In Defense of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl

Essay written by Anastasia Tomko for Film Studies- 11/2018

In films, characters are often much like real life people in the way screenwriters portray the ways they perceive other people and the larger world around them. Sometimes this perception deceives them into creating a sense of false love and a fantasized reality of their world. This character trait is shown through the main character Tom in the film 500 Days of Summer. Set in 2006, the film uses the non-linear arc style to tell the story of the developing relationship between Tom and his love interest Summer over the course of 500 days. Directed by Marc Webb and written by both Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber, this film introduces Summer as the woman of Tom’s dreams, but not the man of her dreams. Summer does not reciprocate the feelings. 500 Days of Summer presents the downfall of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl Trope by using the romantic male lead’s perception of the perfect woman, then misleading the viewer’s expectation of who Summer truly is, thus foiling the typical “boy gets girl” ending.

In 2007 Nathan Rabin coined the term “Manic Pixie Dream Girl” (MPDG) in a film review about Elizabethtown. He referenced the trope as he described Kirsten Dunst’s character:

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. The Manic Pixie Dream Girl is an all-or-nothing-proposition. Audiences either want to marry her instantly (despite The Manic Pixie Dream Girl being, you know, a fictional character) or they want to commit grievous bodily harm against them and their immediate family” (Rabin).

The MPDG Trope, though in a sense ‘created’ by Rabin, has been around for decades with Pixie Girls appearing in films over many eras. The MPDG is defined as a stock character, being easily identifiable amongst other characters. According to tvtropes.org, this female trope is “stunningly attractive, energetic, high on life, full of wacky quirks and idiosyncrasies (generally including childlike playfulness) and often seen with a touch of wild hair dye” (“Manic Pixie Dream Girl”). Although some of these characteristics can be seen in Summer from 500 Days, her unique looks don’t seem to triumph her true personality as seen in past films featuring the MPDG. This is Tom’s story and not hers, as evidenced by his presence in every scene of the film.  Although she and Tom share a lot in common and are compatible, her character never develops or changes the way Tom’s does.

In the MPDG timeline (figure A), before Elizabethtown came Almost Famous, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, and Garden State, all displaying distinct Pixie Girls for that time period who conform more distinctly with the trope. With the multiple films that spotlight the female trope from the same film era, what makes Summer’s character different? To understand her character, it is necessary to look back at the pop culture in 2006. In the entertainment arena, High School Musical premiered on The Disney Channel and American Idol became the most watched show on television. Smart phones weren’t available with facial recognition and laptops weren’t light enough to trudge around without a case. Social media was just emerging, which meant Tom couldn’t look up Summer’s profile and activities. At this time, relationships were built on personal observations and actual verbal conversations. Therefore, the screenwriter is able to reveal Summer only through Tom’s actual experiences with her and sets up the audience the same way tone is set up – by juxtaposing “expectations” against “reality.”

Tom admires everything about her during the first half of their complicated relationship:

(CU – SUMMER’S SMILE)

TOM (V.O.) I love her smile.

(CU – SUMMER’S HAIR)

TOM (V.O.) I love her hair.

(CU – SUMMER’S KNEES)

TOM (V.O.) I love her knees (Neustadter 12).

In order to heighten the “expectations” from the beginning of the relationship against feelings that emerge over time, Tom’s observations morph later in the screenplay to become “I hate …” in the same order, starting with her smile and ending with him hating a shared favorite song between the two (Neustadter 13). This simple reversal indicates that Tom has basing Summer off of his perception of the ideal woman for him.

500 Days of Summer triumphs over all the other pictures featured in my timeline because this work created the MPDG trope’s ultimate downfall. Actor Joseph Gordon-Levitt shared his personal insights into his (Tom’s) character with, “He’s probably listened to a few too many opinions about love, and needs to find his own.” This observation points to the feminist elements in the movie and they play into the viewer’s perceptions of Tom. “Feminism,” according to Maggie Humm in Feminism and Film, “has no single vision, although it is a visionary way of thinking” (Humm 3). Jen Horne continues down the path of tying feminist theory to 500 Days when she refers to Stacey Diri’s idea that:

Summer is painted as this Dream Girl that Tom thrusts his own ideals of romance onto. Tom wants to change and influence Summer’s decisions and behaviors to benefit his, which matches the standard stereotype of femininity– being able to be controlled and easily influenced by men (KitchenHawk).

Horne further notes that,

In the script, there are many instances where she informs him that she isn’t looking for love and is independent on her own. In a different vision, Tom can be seen as a narcissistic character. Before he even met Summer, he had a clear idea of a girlfriend and she only existed in his dream world (KitchenHawk).

This view supports the MPDG trope in many ways, but disrupts it when Summer moves outside of Tom’s expectations. Viewers can side with either Tom or Summer in this relationship because their relationship is destined to fall apart from the beginning because their objectives are clearly different as evidenced by their dialogue about love:

TOM: Summer, hold on … you don’t believe in love?

