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Move over, Manic Pixie Dream Girl; there’s a new chick in town.

December 21, 2011

The Manic Pixie Dream Girl is a well-known and oft-used female character in books, TV, and film. The term was first coined by film critic Nathan Rabin in 2005 to describe overly-girly, quirky, and always beautiful female characters who seemingly exist only to teach brooding Zach Braff-esque male protagonists how to live and love. Although the 2000s have seen an explosion of Manic Pixie Dream Girls onscreen, the trope can be traced back far enough to include Audrey Hepburn in Breakfast at Tiffany’s. The most popular recent examples include Natalie Portman’s character in Garden State, and pretty much any character played by Zooey Deschanel.

Recently, however, the Dream Girl has fallen out of favor, and 2011 has brought the arrival of a new female character trope, the Moody Pretty Trouble Girl. The Moody Pretty Trouble Girl is the Anti-Manic Pixie Dream Girl: still beautiful (of course), but also smart, sassy, sexy, and flawed. While the Dream Girl exists to enrich the life of her onscreen love interest without any real growth of her own, the Moody Pretty Trouble Girl has her own life to worry about. She struggles with job issues, family issues, money, sex, friends. The Trouble Girl grows and changes. Any potential love interest can expect to play second fiddle to whatever mess is rolling around in her beautiful but lovable head.

Kat DenningsWhile Zooey Deschanel might be the quintessential Dream Girl, Kat Dennings is the poster girl for the Moody Pretty Trouble Girl. She is dark and beautiful, smart and clever, and a damn fine actress to boot. Her character on 2 Broke Girls, Max, is neurotic, self-loathing, and has a smart mouth she doesn’t always know how to control and a penchant for bad jokes. She seems resigned to her lot in life as a poorly paid waitress and nanny to the rich, yet she is an obviously talented baker who aspires only to bake cupcakes for the greasy spoon where she works. She went to college but never finished, and seems to have no plans to go back. Without the intervention of debutante-turned-waitress Caroline, Max would probably never make it out of her tiny Brooklyn apartment or her dead-end jobs. While much has been written about what 2 Broke Girls gets wrong, what writers Whitney Cummings and Michael Patrick King get right is that the main characters, Max and Caroline, are working to improve themselves, not please the men they’re with. In fact, other than two episodes focusing on Max’s crush on the hot bartender/street artist Johnny, boyfriends are never mentioned or even missed. 2 Broke Girls definitely passes the Bechdel test, and brings the audience a new type of female character to root for, one that is merely trying to make her way in the world, with or without a man at her side.

Whitney CummingsWhitney Cummings also brings us another Moody Pretty Trouble Girl with her self-titled role on Whitney. Whitney ostensibly plays a heightened version of herself: funny, crass, slightly crazy. She lives with her boyfriend, Alex, but is completely freaked out by marriage and babies. Whitney has been much-criticized for its early reliance on relationship one-upsmanship; early episodes often began with some misunderstanding between Whitney and Alex, which grows to epic and ridiculous proportions because neither of them will act like a grown-up and resolve it properly. However, recent episodes have brought more character development and less reliance on the Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus crutch. Still, throughout the first half of the season, the focus of the show has been on Whitney’s issues and how she deals with them, not on how she makes Alex’s life better or more enjoyable. There are moments of sweetness between Whitney and Alex, as expected, but while their relationship is the center of the show, it is clearly not the star. That honor goes to Whitney herself, around whom everything and everyone in the Whitney universe seem to revolve.

Zooey DeschanelAs mentioned above, Zooey Deschanel is the quintessential Manic Pixie Dream Girl (for proof, see Yes Man, (500) Days of Summer, Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy), but in New Girl she manages to be both Manic Pixie Dream Girl and Moody Pretty Trouble Girl at the same time. New Girl brings us Jess, a quirky, bubbly teacher who moves in with three guys: Nick, Winston and Schmidt. Nick, played by Jake Johnson, is the brooding Zach Braff-esque type; a law school dropout-turned-bartender who seems to hate his life and is slowly spiraling ever downward into depression. In New Girl, though, Nick is not the protagonist. He, along with Winston and Schmidt, play back-up to Jess and her story arc. The writers are obviously working their way toward a Jess-Nick relationship but are thankfully taking it slow, giving us lots of laughs and absurd situations in the meantime.

The show overall is about Jess dealing with her recent break-up and learning to move on, and the boys are there to give advice, to be the devil-on-her-shoulder, and sometimes just for comic relief. Jess manages to walk the tightrope between Dream Girl and Trouble Girl pretty easily. In one episode she alternately cheers Nick up and talks him off the ledge in classic Dream Girl fashion after he runs into his ex at a wedding. Most of the time, though, Jess is confronted with a failing or weakness or quirk on her part (such as her many hang-ups about sex or her insistence on singing when it is completely inappropriate), and she spends the entire episode trying to overcome it with hilarious results. In episodes where Jess is the main focus, she is a Trouble Girl because she grows, she matures. It is only when the writers shift focus to one of the supporting characters that Jess’s issues become assets, and she’s able to help Nick or Winston or Schmidt through whatever crisis they’re facing in Dream Girl fashion.

While the Manic Pixie Dream Girl has her place in pop culture, it’s exciting to see a new and fresh approach to writing female characters for film or TV. No one expects what we see on the screen to reflect real life, but the appearance of the Moody Pretty Trouble Girl is a step in that direction. The Trouble Girl gives us smart, sassy, sexy and flawed girls of the world a Hollywood character we can finally relate to.

  1. December 21, 2011 1:08 pm

    Zooey deschanel can do no wrong :)

  2. Fred Webb permalink
    December 21, 2011 2:51 pm

    It’s good to see someone shout fire about this female equivalent of what Spike Lee dubbed the “Magical Negro,” and even better to see that it is being overcome by a more fully realized type (even if it is still a type). I was unable to get past the things that “2 Broke Girls” got wrong, but I never held it against Dennings. In fact, I take something of a meta view: Perhaps Max’s plight in her struggling NYC world is paralleled by Dennings’ plight in her subpar CBS sitcom. Hopefully, both can break out of their situations and achieve something better.

  3. January 1, 2012 10:01 pm

    The quirkiness of Zooey’s Jess in “New Girl” can still be a bit too much a times, though. It makes me want to gag.

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