Elisabeth Rappe November 8, 2011
The world of film criticism will forever owe Nathan Rabin a beer for identifying, naming, and skewering the Manic Pixie Dream Girl in one brilliant phrase. Suddenly, we had a name and a set of parameters for that flittering little female archetype who, in Rabin’s words, “…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.”
If you’re still unclear on the idea, there are lists upon lists of Manic Pixie Dream Girls, a concept that stretches back to the 1940s (Bringing Up Baby) but probably came of age in the 1970s. (Breezy, I Love You Alice B. Toklas, Butterflies Are Free). The Manic Pixie Girl exists in every era, always suitable to the next troubled man, adapting quirkily — or remaining coyly, but not alienatingly counterculture — to the times. But, we ask, is there a male equivalent? I say yes. It’s not precisely equal — what in gender studies is? — but it’s definitely there. I’m tempted to label him The Affable Dork, though in his darker and unattainable form he might be what the New York Observer called la homme fatale.
The Affable Dork is never (to lift a phrase or two from the Observer) the best-looking guy in the room, but he is the smartest, unless he is stoned, which his 21st-century incarnation often is. He’ll sport either an emo flat-ironed haircut or a white boy afro, dress in hoodies and ringer tees, and has a shaky source of income. He has a deep appreciation for pop culture, and has built his personality entirely around movies, music, and video games, the ephemera of which are scattered all around his apartment. He’s often played by Jason Schwartzman, Michael Cera, or Seth Rogen, but is occasionally embodied by Justin Long, James Franco, Ashton Kutcher, Jimmy Fallon, or Jason Segel. In the 1990s, you often saw him in the form of Tobey Maguire or Elijah Wood, though they were often shaded a little darker. Woody Allen has made a career of him, though he often embodies the more abusive love ‘em, break ‘em, and wind up without ‘em side. While the Manic Pixie exists solely to draw the brooding loner out of himself (and she will occasionally take an Affable Dork on, and make him a man), the Affable Dork exists to bring a girl down to reality. He’s usually the one standing in the wings, waiting for the bruised-in-love heroine to realize it was him all along, and her dreams of a man with a job, an adult wardrobe, and a more tenuous grasp of pop culture were silly teenage things. Instead, she has to settle, and there stands the Affable Dork for her to land on. Katherine Heigl improbably chose him in Knocked Up. Claire Danes picks him in Shopgirl. Ramona Flowers picked him in Scott Pilgrim vs. the World. Cameron Diaz picks him in Bad Teacher. Drew Barrymore ends up with him all the damn time. Jennifer Garner picked him in Valentine’s Day and 13 Going on 30, though neither version had much personality beyond “nice.”
I’d even argue that Tom Hanks embodies him from time to time, although usually with more polish and income. In You’ve Got Mail, he’s the smartest (and meanest) guy in the room, and the quirkiest guy in the inbox. It’s worth noting that Meg Ryan falls for the adorable anonymous one, who is full of bon mots like “I would send you a bouquet of freshly sharpened pencils!” and who twinkles at her in their initial — and accidental — meeting at her bookstore. He quotes The Godfather! He catches balloons in the door! When he’s revealed as a borderline sociopath — Joe Fox can barely get through dinner or coffee without verbally tearing her to bits — she remembers the cute side, forgives him, and thanks her lucky stars she didn’t settle for the other affable dork played by Greg Kinnear.
As I write this, I wonder if it is actually a type. Perhaps these weedy fellows are just indicative of the poor writing of rom-coms, and the pervasive feeling that a woman should just be happy with the guy who likes her. Or it may be that the male equivalent to the Manic Pixie Dream Girl lacks the indie tastes and funky haircut, and is instead that old, gruff, and world-weary type portrayed by Bill Murray in Lost in Translation or Michael Douglas in Wonder Boys. By denying or breaking the younger woman’s heart, they improve her, and thus send her off into a fully-realized career and romance. It would be sort of bitterly appropriate that the male equivalent is less magically attractive and adorable, and is instead cold and fatherly, since women are forever too weak to know their own selves. Whatever the packaging, it’s clear that whoever is trotted out for a lady to love in a film is a poor morality lesson. We can’t win. He’s either ridiculously unattainable, raising one’s expectations by being played by Bradley Cooper, woefully inadequate, or dangerously wise in the ways of the world.
And that brings up a rather dark summation, doesn’t it? Perhaps the male equivalent to the Manic Pixie Dream Girl is simply All of the Above, since romantic cinema is often endlessly about forcing a woman to re-evaluate and devalue herself in order to find Mr. Right. And if she’s not engaged in that hideous process? She’s impishly helping the man to realize his own perfection while listening to The Shins. Of course.
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