I’m the same age as Laurie Penny, so was plagued by the same cultural stuff as her- I don’t know if it’s just egocentrism for my own timeline but I feel like the 90s marked a real rise of the manic pixie. Britpop had a fair chunk of them, they appeared as outsider girls in offbeat, dry comedies. How quirky! Wow! A lady with a guitar and a fringe perhaps she is supah speshul and liking her will be a meaningful growth experience for me. Level up!
And that’s reductive of ladies with guitars and fringes, of course. Because they’re real, awesome people. But that’s not my reductivism, it’s the eighty millionth interview with Brody Dalle when in 2012 people are still fascinated by the idea of a woman in a rock band as something unusual or somehow defiantly implausible. Jesus wept.
One of the things I intensely dislike about some sorts of indie music is the way it creates this easy vision of crush-girl. Somethingsomething about her hair and how she probably won’t look at you but somethingsomething thought maybe she was deeper and more meaningful than the other girls [nb: that's because that's how a crush works, boys with guitars] and the worst thing about these basic, rolled-up character tropes is that they come with some implication that because manic pixie dream girls are special, all other girls, all these other people with their real people things are less. All those annoying real things are faded into a muddy background blur against the special, shiny limitedness of the trope.
I’ve always liked Bright Eyes because Conor Oberst’s absolute distilled concentration of the 500 Days Of Summer Boy is so intense that it subverts itself. Is he romantic? Good god, no. He’s, like, the worst. And I know that during each of our manic pixie dream girl phase we might want a boy to write First Day Of My Life about us but can you imagine what kind of suffocating, weird nightmare that would actually be? Someone who placed so much meaning in you that they saw you as a magic amulet?
I know exactly how suffocating, as it happens because like Laurie Penny, I have looked into their faces and been alarmed to discover this person I thought I was becoming super chums with has transfigured me into a symbol. Because they’ve seen a girl like me on TV and they wanted to …I don’t know, be the boy who loved her, maybe? Have that meaningful and sensitive thing? Be as special as the girl was (fictionally, damagingly) portrayed to be? Have their Precious Little Life?
(Scott Pilgrim is a delightful explosion of these tropes)
Taylor Swift plays with this in reverse. She’s toned it down a little (ok, she probably hasn’t- but I quite fancied her in the I Knew You Were Trouble video) but she’s often playing the unusual girl, the one the boy’s not seeing because somethingsomething hair somethingsomething other girls are slutty and brash, somethingsomething Zooey Deschanel and you should be with me, which is what makes it ok to stalk you and murk on your girlfriend, who is presumably not special and therefore, a minor character who can get killed off or something.
Of course, the fucking Spice Girls didn’t enormously help. As much as I love Geri Halliwell, there’s an awful lot of weight to an accusation that they taught eight-year-olds to throw off the shackles of personhood and become a squeaking girl-thing. Like man-thing, only with more hair. Girl-thing was all about your criminal actions (see: the Wannabe video) not mattering because you were “cheeky” and because you are “just having fun” so that’s ok. About you not really mattering as a real person in a real way because you were GIRL now and so you were freed of consequences and responsibility in favour of not mattering. I don’t think that’s how they intended it but it’s a reading I’d have no problem with.
(Comparatively, Girls Aloud’s complex, dense lyrics and defiant attitude were all about personhood, about being rude ginger bitches and girls overboard; oh, band of my heart 4eva)
(See also: Madonna, Kylie, Rihanna, Mariah Carey, Beyonce, the Shangri-Las, Cyndi Lauper, etc.)
While writing this, I started thinking about male tropes- the Strong Mysterious Silent Dude and the Rogue With A Heart and indeed, the one I see most frequently projected by girls onto (fictional) boys; the poor, misunderstood villain. And all of those are about seeing the heart and the psychology of someone, when they’re portrayed in a female gaze and comparatively, the manic pixie is a mystery to our male protagonist’s eyes. An impossible girl, full of holes.
