currently around, is created and written by a woman named Elizabeth Meriwether.

So it's not really a question of who's at fault for these stereotypes, but instead how many memorable female characters exist outside either trope?

Unfortunately, we've come to rely so much on the Femme Fatale/MPDG dynamic that a woman who lacks either trait is often written blandly. See Bella Swann. See your basic idealized ingenue. Strong women are still difficult to write for some reason, so we make them sexually aggressive (i.e., evil or morally ambiguous) or spacy goofballs (i.e., infantilized), and say, "Look. They have traits. That's giving them dimension."

Is it simply because in fiction, the broader the character the more interesting? I mean, James Bond certainly isn't a realistic depiction of your average male. But would we want to see the average male take on Goldfinger, while worrying about picking up the dry-cleaning and struggling with a slight pot-belly? Would we? (I suppose you could argue that's where the Get Smart remake and its like comes in).

When I think of well-rounded female characters I like, I find they're mostly deconstructions of those stereotypes. Some prime examples exist in my beloved Thursday night line-up at NBC. On Community, Alison Brie's wide-eyed Annie Edison is far from my favorite character, but I like that they set her up as this cute, cuddly do-gooder with oh-so adorable awkward quirks, only to often have her reveal these quirks as terrifying and signs that she really should mature. A bit condescending, but at least they call her out for it.

Community's Femme Fatale deconstruction, Gillian Jacobs's Britta Perry, has grown into the show's standout character and is certainly my favorite. She's a hilariously flawed individual who still manages to kick ass in her totally bass-ackwards way. She thinks she's tough, righteous, and independent, and she is; but she's relatable because she gets everything so deliciously wrong at the same time.

Because it's a comedy, Community can get away with revealing these women as not being quite the stand-up representations of feminism they think they are, especially since the men are just as flawed and childlike, and just as often called out for it.

Then there's 30 Rock and my beloved Liz Lemon...oh, my beloved Liz Lemon. She's been getting a lot of flack lately for sliding too much into the pupil role to Jack's paternalistic Jack Donaghy, when years have passed and she should move on. But honestly, I think their characters have become so attuned to one another that they both silently acknowledge they're basically on equal footing now. Take this season's finale: Liz tells the very recently divorced Jack that she may not need his advice about children, but she'd like it all the same. She's not doing it for herself, she's doing it for him: Jack never feels better than when he's speechifying, and as a friend she recognizes he needs to feel like Jack again.

Fey's Liz is a wonderful example of a MPDG deconstruction. She's quirky, "adorkable," and funny, but there's nothing manic or pixie-like or dreamlike about her. She's downright mean a lot of the time. She's frankly unsentimental with the men in her life. Some would argue that the writers push too far making her appear unattractive, but then again I'd pull the "it's comedy" card. The fact she's been in several relationships throughout the show's run and that cartoon-pilot-handsome men like Jon Hamm are attracted to her shows they know Liz Lemon is a pretty, appealing woman, but no man's dream insertion.

Leslie Knope on Parks and Recreation does sometimes veer uncomfortably toward MPDG-land, dearly as I love her (which again, is okay). Her boyfriend Ben is likable but rather unexciting, often there only to be amazed by the bubbly insanity that is Leslie. Yet where Leslie differs from the rest of the MPDG ilk is in her clear-cut ambitions, ambitions that drive her far more than her love life ever has on-screen.

And then there's Aubrey Plaza's April Ludgate. Oh man, how I love Aubrey Plaza's April Ludgate. April is the Anti-Manic Pixie Dream Girl, the Mirror Universe Manic Pixie Dream Girl. Unlike your standard MPDG, April isn't girlishly high-spirited, she's glumly self-centered. She's not offbeat, she's just lazy as fuck. April doesn't drink deeply from the beauties of life, she:

Retta's Donna, of course, is a classic femme fatale. Don't deny it.

Actually, perhaps the only character in this line-up that not only defies both MPDG and Femme Fatale stereotyping but also eschews that deconstruction to create her own solid personality is the oft-neglected Anne Perkins on Parks & Rec, played by Rashida Jones.

She's one of the least funny characters on the show, but she's likable and relatable, and feels the most real. Perhaps it's because of Jones's acting, which is always superb, but she's never as cloyingly whimsical as the MPDG despite her sweet character, and never heavily sexualized like the Femme Fatale, despite her beauty. She's not perfect--look at her horrible co-dependent relationship with Andy in the beginning of the show and the current madness that is her relationship with Tom--but you don't have to be perfect to be a good female character. In fact, that's an impossible goal. When you are, you float into what I believe is called "Mary Sue" territory on the internets.

