May 21, 2019

Manic Pixie Dream Girl arises in warm-up phase of excitement cycle, to coax guys out of their vulnerable-phase cocoons

As the vulnerable phase of the 15-year cultural excitement cycle winds down this year, and we enter the restless warm-up phase in 2020, I think we'll see the return of an archetype that we haven't gotten to hang out with since the last warm-up phase, during the late 2000s -- the Manic Pixie Dream Girl.

I'm using that term to refer only to those who play a kind of nursing-back-to-health role for the male character. Just being quirky is not sufficient, and neither is being a free-spirited foil to a buttoned-up stiff. The point of that term was originally to highlight male characters who were in some way sick, down in the dumps, in a funk, or otherwise not normal. The Manic Pixie Dream Girl served to bring them back to a normal, healthy, positive, lively state. She is a stabilizing force.

This is distinct from the archetypal woman in a screwball comedy, whose wacky antics are more of a destabilizing force to the orderly life of the male character. Can he handle being dragged so far out of his comfort zone? Can the odd couple manage to find something in common? These questions depend on the theme of a normal person being thrown for a loop -- not an unhealthy person restored to health.

And for the male to merely be sober, buttoned-up, etc., that is not a form of sickness -- he must be in a real funk, clearly not his usual self. It could be an acute sickness, or a chronic sickness -- something that is curable by a nurse. It cannot be an inborn and immutable personality trait of being drab, risk-averse, and so on.

Looking over the iconic Manic Pixie Dream Girls, they almost all cluster in the warm-up phase of the excitement cycle: the early '60s (The Apartment, Breakfast at Tiffany's), the late '70s (Annie Hall), the early '90s (L.A. Story, Joe Versus the Volcano), and the late 2000s (Elizabethtown, The Last Kiss, Yes Man).

In their social context, these characters are helping guys to make the transition out of the previous vulnerable phase, when they're in a refractory state and would feel social contact to be painfully over-stimulating, and into the warm-up phase, when their excitement levels get back to a normal baseline. (Not yet taking off into a spike of invincibility, which takes places during the following manic phase.)

Social relations during the warm-up phase have a kind of caricatured, ritualistic quality -- they're like doing simplified warm-up exercises before taking on a real sport activity, or doing simplified dances with easy-to-follow rules, before being spontaneous on the dance floor. The point is not to fully reach the mature form of the social relation, but simply to drag the person out of their overly sensitive refractory state, and get accustomed to relating to others all over again. Once they're comfortable with that, then they can do the real thing during the manic phase, when their energy levels can really take off.

That's why it doesn't matter that the Manic Pixie Dream Girl has a flat, hollow, or caricatured personality -- she's not the final girl that he's going to get into a long-term relationship with. She's more of a training-wheels girlfriend for guys who haven't ridden a bike in awhile, so she does not need to be fully realistic and possessing an in-depth personality, set of goals of her own, etc.

Her childlike qualities are similarly disarming, designed to convince a guy who's over-sensitive and in an emo phase, that she couldn't possibly hurt him or demand too much contact from him. It's an adolescent form of attraction, but that's only because during the refractory state, the sexes regress back into a juvenile state where they are put off by the icky, annoying, even dangerous opposite sex. First they need to work their way toward adolescence, during the warm-up phase, and then they can go for a more mature kind of relationship during the manic phase.

She is willing to spend all this energy coaxing him out of his shell because she, too, has left behind the vulnerable phase and is ready to start mixing it up with the guys again. Their women's intuition tells them that, after five years of being taken for granted at best and ghosted or maligned at worst, guys are going to need a little playful encouragement to reassure them that it's safe to come out and interact with the girls once again.

No point in apologizing, casting blame, or otherwise wallowing in what went on during the vulnerable phase. That was then, this is now, so come out of your shell already, I promise we're harmless and fun-loving.

When viewed in its longer context, the archetype doesn't seem so bad. It's not immature, stunted, etc. -- it's not being held up as the ideal, it's only a temporary practice girlfriend, between the two otherwise unbridgeable states of a social refractory period and a fully developed mature relationship.

And she's not temporary because he's just using her to kill time before he finds someone more three-dimensional -- it's because she's playing the role of nursing him back to health, and that recuperation only takes a certain period of time, not forever. Once that role of hers has been completed, there she goes, and he can find someone real to get into a mature relationship with.

These archetypes spring up right at the outset of the warm-up phase, to act as a bridge, rather than at the very end of the phase, so I expect to see another crop of Manic Pixie Dream Girls no later than next year or the year after. The #MeToo attitude has already started to run out of steam, which means they'll have to start picking up the pieces from what they've wrecked over the past five years. They will no longer view all romantic interactions with men as "emotional labor," but will enjoy getting to know them again.

I'll end this survey with a deep cut from a pop star who would go on to specialize in the decadent disco themes that emerge during the warm-up phase, and then really turn up the energy levels during the next manic phase (before more or less disappearing during the current vulnerable phase). At the opening of the last warm-up phase, before Zooey Deschanel had popularized adorkableness, here's a 20 year-old waif-like form of the singer of "I Kissed a Girl" and "Roar".

"Simple" by Katy Perry (2005):


  1. Where do you think K-pop fits into the cycle? Is its rising popularity, even filling up stadium venues in the US (which J-pop never really managed to do) because it's the herald of the manic pixie girl or something else?

  2. It's not something I'm really aware of, so I couldn't say one way or another.

  3. How about Boy Bands, when they were popular?

    I ask that because BTS, the current big K-Pop band, is basically a Korean Boy Band (all 'cute' young men). There might be a parallel here, and some are saying it's the start of a 'Korean Wave' much like the English Wave that came to the US. I don't know much more than you, I think.

  4. Boy bands show up during the manic phase:

    It seems like British / Anglo invasions happen during manic phases as well, from some discussion in the comments here:

    But perhaps Koreans / Asians are different from Anglos. Hard to say from earlier pop music, since Asians weren't that popular in any phase.

  5. Year of the Cat by Al Stewart (1976) from early warm up phase captures this dynamic. Tourist coaxed out of his comfort zone and seduced by a mysterious assertive local woman.

  6. Would Liza Minelli in "The Sterile Cookoo" and Goldie Hawn in "Foul Play" qualify as Manic Pixie Dream Girls? "Foul Play" even had featured the song "Ready to Take A Chance Again," about coming out of one's shell after a while.


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