February 23, 2020

Lars and the Real Girl, a transition between robo-gf and manic pixie dream girl trends of the excitement cycle

On a whim last night I watched this critically acclaimed box-office disappointment, and it resonated so well with some earlier posts here on the topic of manic pixie dream girls and their place in the 15-year cultural excitement cycle.

First, recall that during the vulnerable refractory phase of the cycle, there's a retreat into the fantasy of obtaining a made-to-order robo-gf -- one who won't require all that painful social stimulation in order to court and woo.

Then, recall that during the restless warm-up phase that follows, the manic pixie dream girl archetype appears out of nowhere, as a kind of guardian angel to coax the male protagonist out of his vulnerable-phase cocoon, lifting him out of the emo funk that he'd been mired in throughout the previous phase.

Lars and the Real Girl came out in 2007, during a restless warm-up phase that should not have had the robo-gf and should have had the manic pixie dream girl. Instead of featuring solely one of those two types, the movie shows both, but in a way that is consonant with the warm-up phase -- leaving the emotional crutch robo-gf behind, and welcoming the charms of the manic pixie dream girl, as the protagonist works his way out of a deep dreary depression.

Even when the robo-gf is the focus of the plot early on, the protagonist is never depicted as enjoying a fulfilling retreat into fantasy (unlike The Stepford Wives, Weird Science, and the like). His attachment to his robo-gf is clearly shown as forced on his part, plainly an emotional crutch, and is treated as pathological by the other characters, who still want to help him through this awkward stage. This is the only way the robo-gf archetype can exist during the warm-up phase when people are itching to leave behind their emo-phase cocoons.

The manic pixie dream girl, for her part, doesn't get as much screen time as in other movies during the most recent peak of the type (the late 2000s). But it's clear what role she plays vis-a-vis the protagonist, does not exist so much for her own character arc across the narrative, and has the usual eccentricities in personality and appearance that are associated with the type.

A post on the birth phases of manic pixie dream girls showed that they overwhelmingly were born during a manic phase of the cycle. They imprinted on a social-cultural atmosphere of invincibility and carefree social relations during their introduction to the world -- and then again during their adolescence (around age 15), when they're hitting their stride socially. And sure enough, the actress playing the manic pixie dream girl in this movie was born in 1984, during the early '80s manic phase. It rarely fails!

Strangely, she is left off of lists of manic pixie dream girls. I'd been looking over them and watching as many as I could lately, to get a better feel for this character type, now that she'll be coming back during the early 2020s warm-up phase. But this movie had totally eluded my radar until mindlessly scrolling Amazon Prime.

She must have been left off because the type of people who write those lists are obsessed with individual personas, both because they're spergy nerds who don't understand social relations, and because they're status-striving types who see things as contests among individuals rather than a holistic superorganic social ecosystem. (The movie does a great job of portraying this aspect of real communities like small-town Wisconsin.)

What makes a character a manic pixie dream girl is not her individual traits that could be listed on a trading card, or an online dating app profile -- it is her relationship to the protagonist, how their social interactions drive the plot of him coming out of his emo funk. She is his earthly guardian angel, not just some isolated free spirit who wears barettes in her hair and is generally in an upbeat mood.

Another reason may be the total lack of irony or self-awareness in the movie's tone. If every other example of the character was played in a movie that was ironic or self-aware in tone, then how could this one be a true example of the type? Because tone has nothing to do with the relationship between the characters. Again, cultural critics are just doing superficial analysis, ignoring social relations and roles, and emphasizing stylistic choices like the degree of irony struck in the tone.

A final reason why it's ignored in discussions of the character type or overall genre, is that the characters are not metropolitan professionals. In the striver critic's mind, who else but yuppies and current private school kids could ever be going through a funk and need to be coaxed out of their cocoons to fulfill some higher purpose that requires social integration? Certainly not office drones in flyover country small towns.

All these exceptions recommend the movie over most of the more well known examples of the genre. The focus on the holistic social ecosystem, the sincere tone, and the humanistic portrayal of ordinary people from unglamorous walks of life -- really makes it feel like a throwback to before the current status-striving / neoliberal era. Unfortunately that meant it couldn't succeed much with audiences, but it's definitely worth watching.


