In Defense of Summer (And Manic Pixie Dream Girls everywhere)

Illustration by Seamus Gallagher
Illustration by Seamus Gallagher. Click image for more!

The writer behind the term “Manic Pixie Dream Girl” called for us all to stop using the phrase, and even apologized for ever inventing it, in a recent Salon article. Nathan Rabin first used the phrase to describe the sexism inherent in writing Elizabethtown’s character Claire, but now sees the term spinning out of control. Rabin agreed with Ruby Sparks writer/star Zoe Kazan who said, “I think it’s turned into this unstoppable monster where people use it to describe things that don’t really fall under that rubric.” 

While it is always important to point out sexism in pop culture, as was Rabin’s goal, the phrase has become another weapon to wield against women — both fictitious and real. Leaving Rabin’s explanation in the dust, “Manic Pixie Dream Girl” has become a label critics can slap on any quirky woman or female character to dismiss her as vapid, fake, or just plain annoying. The intention in the phrase has been lost: to point out that the MPDG, in Rabin’s words, “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.” Somehow, the writer-directors responsible for creating this trope get off scot-free, but women are targeted for participating in it. 

Take for example, Zooey Deschanel, once called “the girly girl everyone loves to hate” by Slate writer Amanda Hess. Last year, Hess wrote: “In short, everyone hates Zooey. I used to despise Deschanel’s Pinterest-pinned image, too. I hated her ukulele-accompanied olde tyme singing voice, her pink jammies Siri commercial, and her human elf routine. Most of all, I hated her blank-eyed, dress-twirling turn as the object of Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s obsession in (500) Days of Summer—the role that launched 1,000 indie wet dreams.”

Deschanel’s portrayal of Summer, a role that was dubbed a MPDG, was enough to provoke hatred toward a real person — not the character she played, but Deschanel herself. Here we see how dangerous the MPDG trope can be. Sure, it sucks — like really sucks — to only see one-dimensional female characters in media, but it is downright scary that an actress could be hated so intensely for playing one in a movie. I also have to ask: where are the critics of Joseph Gordon-Levitt for playing a role that depended on the MPDG? Where are the mass eye-rolls at the writer-director who created the character in the first place? Maybe they’re out there, but the majority of criticism for the MPDG trope seems to fall squarely on women when the critique was never intended that way. This discrepancy points to the sad, hard truth that people love to hate women, and, it seems, the more feminine they are, the bigger the target. Deschanel has confronted this anti-femininity sentiment as herself and as Jess, the star of New Girl. 

Of course, Hess was never alone in her distaste for either Deschanel or the character Summer. As a long-time Zooey lover, femme, and feminist, I have always appreciated having a Hollywood role model that didn’t have to be a guilty pleasure. Deschanel has always made me proud to call myself a fan whether for making a thoughtful comment about roles for women in Hollywood, or her femme-spirational take down of the misogynist, grrrl-hating deriding of femininity, her commitment to creating a positive online space for girls, or her body of work that has yet to spark my feminist ire. 

As someone who has grown tired of hearing the criticism that Deschanel only plays one role, depends too much on quirky, clumsy-girl tropes, etc., I was practically over-the-moon to read Hess’ confession of being wooed by Jess, the multi-dimensional character Deschanel plays on New Girl. Hess admitted her surprise that Deschanel could portray a character that plays up to the “adorkable” image, yet has a sex-positive attitude and demonstrates sexual agency, is driven and ambitious in her career, and shows an emotional range. Finally, a Deschanel character that shows depth! Way better than that other made-for-the-male-gaze Summer Finn!

Wait, what? Did we watch (500) Days of Summer all wrong? my fellow feminist friend asked me. 

Summer is too often and too easily dismissed due to the MPDG categorization (and perhaps so are MPDGs everywhere), and I echo Rabin and Kazan’s concerns that this term has spun out of control and tries to encompass characters that don’t really fit the criteria. 

This is not the first time Summer Finn has been accused of existing simply to fulfill Tom Hansen’s fantasy, but she deserves much more credit than that. The narrative follows the perspective of Tom Hansen, so a straight-forward viewing may draw that conclusion, sure — but if we can look beyond what we are being shown and understand this framing simply as a characteristic of the plot, we can see that Summer has more depth than she’s given credit for, and why she can absolutely be understood as a positive, feminist-friendly female character. 

