March 10, 2021

Maligning Manic Pixie Dream Girls during refractory phase of excitement cycle: Ms. Grundy from Riverdale

Earlier posts have looked at the role that the Manic Pixie Dream Girl plays during two of the three phases of the 15-year cultural excitement cycle.

The type first appears during the restless warm-up phase in order to coax wary men out of their shells, nursing them back to social-emotional health after everyone had been isolating themselves during a refractory state in the vulnerable phase. When they were hyper-sensitive to stimuli, they cocooned. Now that it's time to come out, some need some coaxing. Enter the MPDG for a certain type of guy (sad sack, unlucky in love, and so on).

After that role is done, by the time the manic phase begins everyone is already out of their shells. So now, having nursed others to health, the former MPDG goes on a search for her own fulfillment. It's crucially not an endless self-absorbed journey -- it's a well earned vacation after having given so much of themselves over to others during the previous warm-up phase.

Other examples I missed in that post are Julia Roberts' characters in Runaway Bride (1999) and Eat Pray Love (2010). She had previously played a major MPDG role during a warm-up phase (Pretty Woman from 1990). But in the manic phases of the late '90s and early 2010s, her roles were more about finding love and fulfillment for herself.

At any rate, what happens to the type when the manic phase is over, and energy levels crash into a refractory state during the vulnerable phase? The last thing guys in that phase would want is a chipper extravert trying to coax them out of their shells. Their hyper-sensitive state leads them to push the type away, and even malign or demonize them, just to make sure she doesn't get close.

In the comments to the second post, I mentioned the example of Lost in Translation from the vulnerable phase of the early 2000s. There's a character who would've been a straightforward MPDG in the early '90s (she seems to be patterned on SanDeE* from L.A. Story, with the talk about cleansing the toxins out of your body). Only in the vulnerable phase, she's portrayed as an intrusive, talky, annoying airhead, who ScarJo's character tries to shut up with a curt "No" when asked a question by her.

Still, as memorable as that character was, her screen time was brief. I've always been on the lookout for MPDG types in vulnerable-phase culture, but generally they're just not included at all. No need to think about them -- just imagining their interactions with you could painfully overload your senses during a refractory state.

However, while watching Riverdale season 1 (2017), I found the perfect example of how the type is treated during a vulnerable phase -- Ms. Grundy. At first she seems to check all the familiar boxes of the MPDG: cute, charmingly quirky appearance (glasses, hair in a bun, and an oversized blouse or cardigan), free-spirited, extraverted enough to make the first move, motivating her love interest to do the best he can in his ambitions, and reassuring a down-on-his-luck guy that he's love-worthy.

But there's a twist -- she's the high school music teacher, and her male love interest is one of her students, Archie, the protagonist of the series. He's currently playing football, but wants to pursue songwriting instead, and she coaches him musically and encourages him emotionally, so that he can eventually become the greatest musician he can be. And he'd been unlucky in love before because he was just a plain-looking freshman. She begins an affair with him during the summer before sophomore year, when he's growing into a random hot guy.

So the usual nurturing role that the MPDG plays is maligned by treating it as a predatory role. She's not an earthly guardian angel -- she's a wolf-in-sheep's-clothing. The two of them were at the location of the disappearance of another high school boy, which is the central mystery of the season. Ms. Grundy leans on Archie not to bring any information of his whereabouts that day to the sheriff, parents, or other adults, for fear that her affair will be discovered and cost her her job. So the type is shown as manipulative on top of predatory.

Even worse, it turns out that she's assumed a false identity and won't discuss her previous personal or work life. Deceitful as well!

The writers do give her a break on her way out: she only changed her name while fleeing an abusive husband, and she's allowed to leave town without being targeted by law enforcement as long as she doesn't come back. I'm not going to watch season 2, which the fans themselves say is much worse than season 1, but there she's murdered outright by the criminal threat that pervades the second season.

All in all, very negative treatment of the type. Not only should you not accept her interactions, you will be harmed and done-in by her supposedly good motives, so keep her out of the picture altogether.

