Friday, August 15, 2014

The Disney "Manic Pixie Dream Girl" Dilemma

While discussing Disney songs, films, and princesses with twitter friend @LeahIsMagical this week, it suddenly dawned on me that I had forgotten to write this post a while ago.  So I invited Leah to my first ever guest-collaboration post!  She graciously agreed and so this will be a little different but I’m excited to have some fun with it.  I also have a feeling this will be a controversial article so please don’t take any of it personally.  This post is not to discount any connection anyone may feel toward these characters.  Hopefully by the end this will make better sense! 

Hey all! I’m Leah of The Magical World Of, and I’m excited to work with Celeste today! I normally work with snarky comments accompanied by carefully chosen gifs, and while I enjoy the heck out of that, it’s a pleasure to take part in a more analytical, sociological approach today! I know a lot of people think it’s a waste of time to read so much into these films, but I feel it’s actually vital. Popular films, especially ones that we view as often and as young as we view Disney films, have a much larger impact on our society and individual psyches than we realize. It’s important to realize the messages we are subliminally internalizing and ask ourselves if they’re helping or hurting.

If you’ve spent any time analyzing films and television, you’ve probably heard of the Manic-Pixie-Dream-Girl trope.  This term was coined by Nathan Rabin in his A.V. Club article, defining it as: “The Manic Pixie Dream Girl 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.” Some of the more popular examples of this character include Kirsten Dunst in Elizabethtown and Natalie Portman in Garden State

As women watching these MPDG characters, we tend to fall into one of two camps: we either identify with their quirky and fun personality and love them, or get frustrated with their shallow purpose and predictable characteristics and hate them.  I personally have always fallen into the latter (even before learning about the trope) and when I found out people actually write about the problematic nature of the trope, I understood why.  As interesting as these women seem, their primary purpose is to help the male protagonist rather than further their own storyline and accomplish actual things.   

Feminist blogger Anita Sarkeesian makes the point that this trope “perpetuates the myth of women as caregivers at our very core.”  They bring out another side in these men so that the men can find inspiration and see the world in a different light.  They’re literally “helpers,” the default purpose of women, according to society.  She implores filmmakers to start “writing (women) as real people” with their own dimensional storylines and personalities. 

Completely agree! Regardless of whether or not it's entertaining, I find that any trope, especially of women or minorities, is problematic because it further works to simplify, dehumanize, and devalue these people rather than viewing them as complex human beings.  I personally love the “screw writing strong women” posts that have become rampant on tumblr.

If you want to see a fantastic example of a MPDG introduced but then deconstructed and revealed as an actual human being, I highly recommend (500) Days of Summer. Also read The Fault in Our Stars, which does a similar thing, but with a Manic Pixie Dream BOY! God love ya, John Green.

But back to Disney!

So how does this apply to Disney?  Well, here’s the conundrum.  Leah and I were talking about Rapunzel and how she annoys us.  Leah said she seems more like a 50’s Disney princess than a modern one.  I agreed and began to think about why she bothered me.  I have talked to many people on twitter about this character and I know so many who connect with her or elements of her storyline.  The MPDG trope came to mind once again and it made a little more sense.

Huge disclaimer: I know Rapunzel is not a true MPDG.  Neither is Anna, another Disney princess that rubs me the wrong way.  I know that they have their own unique storylines and have more backstory and depth than the true trope characters.  However, there are elements of MPDG in these characters and I’ll explain how.

Really? I love Anna! I think she’s a refreshing step forward. Oh good, we’re gonna have some interesting conversation... :)

First and foremost, look at the men they spend most of their movies with.  Flynn is an experienced criminal who brags about his greed and narcissism.  That’s his introduced character, and we see it soften and change as Rapunzel’s quirky and innocent personality inspires him to fall in love and give up his dishonest ways.  Also, Rapunzel should logically not be this free-spirited.  She is emotionally abused, manipulated, and the victim of passive aggression for her whole life.  Her unrealistic resiliency stands out, and although we see some internal turmoil as she regrets/un-regrets leaving her home and “mother,” she’s a little too perfect.  Yes, she’s the main character and doesn’t exist solely to help Flynn, but these characteristics of the trope may partly explain Leah’s and my attitude toward her.

I can see both sides of this argument, because Rapunzel is a dynamic character. I’ll give her that. She does grow from a sheltered, naïve dumbass to…a less sheltered, slightly curious dumbass who occasionally stands up for herself.

I look forward to your hate mail.

Anyway. That does keep her from being a true “trope” character of any kind, in my opinion. However, I think you hit the nail on the head by calling her a dream girl.

I mean, think about it. Rapunzel is uber sweet and uber cute, completely docile, eager to please, thoroughly dependent on her man – yeah I’ll get hate from that one too, but I stand by it -- and she totally gets you. She’s kind of…every slightly misogynistic guy’s dream girl.  Celeste even pointed out to me in a twitter conversation that the lyrics to her opening number, “When Will My Life Begin,” sets her up as the perfect domestic housewife. There is, of course, nothing wrong with liking the domestic life, if that’s what a person truly wants. 

But like Celeste said, Rapunzel’s too perfect.  But ‘perfect’ as we saw it in the 1950s. I mean, dear lord, could we have given the girl a little ambition?

The first thing any screenwriter will tell you that a character needs is a compelling goal that drives them through the movie. This goal will make them do stupid things and affect change that will create approximately ninety minutes of shenanigans that resolve into a (usually) happy ending.