But I am genuinely interested if this happens to people of the male persuasion; whether they find themselves frustrated to discover they are poorly summarised and made incomplete and simple. A challops-y bit of me wonders if that’s why so many people have beef with the Big Bang Theory; finally, a seemingly sympathetic and frequently sweet, recognisable-but-innaccurate-and-dehumanising look at yr menfolk geeks?
I don’t want to be hard on geek boys, really. They go through some shit. And it’s as bad when people assume that they’re all panting, cis, white heterosexuals spaffing over Vampirella as when us ladygeek specialists are poorly hammered into the manic pixie niche. But I do wonder how much the tropes bleed out into the boys? Do they feel like they’re becoming the characters? This gawkish but heroic leads- I used to genuinely and enormously relate to Mat in the Wheel of Time; I don’t know if he’s a trope for a boy, though?
(I genuinely don’t know this! I am trying to work it out- feel free to comment with yr experiences, geek boys; I would like to think of you all as proper people too, I have known and loved many of you)
Which brings me around to the title; I was never a manic pixie dream girl. Not for want of trying- it’s the sort of thing that seems appealling when you’re 14 and hopped up on The Sandman but the basic fortitude was never there. I was That Girl, sure but I was a different fantasy archetype. At 5’11″ and with a good-three-and-a-half feet of midnight hair, there was nothing particularly pixie or indeed, thanks to a steady diet of sulky gothicism, manic about me.
(I’d later cut the hair off with some paper scissors, dye it pink and give the pixie thing a go; it didn’t work, my true trope showed through)
No, I was that other trope; the magic slut. I get actually angry when I see these now- I think I threw something across my bedroom when I read Warren Ellis’ Freakangels and discovered KK at the start of it, firstly because it looked almost as though someone had stolen me and put me in a book and secondly because for fuck’s sake did the magic slut trope get any… tropier?
Magic sluts, you see: we are maternal, competent, confident and brassy where a manic pixie might be interesting and shy, we own a collection of spanners and can be called upon to heft huge pieces of plate glass around on a barge, standing in two inches of water, in high heels and a sparkly dress and come out totally unscathed. We cannot be killed by alcohol consumption, although we might try and then allow the mask to slip and get all emotional for a chapter or so. We provide healing and growth experiences with our magical sexual allure and provide a safe background for teenage boys to bounce off when they realise the trope they actually think they’re in love with is the manic pixie. We’re angry, really angry and yet despite all our competence somehow beholden to some Secret Shame Thing that forces us to pretend to be an extra-decent person long enough that we might even actually be one. Eventually. Some of the time.
And god help me, I’m a technical, legally savvy and business-headed person (I’m a charity database manager) with enormous boobs, a somewhat liberatedly goth dress sense and a good line in angry swearing. I just dyed my hair back to its natural colour, after three years of masquerading as a blonde. I have a degree in, of all the fucking things, genocide studies. I’m rather old-before-my-time and I can use my mutant powers of basic psychological understanding to offer reasonably good advice. I’m bloody made up. If I was in a book, I’d give up on it.
Of course, that’s not actually me. Or at least, not all of me. It’s a series of surface tropes that make me That Girl, if that is your bag. Thing about being That Girl is that I own lots of Dungeons and Dragons manuals and was never allowed to play with anyone. I’m the sort of girl that’s drawn in every comic book and then gets called a fake geek when I show up to a convention all fleshy and inconvenient, like. Being all magical and slutty with tits and mascara and that.
It fucked me up when I was a teenager. It’s hard enough trying to work out what you’re doing when you hate yourself, without being forced to provide meaningful heartbreak experiences to people you don’t want to hurt just because it gives everyone a feeling of self-righteousness. But you’re, like, fantasy hott. So your feelings are all tied up in being special, not human and sad.
