05/11/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

The Manic Pixie Dream Tramp


Marc Webb's (500) Days of Summer (2009) reveals the anatomy of a failed fantasy. The doomed days of Tom (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) and Summer (Zooey Deschanel) are presented out of order, yet the trajectory will be all too familiar to any man who has ever had his heart stolen.

One scene in particular captures the sting of amorous expectation squelched: when Tom reunites briefly with Summer, a split screen shows his expectations on one side and the reality on the other. This clever construction catches onscreen that sinking feeling that comes when romantic hopes are dashed. Even more clever is the film's depiction of the aftermath of the dashing -- the rise of the gorgon.

The Summer character has been labeled what film critic Nathan Rabin calls the "Manic Pixie Dream Girl," (MPDG) and Jezebel's Sadie Stein deems the "Amazing Girl." Rabin coined the phrase to describe that mysterious, compulsively loveable, but ultimately empty, female filmic creature sent to awaken the potential and happiness of somber male protagonists everywhere.

The Manic Pixie figure is merely a projection of the longings of the male lead; but there's something else at play in the various articles written on this gal, be she Amazing or Manic Pixie -- anger and resentment. The male writers have had their hearts broken by her and the female writers have lost men to her.

Yet, the emotions surrounding the MPDG run deeper than mere resentment. They are Amazing Manic Pixies only while they are loved. Before that, they are merely everyday women, and afterwards, they are harpies. It seems that the MPDG is just the vamp, the tramp, the femme fatale before she destroys the fantasy of the male lead (as in the "expectations" versus "reality" scene).

When Summer is loved, she is the normal woman imbued with paranormal significance, but when she trashes the romantic comedy formula of boy meets girl, boy marries girl -- and let's not forget that co-writer Scott Neustadter is open about the fact that he's out for romantic vengeance -- she starts to resemble those fatal women of film noir.

Ultimately, the Manic Pixie Dream Girl is the flipside of the man-eater -- just another invention to cope with female potency. If you squint your eyes, you can see snakes starting to peek, Medusa-like, out of Summer's 1950s hairdo after she dashes Tom's dreams.