Disclaimer: cultural critique of various tropes about men and women is not about you personally, even if you enjoy watching things with those tropes in them. Mmmkay? We will discover things in this post things that are obviously anti-woman that I, too, enjoy watching. Not about me or you. Cultural tropes.
Holy cow, I’m not sure how I missed out on reading Laurie Penny before, but she’s got an essay in The New Statesman that is making some heavy rounds, and deservedly so because there is a first-rate writer here. The essay is entitled I Was A Manic Pixie Dream Girl.
Writing about Doctor Who this week got me thinking about sexism in storytelling, and how we rely on lazy character creation in life just as we do in fiction. The Doctor has become the ultimate soulful brooding hero in need of a Manic Pixie Dream Girl to save him from the vortex of self-pity usually brought on by the death, disappearance or alternate-universe-abandonment of the last girl. We cannot have the Doctor brooding. A planet might explode somewhere, or he might decide to use his powers for evil, or his bow-tie might need adjusting. The companions of the past three years, since the most recent series reboot, have been the ultimate in lazy sexist tropification, any attempt at actually creating interesting female characters replaced by… That Girl.
Ok, big Dr. Who fan here, and an old lady, and you just have to admit: Dr. Who has always featured its manic pice dream girls long before Nate Rubin coined the very apt term. From Lalla Ward to Billy Piper, this is a series that has plenty of cute Girls with a capital G. While I was a big fan of the ensemble casts for some versions of the Doctor, I think I was a definite minority on that, and throughout the history of the series, we have one Girl after another, taken up and educated by the doctor to the vast exigencies of the universe. She bumbles her way into trouble by leaving the tardis’ safely paper-plate bedecked walls. The Doctor, even though he sheds his Galifrigean skin every so often, and can grow several inches to accommodate Peter Davidson’s and John Jon Pertwee’s lanky doctor and yet shrink to Colin Baker’s and Sylvester McCoy’s relatively more petite doctors, has somehow never managed, in 11 iterations, to grow a vagina or change his skin color. The best rejoinder to this I have ever seen happened on Star Trek, TNG with the Dax creatures who maintained their consciousness but moved freely from host to host, bending gender back and forth, and thinking little of it. They still loved whom they loved, did whatever job they did, regardless of the equipment of their host.
I like the idea of Lenny Henry or his ex, Dawn French, playing the doctor.
Thus the first great thing about Penny’s discussion: her use of the word “lazy.” Writers use these tropes, and so do we consumers of their tales, because they are easy to construct and understand. They allow us to keep the action moving and the Daleks EX.ter.min.ATE.ing because we’re not held up thinking about why things and characters in the story are different than what we expect, and we can all just get to the part where the world is in danger and there are explosions and we can stop worrying about how to pay the mortgage or where the next tuition payment comes from.
The second Boom! quote from Penny’s essay:
Stories matter. Stories are how we make sense of the world, which doesn’t mean that those stories can’t be stupid and simplistic and full of lies. Stories can exaggerate and offend and they always, always matter.
So yesterday a commenter asked me why it mattered whether a particular celebrity was selling a narrative, with narrative which is a old proffie way of saying “story.” Well, this is why they matter. It’s why history matters, and communication matters, and literature matters; story is at the center of the way we produce culture and society in our communicating ideas about reality. And, as Penny notes:
Manic Pixies, like other female archetypes, crop up in real life partly because fiction creates real life, particularly for those of us who grow up immersed in it. Women behave in ways that they find sanctioned in stories written by men who know better, and men and women seek out friends and partners who remind them of a girl they met in a book one day when they were young and longing…
Part of the reason I’m writing this is that the MPDG trope isn’t properly explored, in any of the genres I read and watch and enjoy. She’s never a point-of-view character, and she isn’t understood from the inside. She’s one of those female tropes who is permitted precisely no interiority. Instead of a personality, she has eccentricities, a vaguely-offbeat favourite band, a funky fringe.
and all sorts of feelings here:
But I refuse to burn my energy adding extra magic and sparkle to other people’s lives to get them to love me. I’m busy casting spells for myself. Everyone who was ever told a fairytale knows what happens to women who do their own magic.
Go read, go read, go read.
Here’s my twist: have we thought about the uniquely urban nature of the average Manic Pixie Dream Girl in movies? Some of that may just be that most movies and tv have no interest in settings that aren’t urban any more–product placement is better in urban contexts on film. But to whet your thinking on this, here is another essay on the Brooklyn Girl….