As Penny says about the manic pixie dream girl; it’s easy to become the trope, to play this role. It’s still easy for me to slip into it because being body-confident and unembarassed about sex are things I think are good and I’m hardly going to forget how to grout a wall just to avoid tropeishness. Sometimes it’s hard to work out if you’re accidentally being That Girl again, where you end and the trope begins and sometimes there might not be any line to delineate that. And then you look round and the Zach Braff-a-likes she mentions are looking hopefully at you and you realise you’ve been inadvertantly mothering them into thinking they can have some important pubescent growth experience all over your chest. And I still like these boys who don’t see how sexy they are, bearded dudes in longsleeve t-shirts and if it wasn’t that I have a better half at home I’d probably still be playing a therapeutic part in someone’s pseudoromantic revelation.
And because I am, deep down, this thing, what I’m thinking there is ‘well, I shouldn’t be harsh. It’s good for them to have any weird nascent sexual feelings and Talking To Ladies experiences on me, I’m an old hand at this.’ But that’s a professional view on it and my personality and personage isn’t a job role.
(And professionals are real and fully formed people who can spin you a fantasy, with great skill and worth lots but not them in their brilliant entireity, any more than you’d get the whole of me in a meeting, no matter how well I solved your data architecture problems)
(And the boys who I was once this thing for; they’re real people too- they didn’t always see me as a limited fantasy, they were my friends and I loved them, still love most of them. But there was always the trope, guiding some permissiveness or comfort.)
No one should have to dislike or interrogate themselves because of the fear of fitting into a poorly-formed trope and being misunderstood to be only that, because that trope has been so conditioned. Whether you’re a magic slut or a manic pixie dream girl or a sassy authoritarian scientist or any other character you’ve accidentally found playing you, man, woman, child or big, blue furry cat-thing.
The part of Laurie Penny’s article that I really, really liked was this-
So here’s what I’ve learned, in 26 years of reading books and kissing boys. Firstly, averagely pretty white women in their late teens and twenties are not the biggest, most profoundly unsolvable mystery in the universe. Trust me. I should know. Those of us with an ounce of lust for life are almost universally less interesting than we will be in our thirties and forties. The one abiding secret about us is that we’re not fantasies, and we weren’t made to save you: we’re real people, with flaws and cracked personalities and big dreams and digestive tracts. It’s no actual mystery, but it remains a fact that the half of the human race with a tendency to daydream about a submissive, exploitable, transcendent ideal of the other seems perversely unwilling to discover.
It doesn’t help us that media and pseudopsychology condition us to believe that there’s no way we can ever understand people of a different gender to us, that we must wear different colours and perform different rituals in different places in order to level up, that our experience points will vary and that our predetermined skillsets will be weighted in different directions. But this was very much my experience. I am a much more interesting person now than when I was 15; when I am 36 I will be moreso, I might even have learnt exactly how much wine is too much. Maybe when I am 46 I will have learnt to stop getting quite so het up about people being wrong on the internet, giving myself time to write seven novels a year. Or been eaten by a mutated cockroach. The future is an endless and full of genuinely meaningful growth experiences, with real people as they happen in their present.
As a recent thing I saw on Tumblr said; your life is not an episode of Skins. And if it was, it would be really boring and exhausting and you’d hate every one of those fuckers.
Footnote: some time ago I wrote an article about how, because I am an unreasonable and largely unpleasant individual, I found myself unable to do anything other than loathe Laurie Penny for having succeeded where I’d failed, as a writer. It would be reductive of some of my other internet meltdowns to suggest that this even features as one of the godawful lowpoints in my writing career but it’s not something of which I’m at all proud. And because I’m not actually a trope; that was me then. Sometimes I wasn’t nice.
As per trying to be a real person, I am trying to work more on writing things that don’t make me hate myself six months later, so here we are. Sorry but not-actually-sorry to anyone who has issue with that.
(magic sluts hate manic pixie dream girls, of course but then they’re also not real)