The Manic Pixie Dream Girl Always Wins

The minute I saw Annicka Dolonius’s Enid in “Ang Nawawala”, I wanted to hate her. I really did. The ingredients were all there: she was named after my all-time favorite fictional character, she was adorable, she was an insanely beautiful girl who was sullen and alone at an art exhibit (because that totally happens in real life), she was cool/bored/disinterested with the Filipino language, she was adorable.

Still, I failed. Miserably.

I already knew, heading in, that Enid was going to be every bit the Manic Pixie Dream Girl she was promised to be in the trailer, and that every bit of her Manic-Pixie-Dream-Girlishness was going to be a complete one-dimensional idealization. Yet, I was still blown away by the sheer precision with which she mimed her performance straight out of the MPDG manual. “Quirky” clothing: check. Unkempt-but-still-cute hair: check. Habitual grinning at the forlorn male hero as if he was in a constant state of delivering an infinitely clever punchline: check. An effortlessness so calculated that it actually breaks through to the other side and becomes stilted: check. Disappearing on a whim: check.

Enid was a painstakingly crafted amalgam of iconic Manic Pixie Dream Girls of lore – dashes of Winona Ryder in “Reality Bites”, Natalie Portman in “Garden State”, Zooey Deschanel in “(500) Days of Summer”, and even Thora “the real Enid” Birch in “Ghost World”. I was fully aware, throughout the entire duration of “Ang Nawawala”, that Enid was at least 95% fake. And yet, like moth to a flame, I helplessly fell in love with her nonetheless.

Welcome, ladies and gentlemen, to my cinematically-fucked-up world.

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But of course, this is not just my fucked-up world; this is the world of every existing male on the planet. We grew up watching movies written and directed by John Hughes and Cameron Crowe; characters performed by John Cusack; movies with the perfect song for every perfect romantic moment. We saw these movies even before we were in actual relationships and formed our identities in a society that passively breathed the air of these alternate universes, somehow assimilating their realities in our non-soundtracked daily lives. These movies have ceased to become forms of entertainment: they have become our subconscious gospels of truth.

Only now, I feel as if it’s becoming increasingly conscious. While movie critics were busy ripping apart or defending the supposed classism in “Ang Nawawala”, I was more distracted by the vivid self-awareness of the film. Every frame was screaming its influence and every romantic moment was sort of announcing its own pop-romanticism. Marie Jamora’s eye as a full-fledged hipster, well-versed in the language of “quirky” cinema, was impossible to ignore. Her Enid is perhaps the purest of all MPDGs – she literally exists for the sole purpose of beguiling Gibson; nothing more, nothing less. We don’t even know what she really is – if she’s a student, whether she’s working, what her work could possibly be, if she has dreams apart from “getting back with her boyfriend” – all we know is that she’s cute and that she makes trite hipster statements.

The fact that a female filmmaker was actively perpetuating the male auteur fantasy of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl was thoroughly fascinating, while not at all shocking. Because the flipside to this tradition has always been the forlorn Croweian Hero (as discussed in this previous blog post), which of course Jamora was romanticizing as much as Enid’s pitch-perfect MPDG. Her movie, which is essentially a fetishization of cool more than anything, had to fetishize Enid in order for her to fulfil the Croweian fantasy in the character of Gibson.

The fact that the MPDG’s influence has evolved to transcend gender expectations is a tribute to the endurance of the male fantasy as a universal benchmark. We all thought the Women’s Rights Movement had already weakened the patriarch’s power to dictate sexual paradigms; i.e., the Marilyn Monroe-Jackie Kennedy duality so deftly tackled in “Mad Men”. But men are still the ones making up the rules in sexual politics to this day; only now, the balls-to-the-wall Don Draper has been supplanted by Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s weeping, sensitive, Smiths-idolizing, MPDG-obsessed sweetheart. And apparently, women are totally digging this new male-dictated idea. Yes, even Zoe Kazan, writer and star of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl satire “Ruby Sparks”.

