Kill the manic pixie dream girl

Manic pixie dream girls. You can’t go to the cinema or switch on to the telly without encountering a perfect little bundle of saccharine cutesiness in a floral frock, trotting out radio-friendly indie hits on a ukulele these days. From classic films like Bringing Up Baby, to recent indie hits like Garden State to our televisions in New Girl, the manic pixie dream girl is everywhere  Hollywood papers over the shallow vapour of its female leads with contrived quirkiness and we get to pretend that there’s no sexism because the character makes an impact on the plot and characters.

Of course, this isn’t right. The manic pixie dream girl (MPDG) trope is sexist as hell. The creeping, insipid nature of the sexism inherent in this character archetype is harder to put one’s finger on; the veneer makes it difficult to tease out exactly what is wrong.

It is best to start with the original definition of the MPDG from film reviewer Nathan Rabin:

The Manic Pixie Dream Girl 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.

Here, it becomes abundantly clear that the MPDG must exist only in relation to the male main character. The entire point of her presence is to bring a little bit of chirpy sunshine to the life of someone else. Without a man to mend, the MPDG simply cannot be: she will instead fall into other character archetypes. The MPDG is not a character with agency: she is a perky, pretty little plot device-cum-love interest. She serves the same function as the Magical Negro, with added sex.

The lack of agency of the MPDG is the most egregious problem with this character archetype, but it is far from the only issue. In its comprehensive collection of pop culture reference points, TV Tropes demonstrates two other characteristics common to the MPDG.

Firstly, the MPDG exhibits quirkiness in a very childlike manner. She is likely to be playful and carefree, climbing trees and bursting into inappropriate song. There is an innocence about the MPDG which enchants the male lead (and, presumably, is supposed to endear the audience to her, too). This childishness is infantilising, a fetishisation of youth. It turns an adult woman into a little girl, and it is intensely, tooth-grindingly patronising. While there is a wide spectrum of behaviour, and no woman should be expected to act in a certain way, it is telling that the media machine loves nothing more than to suggest to we women that we should never grow up.

Secondly, the MPDG is almost always meets the hegemonic Western “beauty standards”. We do not get to see a wide spread of ways in which a woman can be beautiful with a MPDG present. Can you think of a MPDG that is not Hollywood thin? A MPDG who is not white? A MPDG who is butch? My own mind is drawing a blank here. What we get is the standard leading lady that is perpetually shoved down our throats, but perhaps she will have blue hair to make this less immediately noticeable.

These two attributes are not unproblematic on their own, but taken with the existence only in relation to a man, the MPDG becomes a very unpleasant portrayal of women. The MPDG is the avatar of benevolent sexism: a portrayal of fragile femininity from which good stems. The MPDG completes her man, she is pure, she is a thing to be worshipped and is better than the man. Almost every item on the measure for benevolent sexism applies to the MPDG very strongly. This is why it is so much harder to decry the MPDG as sexist: many are not yet ready to admit the existence of benevolent sexism.

Even when subverted, the problems of the MPDG apply. There are instances, such as in 500 Days of Summer or Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind where the MPDG exists as salvation only in the mind of the male main character. Here, she still completely lacks independence: if anything, it becomes more of another tedious story about men than the trope played straight. In other instances, the MPDG will turn out to be some shade of crazy: perhaps she’s a psycho bunny boiler, or pretending to be sweet so she can get something from the male main character. In these cases, the trope slips from benevolent sexism towards its more recognisable, hostile cousin.

There is nothing that can be done to save the manic pixie dream girl archetype. It is sexist from top to bottom. The monotonous drone of narrative sterotypes reflects and magnifies attitudes towards–and resultant treatment of–women. The MPDG does not exist in a vacuum, but, rather in a world where benevolent sexism is still seen to be all right, giving men false hope that a tiny tornado of quirkiness will fix their lives, while suggesting to women that perhaps if they were prettier and completely subsumed themselves to the will of a man, they might get laid more. The MPDG is a fantasy, and not a very nice one for anyone involved.

This is not to say it is impossible to make a good film involving a MPDG. Many cinematic works considered brilliant contain Magical Negroes: consider much of Morgan Freeman’s body of work. Likewise, MPDGs can be done well: arguably, Marilyn Monroe’s character in Some Like it Hot is a MPDG. This does not mean we cannot critique these tropes: indeed we must, so that eventually, the fantasy of the manic pixie dream girl will die.