Both the characters on the show and the audience wish Anne could be a bit more interesting, and hopefully someday she will be, and other characters written like Anne. There has to be a way in comedy and drama for a woman to have a distinct character--but not a MPDG or Femme Fatale--while still holding everyone's interest.

In fact, there is a way, and it has been done. Clarice Starling. Jane Eyre. Barbara Gordon (though some MESSED UP things have been thrown her way). Lois Lane.

Like I said, it's fun to be sexy like a Femme Fatale, and as goofy as a Manic Pixie Dream Girl. But we can't continue to have that be the chief attributes of every memorable female character--there needs to be more to them than that. We need the Anne Perkinses. The Clarices. But are they as present as we'd like to think they are?

I ain't being rhetorical here. I invite you, dear reader: who are some of your favorite female characters that defy either category of the Fatale or MPDG? Who are some examples you either like or dislike that do fall into those roles, or lack those qualities but are made bland and uninteresting? I want to know.


  1. Thank you for writing this! I took a women in film class this semester and we spent a lot of time discussing the MPDG and femme fatales (and I think it's the general consensus that we love them...but they're problematic). I think what's sad is that I get told by my female friends "can't you just enjoy it...it's a movie/tv show" and I think that also reinforces these stereotypes. I'm reviewing Disney movies and I got chided by a few people for bashing Snow White as a boring character "it's the time period." I'm reposting this on my blog!

    1. Journeys, thank you! I'm honored. I guess the problematic thing in criticizing MPDGs and Femme Fatales is that some people feel like you can't enjoy a female in anything; "oh, she just did something dorky, what a stereotype," "oh no, she's being seductive, total trope!" When really, a woman character is great having those qualities, just so long as she's not limited to ONLY those qualities. Then she becomes a cartoon.

      "It's the time period" is the biggest excuse people use to whitewash bigotry in art. I think it's important to identify what's sexist and racist in a piece just so we can make sure we don't repeat that and instead imitate what's still good in the work of art, y'know?

      Thank you for your comment!

  2. Exactly! I think what's the most interesting is that many of my female friends tell me "even if we had a perfect depiction of women...we'd still find something to gripe about because women always compete" and that there is what I find awful as even films (and television shows in greater numbers) today pride themselves on women competing. When I get asked that I'll kindly be borrowing your response "a woman character is great having those qualities, just so long as she's not limited to ONLY those qualities. Then she becomes a cartoon." I definitely agree with you on the time period thing. I do admit sometimes I fall into saying that but in looking back hopefully filmmakers are using these past examples and progressing forward.

  3. My favorite female character in movies is probably Ripley, who is neither MPDG or Femme Fatale. I like the fact that she's a rebuke to the notion of the loose cannon action hero and the virtuous final girl (The Final Girl, by the way, is also outside your two archetypes, and there are a LOT of them). I mean, look at what Ripley does: she insists on following the rules (and her male co-stars suffer for not doing it). She survives because she's fundamentally more competent. She not only follows the rules, she understands them. Contrast this with ANY male action hero from 1970 onward, none of whom can solve a crime or take down a bad buy before turning in their badges or going outside the rules. Feh. The deconstruction of The Final Girl is even MORE interesting, because this is an early subversion of the virginal "virtue" that protects The Final Girl in the end. While I'll roll my eyes as hard as anyone when Sigourney Weaver disrobes at the end of Alien, there's a thematic need for it given that it's her sexuality that lays low the tumescent alien. And in Aliens, Ripley becomes the mother character who ordinarily would drift to the margins.

    In general, I think characters who appear in movies that pass the Bechdel test resist being grouped into either stereotype, because by definition, both stereotypes are defined by their relationships to men. Do either of these archetypes appear in The Women? I don't believe that they do.

  4. Yes, Ripley is a great example! Beyond the writing, she's a character that's also helped by the actress who plays her; you really believe Weaver is as capable and no-bullshit as she appears onscreen. The Final Girl is, essentially, usually the horror movie version of the "virtuous ingenue" that while neither femme fatale or MPDG, is often so helpless you'd prefer watching one of the other stereotypes. Like you say, the fact that it's thanks to Ripley's own actions and smarts that she survives definitely deconstructs that whole image.

    I don't know aboutThe Women, though. The whole movie is about a bunch of women...talking about men. Believe me, I love the '30s version, and not ALL of the conversations are about their husbands...but the vast majority are. Crystal is obviously the principal femme fatale, but it's true you can't fairly categorize Norma Shearer's character as either type (though again, she's frightfully bland compared to, say, Roz Russell. But hey, Russell's not too easy to categorize either. Except maybe as "bitchy back-stabbing friend". But in a hilarious way, so I forgive).

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