  1. Thinking about your 'manic pixie dream girl' archetype, I'm wondering if you've ever watched 'Little Murders', a dark comedy from 1971, starring Elliot Gould.

    Does the lead female character from 'Little Murders' meet your criteria for the 'manic pixie dream girl'?

    Would you also say the Flapper stereotype from the Roaring Twenties is of this type, too ?

    It makes me wonder if the humorless sex-negative feminist prohibitionists are also the inevitable equal-but-opposite product of this same 50 year cycle.

  2. You see something somewhat similar to this in the movie "Cherry 2000" - the hero enlists a bounty hunter(Melanie Griffith) to find his lost robot girlfriend, but then falls in love with the bounty hunter. That movie was released in 1987, though.

  3. Kelli Garner is a rare D-cup manic pixie dream girl, although it's hidden by loose boxy clothing in the movie. Somehow the film-makers knew they couldn't have an openly busty woman playing the manic pixie dream girl. Usually the type is modest-chested:


    But Garner does have an hourglass waist-hip ratio and a decent ass, so she's not the opposite body type of the norm. The opposite would be all up front, none around the back.

    Again, the point is not an isolated snapshot of her individual stats (birth year, body type) -- but to establish a correlation between certain individual traits and the appropriateness to play a certain role or relationship with the protagonist (earthly guardian angel who nurses him out of a funk, becoming socially integrated in a romantic pair-bond).

  4. There is one legitimate reason why Margo seems like less of a MPDG: the nursing role is split between her and the doctor / psychologist Dagmar. In fact, the doctor does far more of the emotional counseling.

    But the doctor is much older, a widow, and sterile. So, not a motivating prize of fertility like the MPDG. She's also very clinical and reserved in her interactions with him, not overbrimming with zesty zany energy that would make her a love interest for him.

    They were smart to make that clear, otherwise the audience wouldn't know which woman was supposed to be the love interest, if the emotional nurse were also young, spunky, and cute.

    With the nursing role split between the two women, though, it leaves less of that function concentrated in the love interest, and makes her seem like less of a MPDG than other examples, where they're doing much more of the psychological rehabilitation themselves.

  5. My Girl has a MPDG and is from a warm-up phase (1991). It's not on any of the lists of such movies, but Jamie Lee Curtis' character is clearly playing that role for Dan Akroyd's character, as well as having the quirky / gypsy personality and appearance.

    She doesn't fit any of the tendencies for the type, though. She has a much slimmer waist-hip ratio than the norm, C-cup chest, not much ass, and born during a vulnerable phase (1958).

    Maybe if they cast an actress who fit the usual traits, she would've been a more memorable example of the type.

  6. Mad Men's MPDG is a more typical specimen. She showed up in 2009, during a warm-up phase, and didn't last beyond that year of the series.

    The actress who played Miss Farrell, Abigail Spencer, has an hourglass waist-hip ratio, modest B-cup chest, and decent ass / thighs. And born during a manic phase (1981).

    I didn't watch the show much later than that, so I don't remember if Don Draper's secretary / second wife was a MPDG -- more of a new love interest than the psychological rehab nurse for someone in a deep funk. Don't think she gave off the spontaneous free spirit vibes like Miss Farrell did either.

    But FWIW, she's another manic phase birth (1980), and although having an hourglass waist-hip ratio, more busty than bunsy.

  7. (cliff arroyo)

    "don't remember if Don Draper's secretary / second wife was a MPDG"

    From what I remember Megan was more a way for him to connect with his kids, with whom he was no longer living. He chose her over Dr. Faye precisely because she held and comforted his daughter who had fallen (while dr Faye had no clue what to do).

    IIRC he proposes to her on a trip to Disneyland where she's kind of a babysitter for them... and a harbinger of their relationship's end was when Megan left the children alone in the apartment and the burglar "Grandma Ida" shows up....

