The XX Factor

Real Life Manic Pixie Dream Girl Pens Essay, Plays Ukulele

Ukuleles: Not just in the movies

Photo by Jonathan Leibson/Getty Images

Nathan Rabin of the AV Club coined the term “Manic Pixie Dream Girl” in 2007 to describe an irritatingly common fantasy that crops up in male-dominated Hollywood: “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.” But this type of woman, whose whimsical sexiness is only matched by her utter lack of an interior life, does in fact exist in the real world, according to this Laurie Penny essay in the New Statesman. Penny knows because she used to be one. But, she assures us, she is in recovery.

I say “recovery” and not “recovered” because traces of the desire to seem like an eccentric fount of pure sexy-wit still linger in Penny’s essay, where she makes sure that you know that she plays the ukulele, is a great lover of obscure music, and still favors the adorable and the twee. Still, she makes some remarkably honest observations about how the desire for male validation can cause women to stuff away parts of their personalities that are more thoughtful, complex, and above all threateningly independent:

I wish I’d known, at 21, when I made up my mind to try to write seriously for a living if I could, that that decision would also mean a choice to be intimidating to the men I fancied, a choice to be less attractive, a choice to stop being That Girl and start becoming a grown woman, which is the worst possible thing a girl can do, which is why so many of those Manic Pixie Dream Girl characters, as written by male geeks and scriptwriters, either die tragically young or are somehow immortally fixed at the physical and mental age of nineteen-and-a-half. Meanwhile, in the real world, the very worst thing about being a real-life MPDG is the look of disappointment on the face of someone you really care about when they find out you’re not their fantasy at all—you’re a real human who breaks wind and has a job.

Penny is only 26, so she hasn’t quite gotten to the age when the opportunity to front like a Manic Pixie Dream Girl will leave you even if you don’t want to leave it. (Playing songs about kittens on your ukulele is attractive right up until you are watching yourself play ukulele in the mirror and notice you have some gray hairs, just like your kitten.) But her essay is full of sadness, a fear that she has to choose between being a full adult and being wanted and loved by men. It’s an unnecessary sadness; the bookish nerds she likes do usually grow up, stop putting women on a pedestal, and learn to solve their own problems instead of expecting some fantasy version of a woman to swoop in and do it for them. 

Penny’s essay is a wonderful snapshot of the way that our fantasy versions of women mess with the heads of actual women, especially since what makes the MPDG a fantasy is that she simply exists, like a fairy godmother you can have sex with, to serve. As Penny learned, it becomes all too easy to believe you have to choose between being a full-blown person—especially one whose very job as a writer often depends on having a rich interior life—and being desired. I look forward to her revisiting this piece in a few years and telling us how she figured out to be both.