We need to reclaim feminism in visual culture

Feminism in visual culture seems to be having a mini renaissance. There’s no shortage of books, plays, art, films and TV shows dedicated to portraying women as strong, independent, quirky, cool, confident, beautiful and interesting, with close friends and a fulfilling, interesting love life. And this is great; I love watching things that make me feel great to be a woman!

But while female characters thrive as well rounded, equal individuals in the company of other women, things tend to fall apart when they are directly confronted with a man, particularly when it comes to dating. It starts with this familiar scene. The female character works hard at everything, is generally nice and has a multitude of other cool and quirky features. Then ‘The Guy’ appears, who possesses just one of these cool and quirky features: maybe he reads, maybe he cooks, maybe he cares about roman pottery. So the girl with many varied interests responds with ‘oh, you like one of my many hobbies too? How interesting that I, an all-rounder, would be interesting to you!’ And here is the root of all evil. The female character, for all her wit and coolness, has not been given the power to see these things within herself. The guy however, can see his own coolness in himself and becomes the more dominant character. And so, without anyone meaning for it to happen, the ‘Manic Pixie Dream Girl’ is born. The MPDG is not a new concept—it’s been a literary staple for millennia, albeit without the catchy name.

“The female character works hard at everything, is generally nice and has a multitude of other cool and quirky features.”

Coined in 2005 by film critic Nathan Rabin, it can be described as a female character existing solely to coax the male character out of their shell by being interesting and funny, but ultimately not as successful as the man. Even the phrase makes my skin crawl. Just because a character has her own thoughts, she’s described as ‘manic’. But we can’t have a female character with her own thoughts … I know, lets demean her by naming her after something small and powerless, like a pixie! Aah yes, that completes the ‘dream girl’—opinionated enough to hold a conversation but still ultimately less powerful than her male counterparts. Suddenly the interesting heroine becomes less than equal. She is fetishized, pined after. From reading books, seeing plays, watching romantic films, the male characters act as if interesting women are a rare breed and hard to find. However, stories made exclusively about women tell a different story. What is interesting is that these two genres are both aimed at women! This differentiation between the two conflicting genres is symptomatic of the real world. As women, we know we are every bit as smart and cool as any other gender, but must deal with the realities of this not being recognised in society. Yes feminism in films is getting better, but we’ve still got a long way to go. In order to close this gap we need to own our MPDG-ness. We are multi-faceted and cool and we are equal in every way.  Lets reclaim ‘Manic Pixie Dream Girl’ as our own. Opinionated, but not your dream. We are your nightmare.

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