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In this post, I might have criticised a TV show or a film that you like. Before you leave a comment telling me I’m wrong on the internet, please read this and this so you don’t look like a proper tit in the comments. 

The things we hope we never need

Trigger warning: This post discusses intimate partner violence

Sometimes it’s hard to keep up with the sheer number of cuts made by this sociopathic coalition of vampires. These butchers are chipping away at everything that keeps us safe. Over the years, they have trained us into individualism, and are now removing every single last bastion of support. They target smartly in surgical strikes. They attack the things we hope we never need, the things we don’t like to think about, the things that are so hard to imagine that we fail to adequately fight. Those immediately impacted are too vulnerable to resist. Those able to resist do not want to think about what they should resist, to entertain the possibility that these services may one day be necessary.

We do not like to think how fragile we are. It is a terrifying notion that we are all but one sickness or accident away from disability, that our lives could suddenly change. The privilege of being able-bodied is a difficult one to confront, so we barely notice when the people we don’t like to think about are forced into humiliating tests and then put out to work anyway. So many people do not receive the support that they need and go hungry, become sicker, lose the things that makes life worth living.

We hate to think of our own mortality, of the fact that one day it might turn out that that what seemed like a cough is the beginning of a slow slide into sickness and death. That’s bad enough. So when they decide that terminally ill people are living too long and cut their benefits, demanding they live out their last days being worked to death, it barely makes a ripple.

We do not like to entertain the possibility that we may encounter domestic abuse, despite this happening to thousands of people each year. We do not like to think that one day we may find ourselves in a situation where we must leave our homes if we wish to stay alive, and we will be unable to go to our friends or families, lest we are found or handed back to our abusers. We do not like to think that we may be so bullied and victimised we may find ourselves isolated from our support network. We do not like to think that we may need professional support, that we cannot simply sort it out on our own. And so they cut funding for the services that can provide this last resort.

We find it difficult to imagine that one day we may find ourselves without a home, that renting or mortgage payments can easily suddenly become too much and we can lose the roof over our heads. Yet many of us survive on the goodwill of landlords and the assumption that our bank won’t suddenly go under. They know we don’t like to think about this, and so they cut the benefits that would allow us to stay in our homes, they criminalise attempts to find shelter through squatting, and they even try to ban feeding the homeless on the streets. We do not like to think how easily we could be those people who are prohibited from receiving food.

We are all teetering on a tightrope. We daren’t look down, lest we see the rocks below and feel the immediate threat of being dashed to death. We must look down, and see that we have a safety net beneath us, and demand that it stays there.

Rape, the police and political point-scoring

Obnoxious reality TV star and Lib Dem Brian Paddick has done something interesting. Hot on the heels of his whistle-blowing about being asked by the Met to water down a report about rape, more revelations have emerged.

From years of experience in the Met, Paddick has identified certain problems–problems with which regular readers of this blog will certainly be familiar. Basically, the police don’t give a shit about rape. They often assume that the survivor is lying, they try to deny a crime happened for the good of their statistics, they subscribe to rape culture myths, and they just don’t get it. From his interview, Paddick seems to understand the seriousness of rape, and the set of attitudes in the police and broader society which allow rape to happen. It really is quite gratifying to see a public figure discussing these issues openly, and highlighting suggestions for how this can change.

Paddick’s suggestions are very sensible, involving a radical rethink in the way police and other parts of the system treat survivors. He also has ideas for poster campaigns targeted at dispelling rape myths, and offers support to advocacy groups. All in all, it looks bloody good, and it feels like a tiny little victory for feminism to see these issues being put onto the public agenda.

There’s always a but, though. There’s always a sneaky little catch, the barely perceptible string which rather spoils the whole thing.

Brian Paddick is running for Mayor of London. All of what he is saying forms part of his campaign. The criticism of the police only comes now Paddick is safely out of the institution, and control of it lies in the hands of a rival political party. His speaking out serves to discredit his opposition while bidding to win the votes of rape survivors and those who fear it one day happening to them. His suggestions–ideas put forward by feminists and advocacy groups for years–are not framed as things that should be done as a matter of utmost importance, but, rather, as campaign promises.

