We finally have Manic Pixie Dream Boys…but they’re really just nightmares
Your new least favorite trope
If you've ever seen a movie whose target audience is naval-gazing millennial boys and soundtrack-buyers (same thing, kind of), then you're probably familiar with the Manic Pixie Dream Girl.
Coined in a 2007 review of Elizabethtown, the phrase has since been used to describe just about every semi-quirky female character since. It may be fitting for, perhaps, Natalie Portman in Garden State, but even Jennifer Lawrence in Silver Linings Playbook and Emma Stone in La La Land –performances that won Oscars, mind you – were subject to a Manic Pixie Dream Girl dubbing.
The label is flung around with regularity, and its most recent high-profile victim is A Star Is Born’s Ally, played by Lady Gaga. As is often the case when the MPDG label is stuck on a character, Ally doesn’t actually fit the trope. She doesn’t even possess the stereotypical quirkiness of the trope, unless it's somehow quirky to have both a Roman nose and relative self-possession. Otherwise, Ally is an incredibly pragmatic character, perhaps the most responsible character throughout the entire film. Ally also doesn’t fulfill the singular narrative purpose of the manic pixie dream girl. Nathan Rabin – the man who created the term, in case you’d like to @ him – described the trope as existing “solely in the fevered imaginations of sensitive writer-directors to teach broodingly soulful young men to embrace life and its infinite mysteries and adventures.”
But Lady Ally did not teach Bradley Cooper’s Jackson Maine to embrace life. The opposite, really, as the movie climaxes with Jackson’s suicide. Jackson Maine’s greasy, sunburnt, gin-soaked existence was, however, the epitome of something newer: Manic Pixie Dream Boy. It’s Jackson who fulfills the narrative purpose of inspiring a new lease on life, who incites change in Ally. She would have lived her whole life sharing a house with her celebrity-loving father and only feeling truly alive during those fleeting nights spent singing in the drag cabaret. But Jackson! Jackson pushed Ally outside of her bubble of insecurity, resulting in the single best vocal run ever recorded.
On the surface, this seems kind of good. Finally, some role reversal, right? But here’s the thing: no one is going to call Jackson a male version of a Manic Pixie Dream Girl because he’s a complete mess and major jackass – and that’s why he’s a Manic Pixie Nightmare Boy. The dream girls come into the male characters’ lives as bubbly and cheerful and light as a balloon (Kate Hudson is playing them so they aren’t annoying, obviously!) The MPDG requires no help. And if she does need help, it’s quirky and low-stakes like, "Help me break into the town water tower at midnight!" adventures set to a song by The Shins. And somehow, just the mere presence of her glowing energy incites change in the male protagonist. When the genders are flipped, however, the circumstances change. The nightmare boys aren’t personifications of lightness, but black holes of need. And it’s in helping these male characters grow that the female characters also grow.
Female characters are always nurturing other characters. Even when they're the protagonists, female characters are still expected to care for everyone else and that's what inspires their own character's development arc. It would be wonderful if a female character could just chill out while a perfect male character played by one of the good Chris’s (Evans or bust, fight me) enters and helps her grows as a person. But no, that doesn’t happen. Instead, the female character grows through her relationship with a guy who publicly pisses himself during the most important moment in her career. That’s the hand female characters are dealt.
Male characters needn’t always pee their pants to be a Manic Pixie Nightmare Boy! Sometimes it’s a romantic comedy character that is an immature man-baby and through the nurturing of the female character, he grows into a man-toddler. The male character is likely played by Matthew McConaughey, Hugh Grant, or Miles Teller, the latter of whom is a newcomer to the nightmare boy game but shows a lot of potential. Then there’s the bad-boy-turned-good-for-love trope. Pop culture’s obsession with the bad boy who cleans up for the good girl is pervasive. Like, we all thought A Walk To Remember was romantic? Surely, if anyone needs nurturing it's the teenage girl dying of cancer — but nope. Mandy Moore's character is the one doling out the life lessons disguised as caring and compassion, helping the bad boy who loves her to Turn His Life Around.
I could pretend it's a mystery as to why the onus of growing the hell up always rests with a woman but it's really not: that's how it is in real life too. Men have a tendency to think of the women in their life as accessories, as side quests along the way to their true potential who help them level up. Until we get significantly more female-lead stories at the movies, it looks like it's going to be Manic Pixie Nightmare Boys from here on out. Except for Bill Hader in Trainwreck. He can stay.