So what’s Rapunzel’s deep, burning desire?

To see a light show.

Then back to the kitchen she goes!

Sorry, force of habit.

Anyway, this lackluster goal is lauded by the “thugs” of the Snuggly Ducklings while Flynn’s dream is mocked because…Rapunzel’s dream is sweeter? Or perhaps because it’s thoroughly non-threatening and in keeping with her place as subservient to men? Seriously, her lack of career goals would make Phyllis Schlafly proud

Which kind of scares me when I see how many little girls seem to idolize her, yet the much more well-rounded and driven Tiana is swept to the side…but that’s another rant for another time.  

Yay for another member of Team Tiana!

Anna’s storyline is also quite complex but her romantic plot is similar to Rapunzel’s.  Anna and Kristoff go on a journey together to figure out what happened to her sister.  They start as bickering opposites: she a naïve and, again, quirky girl while he is a serious and no-nonsense man.  Kristen Bell plays this “cutely weird” part well (probably partially explaining why I don’t care for her as an actress either).  Throughout the film they face many challenges and he finds himself falling for her.  The trolls explain in their song that if Anna throws a little love his way she’ll bring out his best (also meant to shadow Anna’s relationship with her sister, but here the focus is on Kristoff, the “fixer-upper”).  There’s that helper and caregiver element of the MPDG once again.   She also is unrealistically optimistic, considering the isolation and sisterly attachment betrayal she’s experienced growing up.  It makes her more heroic in the film sense but to those of us who are unsympathetic to the trope it makes her more aggravating. 

Oh – the “Fixer Upper” song. Yeah…that’s a problem child. Besides being a total earworm, it ruins the movie’s pacing and has a horrible message. “Don’t leave your unsatisfying partner – just love him more!” Disney, ruining your love life since 1937. But again, another rant, another day.

I agree, the Kristoff/Anna relationship is a cliché – because bickering animosity is the start of every great relationship, right!? --and potentially problematic aspect of the movie, especially since it kinda contradicts the part of the movie that tries so hard to correct those romance tropes that Disney themselves established (drinking game: take a shot every time I use the word “trope” in this article). Like my friend said as we exited the theater, this movie was a great leap forward for Disney, but they still have a ways to go.

However, I think the character of Anna herself is one of those great leaps forward. Yes, she’s absurdly optimistic. But I think that’s actually a realistic reaction to her prolonged isolation. Many people react to grief by clinging desperately to any form of hope. The great thing about this character is that her absurd optimism (that so many Disney characters have) not only has a solid reason but very real and unfortunate consequences. It almost kills herself and her sister. Yet it’s also what saved her and the kingdom in the end. Which was incredibly satisfying to see.

I don’t disagree with your points here, Leah.  I know attachment injuries can lead to either problematic avoidance OR clinginess.  Both are realistic and can be harmful to the person suffering from it.  Depending on the injury, it can take lots of therapy and learning to trust again to recover from a hurt like that.  Likewise with Rapunzel's situation, but I've already gone there.

I also have to disagree with you on her “adorkable” qualities. That was one of my favorite parts of the movie. While I adored the poised, fierce heroines of the 90’s – I would do unholy things to become Esmeralda – they just didn’t represent the people I knew and felt I was myself. Anna does. I didn’t find her “manic” or “pixie.” I found her recognizable and relatable. She was someone I wanted on my team. Which, I think, is why so many people fell in love with her. Just not Hans….

Sorry, that was cold.

I do see how some of these arguments can be turned around and used for Rapunzel, but when I think about the MPDG complex, I think about a character who is a tool and not a person. Rapunzel feels more like a tool, debatably for Eugene Titspervert (Anyone else think of that during the movie but me?), but certainly for patriarchal marketing. Anna felt like a person.

This is where we must agree to disagree, my friend. I must be immune to “adorkable-ness” and it always ends up feeling so forced to me.  But, again, there is no right or wrong here, and this just proves we’re two Disney analysts having respectful discourse and having fun with it! :)

Hopefully this sheds some light on the dilemma that is our collective feelings toward these heroines.  Again, Rapunzel and Anna are not true MPDGs and I’ve explained why.  But it’s clear that they share some traits that are reflective of the trope, and can therefore be seen as problematic under these circumstances.  Like mentioned before, it’s understandable why many people identify with these heroines and their personalities, situations, and plotlines.  This is similar to the argument I made in my Annie Leibovitz article: when it comes to Disney, some find pleasure in realism and some in escapism – neither is wrong or right.  But I hope this helps you look at them in a different light, and gives you some new ways of viewing past and future female Disney characters as well. 

Thank you for inviting me to this wonderful discussion, Celeste! I hope to do it again some time! Next time, my site? ;)

You got it!  Thank you once again for joining me, Leah!


PS: My little blog is exactly two years old!  If you would have told me two years ago how many posts I've written and how many friends I've made I would have never believed you.  So thank you to each and every one of you who reads, comments, tweets, shards, agrees, disagrees, and helps make this hobby so enjoyable.  You are truly the best. 


  1. well rounded? Tiana? the girl who goes from "hard working token black girl to".... "hard working, very naggy frog who looks down her nose at anyone who doesn't share her ambitious"? Rapunzel is bad for girls because she teaches selfish rebellion is OK, not because she's a MPDG. Holy misogyny, Batman.

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