In fact, the writers were destroying not one but three tropes of the free-wheeling late 2000s warm-up phase -- the MPDG, the hot woman high school teacher sleeping with a male student, and the cougar (this is distinct from the teacher role, since the teacher could be young, like 25, whereas Ms. Grundy is in her 30s).

As she's leaving the town, she's channeling two iconic characters from separate warm-up phases in the past, both on the theme of inappropriate age gaps -- the early '60s Kubrick version of Lolita (wearing red heart sunglasses), and perhaps without intending it, The Crush from the early '90s (the shallow focus, portrait lens, Pacific Northwest setting outdoors in daylight with a tree-lined quaint neighborhood in the background -- and a vintage car for good measure).

The only warm-up phase they did not malign was the late '70s -- maybe she could have watched Manhattan at the drive-in with Archie, and then when his dad or his friends are watching TV later on, that movie comes on and leaves a bitter taste in his mouth. Or maybe the soundtrack could have ironically played "Hot Child in the City" while she was loading her final things and driving off.

And in the interest of profiling the actresses who play MPDG roles -- either a proper role during the warm-up phase, or their successor roles in the other two phases -- Sarah Habel, who plays Ms. Grundy, fits the mold perfectly. Most importantly, she was born during a manic phase, indeed the same one as the other actresses who were proper MPDGs during the late 2000s heyday of the role -- born in the early '80s. Like the others, she imprinted on a zeitgeist of invincibility, risk-taking, and carefree resilience (and re-imprinted on such a zeitgeist during her second birth of adolescence at age 15, that time in the late '90s manic phase). That disposition is necessary for someone whose role is to coax others out of their shell and encourage them to pursue their ambitions without being paralyzed by the risks involved.

Physically, she has an hourglass waist-to-hip ratio, signaling the feminine nature required for a nursing role. Not that height is a good predictor of the role, but she happens to be a literal pixie at 5'2. I can't tell if she's a butt woman rather than a boob woman, like the norm for the type, but she is portrayed as a corporeal rather than cerebral person in the TV show -- she's not primarily a songwriter or composer, but a performer who has honed a kinesthetic craft (she's a Juilliard-trained cellist).

As of last year the vulnerable phase has been over, so we should see some proper MPDG roles coming soon. Sarah Habel has already proven she can play the part -- only this time, her acting would serve a sincere purpose in the TV show or movie, rather than to malign the character type.


  1. Riverdale S1 is worth watching, to give credit where it's due. Yes it's a product of the Great Awokening era, and in particular its vulnerable phase when hysteria was widespread. In fact, there's an entire #MeToo episode, complete with impotent AWFL revenge fantasies.

    It's set in a "small town," but it's majority-minority, and those minorities are all elites or elite-aspiring. No one voted for Trump a few months before the pilot debuted. Everyone is already in, or aspiring to join, the informational sectors of the economy (aside from Archie's dad being a construction company owner).

    90% of the guys are gay, often openly so (by kissing other guys, or by sporting flaming undercuts). However, no lesbians or bi girls -- typical "girls and gays" show, not "lads and lesbians".

    And so on and so forth -- so just think of it as being set in an elite lib-arts college, which happens to be located in a small college town. And the teenagers are really college kids, whose professional-class parents all work in the college town, and their kids are staying close to home while in college. It makes a lot more sense then.

    Despite all the woketarded crap in it, it's still a well done show, visually and narratively, although it takes a few episodes to get into (once they focus more on the central mystery of the high school boy's disappearance). It rarely feels like the characters are behaving nonsensically just because the writers didn't know how to get them from point A to point B.

    The one downside, aside from the wokeness, is the character portrayals, which tend a little on the caricatured and melodramatic side.

    I think they were going for a Heathers vibe, with super self-aware dialog and black humor, but it doesn't work because Riverdale is not a parody or send-up of a genre like Heathers was (the John Hughes movies, the Tipper Gores' reaction to Satanic Panic, etc.).

    Still, the mystery, the sense of place, and the plot interconnecting the array of characters, makes it worth watching. I'll even be picking it up on DVD used when the price is right.

