Manic Pixies

Update: I am a bad internet citizen. Dan’s response has been up four whole days. It’s great, and you should read it.

Someday, when I’m rich and famous and have a shelf full of Hugo Awards, the correspondence between me and my friend Dan Bensen (who I will no doubt be in cheerful competition with to see who can collect the most Hugos) will be the stuff of legend. We’ve known each for what will by then have been a hell of a long time (right now neither of us is old enough to have know anyone more than a heck of a long time) and with the exception of two years of middle school during which our friendship consisted largely of hollering at each other about writing, FSF, and Big Ideas, 95% of our friendship has consisted of emails about writing, FSF, and Big Ideas.

We’ve been trying to connect to do a podcast for his blog, which will be a fun listen if we can ever coordinate schedules between Maine and Bulgaria, but in the meantime, I offer you a lightly edited email [annotations for clarity in brackets because I’m too lazy to write a real post on these ideas right now] I sent to him earlier this week.

The Manic Pixie Dream Girl thing [responding to this article by Laurie Penny, which is what the entire email was about, so you should probably consider reading it] has been on my mind because I do and I don’t see where she [Penny] is coming from in some nuanced ways I’m still trying to mentally articulate for myself. It definitely has some relevant points for Autumn’s Daughter [my first book, which is still in private beta] that I struggle with. For example: when all is said and done, Niamh is pretty and Lance has always been able to see it–what kind of message does that send? But at the same time, part of the pleasure of writing fantasy is the ability to indulge in wish fulfillment, and I can’t avoid the deeply ingrained desire to be attractive even though I hate that there are these standards for what we feel we need to look like in order to think ourselves worthy. I suspect that men deal with the same problem too, but it rarely receives any focus, probably because it’s more widely acceptable for men to be less than Hollywood stunning if their skills/brain make up for it.

I’m babbling a bit trying to get at the idea, sorry.

I do agree with the MPDG article that (a) stories matter, (b) percentage-wise, there’s a paucity of great heroines for girls to take as a model for their self image (by which I mean that there are quite a few good heroines, but if you randomly pick up a book off a shelf, the odds are much higher that the hero will be a man).

My agreement with her breaks down on the specifics of what an MPDG looks like, where we see them, and how those defining characteristics relate to strength of character. She attacks Doctor Who, for example, and while I would LOVE to see a female doctor (which the show hints is a possible thing from time to time), I think that the reboot companions (unlike a lot of the original companions) are heroes in their own right. [I could give you 10,000 words on feminism in DW alone, so I’ll save the detailed why for another article.] Rotating, to be sure, but they have their own distinct reasons for their patterns of decision-making (which makes them more than a collection of quirks), and if they do happen to crush on the doctor, well…he’s the complete package of looks, massive brains, and kind intentions, so who could blame them?

I can’t speak to a lot of the pop examples Penny was writing about, but I was half-watching New Girl while I was doing the dishes, and one of the moments clarified some of what was bothering me about this article. Jess (played by Zooey Deschanel and, at a glance, easily mistaken for an MPDG herself) [That’s also another article altogether, and I will go there if you troll the comments telling me she’s an MPDG.]  is telling off the girlfriend of one of her roommates who has been nasty to her because of her apparent MPDGness and Jess says this: “I brake for birds. I rock a lot of polka dots. I have touched glitter in the last 24 hours. I spend my entire day talking to children. And I find it fundamentally strange that you’re not a dessert person. It freaks me out. I’m sorry that I don’t talk like Murphy Brown. And I hate your pants suit. I wish it had ribbons on it or something just to make it slightly cuter, but that doesn’t mean I’m not smart and tough and strong.”

