On Ruby Sparks, Manic Pixie Dream Girls, and the Image as Prison
When I went to go see Wes Anderson’s delightful Moonrise Kingdom last month, my viewing partner noticed something funny about the trailers that preceded it: “Three of the last four previews have included a couple jumping into a pool.”
Ah, pools, where stripped clothing serves as easy metaphor for inhibitions shed, where language ends and everything becomes delighted squeals and meaningful hand touching and (somehow possible) underwater kisses. Jumping into pools, running in the rain, blacklight bowling, petty theft and grafitti: these music-video staples have become shorthand for romance in many a montage of the last decade. Of course, this is part of the poetry of what film does: a series of images quickly expresses what might have taken whole chapters in a book. The problem comes when the images serve as patches for the character-building and storytelling that are absent.
As the decade has worn on, the women jumping into the pools in question have increasingly sprouted bangs and Quirks™ and lacy Anthropologie wardrobes. When the AV Club’s Nathan Rabin coined the term “manic pixie dream girl” in his review of 2007’s Elizabethtown, I’m sure he had no idea how much cultural penetration the newly minted archetype would achieve. In case you’re not up to speed, a 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.” It’s not that the concept was new– kooky, talky, free-spirited women have been flipping men’s lives upside down in film for nearly a century now. But Rabin finally put his finger on a phenomenon that was developing its own recognizable ethos and aesthetic, which has been refined in every iteration of Zooey Deschanel until reaching its nadir in the billboard ad campaign for her Fox sitcom, “New Girl.” Now, while driving about town, one could read the tagline “Simply Adorkable” plastered beneath Deschanel’s awkward grin. The manic pixie dream girl had been bottled and sold to a mass market.
The character is compelling for men and women alike. Men like MPDGs first of all because they exist to serve men, to impart to them their wisdom and joie de vivre. But MPDGs also appeal specifically to arty, thinking fellows who like to think of their taste as off the beaten path. When a man falls for an onscreen heroine with killer music taste and rainbow-colored hair and a mild mental disorder, he can’t possibly be accused of being shallow. She’s so different. The appeal for women is along the same lines. The female viewer can only throw up her hands in the presence of a Jolie or a Fox, but MPDG status appears insidiously attainable. To watch a man fall for a girl with a chattering problem or a zany obsession gives women hope that maybe they, too, can be loved inside their weirdness, provided they present themselves charmingly and girlishly enough.
If you have any doubt that MPDG syndrome has worked its way into young women’s self-concepts, take a quick look around Tumblr or Pinterest (I’ll even give you the link to the back pages of my Tumblr from a couple years ago). Females can now conveniently cull their identity from thousands of photos of hair bows and teapots and waifs holding books. Their “about me” sections tell you of their love for Mark Twain and vintage horror and particularly crunchy leaves. But damned if you’ll find any actual self-revelation. The age of social networking has made it even more tempting to define oneself by aesthetics, to put up a series of photos and list favorite bands and call it a personality (or a “personal brand”)– and since the advent of the MPDG, female millenials have a formula for dream girl status. The internet has given people a way to package themselves as lists and images– which, in their proper place, can be fine ways for a human being to explore and express herself. But the stream of self-defining content without any depth results in holograms. And women, as a general rule, tend to invest more in the holograms that they create, because our culture conditions us to have a keener sense of our existence as images, as objects to be beheld.
The manic pixie dream girl may seem a harmless enough stock character. Women have been put on such pedestals in stories since the age of courtly love. The manic pixie is just a 21st century expression of the age old idea of the Woman as Idea.
But you know what? That age old idea is terrible. And so Ruby Sparks stands as one woman’s cry to stop the madness.
This has been a long prelude to the discussion of a film, but it’s important to see that screenwriter and lead actress Zoe Kazan is trying to accomplish something very specific with Ruby Sparks. The story of a novelist who falls in love with his heroine come to life uses the Pygmalion myth as a calculated takedown of the manic pixie dream girl. The creator-creation relationship here serves to invoke themes of identity, authenticity, and subordination–all framed for the stylistic sensibilities of the Instagram crowd.