  2. Just started Pretty Little Liars, and there's a lesbian / bi girl plotline already, and no gays so far. (Characters, that is -- most of the guys are played by obviously gay actors.)

    Very natural portrayal of the bi-curious / closeted lesbian relationship (only 5 eps in, can't tell what exactly the girls are). Sweet, tender, emotionally intimate, cuddling over sucking face or bumping uglies. Not unrealistic "what if gays were female", nor "lesbo porn for guys".

    Not much else to say so far, just that it's refreshing to find a major show aimed at young people that has lesbians (or bi girls?) but not gays.

    Also nice to see the show openly set in a lib-arts college town, without the salt-of-the-earth cosplay of Riverdale. There's actually a lot of normies, jocks, future Trump supporters, etc., in the population (including the students, who are not all plucked from Tumblr as in Riverdale).

    Despite being set in an unrepresentative location, Pretty Little Liars actually has more authentic anytown Americana than Riverdale. Also pre-Awokening (pilot shot in late 2009, S1 aired from 2010-'11).

    Tone, dialog, and acting is more straight / sincere, not meta- or self-aware or irony-poisoned. Even more refreshing.

  3. 4 lesbians, 0 gays in PLL 1st season. :) Main villain is a trannie later on in the series, which I won't be getting to, but still worth noting to emphasize that wholesome lads-and-lesbians are more TERF-y than degen girls-and-gays.

    It's gratifyingly shocking that they made a Buffalo Bill-level trannie villain well into the Awokening era.

    No MPDG types in the series, though it's not a warm-up phase, so their absence is to be expected.

    I'd recommend not focusing too much on the murder mystery and stalking angle, since it comes to dominate the plot of S1, and the stalker is a deus ex machina who single-handedly drives the plot with no repercussions. The cast are just puppets on the stalker's string, they can't even communicate back to the stalker.

    It got so annoying and frustrating by the end of the season, I just read ahead online to see who it was, which is revealed in the *next* season's finale. Fuck that.

    I'll probably get S2 on DVD, but focus on all the other storylines instead... which hopefully don't get drowned out by the mystery / stalker angle.

    It's too bad, the show started out well, then nobody can act on their own, and there's no internal organic dynamics -- all just reactions to the stalker.

    I read ahead to future seasons, and it gets even worse with goon-tier backstory, made-up shit, skyhooks, etc. Like a Reddit-tailored lore-heavy fantasy series, only set in high school cliques rather than Medieval clans. Borrrrinnnnggg.

  4. PLL rules for romanticizing teacher-student relationships, even if the girl is underage. NB: not sexually fetishizing them, or anything degenerate like that, as would be the angle in a girls-and-gays take on the phenomenon -- i.e., "I'm hot, you're hot, it's forbidden for us to hook up, so that just makes it hotter".

    It's real, raw, honest, and social-emotional rather than physical-sexual in focus. Rather than deriving kink value from transgressing a norm, the lads-and-lesbians approach asks why that norm should exist to begin with.

    "Why should this be forbidden if we truly love each other? What we're thinking, feeling, and doing is totally normal -- not abnormal."

    Similar approach in portraying lesbian attraction -- it's not emphasizing the transgression of non-hetero feelings and behaviors, but saying "look how cute and wholesome and relatable these two girls are". They're not deviant weirdos, but conform-y normies.

  5. Aimee Terese looks like Lucy Hale's Levantine cousin, btw. Or maybe Hale looks like a fair-skinned MENA baddie. :)

    Dark dramatic wavy hair, jawline that's strong-for-a-girl, piercing gaze from large inviting eyes, heated words from full lips, and a five-foot firecracker frame. Intensely feminine and masculine at the same time, and in the good ways of both sides. Tortured / tragic nature of those born during the vulnerable phase of the second half of the '80s.

    There are lots of shots emphasizing how tiny she is, during a scene of dramatic tension, that nail the type -- the sense of cosmic injustice that such a fiery, passionate soul must act with the physical world through such a tiny delicate body.

    Why should a valkyrae have to leap off of the ground just to reach the ice cream in the back of the freezer compartment? It's so totally-not-fair!!!

    The figure of the adorably cursed.


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