  8. Topical old post: http://akinokure.blogspot.com/2014/10/todays-immigrants-are-revolutionizing.html#comment-form


  9. Interestingly, there was a consciously anti-Manic Pixie Girl movie made in 2012: "Ruby Sparks". 2012 was nearing the peak of the early 2012 manic phase, so we can assume that the manic energy state creates an aversion to the manic pixie dream girl. Here's the plot synopsis:


  10. I'll post again about the epidemiological damage of open borders, and coronavirus is the right newsworthy item to link it to.

    Just trying to figure out what, if anything, to add to the overview. The left, including the anti-woke left, is bitterly anti-science if it threatens cultural liberalism / pluralism.

    I.e., we have to allow all populations to form a global meta-population, which is the material condition for virulent pandemics -- otherwise we would be validating xenophobic beliefs.

    Is it worth explaining the Kermack-McKendrick threshold to such people? Or the factual history of how plagues and pandemics are spread? Doesn't look too good. But might be worth it to just post a reminder of the science and history, whether it changes anyone's ideologically addled mind or not.

    FWIW, I think the comparisons to Spanish Flu are in the right direction, but wrong timing. That was the mother of all pandemics that timed with the peak of open borders -- the 1910s -- whereas we're still around 1860 in terms of open borders.

    The better analogy is cholera (timing-wise, not necessarily which particular bug will be plaguing us -- which does look more like an influenza-related bug from E. Asia). More or less begins and ends with the laissez-faire, status-striving, polarizing, open borders period of circa 1830-1920.

    1. Would be great to see a post. and yes was wondering if you would comment on the timing, very eerie.

  11. Reading the synopsis, it would imply that MPDGs fade because of expanding social circles. In the movie, a screenwriter creates his own manic pixie girl, Ruby Sparks, to love him; but she inevitably makes other friends, becomes interested in other guys, and wants a life away from her creator.

  12. The "average guy-lusts-after-unattainable-beauty" is more common in the manic phases.

    "Can't Hardly Wait" - 1998 - Ethan Embry tries to seduce Jennifer Love Hewitt by writing an incredible love letter

    "American Beauty" - 1999 - Kevin Spacey becomes obsessed with a high school cheerleader played by Mena Suvari

    "10" - 1979(very tail end of warmup phase) - (whatshisname) is obsessed with a woman he sees on the beach, Bo Derek

    "There's Something About Mary" - (1998) - Ben Stiller is a nerd who goes to prom with the prettiest girl in school, never gets over it, and ends up being one of many men who stalk her into adulthood

    The key here is that the male protaganist is obsessed with a woman who is extremely attractive and socially out of his league - prom queen type girl - etc. That's why something like "Say Anything"(1989)- where one quirky nerd is obsessed with another quirky nerd - doesn't qualify.

  13. Right, MPDG is a temporary role during one phase. In the next phase, the girl will play some other role, and may be itching to leave behind her previous role.

    Roles are adaptive within a phase, they aren't constant over time.

    When people have been in a refractory phase emo funk for 5 years, some need coaxing out of their shells. Enter the MPDG -- the role, not the person. Once they fulfill their function in the warm-up phase -- to draw wary guys out of their shells -- then there's nothing left to do, in that phase.

    When the manic phase follows, they can go off on their merry way doing whatever. They're more carefree, rather than caring after someone else who needed emotional rehab.

    That's why I don't include Ruby Sparks or the operating system from Her under the MPDG role. The OS from Her was more of the "odd couple" relationship type -- he's from this background, she's from that background, ain't that a wacky, improbable combination? And "she" ultimately develops her own independent social circle of OS's and leaves the male protagonist and the human social ecosystem altogether.

    That was the backlash against MPDG's during the manic phase of the early 2010s -- girls were through with their role during the warm-up phase, of drawing guys out of their shells and reacquainting the sexes with each other. Now it was time to look after their own social needs in a carefree way, not having to care so much for others (temporarily -- they're enjoying a vacation, not abdicating duties and responsibilities forever, and will be back to performing emotional rehab during the next warm-up phase).


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