Some time ago, never mind how long, with time off school and a desire to expand my horizons, I took up residence at the Oklahoma Summer Arts Institute. Say what you will about Oklahoma, but even though a state-sponsored program, OSAI was exceedingly enjoyable. Not only did they have the best teachers; a Poet Laureate and Broadway actress among them, but they catered to every definition of the “arts.” Ballet and modern dance, orchestra, jazz, creative and nonfiction writing, painting, drawing, photography, choir, solo, and filmmaking were represented in the 300 odd members of the group, all tucked away in a picturesque resort in the Quartz Mountains. It was a good time, and I came away from it with a lot of memories.
That Poet Laureate? He’d recently released a book of poems that had gotten some critical panning he felt was baseless and petty. In response, he wrote a piece critique the California woodlands, artist: God, and ended, “In conclusion, it lacks integrity.” The Broadway actress set up one-acts written and performed by her students, our peers. There was a sculptor there, Mark Vinciguerra, who is singlehandedly responsible for bringing back portrait painting.
The students were no less incredible. The painters all gave galleries one week in, to sponsors of the program and collectors from the coasts. Many sold works then and there. Several in the writing courses had been published many times. The dancers belonged to major studios, the filmmakers were innovative, and the singers were divine. Looking back, it all seems like something from a movie. One woman in particular engenders that feeling, and her presence will stay with me always, though I will certainly never see her again.
I was recently introduced to a concept in movies; a trope describing females called Manic Pixie Dream Girl. The term was coined fairly recently, but the archetype goes back a long way. Nathan Rabin, who coined the term, was describing Kristen Dunst’s character in Elizabethtown, and formulated the shorthand of Manic Pixie Dream Girl (MPDG) to describe her and the trope she belongs to. These characters are “bubbly, shallow cinematic creature that 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.” 1 At its most specific, the MPDG is truly a pixie; short, short haired, spunky and full of energy2. Broadly, these women might look and act normal, less goth or punk, but possess the same tendency to revolve around a male lead3. But the most definable and universal characteristic is an impossible level of whimsy and spontaneity.
It’s a difficult character to actually pull off. In the same article, Rabin notes that the MPDG “is an all or nothing proposition. Audiences either want to marry her…or commit bodily harm to her and her immediate family.” This sounds extreme, and that’s because the MPDG is a character built from extremes. They laugh loudly or sob pitifully, love powerfully or hate fiercely, and the reason audiences can only love or loathe the character is because this behavior is opposite how people actually function. Films normally seek to imitate life, and in real life people are moderate and reserved until circumstances push them to extremes. The MPDG on the other hand, is so whimsical 4that they express those extremes in normal circumstances, under the guise of spicing up life, seeing the extraordinary in the ordinary, being creative, spontaneous, any excuse you can think of. The MPDG is thus, a hypothetical creature that transcends social norms. A transcendent being is an alien being, and thus can only engender reverence or hatred in others. But the woman I met inspired nothing but love and desire.
She had a thin waist and flat belly. Her hair was black, dyed pink at the bangs, and she wore it short. She was pale, worse glasses and had flawless skin. Everything she did was vibrant and infused with laughter. Anything she might say was funny and pointed, and her time was spent on her art or finding ways to amuse herself. She made any man blush, and any girl jealous. In short, a perfect representation of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl. So much so, I honestly and truly worry she may not have been real.
Not in a dream way, or a hallucination, or misplaced memories. No, something far more fantastic happened in those mountains. I believe that when all those great artists came together and let their subconscious impulses run free, with all that creative spirit floating around, unfiltered and unrestrained, something physical was born of it. A manifestation of that thing artists hold dear in their hearts; the perfect being. An artist’s perfect being. Highly sexualized, physically ideal, socially unrestrained, and artistically inclined. That was this girl.
Why a girl, people ask when I tell this story. It’s true that at least half, if not more, of the artists present were female. So why would their subconscious minds generate a female as their sexual and emotional ideal? Well, can you picture a male version of the MPDG? Can you name an example? I cannot envision a chipper, high-energy man, making soulful comments under starlight and being a kindhearted mentor to a firm woman, eschewing his day job for nature excursions and painting in his living room. This just isn’t how the media portrays men. Examples sometimes given to me are Adam Levine’s character from Pitch Perfect, or Lloyd Dobler (John Cusack) from Say Anything. You’ll notice though, that while these examples serve, they aren’t men, are they? The MPDG has no age; she is a personality rendered however the situation calls for. She could be an octogenarian, a teen, a woman having a midlife crisis, anything. When we picture spunky, attractive, quirky men we picture the young, the innocent, attributes that are lost at a certain age.
In fact, I can only think of one character who fits the profile of a male MPDG, and that’s Phil Dunphy (Ty Burrell) from Modern Family. A lovable, quirky nerd, interested in fringe topics not normally associated with his social position: middle-class, middle-aged white male. My knowledge base isn’t massive, but it’s at least sizable, and no other character that fits the bill comes to mind. This thing really is relegated to a female fixation, and it’s due to the portrayal of women through the years. The MPDG isn’t romantic; she’s too modern for that. She’s deeply lustful, and takes what she wants from who she wants. A man isn’t capable of displaying these characteristics, because then his behavior is construed as aggravated and assaulting. This is the fault of media warping our perceptions and expectations. Television and movies unquestionably paint men as strong, women as weak. Therefore, a strong woman initiating a weaker man sexually and emotionally represents yet another social norm overturned. This is what causes the artistic ideal to manifest as a woman, even in a woman’s mind. Not just her attitude, but her very gender spurns normal constructions, making it all the more enticing.
So did I meet her? It’s hard to say. The fact is, the seminar only lasted two weeks. Had we kept in touch, I may have found her to be shallow, or obnoxious, or in some way flawed. Maybe, rather than a physical manifestation of the ideal, her gorgeous façade was a canvas that I projected the ideal onto. At this point, who’s to say?
Her name is gone from my mind. I have no pictures. These things may corroborate my theory, or may be coincidental. That summer was a long time ago. All the memories have become faint. I would like very much to see her again, but I fear an attempted reunion may only prove me right. What if she cannot exist without the same atmosphere, can never walk the earth unaided? It would be madness to try and put together the entire assembly again. No, I had a brush with idyllic perfection, was graced with her gaze and attention. I must leave it at that.
- Read the source material here. You know, unlike 99.9% of the intertubes
- Knives Chau of Scott Pilgrim v The World
- Sam from Perks of Being a Wallflower.
- Leslie Burke from Bridge to Terrabithia