Movie lovers typically hate the Manic Pixie Dream Girl. In the same way you hear a new word everywhere right after you’ve learned it, the quirky face of the Manic Pixie has been showing up all over film since the trope was identified and solidified into a named concept in 2007.
Film critic Nathan Rabin coined the term Manic Pixie Dream Girl to describe Kirsten Dunst in “Elizabethtown”. Although Dunst’s character was the original motivation for the term, many pixies preceded her and many have followed suit. The Manic Pixie Dream Girl is the beautiful, blandly unconventional, happy-go-lucky woman who typically serves as nothing more than a vehicle to teach the brooding, cynical male to embrace life, to love limitlessly and to open his heart to all the wonderful possibilities that it has to offer him. We’ve all seen this character on the big screen and we’ve all by turns fallen in love with her and been irritated by her obnoxiously bubbly personality.
“Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” even directly refers to the trope before the term was invented – “Too many guys think I’m a concept, or I complete them, or I’m gonna make them alive. But I’m just a f**ked up girl who’s looking for my own piece of mind; don’t assign me yours.” Kate Winslet’s character, Clementine, rejects the role of the fantasy woman by asserting her independence and her own complexities but some have argued even she falls into the trap of narrative superficiality inherent in the MPDG trope.
Rabin has acknowledged that this type of character – the female who’s high on life and uses all of her energy to inspire the self-deprecating male – has been around for years. He brought it to life by recognizing it and naming it and consequently he made it a concept around which writers and directors increasingly centre entire movie plots. This character type, as the name suggests, is typically “pixie-like” – sweeping in and saving the male, only to disappear in a figurative haze of pixie dust once the work is done. If you’ve ever fell for the on-screen charms of one of the following ten actresses, then you’ve fallen victim to the manic pixie dream girl’s spell.
10. Zoe Kazan
Zoe Kazan is arguably the latest addition to Hollywood’s long list of MDPGs – and is also, perhaps, a refreshing one. She’s not the typical, super attractive lead female – she’s quite pale and petite and appears alongside Daniel Radcliffe in the new romantic comedy “The F Word”. As a broken-hearted, med school dropout, Radcliffe’s character finds restored faith in his life and in love when he becomes friends with this strange, funny girl. In the film, Radcliffe can’t help but stare at a tattoo Kazan has on her back that resembles a pixie – literally falling under her spell. She also plays, quite literally, the ‘dream girl’ in the 2012 movie “Ruby Sparks”, in which she plays a fictional character who comes to life as the romantic interest of the man who wrote her.
9. Imogen Poots
One of the more modern versions of a Manic Pixie Dream Girl – a little closer to the newer concept of the Manic Pixie Hot Mess – is Zac Efron’s love interest in “That Awkward Moment.” Imogen Poots’ character Ellie holds a writers’ open mic night every week keeping the faith that some day people will actually show up, she rambles on about made-up scenarios during conversations and most importantly she gets Zac Efron to break his stay-single-pact with his buddies and to give up all his other flings – of course.
8. Kate Hudson
A young Kate Hudson, playing a charismatic rock groupie, is enough to get a 15-year-old boy to fall in love with her and with rock music. In the 2000 film “Almost Famous”, Hudson’s character, Penny, is an idealist young girl who believes in the power of music, freedom and in staying young forever. This MPDG doesn’t serve to save a troubled man from his present miserable life in this context, but rather to introduce a boy to what his future life can offer him.
7. Maggie Gyllenhaal
Maggie Gyllenhaal’s character Ana in “Stranger than Fiction” is a free-spirited law school dropout who decides to better serve the world by opening up a bakery and refuses to pay the portion of her taxes that go to things she doesn’t support. She’s more rough around the edges than most other MPDGs, but nonetheless gets the boring tax auditor to re-evaluate his life and fall in love with her.
6. Audrey Hepburn
One of the earliest, more extravagant versions of the MPDG is Audrey Hepburn as Holly Golightly in the classic “Breakfast at Tiffany’s.” She is a carefree party girl who changes her personality and her opinions with the seasons – some more charming than others – and literally leaves any and every man who crosses paths with her completely dazzled.
5. Rachel Bilson
Zach Braff’s character in “The Last Kiss” is going through a crisis – he has the perfect girlfriend, the perfect circle of friends, a steady career, but he feels like he’s growing up too fast and doesn’t know if he’s ready for it. The chatty, smiley, carefree party girl in the form of Rachel Bilson comes along and opens his eyes to what he could be doing instead of settling down. She puts a new twist on the typical MPDG who usually makes everything better for the male, because she first makes everything so much worse for him. She screws up the close-to-perfect life he already had, but she serves her purpose in making him realize and appreciate it.
4. Charlize Theron
Charlize Theron in the 2001 film “Sweet November”, starring alongside Keanu Reeves, delivers what has to be the most moving version of the MPDG to date. Sara Deever is a terminally ill woman who promises to change Reeves’ life in just 30 days and she fulfills the role of the pixie quite perfectly. His uptight, career-centred life is turned upside down with the elaborate quirkiness of Theron’s character. She enters his life, loads it with love and meaning he has never experienced before, and then disappears in the most heartbreaking way, forever leaving him tragically inspired.
3. Natalie Portman
“Garden State”, directed by and starring Zach Braff, revolves around a man dealing with his mother’s recent death and his troubled relationship with his father. He has spent most of his adult life on anti-depressants and lithium to numb himself from any emotions. Natalie Portman’s character, Sam, a quirky, colourful, absolutely fearless pathological liar (MPDGs can have flaws also) allows Braff’s character to feel all the feelings – good and bad – that he has been guarding himself from his entire life. She makes him listen to her obscurely hip music, she randomly breaks out into song and dance, and she tends to give those rambling speeches about opportunity.
2. Kirsten Dunst
The original inspiration for the term Manic Pixie Dream Girl is Kirsten Dunst’s character in the 2005 movie “Elizabethtown.” Dunst plays a flight attendant and the love interest of Orlando Bloom’s character – a man with a recently failed career, a dead father and suicide contemplation. Bloom is the epitome of a man in need of saving and Dunst is the perfect woman to do it. She’s the always smiling, adorable, optimistic type who believes in the curative powers of travel. She literally helps Bloom find his way, giving him a map at the beginning of the movie so he won’t get lost and encouraging him to take the road trip he always intended to. “Elizabethtown” might have failed to be subtly metaphorical, but we have it to ‘thank’ for clearly solidifying the image of the MPDG.
1. Zooey Deschanel
Zooey Deschanel is the manic pixies dream girl, in some form or another, in practically every single role she’s ever played, so she might just be the ultimate Manic Pixie Dream Girl. Contrary to most MPDGs, she puts a new twist on the trope with her character in “500 Days of Summer” by being a girl who actually doesn’t believe in love, but gets the guy to fall in love with her anyway.
Her character Alison in “Yes Man” is another version of the free-spirited girl living life to the fullest, but unusually, the male interest also has MPDG qualities. However, Deschanel’s best-loved version of the MPDG is her character Jess on the TV sitcom “New Girl.” Jess is the awkward, impossible-not-to-love, bubbly, glitter-loving, attractive lead female who tries to save the world as a teacher and falls in love with the cynical dropout male, opening him up to love and commitment. But, unlike most other MPDG, that’s not all she is. She is independent, self-aware, and imperfect – she gets dumped, she gets annoying, and she makes mistakes. Some might say Jess is the crystallization of the positive side of the manic pixie dream girl trope.