Jul 13

I was a teenage dark elf priestess

FT18 comments • 5,067 views

This article by Laurie Penny on the pervasiveness and persuasiveness of the manic pixie dream girl trope is really good.

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)


  1. 1
    Somhairle Kelly on 1 Jul 2013 #

    Excellent article, thank you!

    Mat Cauthon is so very much a boy trope – so many of us saw ourselves as the Trickster archetype, easygoing and permanently trying it on with life, finding the easy ways around, getting tripped up sometimes (though I hated the rape scene) and then, when we couldn’t avoid it, letting our natural supreme competence take over and get shit done.

    He goes well with the MPDG, though – he’s almost entirely a reactive character, there to be picked up and whirled around and get his short-range aims done, but all the while waiting for a long-range story, and grousing about getting dragged along by the hot quirky plot.

  2. 2
    Hazel on 1 Jul 2013 #

    He’s sort of a tabletop war game player, too- Rand is like, a big ol’ dude and he’s handsome and ~prophecied~ and things so of course he’s a leader with a big sword and whatever other metaphors. But then there’s Mat, who nearly kills himself because of his irresistable attraction to shiny things and then as a product of that, becomes a military genius.

    I think it’s when they’re at Cairhien and about to fight the Aiel and Rand lets Mat into the tent where him and some experts have been looking at the battle situation (which, to be fair, seems remarkably simple…) and Mat instantly comes up with a strategy it’s taken them all day to guess. And like, of course! I know it’s because of all the secrets of dead generals being in his head but also; imagine a Warhammer enthusiast turning up to look at the table, they’d be in their element!

    (I was a Warhammer enthusiast- I guess my inevitable path to War Studies was unsurprising)

    /Mat Cauthon feels

    (I am still terrified to read the final book in the Wheel of Time in case the last page is just ‘TROLLING! Next book 2015!’)

  3. 3
    Sabina on 1 Jul 2013 #

    Mat >>>>>>> Rand (I haven’t thought of WoT in years!)

    This is funny because I was pretty much a sassy authoritarian scientist.

  4. 4
    Iain on 1 Jul 2013 #

    There are definitely tropes for guys as well, yes. And it’s just so bloody tempting to play along with them, rather than deal with the messy complication of who you really are when you don’t even KNOW who you really are: you just point at the box labelled “Boden-wearing arthouse film elitist wallflower”, “difficult music hipster twat who’s drunk too much and lectures everyone”, “scruffy, shy gaming nerd hiding in the corner” or another of my all-too-easy to reach options.

    What’s worse is that none of them are even “fake” like those self-appointed bastions of judgement on the internet like to term people who don’t like one particular thing at all times.

    As you say, Manic Pixie Dream Girl predates the popularity of The Deschanel. Maybe it’s my Whedon Geek hat on today, but I’d point to Willow and Kaylee as the classic examples that Younger Me was rather keen on. And then I’d spread the net wider to plenty of others in a slightly tragic list. And what do they all have in common more than (usually red) hair in a shaggy bob and self-esteem almost as low as mine was? They’re all sidekicks.

    Right now, I can’t say whether this reflects worse on the writers who use these tropes, or me. Probably me; I was a real idiot.

  5. 5
    Play in Progress on 1 Jul 2013 #

    But then, in Whedon the sidekicks are pretty much always the more interesting people… And Willow and Kaylee get to be people with actual insides and stuff, not just enigmas.

  6. 6
    Steph on 1 Jul 2013 #

    This is amazing, thank you. You’ve added so much to the conversation and given me loads to think about :)
    Love your writing style!

  7. 7
    Hazel on 1 Jul 2013 #

    #4- I’d square that at the writers. We tend to attach ourselves to things that are portrayed as attractive, so if you read a book that itself is romantically describing, say, the slag heaps of a building site you might find yourself suddenly drawn (I’m not talking sexually/romantically, here) to moody black and white photos of industrial landscapes, etc. Romanticisation is a weird thing.

    #5- A creeping problem (that I don’t think Joss Whedon has, although he occasionally treads the line) is when you realise that a writer has thought ‘I want to put in some strong, interesting female characters’ and then you realise that they have just written ‘this person is strong and interesting’ without developing any why or how or personality, hence all these steely sci-fi ladies.

    #6 -gosh, thank you!

