Coined by film critic Nathan Rabin, the Manic Pixie Dream Girl is a character who is eccentric, is deep and multi-dimensional, and is placed in the movie to give the lead male a brighter outlook on his normally dull life. The issue is that the MPDG paints mental illness as sexy, desired, and an easy-out for writers to make female characters more interesting. These traits of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl seep into the psyche of everyday people, causing mental illness to become highly romanticized, and in a way, trendy.
Some argue that mental illness, while progressively being de-stigmatized, has become a sort of fad. We see it everyday on social media, in clothing and accessories, and mainly in television and film. To me, it seems almost like a social media competition as to whose situation is more trivial. In her article on Thought Catalog, Jessica Willson questions, “Why did it become a fad to self-diagnose very real disorders that very real people deal with every day?” This odd infatuation can be linked back to the character trope of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl.
“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,” explained Laurie Penny in an essay for New Statesman America, “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.”
In some cases, the MPDG opens the door for more dimensional roles for women in romantic films. For example, in 500 Days of Summer, Summer Finn, in a way, denounces the MPDG stereotype. The male lead, Tom, tries to paint Summer out to be this trope, but it turns out he projected that image onto her.
Most of the time, however, the Manic Pixie Dream Girl trope is highly problematic. It allows females to be dimensional, but only in the way that is desired to help to male lead. This can have terrible effects on the way society sees and treats mental illnesses. Additionally, it lends a large hand in mental illness becoming romanticized, seen in works like The Virgin Suicides, Silver Linings Playbook, Benny & Joon, and too many more. They suggest the cure for mental illness is a knight in shining armor out to save the Manic Pixie Dream Girl from herself. The ultimate example is Netflix’s series 13 Reasons Why. Based upon the novel, the show follows a male lead discovering tapes left behind by his love interest, Hannah, who killed herself.
There are so many problems with this show. For one, they show highly inappropriate scenes with rape, sodomy, and suicide on screen, despite it being aimed to teach tweens and teens about mental illness and bullying. One thing many film and television directors have avoided for years was directly showing suicide on screen. It is one thing to insinuate that it occurred, but it’s another to show a close up of the teen lead slitting her wrists, giving one with suicidal ideation a video tutorial on how to complete the task. Not to mention, they rarely even discuss mental health in an educational way. The show, instead, focusses around Hannah’s after-suicide revenge and teen-love affair with the lead character, Clay.
“Like many Manic Pixie Dream Girls, Hannah Baker is suffering from depression that is disguised as quirky eccentricity,” wrote Huffington Post, “The show does not discuss how and why mental illness contributes to suicidal ideation just as much as the social conditions of bullying, sexual assault and poor decision-making. This one of the show’s biggest failures.”
Romanticizing suicidal ideation, from 13 Reasons Why alone, has already shown its devastating effects on tween and teen psyche. A study has shown a 30 percent spike in teen suicides after the release of the show. A family friend of mine, who works as a guidance counselor at a middle school, once told me she had seen an increase of cases of self-harm in her school the year the show released. While there can never be proven, direct link between the two variables, it should be highly considered.
Prior to it’s release, Netflix consulted a mental health expert to check it out and make sure it was accurate, and would be educational. Dan Reidenburg, the expert, advised Netflix they should pull the program all together, for he feared the potential detrimental aftermath. Vox wrote, “His fears sprang from the problem of suicide contagion, which is what it’s called when media attention focused on one prominent suicide leads other people who are struggling with suicidal ideation to try to kill themselves. It’s a danger that young people are especially vulnerable to.”
With the popularity of that show came the popularity of self-diagnosis with illnesses such as anxiety and depression. It is commonplace to see Instagram posts or Tweets with people pointing out their mental illness on a post that has nothing to do with their mental illness at all (if they even have one). It also leaves room for hypocrisy. Bad friends who typically denounced your mental illness are now posting about their anxiety or depression for an added spice or comic relief to a tweet.
Willson outlined the issue stating, “I’m not here to denounce anyone who talks about their issues. I’m just here to stand up for those of us who don’t – because it isn’t that easy. Maybe I’m here to tell people to stop throwing around words like anxiety and depression and wearing them as an accessory. I just want to know when this became glamorous… Mental illness is not the lipstick you put on when it’s Saturday and you need an excuse to drink excessively. You don’t wake up and decide you have acute anxiety or OCD or bipolar disorder.”
The commodification and commonality of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl trope has warped perceptions of mental illnesses. People need to realize that having a bad day or two doesn’t make you depressed. Being nervous about a test doesn’t make you have an anxiety disorder. These are very real illnesses that affect the inflicted every second of every day. Having a mental illness isn’t “cute” or “quirky”, and should not be seen as desirable. It is not and should never be considered a personality trait. People with mental illnesses have lives and personalities beyond that.
If you or someone you know needs immediate help, please call 1-800-273-TALK (8255) to talk with a trained counselor.