The author of the MPDG article says that she stops being quirky around men in order to avoid giving them the wrong impression, and while I’m glad she’s found the spine to stand up for her own work, I think it’s ridiculous to imply that the solution all women should embrace in order to be taken seriously is to stop being girly if they enjoy it. Girly doesn’t and shouldn’t automatically mean childish, stupid, or weak. Widening our understanding of strength and intelligence to allow whimsy, optimism, and a love of beauty to strengthen them is a critical part of achieving a healthier balance between gender roles. Women will never be respected as equal members of society as long as they insist on hating themselves for liking feminine things or other women who choose roles that women have traditionally filled, and it sounds like, in spite of her continued adherence to the ukulele, the author hasn’t figured that out.

The other, and perhaps more serious, problem with her statement about changing her behavior to avoid giving men the wrong impression is that it implies that the nature of a woman’s existence is responsible for the behavior of men. That sounds spine-shudderingly like “I couldn’t help myself. Did you see the way she was dressed? She was asking for it.” (This is another sort of thing that women do but SHOULD NEVER say about each other.) Men are responsible for their own thoughts and behaviors, and who the hell cares what men think? If a man treats you like you exist only to be his dream girl, you kick him to the carpet and move on. If she stopped being a pixie because her only reason for being a pixie was to appeal to men, then good for her for finally being herself. But if she’s denying herself access to behaviors that she enjoys simply to change the way men react to her, it’s almost as bad as the reverse. [Dan had some good points about thinking of ethical decision making in terms of game theory on this facet, so definitely keep an eye out for that on his blog.]

This statement also bothers me: “Men write women, and they re-write us, for revenge.” I sometimes do that to men too. [Again, in response to a point Dan made, I should probably point out that I destroy most of that revenge writing because it’s not any good.] Again, wish fulfillment is a perq of being a writer. It’s also indicative of a broader underlying premise in her article, which is that stories written from male perspectives are no longer relevant. Men piss me off plenty because of the undercurrents of their language and behavior that shout “I don’t respect women half as much as I want you to think I do,” but it doesn’t make their perspectives automatically null and void. She complains about the female character in Elizabethtown as being an MPDG, and though she’s right, that story isn’t ABOUT the girl. It’s about a guy coming to terms with his failure in business and his father’s death–the girl is a bit of a flat person because she’s primarily a dramatic foil for the main character’s man vs. self struggles. Not to put the film on the level with the classics, but I think I could make a compelling argument that Rhett Butter and William Darcy fulfill similar “more foil than person” roles in their respective texts.

Finally, Penny starts out talking about books, but her examples come primarily from films and t.v., and while I am shameless about my own consumption of television (partly for company while knitting, partly because I learn a lot about different modes of storytelling), I would argue that one of the primary differences between books and movies is the ability to create a truly complex and round character. The reason I say this is that books give you much more freedom to step into a character’s mind, which is where you find that 5th dimension that makes a character seem to live and breathe (Oh! on that note: Corey Doctorow’s article “Where Characters Come From” is great if you haven’t read it).

It’s not impossible to get at the mental processes of a character in t.v. or movies, but it is harder and often neglected. For example: The Hunger Games is told from Katniss’s perspective and the books are all about these subtle thoughts and observations that the movie either externalizes (i.e., shows, but doesn’t note that Katniss notices it or why) or drops. As a result, the Katniss of the movie was flat, not particularly likable, and possessing of a mere fraction of the moral fiber she had in the book. The point: medium matters, and when we’re talking books, I can’t think of a single non-human MPDG off the top of my head.

Anyway…now that I’ve spent an hour grumbling about a meandering and verbose blog article in a meandering and verbose fashion…I should probably do some work or some real writing…

You’ll have to keep an eye on Dan’s blog for his response, which is likely to include such gems as “Fortunately, I can’t just plug my computer into my crotch and write ‘Burly Space Pirates Plunder the Planet Venusian Vixens Yet Again’ because of that damn civilization thing.” and “But the elephant in the room here is that (sorry) men are sexually attracted to any vaguely woman-shaped animal, mineral, or vegetable.”

2 thoughts on “Manic Pixies

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