Top Ten Female Rom-Com Characters of All Time

Since it’s Valentine’s and I’ve got nothing better to do, I’ve decided to pay tribute to the Romantic Comedy genre by paying tribute to the girls that make it work.

Before we go to our top 10, here’s a few things we need to settle first:

Grading system

MPDG rating (30%) – The “Manic Pixie Dream Girl” rating. Coined by Nathan Rabin of The Onion AV Club and exemplified by the likes of Sam (played by Natalie Portman) in “Garden State” and Claire (played by Kirsten Dunst) in “Elizabethtown”, the “Manic Pixie Dream Girl”, according to Rabin, “exists solely in the fevered imaginations of sensitive writer-directors to teach broodingly soulful young men to embrace life and its infinite mysteries and adventures”. They’re perky, kooky, delightfully free-spirited, and adorably weird. Most importantly: they’re gloriously fake. What we’re rating here is the “glorious” part. If your character is going to be completely unrealistic, you better do it with great aplomb.

Realness (30%) – Of course, we have to give equal props to characters who “seem” realistic, or at least realistic compared to usual rom-com leading ladies. Here’s where you wonder: fakeness and realness are equal? Are you high? First of all, it’s glorious fakeness. Second of all, these are movie characters. Part of the thrill of watching rom-coms is the experience of being lied to. Only in these movies do we see good guys get their dream girls, good girls get their dream boys, assholes losing in the end, and all smart, sensitive, and kind women also happen to be the most attractive people on Earth. And all of us know, on a subconscious level, that these are all bullshit. What differs is the degree to which we’re aware of this deception.

Je ne sais quoi (40%) – Everything else in between: her hairstyle, fashion sense, profession, exemplary virtuous traits, the sound of her voice, talents in the performing arts, wealth, wife potential, effortlessness, and every other arbitrary thing that takes her over the top. Oh yeah, good looks help a lot too.

Characters you won’t find on this list (apart from Lisbeth Salander of the rom-com classic "The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo")

Annie, “Sleepless in Seattle” – She basically left her fiancé because she watched “An Affair to Remember” too many times. Wow. I mean, WOW.

Lelaina, “Reality Bites” – There’s a lot of things from the 90s that made a lot of sense at the time, but are just dumbfounding now. She’s one of those things. 4 Non-Blondes is another good example.

Penny Lane, “Almost Famous” – Don’t get me wrong, I love the movie. But to Patrick Fugit: dude, she’s a groupie. “Band Aid” my ass. She’s a groupie, okay? A G-R-O-U-P-I-E! And not just any groupie – she’s a groupie from the 19-fucking-70s. I don’t even need to explain how fucked up that is. You want someone who “loves the music”? Go find some nerdy hipster at your local record store. Jesus.

Annie Hall, “Annie Hall” – This is obviously not the movie’s fault, because I absolutely love this movie. This is also not Diane Keaton’s fault. Well, not directly anyway. Here’s the problem: I first saw “Annie Hall” when I was already in my 20s and Diane Keaton was already around, I don’t know, 60? And one of the great things about Diane Keaton is how little she has changed despite old age – from the way she looks to the way she talks. Unfortunately, this is also why I couldn’t fall in love with her too much in “Annie Hall” – I couldn’t help but see the 60-year-old Diane Keaton throughout the whole movie. So I guess this makes it my fault. Yes. Actually it does.

Sam, “Garden State” – I have to be honest, she almost made the cut. I mean, if you have Natalie Portman’s face (pre-Black Swan), you’re going to be in contention. But then I remembered that scene where she did the Riverdance for no reason. So yeah, got to be selective with the crazy MPDGs.

Summer, “(500) Days of Summer” – She can go to hell. Seriously.

So now, without further ado, here’s my Top Ten Best Female Rom-Com Characters of All Time, in ascending order:

10.) Amelie, “Amelie”

MPDG Rating: 30
Realness: 2
Je ne sais quoi: 17 (which is disappointing, considering she’s French)
Overall Score: 49

Obviously she gets a perfect MPDG rating. That sequence where the narrator takes us through her cheap thrills – sticking her hand into a sack of grains, cracking the surface of a crème brulee, and skipping stones at a canal – is just pure joy. Amelie is basically a child; they threw in that sex scene just to remind us that she’s a full-grown woman but even in that moment she is about to burst into a potpourri of giggles. She is shy even if she’s clearly the cutest girl in the café where she works, in the apartment building where she lives, and in all 20 arrondissements of Paris. Her furniture talks to her. Her moment of truth with her “soulmate” involved absolutely no talking whatsoever. Come to think of it, are we sure Amelie’s not autistic?