The character Ruby Sparks, played manically and dreamingly by Kazan herself, was publicized as a sort of indictment of the entire MPDG tradition in cinema, and for most of the movie, she really was. No one has mocked MPDGs on a grand scale before Kazan, who channels Zooey Deschanel so effectively, it actually borders on homage. The highlight for me was when an extremely clingy Ruby held on to Croweian Hero Calvin (played by Paul Dano) and cried: “I miss you right now”, while looking at him with desparate longing. The movie was hilariously spot-on with its deconstruction of the MPDG idea and eventually takes us it to its ridiculous conclusion: a girl who is totally, completely, and plainly nuts.

Yet, as if being reminded of its existence as a movie and not a critical essay, “Ruby Sparks” ends up falling to the same trap it supposedly subverts. Without giving too much of the ending away, we leave the theater with a meta-innocence that mirrors Ruby’s; our rose-colored worldview of romance had been painted by some love-sick writer and we’re not even aware of it. Or perhaps we are; we just don’t care anymore.

Paul Dano’s Calvin, on the other hand, isn’t so much a satire on the Croweian Hero as he is a satire of us – the male audiences who continue to fall for MPDGs. His character flaw, while exaggerated, is nonetheless same as ours – he is in love with ideas, not with actual women.

Our love affair with ideas is so strong, it has seemingly become immune to disillusionment. Falling in love with Enid was inevitable. Marie Jamora knew this. I’m sure Annicka Dolonius did so too; you can tell from the way she looked at Dominic Roco and play-acted in front of the camera, her every subtle movement reflecting a learned mimicry developed from years of being exposed to male fantasies parading as romantic comedies and “hip” indie movies. I certainly did; I knew I was being manipulated by a movie specifically designed to make suckers like me swoon, yet it didn’t stop the desired effect from occurring. This is the Cassandra’s Curse of pop-culture-obsessed maledom: we know it’s all a ruse, but we can’t stop it from fooling us over and over again.

* * *

My bestfriend once told me that Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s character in “(500) Days of Summer” reminded him of me, while Zooey Deschanel’s Summer reminded him of this girl I fell in love with years ago. This, of course, is grossly inaccurate. For one, no amount of argyle sweaters or cosmetic surgery methods can possibly make me look like Joseph Gordon-Levitt. Yet, hearing him say this made me wonder if I did subconsciously ape the Croweian Heroes I grew up watching. After all, I specifically remember wanting to be like Campbell Scott in the movie “Singles”, particularly that scene of him wasting away in his messed-up apartment, blasting jazz on his stereo, waiting for Kyra Sedgwick to knock on his door. I thought it was romantic, that picture of failure and defeat; it gave me a sense of unearned poetry all those years that I was jobless, heartbroken, and rejected. And I think I’ve lived most of my years as a sort of protracted re-enactment of that scene, the Croweian Hero at his lowest and most vulnerable, waiting for my Kyra Sedgwick, my Manic Pixie Dream Girl to come and look into my eyes as if I was the single most important force in her life, like how all MPDGs look at their Croweian Heroes, drunk with the modern romantic ideal that nothing else matters but this, this love, this ultimate realization of our entire humanity that culminates in a passionate kiss delivered to the validating tune of a Paul Westerberg guitar riff.

A lot of people on twitter have made variations of the same “this movie reminds me of so and so” statements about “Ang Nawawala”. Whether they felt the movie was their story, or that Gibson reminds them of a guy they know, or that Enid reminds them of someone who broke their heart is no longer an amazing phenomenon in 2012. Of course this story is familiar – we’ve been basing our lives on the same material from which Jamora draws inspiration. Art imitates life, which imitates art, which then imitates fake life.

Movie characters do not actually remind us of ourselves or the people we know. We become these characters. We ease our real-life disappointments in their consoling self-indulgence so that we can transpose their ideas of love and redemption to our reality where they end up becoming disappointing. It is a cycle that has been happening for decades, for generations, only we all agree that this is okay, because the comfort of falling in love with Manic Pixie Dream Girls is real and powerful. It makes this entire disjointed, confusing, unrealistic journey through our western-pop-culture-fed reality a little more bearable. Even if it’s responsible for the mess in the first place.


image credits:

Enid in headphones: screen grab from Ciudad's "There's A Lonely Road to Sunday Night" music video
“what’s her name?”: "Ang Nawawala" Facebook page
Ruby sparks smiling:
Ruby & Calvin in pool:
Enid & Gibson:




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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