Will we ever shake the manic pixie dream girl?

The manic pixie dream girl has been the subject of reams of analaysis, hot defenses, ardent eyerolling, and everything between. She’s a character that’s become an indelible part of the landscape — and always was, to some degree and in various forms — but I’m beginning to wonder if we’ll ever be able to shift away from her. This is brought home to me every week in the stack of advance reader copies in my mailbox that almost inevitably includes at least one, if not more, and sometimes they’re even proudly emblazoned as such.

A lot of complicated cultural issues surround this female archetype, including a lot of sexist dismissive commentary surrounding her, suggesting that her very femaleness is the problem with her, that her ditzy, funky, flighty character is evidence that we need more ‘strong female characters’ who are one of the boys and cool and great and down to earth. For me, one of the things that really troubles me about a number of the depictions I’m seeing in YA is the fact that they often have mental health conditions, and this is represented as edgy and quirky and hip.

The romanticisation of mental health conditions is an ancient pastime, as is the assignment of mental health conditions to women and girls, often with the goal of delegitimising and stigmatising them. Suddenly, though, mental illness — particularly anxiety and depression — has become weirdly dramaticised in a way that feels deeply disablist, rather than in a way that promotes real conversations about mental health and challenges viewers to rethink their perceptions of mental illness.

Everyone experiences mental health conditions differently, and I’m not here to say that manic pixie dream girls don’t have the ‘right kind’ of mental illness, or ‘aren’t really’ experiencing anxiety and depression based on their behavioural patterns. But I do want to note that they often have a light, softened depiction of mental illness that twists these things into something fun, rather than something that can be disabling, and these depictions don’t delve deeper into larger mental health issues. Many also depict a very classic and troped version of femininity in which the character is wounded by some deep, dark secret that’s made her moody and complex, something she covers up with silly things as she flutters away from any attempts at serious conversations or situations where she might have to confront her Dark Past. Until, that is, our boy hero can fix her in a cathartic scene on a watertower/train station bench/swingset.

Characters may also not really be accessing treatment, which, again, everyone needs to manage their health differently, but I’m not sure it’s a great idea to be telling young women that it’s hip and cool to have an unmanaged mental illness that could actually be seriously injurious, whether or not you get the cute boy at the end of the book. Books don’t have a moral obligation to provide important lessons to readers, but it’s good for readers to see a variety of depictions of mental illness, including those in which getting treatment is not stigmatised, and in which it offers some degree of help, even if people have to work with a few care providers to find one they like, or experiment with different medication regimens to find one that is effective. When the only depictions of mental illness that people say are quirky fun wild girls spinning off into the stratosphere, they’re not seeing the more mundane, and serious, aspects of illness.

I’m constantly encountering books that leverage very specific ideas of what ‘crazy’ looks like, sometimes right on the cover. The manic pixie dream girl is waifish and flighty and a little quirky and sweet and shy and pretty, but she’s also ‘crazy,’ you know, like super creative and great at art or music or poetry, and maybe a little irrational sometimes, but always inspired by her mental illness. The crazy creative is an extremely common and really harmful stereotype, suggesting that craziness causes or amplifies creativity, and implying that seeking treatment will strip you of your identity and creative abilities. You won’t be a manic pixie dream girl anymore, reaching for the stars and proposing spontaneous picnics and going on wild road trips and starting epic projects as a declaration of love, you’ll just be hollowed out, empty.

This is a depiction that has become laden with complexities and a snarl of rhetoric, and it’s difficult to pick them apart, sometimes. Dismissive comments about the manic pixie dream girl often come with very ugly, misogynistic social attitudes, and sometimes disablist ones as well, with commenters affirming notions about featherheaded girls and quirky princesses. We have to talk about the darker nuances behind this iconic character, and what it says not just about women, but mentally ill women and girls specifically, because there’s a lot to unpack when it comes to many depictions I encounter. It’s a character I don’t particularly like, because of laden cultural associations and a feeling that her presence tends to reflect a lack of creativity on the part of creators, but her perennial fascination is something that both intrigues and worries me. Are we going to be stuck on this wheel forever?

Image: Girls, Amy Groark, Flickr