9.) Annie, “Bridesmaids”

MPDG Rating: 10
Realness: 20
Je ne sais quoi: 28
Overall Score: 58

This may very well be a totally biased inclusion. Kristen Wiig is my second favorite comedian after Louis C.K. The fact that the funniest woman on the planet right now is also hot (as revealed in the very first scene in “Bridesmaids”) may have swayed my ratings, unfortunately.

But I know this for a fact as well: Annie is one excellently written character. One of the stupidest rom-com traditions of all time is the hot-klutzy-loser character. The problems faced by the hot-klutzy-loser are usually not substantial enough to warrant a klutziness and loserishness that can negate their hotness: a weird family, illogical shyness, problems at work. Annie is perhaps the first rom-com female lead to be a believable loser: she’s bankrupt, she’s getting old, and she doesn’t look like Sandra freaking Bullock. And for this I will always love her.

8.) Celine, “Before Sunrise”

MPDG Rating: 20
Realness: 20
Je ne sais quoi: 20
Overall Score: 60

If these ratings were vital statistics, she’d be a square. Although she wasn’t exactly a “square”, she wasn’t a spark plug either. Celine gets a lot of help here from the movie’s premise: depressed guy who just got dumped meets a pretty, intelligent, opinionated, and apparently extremely-trusting French girl on the Eurorail. All her ratings are equal since she’s equal parts Manic Pixie Dream Girl and Possibly Real Girl, while being just a little too nice and happy. And this is the reason why the lead girl in one of the best romantic movies of all time is only ranked 8th here: she doesn’t seem to have too much of an internal conflict going on. Well, not yet, anyway (spoiler alert).

7.) Dora, “Loser”

MPDG Rating: 18
Realness: 23
Je ne sais quoi: 22
Overall Score: 63

For those who don’t remember this underrated Mena Suvari performance; don’t worry, chances are you really didn’t see this movie. Remember what I wrote earlier? Annie is perhaps the first rom-com female lead to be a believable loser. I’m glad I used the word “perhaps” because Dora surely predates Annie. One of the things that I like about this movie is how it subverts another one of rom-com’s conventions: loser boy falls in love with cool/popular/graceful/perfect girl. In “Loser”, the title refers as much to Dora as it does to Jason Biggs’ character. She’s poor, gullible, a borderline party girl, and emotionally unstable. I know a few girls like this, which explains the “23” realness rating. But Dora is a loser with a heart of gold, so when she knocks on Jason Biggs’ door to the tune of Michael Penn’s “No Myth”, you can’t help but love this flawed, damaged, pretty little creature.

(Yeah, I know, “Loser” is a rip-off of Billy Wilder’s “The Apartment”, but that was “No Myth”, man! That was an awesome use of song!)

6.) Mary, “There’s Something About Mary”

MPDG Rating: 30
Realness: -5
Je ne sais quoi: 35
Overall Score: 65

The ultimate walking fantasy – infinitely nice (especially to losers), hot, principled, fun, loves to eat, and LOVES SPORTS! – which explains the perfect MPDG rating and the -5 Realness rating. Randomly catching this movie on HBO and Star Movies is one of the small joys in life, especially when it hits you: “oh, yeah: that’s what Cameron Diaz used to look like…holy shit…”

5.) Marty, “Beautiful Girls”

MPDG Rating: 30
Realness: 1
Je ne sais quoi: 37
Overall Score: 68

Okay, so Marty is 13 years old. Settle down. I’m not the only 30-something dude who’s smitten by her, Timothy Hutton is too. Plus, we get away with it because we’re in love with her for her wit, her sarcasm, her precocious intelligence (hence the “1” Realness rating) her youthful optimism and purity. You armchair Freuds may argue that all of that has everything to do with sex, but we don’t care because we don’t think so. The Timothy Hutton-Marty story is such a sweet and tender tragedy that no one can possibly ruin it by crying “pervert!”, as this scene demonstrates:

The genius of their story is that Marty is like an older woman trapped in a child’s body; “trapped”, in all its claustrophobic context. She seems so bummed out about her age it actually becomes moving. Timothy Hutton’s character, on the other hand, is also bummed out about his age, but it’s more of an adult ache – a pain that is sort of deadened by experience and acceptance. The dynamic between the two, therefore, is so rich that I wish they just made the whole movie about them.

So, anyway, what’s so sexual about that? Perverts.

