Here’s a thoroughly ridiculous example of success:
John Green has written four significant young adult novels in the last nine years, and all four of them are still in the YA Top 10 best-sellers list (An Abundance of Katherines is Number 9). The film version of The Fault in our Stars promises to be a runaway success even if it’s bad. Green is four months older than me. Only a fool would expect this kind of triumph. And Green isn’t writing about wizards or dystopian battle royales, he’s dealing with teenagers who can adequately be described as “real.”
I’ve now read two of his books, Fault and now Paper Towns. While the former has a more deeply moving subject matter (teenagers with terminal illness), the latter is the more complex and interesting: if Fault answers a bunch of questions, Towns – like its patron saint poet Walt Whitman – mainly asks them. And one of those questions is about whether or not its beautiful, mysterious protagonist can have an existence outside of our imaginations.
Margo Roth Spiegelman is the object of many stories within the world of the novel itself. In other words, her existence is filtered through others, primarily through the at-first milquetoast narrator Quentin Jacobsen. It’s not too much of a spoiler (it’s in the summary from the NYT above) to say that Margo enters Quentin’s life dramatically and leaves mysteriously, and that the brief experience liberates Quentin. Which puts her in the realm of “Manic-Pixie Dream Girl.”
The Manic-Pixie Dream Girl came to be out of this brilliant review of Elizabethtown by pop-culture guru Nathan Rabin. He uses it to describe the regressive, but very familiar stereotype of a quirky female character whose sole existence within a story is to liberate a male protagonist. Though she’s seemingly an eccentric iconoclast – usually conveyed through her insistence on wearing silly hats – she has no inner life, exists in no conceivable reality, and yet somehow ends up being domesticated by the very dullards she was created to liberate. Instead of subjectivity, she possesses an endless series of quirks, appetites, and elliptical quasi-profound fortune cookie proverbs. She’s such a fantasy that we’re surprised that the movie doesn’t end with her saying “My work here is done,” and then walking into a spaceship.*
On Facebook, friends pointed out that Green’s work often draws this critique. In short – that his books are centered around passive male characters who encounter brilliant females who turn them into the heroes they’re supposed to be. At first glance, Margo, who climbs in Quentin’s window dressed like a ninja and demands he sneak into Seaworld, seems not merely to be an MPDG, but the most egregious example of an MPDG of all time. If you’re looking for ammunition, here’s what Margot says when she and Quentin sneak into a building so they can see the best view in Orlando:
Here’s what’s not beautiful about it: from here, you can’t see the rust or the cracked paint or whatever, but you can tell what the place really is. You can see how fake it all is. It’s not even hard enough to be made out of plastic. It’s a paper town. I mean, look at it, Q: look at all those culs-de-sac, those streets that turn in on themselves, all the houses that were built to fall apart. All those paper people living in their paper houses, burning the future to stay warm. All the paper kids drinking beer some bum bought for them at the paper convenience store. Everyone demented with the mania of owning things. All the things paper-thin and paper-frail. And all the people, too. I’ve lived here for eighteen years and I have never once in my life come across anyone who cares about anything that matters.
This is exactly the kind of thing the MPDG says, in the hopes of unshackling “Q” from his droll, “paper” existence.
But wait. There’s a moment in the book where Quentin is over at his friend Radar’s house helping him prepare for a party by putting away Radar’s parents record-breaking collection of Black Santas (Green is brilliant with these kind of details). Q says, “You know, when you see them all together, it really does make you question the way we imagine our myths.” If you read the Goodreads quote page, you’ll see a lot of quotes like this. Here’s another: “What a treacherous thing to believe that a person is more than a person.”
I point this scene out in connection to what Green, who has mastered social media and uses it to engage his readers, says about this critique:
Margo is certainly presented by Q as a Manic Pixie Dream Girl at the beginning of PT. Absolutely. But that only acknowledges that some boys believe in Manic Pixie Dream Girls; it doesn’t argue that MPDGs actually exist, or that Margo is one . . . Paper Towns is a book about–at least in part–the MPDG lie, and the danger of the lie–the way it hurts both the observer and the observed. In order to uncover Margo’s fate, Q must imagine Margo as a person, and abandon his long-held MPDG fantasies.
This isn’t thematic retrofitting; it’s there throughout the novel. Quentin objectifies Margo, and by fitting her in this category so do we. When it turns out that Margo is full of darkness and a complexity that Quentin realizes is more complex than the complexity he’s imagined, Paper Towns reveals itself not as participating in the regressive trope, but examining, complicating, and critiquing it. Quentin is liberated, but it’s not because Margo is a Manic Pixie Dream Girl, but because Margo is not the Manic Pixie Dream Girl designed for his emancipation that he wants her to be.
In Sonnet 75 of his Amoretti, Edmund Spenser does something rare for a sonnet – he lets the object of the love poem talk back. In the first stanza, the speaker says he going to immortalize his beloved, but he can’t.
One day I wrote her name upon the strand,
But came the waves and washed it away:
Again I wrote it with a second hand,
But came the tide, and made my pains his prey.
In other words, “I want to immortalize you but I can’t.” In the next stanza, “she” responds to this poetic activity.
Vain man, said she, that doest in vain assay
A mortal thing so to immortalize,
For I myself shall like to this decay,
And eek my name be wiped out likewise.
“You can’t immortalize me,” she says, and the underlying reason is that she’s too intricate, too exceptionally mortal, to be reduced to the aesthetic object of the poet’s “pains.” And of course, the poet goes on to say he’s just going to do it anyway. Quentin’s doing something remarkably similar to what the poet is doing, and often we are too – in trying to categorize this female figure, he creates boundaries and capture her within his own profoundly self-involved vision.
This is challenging, problem-posing stuff for young adults, and I hope that Green’s novel initiates a lot of conversations. I think they can handle it. I’m teaching this in my Fall English 105 class, and I plan to use the MPDG issue as a discussion starter, and as avenue of talking about representations of teenagers and women more broadly. As the novel ends, we’re denied some of the satisfactions we hope we’d get, just as the questions about Green’s female characters have no easy answers.
* – (If someone ever makes the case that E.T. is the ultimate MPDG, I want to be cited.)