She has appeared, to varying degrees, as Kate Hudson in Almost Famous (2000) and as Natalie Portman in Garden State (2004), cheering a lost young man onto enlightenment. This isn’t to say both films don’t have redeemable qualities, but their female leads are more muse than woman, human in shape but bubbly, ethereal, and inconsequential in action.
Ruby Sparks (2012), where a writer’s fictional girlfriend becomes real, is at its strongest when it’s on the attack against the trope. Though Zoe Kazan, the writer and star of the flick, rejects the existence of the cliché, her heroine eerily falls under the category and, because of the narrative, pays for it.
The movie’s hero, Calvin (Paul Dano), is a twentysomething novelist who hit fame hard and early and is now suffering as he tries to put out his second book. He’s introduced as a man-child, territorial over the stuffed animal his psychiatrist gives him in therapy and concerned about whether or not his dog pees like a girl.
The film is perfectly blunt: the non-threatening fictional girl Calvin crafts is shaped by his insecurities. When Ruby Sparks (also played by Zoe Kazan) appears, she is barefoot in the kitchen as she makes breakfast, bubbling with sweetness, and sensitive to all of Calvin’s needs. She’s an artist herself, but most of the art we see is of Calvin. For a while, the movie is suspiciously feather light as they begin their romance.
Unlike Calvin, the movie considers its heroine a real person. Ruby Sparks soon develops beyond her excitable and child-like obsession with Calvin, gaining friends and outside interests. When this happens, the movie’s rom-com surface evaporates. Calvin, as Ruby’s creator rather than boyfriend, begins to re-write Ruby into a more pliable creature. It’s almost an analog to depression, the way Ruby becomes too timid to leave Calvin’s side for a second, but the implications are dark. With each re-write Calvin makes, the story becomes about emotional manipulation and abuse, and I don’t think that was intentional.
In one chilling scene, straight out of a horror film, Calvin makes Ruby bark like a dog, speak French, and be physically unable to leave his apartment. Ruby Sparks becomes a cautionary tale about treating one’s creations with respect. Wisely, Ruby and Calvin break it off.
Then the film tries to end as a happy fluff film anyway, with the promise of Calvin and Ruby trying again. If Ruby Sparks stuck with the terrifying implications lurking beneath the surface of the story, this ending would be seen as the couple continuing the cycle of abuse. Instead, Calvin is rewarded for controlling the girl and Ruby is rewarded for returning to the boy. The tragedy, much like a manic pixie dream girl, is reduced by charm to a light, pleasing froth. It’s an ending that’s delightful but would be much more delightful if not juxtaposed with Ruby being forced to act like a dog. It’s a supremely confusing move, one that, unless Zoe Kazan says otherwise, reeks of studio meddling.
Despite Ruby Sparks‘ peculiar ending, it certainly has some interesting observations to make about writing female characters. Calvin happily begins by giving Ruby a background in which she is orphaned, a high school drop-out, attracted to older men (a stab, I’m convinced, toward a narrative where a character is attracted to her creator), and has no trade skills beyond her art. These qualities are made to make her endearing. Instead, they all make her child-like, otherworldly, and distinctly impractical.
Calvin combines these characteristics in Ruby with pleasure, but they remind me of other characters who have been classified under the manic pixie dream girl umbrella. Their difficulties are also dismissed.
The drug overdose Kate Hudson’s Penny undergoes in Almost Famous is handled in an off-puttingly harmless manner with little fallout for the character herself. Her struggle is important only in how it affects the main character. Meanwhile, Natalie Portman’s Sam in Garden State is a pathological liar able to hold down a job and retain friends with no negative results. These qualities are not cute and neither is treating someone’s tragedies and pain as “magical.” Now, Hudson and Portman do both have moments in their films that hint at real internal life and struggle and transcend the manic pixie dream girl label, moments not often mentioned in critique. The fact these awful elements in their lives are portrayed as endearing overall, though, doesn’t help either film.
In her interview with the magazine Vulture, linked above, Kazan describes why she doesn’t like the term “manic pixie dream girl”:
“It’s a way of describing female characters that’s reductive and diminutive, and I think basically misogynist. I’m not saying that some of those characters that have been referred to as that don’t deserve it; I think sometimes filmmakers have not used their imagination in imbuing their female characters with real life. You know, they’ve let music tastes be a signifier of personality. But I just think the term really means nothing; it’s just a way of reducing people’s individuality down to a type, and I think that’s always a bad thing. And I think that’s part of what the movie is about, how dangerous it is to reduce a person down to an idea of a person.”
I disagree that the concept of the manic pixie dream girl is misogynistic. I think the term is largely used against misogyny, not in support of it. When a critic uses the phrase, I like to think he or she is asking that the character in question be defined by more than the male lead. In Kazan’s film, when Ruby calls Calvin from a bar to tell him she’ll be staying out with friends she’s just met, he reacts by running to his typewriter to immediately tweak her character. He’s terrified of a Ruby that doesn’t rely on him to be a person.
Over all, Kazan is right. Reducing a person to an idea is dangerous. A writer must try and write about real people, not undeveloped goddesses. Characters, no matter how bubbly and appealing, are weak when reduced to broad strokes.
It’s also unfair to lump together every female character for being sunny and happy, Kazan implies, but being happy isn’t the problem. The manic pixie dream girl, when present in stories, is not dangerous to a film because of how light and quirky she is. She becomes dangerous in the light and quirky way in which her personal tragedies are dismissed. Pliant and cheerful, she is de-valued and de-powered by her writer like Ruby. The character type is ultimately abandoned by her story in favor of another character who is looking for inspiration personified rather than a living, feeling person.