Zooey Deschanel’s characters are often criticized for portraying a girlish, almost helpless, sort of womanhood (the evidence for this is often Deschanel’s large eyes, straight cut bangs, and ultra-feminine manner of dress). I often wonder who these critics are talking about; which of Deschanel’s characters plays dumb, relinquishes her independence, reverts to a child-like state? Certainly not Summer. 

In the film, Summer is clear about what she wants, and is not afraid to ask for — nay, demand — respect for her desires and boundaries, and will not be worn down. Summer strongly states her position from the beginning that she does not a) believe in love and b) want to be someone’s girlfriend. In true macho form, Tom refuses to accept this clearly-stated position and proceeds to project his expectations of a monogamous, doting relationship on Summer, despite her consistent insisting that the relationship stay non-romantic. At one of their first meetings, the office karaoke outing, she tells the boys she doesn’t have a boyfriend because “I don’t want one” and “I like being on my own. Relationships are messy and people’s feelings get hurt. Who needs it?” Later on, Summer gives Tom the “I’m not looking for anything serious” speech during their first trip to Ikea. A while later, after a fight in which Tom insists she act more like a girlfriend, Summer says, “I like you Tom, I just don’t want a relationship.” 

Summer refuses to play into the damsel in distress trope and resists Tom’s unsolicited attempts to step in and “save her.” There’s a scene where Tom and Summer are having a drink at a bar, and Summer is hit on by a strange man. She politely declines his advances, but as he persists, Tom decides it’s his business, and assaults the stranger. Summer objects and later tells Tom she can’t believe he would act so uncool. “Was that for me? Was that for my benefit? Next time don’t, because I don’t need your help.” Summer demonstrates her strength, independence, and existence outside and beyond Tom over and over again. I suspect critics of Summer (and other Deschanel characters) do little more than take one look at her girlish hairstyle, cutesy dresses, and the size of her eyeballs before they draw their conclusions. The criticisms seem to be more about a type of femininity and womanhood and Deschanel herself, than the characters they’re supposedly describing, and that’s a whole other problem in itself (hello, misogyny). 

Summer is subversive, at least to Hollywood standards, in that she seeks a sexual relationship while foregoing the romantic aspect, sticks to her guns and refuses to settle for the less-than-desirable Tom just to simply be paired-off, and rejects all the supposed “romantic” facades women are supposed to swoon for. As a female character, Summer stands up just fine. These are the nuances we miss when we reach for labels like MPDG that make it all too easy to dismiss a character or film wholesale. 

The idea that Summer’s purpose is to delight Tom and fulfill his one-true-love fantasy has no stronger believer than Tom himself. What I love as a feminist viewer of this film is watching this illusion get shattered over and over again, much to Tom’s surprise. (500) Days of Summer’s non-linear timeline allows Tom and the viewers to look back on certain moments in his relationship with Summer and realize that the intimacy and love he felt was never truly there; it was all Tom’s projections of an unattainable fantasy on a girl who was never willing to play along. For example, when we look back, we see a smile that Tom thought was filled with love was actually the polite kind you shoot someone who tells a bad joke or is boring you to tears in order to spare their feelings. 

As it turns out, Summer doesn’t fit neatly with the Manic Pixie Dream Girl prototype (I wonder if any character does?) and actually actively resists the classification with lines like: “I don’t feel comfortable being someone’s girlfriend. Actually, I don’t feel comfortable being anyone’s anything.” Tom, through his own willful ignorance, edits and censors her until he can squeeze her into that box, a series of moves that is revealed as we revisit moments and learn, along with Tom, who Summer Finn really is. 

Not only does the MPDG label make it easy to overlook complexities in female characters, but it also works to focus on the shortcomings of female characters, which often results in an unfair amount of criticism being levied at women who take these roles, rather than writers or directors who create them. There are other barometers of sexism in film. I would like to see a more thorough examination of the male characters. Take for example, Tom Hansen. Tom, like Nice Guys everywhere, tries to conjure a relationship out of thin air in a selfish attempt to entertain himself and give his otherwise disappointing life some meaning, because he deserves as much for being a nice, white, hetero guy, right? 

