Reading critic Nathan Rabin’s humblebrag confessional “I’m Sorry for Coining the Phrase ‘Manic Pixie Dream Girl,’” I couldn’t help but feel amused. I was familiar with the term as well as most of Rabin’s examples (Natalie Portman in Garden State, Diane Keaton in Annie Hall, etc.) and had already seen the subject cleverly and concisely dissected by one of the very women Rabin called out. The one reference in Rabin’s essay that I was unfamiliar with was the John Green Tumblr post, in which the popular YA author wrote that his novel Paper Towns “is devoted IN ITS ENTIRETY to destroying the lie of the manic pixie dream girl.”
I was amused not only because the issues with the Manic Pixie Dream Girl concept have already been pointed out by a 19-year-old, but because, as a twenty-something who until very recently was reading YA novels of precisely the John Green variety, I don’t need anyone’s apologies.
In order to explain, let me go back to the very first Manic Pixie Dream Girl I fell in love with: Stargirl, from the novel of the same name by Jerry Spinelli. She pulls stunts that only a true Manic Pixie would, like adorning her middle school desk with freshly picked flowers and, you know, going by “Stargirl.” She dates the novel’s narrator, Leo, who’s emotionally raw and lonely following his family’s move to Arizona. Adorably odd girl saves sad leading male — typical Manic Pixie stuff, as Rabin would tell you. He and Green would argue that Stargirl doing cute shit, like riding around on a bicycle covered in sunflowers, and the novel’s epilogue featuring a much-older Leo reflecting on how Stargirl has changed his life with her courageously quirky ways are all reductive of actual women because these things imply a reality in which teenage girls serve only to cater to the fantasies of men in need of saviors.
The only problem is that this analysis, especially in regards to YA literature, is incredibly reductive of readers. That YA novels, like movies and television shows, scream for more well-rounded female characters is true, but as a female reader, I also don’t need Green’s Tumblr posts or supposedly redemptive new novels to finally convince me of my self-worth. As a female reader, you learn to read between the lines quite a bit when it comes to learning lessons from material written by men, and what I got out of Spinelli’s Stargirl wasn’t that my purpose in life was to bring flowers to class every day in order to score an emotionally scarred boyfriend. I was weird as a kid (like, really weird) and consistently felt like an outsider in my class of 20 kids at Jewish day school. When I read about characters like Stargirl or Alaska from Looking for Alaska or Sam from The Perks of Being a Wallflower, I realized that, to some people out there, my thriftstore acid-wash skirt was actually cool. But I wasn’t just imagining dudes I would theoretically charm with my pre-worn denim; the fact that an author would choose to immortalize a character I so strongly identified with made me feel like, even if I didn’t have anyone besides my dad to bring with me to concerts, there had to be other people out there who liked what I did and I would eventually find them.
Depictions of Manic Pixie Dream Girls are frequently criticized as having quirky tastes but no real depth, though what Rabin, Green and other critics fail to realize is that, to a certain extent, taste is depth. It certainly was to me when I read Green’s An Abundance of Katherines and instantly related to Lindsey, a chick so weird she has a secret hideout in a cave. While the reasons behind Lindsey’s quirkiness are underexplored (which is certainly problematic), as a teenage reader, I did the work that Green didn’t. I knew that Lindsey, Stargirl and the like had emotional depth and histories because the weird things I myself liked were so much more than quirk. Behind every polka-dotted dress I wore were feelings of not fitting in and simultaneously discovering the person I wanted to be, and I was sure that these Manic Pixie Dream Girls had those feelings too.
Despite how one-dimensional Green’s female protagonists are, they made me feel far less lonely than the more thoroughly described males. And those plotlines about young girls redeeming teenage boys? I was smart enough to read them as just stories, not subconscious insistences that I exist to serve men. After all, if I hadn’t yet been convinced by my peers that wearing graffiti-patterned kickboxing boots equalled public humiliation, I wasn’t going to let an author convince me that something I didn’t want was still my destiny. In other words, I didn’t think Green was telling me what his books should mean to me; I just got what I needed, which is what reading is all about.
It’s silly to think teenage girls need to read a YA novel in order to have their illusions shattered. They aren’t stupid; they’ve already shattered those illusions themselves. I don’t need Green to apologize for the Manic Pixie Dream Girls in his novels. As a teenager, I already knew those girls had depth, even if he didn’t. And I’m certainly not going to redeem him with my thanks.
Adina Applebaum is Michigan native studying English and creative writing at Barnard College. Her crowning achievements in life are memorizing all the lyrics on The Slim Shady LP and eating an entire gallon of chocolate-covered raisins during orientation week of college.
KEEP READING: More on Books