Just because it has big things on its mind doesn’t mean that Ruby Sparks is a heavy film– in fact, it’s quite light for most of its running time. Nor is it a perfect film– it takes a good while to find its footing, and it can be a bit on the nose with its message. But I contend that it is important as a female artist’s response to the way women are represented, both in art and in men’s imaginations.
Calvin Weir-Fields (Paul Dano) is no stranger to the trouble with being idealized. His first and only novel has been an incredible critical success, and he has lived 10 years cowering in its shadow, struck with a decade-long case of writer’s block. (This film, like most films about writers, dichotomizes writing life as either paralysis or fevered inspiration.) He doesn’t want to date, either: “Women aren’t interested in me, they’re interested in some idea of me,” he says, in the first of many less-than-subtle allusions to the theme at hand.
Calvin’s funk continues until a girl visits him in his dreams– a big-eyed girl with bangs who clearly calls Deschanel to mind. Suddenly, Calvin is seized with a will to bring this dream girl to life on the page, until he worries that he may be falling in love with his own character. The turning point occurs when Calvin wakes up one day to find his heroine, Ruby Sparks, lounging about his house in the flesh.
The comic windup to this revelation and the immediate aftershock come off as a lesser attempt at the breezy fantasy realism of 2006’s Stranger Than Fiction, which sold its premise immediately on the back of Will Farrell’s charming, deadpan performance. Ruby Sparks lacks the comedic flair to pull off its setup, and it seems for a while that we are in for a comedy that contents itself to be merely bemusing. But a few early scenes clue us into the film’s real strengths.
The first finds Calvin rhapsodizing on the therapist’s couch after being asked what he loves about Ruby. Cue the stirring strings and soft-filter shots of the dream girl, and Calvin’s off. Ruby grew up in Dayton, Ohio. She rollerblades. She forgets things, like opening her mail. She got kicked out of high school for sleeping with her art teacher (or maybe her Spanish teacher). On and on goes the litany of foibles, each more precious than the last. Calvin is absolutely bursting with affection for this sprite he has written, but Dano infuses Calvin’s elation with a sense of self-satisfaction in knowing that he loves a girl who is “such a mess.” The scene is a brilliant skewer of the quirk-list style of characterization that has crept into film, fiction, and Facebook profiles. With quirk lists, writers can build humans by stacking idiosyncrasies on one another like blocks, using specificity as a mask for shallowness. Kazan’s script criticizes these meticulous constructions of identity that are all sparkle and no substance, whether they appear in scripts or our concepts of other people.
The moment the film begins in earnest, however, comes when Calvin finally believes that Ruby is real. Their first kiss sets off a dizzy montage that allows directors Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris (Little Miss Sunshine) to show off their music video chops. The production design bursts with color in arcades and clubs, the editing moves at breakneck speed, and Dayton and Faris let their lead couple kiss madly all over the sets. And how delighted I was to find that Kazan had ordered a textbook pool scene, choreographed to drippy perfection by the directors. Everyone involved clearly has great fun sending up love’s new visual clichés.
Of course, then, life begins to intrude on the fantasy. Calvin would prefer to see Ruby as purely a part of his life’s narrative, tucked away in his neat white house. But soon, she wants to get a job. She wants to meet his parents. She wants to go out with her own friends. As Calvin feels himself losing her, he decides to do what he swore he wouldn’t: to go back to the typewriter and change his creation to bend to his desires.
Calvin’s manipulations of Ruby yield the film’s biggest laughs, but they also significantly up the stakes. This is the moment at which Kazan reveals her true investment in the project– the moment at which the film reveals itself as a particularly personal and feminine project. As we see Ruby tossed on the waves of Calvin’s will, we laugh at Kazan’s comic aplomb– but she makes sure that we never lose sight of her essential personhood. After living through several of Calvin’s adjustments to her personality, one scene finds Ruby curled up on the couch looking lost. “My internal compass is gone,” she says, and it is enough to break the heart.
