Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Who Actually Wants An MPDG (And no, that's not a disease)?

First of all, this post is the thought process that came after reading an excellent article over at The New Statesman by Laurie Penny. That link will take you there. I highly recommend reading it first, otherwise this will make even less sense on its own merits than it will as a response piece. Also, the article contains naughty words. This piece may as well by the time I'm done with it (Update: It does. Proceed accordingly). No being impressionable while reading either, please.

The current rise of the Manic, Pixie Dream Girl (Hereafter referred to by an acronym, because WDLA?) in literature and especially cinema is a slightly depressing trend on multiple levels. For those of us who like characterization, this is a bad development, as MPDGs often lack exactly that (Both characterization and development). To an extent, they are the updated, cutely quirky version of the 1960s Hippy Chic(k), which is also bad for those of us in favor of realism, as such animals are often found to be mythical in the real world once they sober up and recognize the kind of lifestyle required by the character type. Sleeping on floors is not quite as attractive as it sounds, and sleeping in the woods leaves one wholly vulnerable to bear attack. Either way, it isn't worth it. But where is this all coming from? What is the root of this current evil in our popular culture?

I blame Zach Braff. While making The Royal Tennenbaums, it's reported that Gene Hackman told director/co-writer Wes Anderson, among other things, to "Pull up your pants and act like a man." I imagine Hackman would simply have walked off the set of Garden State while emitting a snarl of disgust. Garden State sets Braff's character up with an MPDG played by Natalie Portman and her helmet, here to save Braff. She does this primarily by being there while he stares blankly at the camera in a failed attempt to convey some sort of inner conflict, simply a foil used by the male lead. In this role, Portman is a prop. Her character being who she is is of almost no relevance whatsoever to the film, as she is portraying an hour and a half long deus ex machina rather than an actual person.

This gets towards the heart of the failure of the trope: These characters are not set up as people. The Penny article gets at this rather nicely, but then fails to turn around and look at the converse: Why would people try to imitate this two-dimensional character in real life? What is the possible appeal of mimicking a character who is mostly there as a reaction shot? Unfortunately, I have no rational idea, as it doesn't seem to make sense. Good art imitates life, but when life starts to imitate bad art you are left with a problem. It seems possible that our popular culture is getting so stale and homogenous (Even as innovations like the internet allow niches to go off and form their own corner of GroupThink™ away from the rest of the world) that anyone who doesn't simply fit into society in the most literal, physical-only sense has turned into some sort of mythical beast to be grasped at. Especially as the character gains in popularity, you simply are going a different route to attempt to fit in, setting yourself up as an obvious member of one group versus another. There's no actual individuality involved. Simply misguided brand homogenization disguised as individuality (Sprite was way ahead of cinema on this one).

Most of the movies made about this (And, according to her essay, Penny's ex-boyfriends) seem to be looking to the MPDG character for salvation. But what do they have to be saved from? We are living in a time of almost unmatched quality of life. We are living longer than we ever have before. We are making more money than ever before. Foods from all over the globe are available in our supermarkets. We have massive available entertainment options. Granted, most of them suck, but let's not whitewash the past here. The past still contains Jane Austen, no matter how much I personally avoid her (For the sake of gender balance, it also contains George Bernard Shaw. Ugh). These people mostly seem to need saving from a dull existence, but here's the thing: If your existence is dull, you're doing it wrong. You have the whole of human literature to pull from. Go read it. You can get it for free from the library. There are massive amounts of interesting music out there, and equally massive numbers of ways to get it for free by stealing it on the internet. Go listen. We have video games being made that push things forward in creative new ways, even if you only see ads for XTreemFaceShooter4 on the magic box. We are in a veritable golden age of board games (Because Monopoly sucks). Boredom is not an innate part of the human condition. It is the mind's response to your personal decision to not challenge it. You do not need a storybook character to save you. You need to try harder. Caring is certainly not creepy. This whole trend is the sad-sack hipster version of Scientology, a religion founded on the premise that it is not possible to be rich and still have negative thoughts, so aliens must be at fault. Pull your pants up and save yourself (Also, on a more personal level, should Laurie Penny read this: Laurie, if your boyfriends have been shocked to discover that you are not some mythical creature, but in fact are a real-life human being, please stop dating assholes).

And yes, the interpolation there means what you think it does: These characters are largely written by men. Men who are not looking to write a female character, but who are simply looking to write some sort of unchanging ideal. This whole thing is slightly Weird Science-esque, if not for the fact that it is influencing real life. So, to all the ladies out there (Shoutout!): If we (Men/assholes) are looking to use you for our own personal salvation but not actually looking to you as people, please do not enable us. Call us on it. That is incredibly inconsiderate behavior, and should not be tolerated. Just because Zooey Deschanel looks pretty doing it does not make it an attractive lifestyle. The whole thing reeks of First World Problems, which are certainly a thing, but not necessarily a concerning one. Right now we are growing up in an America that prioritizes higher education, even as costs for higher education spiral out of control. So students are amassing more and more debt, yet when they enter the workforce, the increasing globalization and corporatization of the world seem to have depressed the job market (I didn't major in economics. Bear with me and call me on it if I'm wrong), both in terms of available jobs and salary of said jobs. The majority of those graduating college probably would have been better off simply going to a trade school of some type and becoming a mechanic (If your trade school does not offer mechanic courses, you have chosen a defective trade school). And yet we still have it well. So the brain, trying to rationalize this, moves in the direction of bad, mopy art, which further influences real-life trends. But none of this is helping, so look, youth of America, let's have a chat.

You are probably screwed. There are many people out there who are smarter than I am who will tell you some variation of this theme. So just go with it. You still have a high quality of life. Learn who you are and like yourself for that. It matters more than some sort of materialistic arms race, or soft-focus filmed navel gazing. No one is going to save you. That's something you have to do yourself. And the easiest way to do it is to find out what 'yourself' actually means and be that, not imitating what you see around you. As a wise man once said, you are not your fucking khakis. But seriously, pull them up. You look ridiculous.

1 comment:

your mom said...

My first reaction was to say, "Ooooh, ooh, me! I want an MPDG!" But then I actually read the post you refer us to and went back and read your post more carefully and decided I don't want an MPDG. I don't want to be an MPDG. And I'm mad as all get out at the fact that this sort of stereotype not only still exists (Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm is similar and drew my scorn years ago as a terrible role model for young girls) but is apparently even making a comeback. There are certain tendencies in the way we raise children, and perhaps even general behavioral tendencies in the genders, that we must fight against in ourselves and in society. So thank you for writing this piece! And thank you for publicly stating what we all know, which is that Monopoly does, indeed, suck.