The Universal Ideal

There’s a trope in American films called the “manic pixie dream girl”. It’s a woman who’s got a dark backstory but a light disposition. She’s got no real strings to tie her down. She’s ephemeral and childlike, whimsical but profound. Often this is illustrated by an off-beat style or a creative hair color. Perhaps a kicky catchphrase. She’s the balm to our hero’s moody, broken spirit. That’s right, the manic pixie dream girl is exclusive to dramas and romances, and always the romantic interest of our main male character.

I’ve always regarded this type of character with disdain. Superficial, flat, uninteresting. It’s a fad in cinema; it’ll never last.

As it happens I’ve also expanded my movie watching outside the US and have been known to consume mass quantities of Korean, Turkish, and Indian films. If you’re wondering what these all have in common, it’s a couple things:

Accessibility – there’s myriad of all three on Netflix. I’d point you to some of my favorites but I’d rather you not start judging me on my taste before I’ve made my point.

Quantity – Romances are big in all three cultural settings. And naturally the most churned out. I wouldn’t necessarily recommend their action equivalent films which seem to lack even more than would be expected in believability.

Modesty – Turkish films blur all alcohol. Indian films are usually reluctant to grant our romantic couple even a chaste kiss, and some actors are known to contractually pass on the opportunity. Korean films are perhaps a tad more scandalous, but for the most part held together with a social decorum that protects against the more explicit moments.

Manic Pixie Dream Girls – Course they’re not billed this way. But almost without exception female leads in romantic films/series/soaps are upbeat, carefree, expressive, kind, impulsive, generous, loving, naive, stubborn, intelligent, childlike, maternal, uncoordinated, goofy, fresh-faced, modest, sweet, and easily scandalized, and utterly unworldly.

Foreign films up the ante with several much more grounding criteria: Usually they’re missing a parent or two and sometimes must take custody and responsibility of a small child. Often, they’re scraping by, making the best out of almost nothing at all, and still with the most cheerful spirit you ever will see. You see, they’ve experienced the horrors of life but have come away untainted. They carry no baggage and are therefore free to lend themselves to the whole support of our hero’s journey through the confusing world of complex emotions.

Our hero, as a consequence of our heroine’s naive view of life (that’s actually been working thus far) will feel compelled to enter the scene and take care of her and provide for her and her dependents, usually against his will and reason and with a grudging smile tugging at his lips. He can’t help himself. Mr. Serious is drawn to this Beautiful Ray of Sunshine. It’s a perfect symbiotic relationship.

If this scenario sounds at all like what you envisioned for your own romantic future as a young woman, you’re not alone. It’s the source of many of my own personal victories and recriminations. Victories from overcoming expected behavior and carving my own path, and recriminations in not being quite the woman I was supposed to be.

I can’t quite distinguish what part of the above expectations are cultural and what part are religious. It’s tricky because across all language, cultural, and religious backgrounds, the same type of woman is preferred. It doesn’t matter if they’re Turkish and Muslim or Christian, Indian and Muslim or Hindi or Christian, Korean and atheistic (actually Korea’s pretty decently split pro and con on religion, but religion in films is distinctly missing).

So my question is, how did this woman, the manic pixie dream girl, manage to transcend language barriers, cultural influences, national boundaries, and religious convictions? And what do you do with the fact that you’re…not exactly “it”? Does this mean you’re not a real woman? Or perhaps it’s just an indication you’re not a woman worthy of romantic love?

What if you’re someone who doesn’t save worms from the drying pavement by carrying them back to the wet grass? What if you’ve never utilized a childish pout as a persuasive tactic to winning an argument? And your first impulse when someone is upset is not to bake them a favorite dish? What happens if a man has never carried you to safety? Or helped you learn how to use chopsticks? What happens if you don’t grow your hair long and you don’t join children in their games? What happens if, God forbid, you’re a serious woman? With a serious job? And serious ambitions?

Oh wait – no I’ve seen that woman in these films too. She’s the villain. She’s similarly without roots, probably even clawed her way to her current position, but on the way to her success, she lost all moral grounding. She’s also…chasing after our hero, but not from the goodness of her spirit, no she’s interested in the bottom line and power. Interestingly enough, she also wears “too much” make-up. I’m sure that’s not connected.

On the upside, the nice thing about not being the manic pixie dream girl of fantasy is that you’ve got a better shot of being a person OF character who maybe even gets referred to by name.

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