Obvious Child and the death of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl
Hey Zooey Deschanel: your time is up.*
Or rather, it is my fervent hope that the era of the manic pixie dream girl is coming to a close.
Which is not to say that the MPDG wasn’t a stepping stone in the humanizing of the female archetype in Hollywood. Basically, in old Hollywood, some women were crazy and damaged; other women were caretakers. Then came the MPDGs: crazy, and damaged, but also charming, and there to take care of you in ways you didn’t know you needed, a little like a rolfer.
Zooey, of course, is the queen of the MPDGs. With kewpie doll eyes and bangs you could brush out like a horse’s mane, her thick-rimmed glasses and Modcloth knee socks signal the kind of virginal nonconformity that will inspire a young Brooklyn hipster to personal growth, even as (especially as) he has his way with her. MPDGs are human, but only until their humanity has served as plot propeller and as muse. Then, they inevitably become sex objects and status symbols for a generation of men who think mustaches should be waxed, but only ironically, and that growlers should be carried to the picnic in a leather case that hangs off of your vintage bicycle.
Yeah. I’m over it. And then I rented Obvious Child, written by Gillian Robespierre and starring comedian (comedienne? Is that still a thing?) Jenny Slate.
Now let’s get something out of the way first. Female comics have started to fill a slot in Hollywood as the “normal, average” woman. It’s almost as though because they are vocal and hilarious, and because being vocal and hilarious and also female is inherently subversive, people act as though their looks must be countercultural as well. In short, there is this kind of perception that female comedic actors (or actors with a comedy background) can’t possibly be pretty. But these women — the ones who are getting roles in movies — are, in point of fact, gorgeous. Tina Fey is a beautiful woman. Kate Mckinnon, whether she’s dressing as Ellen or in a killer cocktail dress, is an absolute vision. And Jenny Slate is no exception to this rule. She may not be your average Hollywood Actress, but she is slender and symmetrical with thick gorgeous hair and big brown eyes and when she dances around in her undies during a love scene in Obvious Child, it’s clear that her looks are Hollywood Approved. There are still miles to go before we sleep, I’m not disputing that.
But: Obvious Child. Jenny Slate’s character, Donna, in Obvious Child. Donna’s jokes in Obvious Child. Donna’s abortion in Obvious Child. It all just made me a really happy person.
Like an MPDG, Donna is damaged, insecure, deeply flawed. Like an MPDG, Donna doesn’t feel like a grown-up. But guess what? We’re all damaged and deeply flawed. None of us feel like grown-ups. And unlike the eponymous Summer in 500 Days of (where EVEN THE NAME OF THE MOVIE transforms her from a person to an experience for the protagonist to have), Donna, like her comedy, does not really exist for the growth and gratification of anyone besides herself. She may be a bit of a mess at this moment in her life, but mess is where the story is. We want to watch her story, and she wants to tell it. It’s a story about her: her agency, her life, the choices she makes.
Just like everyone’s story is about them. Take Donna’s love interest — he’s got a story, and it revolves around him. But we’ve seen that about a hundred-million times.
So thank you, Gillian and Jenny, for making this one about Donna instead.
Now excuse me, I’ve got to go watch some more Marcel the Shell.
*Not in a creepy threatening way.