SUMMER: I don’t even know what that word means. I know I’ve never felt it,

whatever it is in all those songs. And I know that today most marriages end in

divorce. Like my parents (Neudstader 32).

 

The film subtly foreshadows to the viewer how well she performs in relationships by revealing not only the important point of exposition that Summer’s parents got divorced, but also why she’s closed off to others:

SUMMER: No, I’m not a lesbian. I’m just not comfortable being somebody’s

“girlfriend.” I don’t want to be anybody’s anything, you know?

MCKENZIE: I have no idea what you’re talking about.

SUMMER: It sounds selfish, I know, but… I just like being on my own.

Relationships are messy and feelings are always getting hurt. Who needs all

that? We’re young. We’re in one of the most beautiful cities in the world

(Neustadter 31)

 

The most detailed pieces of information we get of Summer come from what the writers called “The Summer Effect,” which displays Summer as more of an object of attraction rather than a woman free to her own choosing (Webb). “Films’ powerful misfiguring of the female is what feminism seeks to disempower” ( Maggie Humm 3). Tom skews how the viewer interprets Summer, as she represents an element of feminism that is of independence and maturity, and not of the same elements that Tom possess. Now in 2018, a lot of what Summer said about independence is accepted and encouraged, but at that time period was often overlooked. Sexuality incorporated in society in 2018 was hidden and kept quiet in 2006.

Tom’s understanding of Summer changes their final conversation of the movie and shows Tom in a new light not seen before.

SUMMER: I woke up one day and I knew.

TOM SAYS NOTHING.

SUMMER: I knew I could promise him I’d feel the same way every morning. In a

way that I… I never could with you (Neudstader 112).

 

And there’s not much else for Tom to say after that.  He is literally frozen, realizing that the painting he had created on his imaginary canvas was melting before his eyes.

He now knows he is not the man of Summer’s dreams and that his desires have nothing to do with the outcome of the relationship. This is the most distinct contradiction to the MPDG trope that always ends with the girl of the boy’s dreams becoming his life-long partner.

The “happily ever after” ending so famous in fairy tales is disrupted with great feminist strength and honesty in Summer’s decision to marry someone else and break all of the “never me” vows she had pledged to Tom against permanency. “Viewing someone as a whole and not an idea grants them more humanity and us more understanding when things don’t end up working out,” according to journalist Joel Danilewitz (Michigan Daily). The idea of Summer provided just enough romance to soothe Tom’s desperate need for a companion in his life. In fact, film viewers and fans of the film were so disturbed by Summer’s turn against Tom that one commented on Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s twitter that she still hasn’t forgotten Zoey Deschanel (Summer) for what she did to Tom. Gordon-Levitt responded to her, saying, “Watch it again. It’s mostly Tom’s fault. He’s projecting. He’s not listening. He’s selfish. Luckily he grows by the end.” The entire movie in itself shows the gradual acceptance Tom experiences through the season of summer and “Summer” and how he grows from an idealistic young man to a hopeful adult. Unlike most MPDG films, the young hero typically ends his growth by winning over the girl. Again 500 Days breaks away from that outcome and offers both the ingenue and the hero hopeful futures and new beginnings.

A split-screen is used three distinct times in this film, the first being the opening sequence, also known as the “Summer Effect” mentioned earlier, created by Webb. This split screen creates a difference between the two leads, revealing to the viewer from the beginning that they are two different people that don’t belong with one another. This split screen tends to happen when their relationship is starting to draw more apart. Tom is on public transit when Summer gets married and moves on towards the next chapter of her life. They are both moving, but in different directions. She takes the viewer, and also Tom by surprise. Denis Petrie, as well as Joseph Boggs explain this in The Art of Watching Films, saying “Vertical lines suggest strength, authority, and dignity”. Examples of these imply a split screen, shown simply as a vertical line in scenes throughout, such as when Summer and Tom are in the elevator, train and park bench together (Figures H, I, J). These, along with the other split screens show how the relationship is becoming more distant, without editing in a real split screen, filter and all. A whistle is often heard with these split screens as well, implying that “Sounds can be built up and artistically mixed into an exciting rhythmical sequence that, because of its naturalness, may be even more effective than music in conveying a mood”(Petrie, Boggs 261). A whistle is coherent throughout the score of the movie, imbedded in the various moods he is feeling as well.

