When I first picked up Bryan Lee O’Malley‘s Scott Pilgrim series, I fell for it, hard. Here, finally, was a quirky, beautiful love interest who wasn’t just another Manic Pixie Dream Girl — a three-dimensional girl with motivations and an inner life of her own. (It doesn’t sound like that should be too much to ask, but the sad case is that it often is.) I found O’Malley’s take on the archetype to be just about perfect.
Then Edgar Wright‘s film adaptation came out, and it was hilarious, and inventive, and energetic, and sweet, and… and yet another story about a Hapless Hero and a Manic Pixie Dream Girl. Although the film remained mostly faithful to the main plot of the source material, it had to cut copious amounts of backstory to fit into the running time. Perhaps no one suffered more than Ramona Flowers, who went from a fascinating, complex woman to a pretty trophy to be won.
What was most disappointing about it is that the downgrade felt unnecessary. Manic Pixie Dream Girls abound, but there’s always an opportunity for them to be more than that. Below, in honor of O’Malley’s original Ramona Flowers, are five other Manic Pixie Dream Girls who aren’t.
Ramona V. Flowers, Scott Pilgrim book series
Ramona’s literally a dream girl — she appears to Scott in a dream before he ever encounters her in real life. When he meets her, she’s just as mysterious and adorable as you could expect, and true to form, her purpose is indeed to force him to grow up. But she’s also packing some serious baggage, and not the empty MPDG type. The apparently shallow conceit of having Scott fight each one of her evil exes reveals itself as a way of explaining Ramona as a person — as someone who’s wronged and been wronged, as someone who gets angry and sad and yes, even bored. Although Ramona initially appears as an enigmatic accessory in a tale that’s ostensibly about Scott, we get to know her as well as we know Scott. As they decide whether to take a chance on each other, they come to understand just how large of an undertaking it is.
Clementine, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
From the moment Clementine appears onscreen, her hair tells you exactly what cinematic character box she fits into. Carelessly yet sexily styled, and dyed an entirely unnatural hue, her hair is cinematic shorthand for “impulsive, wild woman who will turn male protagonist’s life upside-down with her complete disregard for rules and norms.” (Also see: Ramona Flowers.) And indeed, she makes the shy, unhappy Joel feel alive with the radiance of her affection and drags him onto frozen lakes to stargaze and whatnot. But Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is about the breakdown of a relationship, not just its formation, and we see how the reality of dating a would-be MPDG isn’t all it’s cracked up to be — in ways both good and bad. Her free-spirited ways chafe against Joel’s more reserved ones, and under the brash exterior she proves herself as vulnerable and insecure as anyone else.
This tender, delicate tale has all the markings of a typical MPDG tale — a lost, broken man falls in with a younger, peppier woman who encourages him to be his best self. Somewhere along the way, though, we learn that things aren’t so simple. She’s a poor mother making the best of a rocky marriage with an absentee husband, and he’s still hung up on his ex in a way that even the attentions of a pretty young woman can’t fix. Instead, they develop a warm, productive friendship, as well as an aching sexual attraction. Once closes with each of them better off for having met, but not because she swooped in, MPDG-style, to put aside all her own needs and work on building him up. They’re both better off for having met a kindred spirit who could offer support and to whom they could offer support in return.
Alyssa Jones, Chasing Amy
And once again, we’re back with a unique, sexy, feisty woman and a brooding man who can’t help but fall in love with her. Like Eternal Sunshine, this story deals with the darker side of loving a wild child — Holden feels threatened with his girlfriend’s crazy past. Before Judd Apatow hit it big, Kevin Smith was the king of overgrown man-children and the improbably attractive women who love them, but Chasing Amy is by far the most nuanced romantic relationship he’s ever portrayed. Alyssa reacts to Holden’s self-centered indecent proposal the way any woman would: by telling him off for treating her like a whore. Approximately 5,000 dorky-guy-meets-hot-girl romcoms later, this is still one of the most mature scenes to be found in any of them.
Trish, The 40-Year-Old Virgin
Lest you think all of these not-quite-MPDG plotlines are lessons in longing and heartbreak — wooing a sexy, quirky lady is far more difficult than Zach Braff and Woody Allen make it look — The 40-Year-Old Virgin tells a more cheerful tale. Catherine Keener breathes life into what could have been a two-dimensional character. Trish is fun, lively, and laughs at all Andy’s jokes, just like a proper MPDG, but unlike a MPDG, she has a real past, a real job, and a real family. The keyword there is “real” — they’re fleshed out to the extent that Trish and her life seem just as real as Andy and his, even if we see less of it. What makes this rosier take work is that thanks to fine character work on both Trish’s and Andy’s parts, you actually believe Trish would fall in love with Andy just as much as he would fall in love with her. It’s just too bad that Trish marks the last time that Apatow and his acolytes made a female love interest worth caring about.
Daisy Steiner, Spaced
Cute, quirky girl? Check. Sad-sack boy? Check. Upended life? Check. The difference is that in this case, girl and boy are on level ground. Daisy and Tim share a solid friendship that makes their underlying romance an unusually evenhanded take on male-female relationships. If most of the stories on this list have explored the darker, bittersweet side of being with an oddball woman, Spaced shows you the more mundane joys and tribulations of same. Daisy can be lazy, ditzy, and exhaustingly peppy, but she’s also sweet, funny, and loyal. Tim, in turn, gives as good as he gets. Daisy is the Manic Pixie Dream Girl taken out of the context of glittering, unattainable trophy and recast as a true life partner.