Even Joseph Gordon-Levitt, who played Tom Hansen in the film, can see what I’m talking about. He told Playboy: “I would encourage anyone who has a crush on my character to watch it again and examine how selfish he is. He develops a mildly delusional obsession over a girl onto whom he projects all these fantasies. He thinks she’ll give his life meaning because he doesn’t care about much else going on in his life.” 

As a feminist viewer, I appreciate (500) Days of Summer for not bowing to the almighty male privilege. Finally, a film where the perfect couple isn’t so perfect (or so much a couple), the guy doesn’t get the girl, and for all of his pouting and tantrums, Tom doesn’t get what we wants. Eventually, he has to pick himself up and make something out of his life all on his own. Even if it is all a ploy to get Summer back, he doesn’t get her back. Even if Tom sees Summer in a negative light, the audience doesn’t, thanks to the other female characters that are similarly unimpressed by his “poor me” shtick and call him on his B-S. The little sister and his post-Summer blind date are very understated but very valuable roles in dismantling male privilege here. Tom does meet another girl in the end, and we can only hope he learned enough in the last 500 days to not try to pull that Manic Pixie Dream Girl shit on this one. 

The entire premise of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl is offensive to women. By (gross) definition, the Manic Pixie Dream Girl exists to prop up the main male character and make him feel special and important in lieu of pursuing her own goals and happiness, but Summer refuses to be a prop and instead unapologetically, though not unkindly, knocks Tom down along with his archaic fantasies. Summer resists Tom’s expectations and, simultaneously, the traditional narrative of the romantic comedy and the sexist script that says women desire monogamous relationships and men don’t want to be tied down. 

What (500) Days of Summer does do is shed light on how much work the male characters actually have to put in to make the Manic Pixie Dream Girl thing work, and how they do it. It forces the audience to shift our focus, questioning if the heart-crushing, oddball, beautiful, fairy-like girl is really the problem here (or really exists at all). The non-linear timeline allows us to see what a difference a little perspective makes, and poses the question: how different would the story be if it was told from Summer’s point of view? Would we still criticize Summer (and Deschanel by extension) for being too goofy and trying to fulfill Tom’s fantasy? I doubt it. We’d see a girl with a personality, goals, desires, and agency, who’s with this kinda-okay guy who hinges more and more on the boring and pathetic. After all, Summer only seems so zany next to Tom. Tom, who thinks he and Summer are the only two people who like The Smiths. Tom, who is struck by the fact that Summer also likes Magritte and Hockney, two very famous artists whose names you could pick up after a single high school art history class. Tom, who thinks he’s Han-fucking-Solo after a single sexual encounter. Tom, who is scandalized by the “penis” game. I mean, what a guy. How could anyone get bored of that?

The same goes for all the Manic Pixie Dream Girls out there. She’s a real girl who gets twisted in the mind of sexist, boring guy. What’s so wrong with this role is that men continue to write it, proving that they see women as an object, something to use to entertain, distract, and delight themselves with. In writing and viewing women in this way, men get to pin all responsibility for their lives on women, whether for giving it meaning (when they’re in love) or completely destroying it (when they break up). While there is something to be said for not drooling all over the crumbs Hollywood tosses us, it’s all too easy to scoff at female roles that are supposed to be “alternative” and deem them not good enough, but fail to acknowledge that patriarchy and misogyny are still the driving forces behind these shallow female characters.

Instead of criticizing women like Deschanel who opt to play these characters, why not criticize those who continue to write these caricatures of women? Why not criticize the male actors and characters for relying too heavily on the eye-roll-inducing “Nice Guys Finish Last” trope, and let the women be as goofy or cutesy as they want as long as they have integrity, agency, and are getting closer to resembling real-life women? 

Using the MPDG term doesn’t allow for such criticisms, so I agree, it’s time to lay the phrase to rest, and hopefully — if we match the second part of Rabin’s call to “all try to write better, more nuanced and multidimensional female characters: women with rich inner lives and complicated emotions and total autonomy, who might strum ukuleles or dance in the rain even when there are no men around to marvel at their free-spiritedness” — the trope won’t be far behind. 

Published by Andi Schwartz

Let's give 'em something to blog about.

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