Summer is subtly shown through title cards that display the different points they are in during the span of 500 days. The title cards (figure B) are the only glimpse the viewer receives of Tom’s inner emotions, as they vary and project how he feels during the season of dating Summer.. The color palette in this film creates more of an understanding of the title card, displaying how he doesn’t fit into Summer’s world, forcing a different piece into her puzzle that doesn’t fit . For instance, Tom is represented in a combination of brown shades, often in the same tone of his surroundings. His eyes are also a muddy brown (figure C). Summer’s world is blue. Her eyes are blue, and everything surrounding her is often blue including the blue “pixie” lights around her bed. In most scenes, she is wearing a garment that contains a shade of blue (figure D). When the two main characters spend time together, the scene around them starts to become blue as well. During the dance scene, everything starts to become blue—even the cartoon bird on Tom’s finger (figure E). According to a Guest Author, “This is the moment Tom enters Summer’s world, but he doesn’t belong. He’s falling leaves, she’s a bright sky” (Film School Rejects). When they meet during the wedding and start dating for a brief period of time, the Guest Author continues with, “Summer has become aware that Tom does not belong in her life, but Tom hasn’t” (Film School Rejects). His selfishness comes into view during the Expectations vs. Reality scene. The surrounding colors around him represent his mental state of mind, full of hues of brown (figure F). Summer and Tom are two different people, yet Tom hasn’t come to terms with how different they truly are.

In the last scene of the film, Tom comes to terms with himself and goes for a job interview at an architecture company. The building is full of shades of brown, matching the tones brought out in him beforehand. He isn’t bright and full of life like a greeting card, but more stoic and sentimental like a building in the city, a view that he often gazed at from his favorite spot on the lofty park bench. At the moment when he is entering into his next phase of life, he meets a woman named Autumn who is applying for the same job. Immediately she is established as a potential equal. She has a darker complexion, brown eyes and dark color dress. She’s everything Summer isn’t. The viewer is left with optimism and the hope that she is a better fit for him as a future partner.

The MPDG trope is still in use today, though the specific characteristics have been tooled and shaped to reflect more closely the contemporary viewpoint. Because there is still some pixie dust floating around streaming services such as Netflix, films like To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before and recurring series such as 13 Reasons Why show the influence that the millennial MPDG trope had on generations that followed. Now more than ever, reboots are coming to the big screen, revisiting films with altered perceptions of the main lead characters and how they look at and develop romantic relationships. The Pixie Girls of the future may well include stronger women with wills of their own and the ability to choose their own destinies, but may well still be cute, intelligent, and with smiles that woo gentlemen everywhere – but with their own sets of rules and on their own terms.


 

 

Works Cited

Author, Guest. “We Don’t Belong Together: The (500) Days of Summer Color Palette Theory.” Film School Rejects, Film School Rejects, 21 Apr. 2017, filmschoolrejects.com/we-dont-belong-together-the-500-days-of-summer-color-palette-theory-a50b2d3728a6/.

“Chapter 1: Feminist Theory, Aesthetics, and Film Theory.” Feminism and Film, by Maggie Humm, Edinburgh University Press, 1997, p. 3.

Danilewitz, Joel. “Joel Danilewitz: What We Can Learn from ‘(500) Days of Summer’.” The Michigan Daily, 23 Sept. 2018, www.michigandaily.com/section/viewpoints/joel-danilewitz-what-we-can-learn-%E2%80%9C500-days-summer%E2%80%9D.

Diri, Stacy. “Feminist Analysis of 500 Days of Summer.” Stacy Diri, WordPress, 9 Dec. 2016, example70025.wordpress.com/2016/11/30/feminist-analysis-of-500-days-of-summer/.

Horne, Jen. “Ruining My Favorite Films with Feminism: Revisiting (500) Days of Summer.” KitchenHawk, 5 Aug. 2016, www.kitchenhawk.com/househome/500days.

Levitt, Joseph Gordon. “Fox Movie Channel Presents In Character with Joseph Gordon Levitt.” Filmmaking Specials, 2006.

Levitt, Joseph Gordon. “Tweet.” 6 Aug. 2018. https://twitter.com/_EmperorJustin_/status/957084237198340098?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw%7Ctwcamp%5Etweetembed%7Ctwterm%5E1026538001990529025&ref_url=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.teenvogue.com%2Fstory%2Fjoseph-gordon-levitt-tweets-500-days-of-summer

“Manic Pixie Dream Girl.” TV Tropes, tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/ManicPixieDreamGirl.

Neustadter, Scott, and Michael H. Weber. “500 Days of Summer.” CineFile, 2006, www.cinefile.biz/script/500daysofsummer.pdf.

Petrie, Dennis W., and Joseph M. Boggs. The Art of Watching Films. Eighth ed., McGraw Hill, 2012.

Rabin, Nathan. “The Bataan Death March of Whimsy Case File #1: Elizabethtown.” The Bataan             Death March of Whimsy Case File #1: Elizabethtown. AvClub, 25 Jan. 2007.

Webb, Marc. “Behind the Scenes: The ‘Summer Effect.’” Filmmaking Specials, 2006.

500 Days of Summer. Dir. Marc Webb. 20 Century Fox, 2009. Film.

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