The Natalie Portman problem

"Manic Pixie Dream Girls," a new term that finally gives a name to an old cinematic female character clich

Published August 7, 2008 9:39AM (EDT)

Kate Hudson in "Almost Famous."

You know that fun, kooky, artsy chick who turns up in way too many movies to rescue some poor sad sack from numbing loneliness and depression ... and just happens to be drop-dead gorgeous to boot? I have often held forth on my disdain for this character but never had a concrete term for her until today. Now, thanks to the Onion A.V. Club, I know exactly what to call her: the Manic Pixie Dream Girl.

The Onion lists and dissects 16 archetypal MPDG characters, including everyone from the classic (Katharine Hepburn in "Bringing Up Baby" and Shirley MacLaine in "The Apartment") to the newfangled (Kate Hudson in "Almost Famous" and Kirsten Dunst in "Elizabethtown"). And, of course, No. 3 on the list is none other than "Garden State," a film so horrifyingly self-indulgent that its soundtrack ruined several decent indie bands for me. Jezebel's Jessica Grose eloquently sums up my thoughts on Natalie Portman's character in the movie, writing, "Anyone who telegraphs their so-called weirdness so outlandishly is not actually weird, they're merely quirky enough to be vaguely interesting without having their own thing going on. They're completely mainstream but have one really big tattoo, or occasionally sing really loud in the shower!"

The article points out that the MPDG, a creation of daydreaming male screenwriters, is also an exercise in wish fulfillment (hear that, Zach Braff?). "Like the Magical Negro, the Manic Pixie Dream Girl archetype is largely defined by secondary status and lack of an inner life," writes the Onion. "She's on hand to lift a gloomy male protagonist out of the doldrums, not to pursue her own happiness."

I would suggest that women like the Manic Pixie Dream Girl do exist; it's just that, when I've known them, they've mostly been self-obsessed nutballs.

As for the list, I only have a minor quibble with the piece, and that's its inclusion of Woody Allen's "Annie Hall." I would argue that "Annie Hall" is a feminist film -- Allen's movie ends with the title character leaving its protagonist, Alvy Singer. Annie may be Alvy's ideal woman, but instead of saving him from his neuroses, she gets sick of his whining and moves on -- just like a real woman would.

By Judy Berman

Judy Berman is a writer and editor in Brooklyn. She is a regular contributor to Salon's Broadsheet.

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