This is the core of Ruby Sparks, the place where it moves beyond its showy premise and easy morals and into the mess of the female heart. This script was surely written by a woman who knows what it is to lose yourself inside a relationship, to spend so much time aiming to please that you forget who you were to begin with. After a dinner party with Calvin and his brother, which comes while Ruby is still firmly in dream girl stage, she has only one question for Calvin: “Did he like me?” Ruby doesn’t know that she is Calvin’s creation, but her urge to define herself on his terms is written into her DNA. She begins as the literal embodiment of Calvin’s desires, the composite of his whims and taste. She starts as mere image, vessel, mirror for him, saddled with all the metaphorical weight of male idealization and objectification. The film follows her through a classic feminist awakening, a growth into seeking an identity outside of a man’s idea of her.
But that image on the couch is what stays with me. It is the image of a woman made frail by the thousands of subtle chips one can make at oneself in an effort to sculpt a presentable offering to one’s partner. Of a woman haunted by mirrors, the image that she suspects a man holds of her hanging above her like a specter. All Ruby wants to do is to get a job, some friends, a life of her own, but she is trapped– in her case, literally– in a man’s idea of her. In the climactic argument between the couple, Calvin hurls the words she was always afraid of at her: “You’re not real.” In the context of the film, it’s literal, but the phrase has a deeper sting. He’s admitting that her status as an image, an idea, the very thing that made her so attractive to him, is the thing that also denies her any power. The final confrontation between creator and creation veers into skin-crawling levels of darkness and discomfort of the sort I never would have expected from a film that begins as lightly as Ruby Sparks does.
There is darkness here, though. There is an antagonist. I’ve fought it, in as direct a way as to make any kind of objectivity about this film impossible. It’s easy to take aim at the ways that women are physically objectified in gossip and fashion magazines, in pornography. Idealization is a much sneakier enemy, because it masquerades as something benevolent: see, we’re thinking well of women, we’re raising them up. And the Manic Pixie Dream Girl is sneakier yet, because it hides its idealization in stacks of pretty imperfections. But all of these things serve to define women by ideas and images in the minds of others– in the minds of men, even men who claim to love them– rather than by their own thoughts, feelings, and actions. They reduce. They dehumanize.
This review did not turn into an essay out of any sociological agenda. I don’t think of myself as a person with a feminist axe to grind. Ruby Sparks touched a nerve, though, because it was a movie about the kind of anxiety that movies can give to women. It lodged itself in my brain because it told a story that had always been mine and had not been told, at least not in popular culture, at least not recently. As a creative, self-aware young woman growing into my identity– and as a girl who has spent most of her formative years in long-term relationships– I have struggled to name the thing that has kept me silent when I might have spoken, adrift when I might have dropped an anchor, anxious when I might have had rest. I believe it is that I have wanted to leave myself airy enough to be someone’s dream girl, porous enough to soak up someone else’s idea of me.
Zoe Kazan realizes that the dream girl is a cultural poison, and has she set out to do something about it. And for that I am eternally grateful. This is not a review. Ruby Sparks is a good film, but not a great one. As far as high-concept fantasy romances go, it doesn’t do funny as well as Stranger Than Fiction, and it doesn’t reach the poetic heights of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. The moral is spelled out a bit too clearly. The ending does not follow through on the dark commitment of its climax.
Still, Ruby Sparks is much more than it could have been. The film is an unmistakeable assault on the conceit of the manic pixie dream girl. But it is easy to imagine a film with the same goal that contents itself with cleverness, that merely subverts and satirizes the trope and moves on. The genius of Ruby Sparks is that we begin the film believing that Calvin is the protagonist, and that his encounter with his muse will help him change. But on the strength of Kazan’s script and vulnerable performance, we switch: we come out rooting for Ruby to find herself. Ruby Sparks is cinema that re-humanizes. Calvin may have brought a dream girl to consciousness, but Kazan brings her to life– reminding us that a heart of flesh can provoke us to a kind of love no image can summon, however entrancing.
(For a stunning read on the phenomenon of the specter of one’s image, check out Autumn Whitefield-Madrano’s “Month Without Mirrors” posts on her blog The Beheld. I hope it knocks you out like it did me.)