4.) Lee, “Ed’s Next Move”

MPDG Rating: 8
Realness: 29
Je ne sais quoi: 38
Overall Score: 75

I don’t know two people who saw this movie, and since I don’t know five people who read this blog, that amounts to zero people who I’m sure can even relate to this entry. Lee is played by a little known character actress named Callie Thorne. She’s the violinist of a quirky folk band played by the real-life “Ed’s Redeeming Qualities”, she’s often sullen, and is having boyfriend problems. That’s the extent of what I remember of her character. And since this movie isn’t even available online (even the trailer below was just uploaded a month ago) I think it’s going to stay that way.

All I know is that her character arc resembles the usual changes that girls go through from the point where you first meet them to the moment when you realize this might actually work. First she’s standoffish but polite, then a little bitchy, then confused, then accommodating, and then bitchy again, and so on and so forth. And that’s why I love her.

3.) Enid, “Ghost World”

MPDG Rating: 18
Realness: 22
Je ne sais quoi: 40
Overall Score: 80

I’m going to do a little cheating here just so I can include my favorite character of all time (regardless of gender or genre) even if she’s in a movie that’s not really considered a rom-com. Who am I kidding? “Ghost World” is definitely not a rom-com! But who cares? There’s a weird romance going on between Enid and Steve Buscemi’s character that is responsible for the dramatic shift in the second act of the movie. We can’t ignore that!

Anyway, Enid scores our first perfect Je ne sais quoi score so far by being somehow effortlessly cool and awkwardly flawed at the same time. She’s so precocious and intelligent, but precisely because she’s so young, she just can’t tolerate how much the world sucks compared to her perfect worldview. And this makes her so interesting, so unforgettable, and so loveable.

2.) Celine, “Before Sunset”

MPDG Rating: 25
Realness: 23
Je ne sais quoi: 39
Overall Score: 87

Celine returns to the list with a vengeance. In “Before Sunset” (the sequel to “Before Sunrise”), the “square”, 20-something Celine is supplanted by the more interesting, wounded, more mature (and “thinner”) Celine. The internal conflict that was totally absent in “Before Sunrise” is so palpable here. And I love how Richard Linklater subdues all those leftover emotions with topic changes, forced humor, and verboseness not because it’s artistically better to go with subtlety (although that’s true) but because that’s what people do in real life. When there is something going on that is so obvious, yet so heavy with baggage, we usually talk around it. And in this respect, “Before Sunset” actually makes “Before Sunrise” look like the more pretentious movie. Why? Because the lengthy dialogues in “Before Sunset” actually serve a practical purpose: they don’t want to talk about the one topic that matters because they might just break down into pieces.

When I saw “Before Sunrise” in 1997, I fell in love with the movie. It was so romantic, so intelligent, and so sneaky-poignant. When I saw “Before Sunset” in 2003, I fell in love with the movie and fell in love with Celine for the first time. If I were Jesse, I would’ve missed that plane too.

1.) Clementine, “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind”

MPDG Rating: 30
Realness: 25
Je ne sais quoi: 40
Overall Score: 95

The indie, thrift-store version of Annie Hall (or Annie Hall on acid), which is basically the difference between Annie Hall not being on this list and Clementine being number one. Sorry, I’m just shallow and arbitrary like that.

In a previous blog post, I praised Kate Winslet’s performance, writing: This was like watching Zooey Deschanel in"(500) Days of Summer", only the complete opposite (sorry, but taking unprovoked potshots at that movie is my new favorite hobby). You felt Jim Carrey's pain. You hated to see each memory of Kate Winslet go. You understood why this girl Clementine drove him nuts the way she did. She was totally and naturally addictive. The entire premise of the movie falls apart if she weren't even half that (you know, like..."(500) Days of Summer").

Hollywood romantic comedy writers always imagine these perfect, faultless fairies as if that’s what men actually want in real life. There’s a difference between the idea of “what men want”, which is a cross between the FHM flirt and the demure colegiala; and “what men actually want”, which is everything that Clementine basically is: exciting, emotional, idealistic, crazy, insecure, loving, thoughtful, mean, sad, unpredictable, hurtful, childlike, and tough.

We want adorable headcases. That’s what we want, whether we care to admit it or not. The only way we can be truly satisfied is if we’re constantly inspired, agitated, and challenged. I don’t know if that’s good or bad; I’m just saying that’s how things are. And girls, here’s a secret that you will only read here and nowhere else: the difference between a dumb man and a smart man is his awareness of the distinction between “what we want” and “what we actually want”. That’s pretty much it.

Glad I’m here. Thanks, and please come again.




I write essays on pop culture and sports for various publications, yet remain an outsider, forever marooned in this blog I call home.

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