  8. 8
    Chris on 1 Jul 2013 #
  9. 9
    23 Daves on 1 Jul 2013 #

    I loved the Laurie Penny article as well and shared it on Facebook – I note that it has caused a few arguments on there, with some people feeling that she seems to be claiming to speak for all women, and others feeling her examples are poor ones. But anyway…

    Where tropes for men are concerned, I think men who are musicians or artists/writers may get them more than most. There’s a weight of romantic assumptions made about what makes “creative people” tick, whereas in reality their day-to-day existence tends to be as dull as anyone’s. I do know one male writer friend had a horribly doomed romantic relationship with somebody who thought she was buying into a bohemian lifestyle, only to end up with somebody who lived in an unkempt flat and occasionally watched rubbish television and got drunk at the weekends just like everyone else. I think she had read and admired his work beforehand, and expected him to float around her house providing poetic insights on tap.

    I think most people eventually learn that wandering around looking for a certain type doesn’t really get you anywhere romantically, and it seems to be something people grow out of. That’s what I’ve always found perplexing about dating sites – they’re filled with a lot of people who think they know exactly what they’re looking for. How can they be so sure? Is that false certainty partly the thing that’s kept them single for so long?

  10. 10
    Andrew Farrell on 1 Jul 2013 #

    Do you reckon that’s a male-specific thing though? I’m not sure that female creators are less romanticised (and I’m definitely not sure their reality is less prosaic!)

  11. 11
    Iain on 1 Jul 2013 #

    I’ve seen both male and female acquaintances do really stupid/dangerous/self-destructive things not because they wanted to, but because they felt it was required of them as “artists”, yes.

  12. 12
    Somhairle Kelly on 1 Jul 2013 #

    Iain – I keep getting that impulse and repressing it. (And sometimes noticing afterwards that I did something dangerous, but that’s a whole nother trope.) I’ve also seen a lot of people get burned out by trying to be The Carer, both men and women – it’s almost as bad as trying to be the Good Disabled Perso, which is such a horribly repellent trope I don’t even.

  13. 13
    Steve Mannion on 1 Jul 2013 #

    Just wanna micdrop on how annoying it is that Primal Scream now have a real awesome lady with a guitar and a fringe in the band…because it probably made me watch more of their set at Glasto than I otherwise would’ve (it being Primal Scream who I pretty much gave up on after ‘Country Girl’…). Instant superficial crush tho – fine to have alongside e.g. the kind you might develop on someone whose art you’ve experienced before even knowing who made it and what they look like.

    A gender mix in bands seemed to become more unusual at some point in the 90s I thought – maybe something to do with the triple whammy of 60s revivalism in rock, young bedroom DJs and producers and how both boybands and girlbands operated in pop (inc. R&B) from then onwards. Something akin to aiming your product just at men (Yorkie) or just at women (Galaxy) despite its otherwise obvious univeral appeal and the way markets opt for extreme angles (not always consciously) perhaps.

  14. 14

    […] in part by Laurie Penny’s amazing article from the New Statesman earlier this week, and the equally thought-provoking response from Hazel of Freaky […]

  15. 15
    @pfangirl on 17 Aug 2013 #

    @Clones694 The Magic Slut is another trope – http://t.co/fq74EuP0nY

  16. 16
    @pfangirl on 17 Aug 2013 #

    The Magic Slut is another trope BTW, if you don’t know what I’m talking about – http://t.co/fq74EuP0nY

  17. 17
    DA on 16 Jun 2014 #

    The tropes (not the TV-Tropes type tropes perhaps, but I rarely use that site) that I felt trapped in as a teenager were, roughly –

    The Monster – see Hulk. See Spider-Man when he loses his temper and nearly kills some villain or other. See Batman when he does the same. They might have good reasons! But they’re still, at least for that bit, a monster.

    The Pick-them-up-and-drop-them sleazebag – like James Spader in Pretty in Pink, or a more intelligent version of Joey Donner from 10 Things I Hate About You.

    And, I guess as a fusion of the two – the abuser. I don’t believe I did anything wrong, this should be said in advance. I probably fucked up out of ignorance occasionally. But constantly was this fear that maybe I really was like THAT GUY. THAT GUY is, well, Joey Donner again, or any of a dozen other short term villains in teen romance fiction.

  18. 18
    lmm on 26 Nov 2014 #

    I am conscious of the tropes that apply to people like me, and I probably do conform to them. But rather than feeling trapped, I find this a comfort; human interaction is hard, and having a framework makes it easier. Of course a tropified view of my personality is necessarily incomplete, inaccurate even – but my personality isn’t something I feel especially proud of (nor ashamed of – it’s just there). I’d rather someone liked me for my talents, my interests, my judgement, perhaps even things like kindness or generosity – but those are variations within the trope, not an escape from it.

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