Paddick probably believes everything that he is saying to be right, and that’s because he is talking sense here. It is just that the stench of politicking rather sullies the whole thing. It becomes a matter of a better approach to rape being useful rather than being the right thing to do. Rape is a deeply traumatic yet horrifyingly commonplace event, and it should be fought against because it is a travesty that this happens, rather than because it might gain Brian Paddick a few more votes.

It is a form of blackmail, to use this as an election promise, particularly when it comes from a member of a party who are not exactly famed for holding to their election promises. All that he has proposed is things that should be happening anyway, not only as a component in a campaign. We don’t need to put a cross in a box in the vain hope that some bloke will possibly try to tweak the system a little bit. With his connections and platform, Paddick can serve as a useful ally, but ultimately the battle is ours.

It is we who need to fight rape culture where we see it. It is we who need to decide whether the state can ever be an adequate source of support for survivors and whether it can ever truly help right the wrongs that have been done. It is we who need to work towards building a safer world.

Rape is not a party political issue.

Rape and “no crimes”: this is a fucking travesty

Trigger warning for discussion of rape

A while back, I wrote about how for many women, not reporting a rape to the police can seem like the best possible option. Information which has arisen in the last week has changed nothing in this thesis: if anything, it is worse than I had previously thought.

A report by Her Majesty’s Inspectorates of the Constabulary and the Crown Prosecution Service on rape investigations has found some pretty worrying facts, but also some good news. More survivors feel able to report rapes to the police, and the police response has improved. On the other hand, police are failing to identify patterns of repeat offences and were using intelligence poorly.

Most worrying of all, though, is the incidence of “no crimes”. According to guidelines, a no crime should be:

Where following the report of an incident, which has subsequently been recorded as a crime, additional verifiable information is available which determines that no notifiable crime has been committed.

The two crucial constructs here are that the evidence the crime did not happen can be proven, and that whatever happened was not a crime. In rape cases, this sounds like it might be pretty difficult to prove, yet the report found that 12% of reported rapes were consigned to the no crime pile. These statistics often involve women withdrawing their complaint, which can be seen in this FOI request to South Yorkshire Police. There are obvious problems with this approach, and these are so apparent that even the police have noticed this:

In reality a rape that has been reported and then recorded as a crime, should only be “no crimed” if for example, the victim states that the crime did not occur. Even in these circumstances it should be anticipated that there would be further verifiable information available to support this, because our experience shows that victims may withdraw allegations because they cannot face the criminal justice process. In other words if there is any doubt the crime remains recorded. There is a key difference between a victim who retracts their allegation and one who withdraws from the investigative process.

Given the high prevalence of no crimes, it seems that the verification that no crime occurred is not being followed through adequately. In some forces, it was found that only 40% of the no crime decisions were actually correct.

This is a fucking travesty. Thousands of people who have shown the courage to enter the agonising process of rape reporting are being let down, and their complaints dismissed away to nothing. When even the police think it is a problem, it is a serious problem indeed. This has very serious implications. For the survivor, this must be a thoroughly horrific experience: he or she will be unable to access the support provided by the system, and will experience doubt and guilt over what has happened. More broadly, it will make it harder to identify repeat rapists if a crime is not investigated or recorded.

It gets worse. Former police officer, politician and rather irritating public figure Brian Paddick recently testified at the Leveson enquiry regarding his time in the Met. He said that he had been asked to “tone down the criticisms and water-down the recommendations” in a previous report on rape reporting and investigation. In the light of this, what has been identified in the recent report may well be downplaying the problem rather than reporting it accurately.

Certainly, in my reading of the report, it was difficult to find some crucial data. For example, the statistic that some police forces have very low levels of correctly no criming rape allegations was fairly well-hidden and no attention was drawn to it. The problem of burying bad news remains in a desperate attempt to maintain a good reputation.

This PR exercise has major ramifications and can ultimately only make things worse, rather than better. Rather than frantically flapping around to cover their arses, the police need to admit honestly to their failings to create real solutions. Trust in the police is low. Most rape survivors do not report their rapes to an institution that should, theoretically, be on their side and help amend what has happened to them. This is not happening: it is merely an illusion of aid.

People are being failed due to severe problems which may be worse than imagined. Lives may be destroyed. This needs to change.