The entire Twilight Roundtable is here.
The Manic Pixie Dream Girl, as Wikipedia will tell you, is a stock character in films whose purpose is to be free, free like a wind bunny who is free, and also to make the main male character childlike and happy and wind bunnyish as well. Think Zooey Descahnel in…well, just about anything.
The Manic Pixie Dream Girl is obviously a gendered trope. She’s got “girl” right there in her name…and in a lot of ways she’s a caricature of femininiity — childlike, innocent, cute, and, of course, sexy and sexualized. Ergo, there are no Manic Pixie Dream Guys. The manic pixies are always girls.
Or so you’d think. The truth, though, is that there are male characters who function much like MPDG. For instance, take the character of George in “A Room With a View”. Like a MPDG, George’s main function is to connect the main character, Lucy Honeychurch, to her own inner wonderfulness and passion. Before she meets George and his father, Mr. Emerson, Lucy is boring, conventional and worst of all insincere. The only sign that she has depths is her marvelous piano playing, which prompts one bystander to comment, “If Miss Honeychurch ever takes to live as she plays, it will be very exciting both for us and for her.”
Of course, she does eventually start to live as she plays…and the reason is George, her own MPDG, who leaps naked from pools and kisses her amidst violets and divests her of all her stifling armor of convention.
Still, the divesting, not to mention the armor, works a little differently than when the MPDG is a woman. Again, gender is central to the pixie dream girl trope; if you make the pixie a guy, he not only looks a bit different, he functions differently as well. In Yes Man, the MPDG’s goofy femme unconventionality frees Jim Carrey from his hidebound, sexless boringness — she teaches the stultified man the feminine beauty of having no responsibilities. In A Room With a View, the terms are shuffled a bit — a shuffling shown in part, perhaps, by the fact that we see much more of Lucy’s relationship with Mr. Emerson (George’s father) than we see of her relationship with George himself. Where Carrey gets to be a child, Lucy learns from, and gets strength from, a father. Deschanal inspires Carrey to let go of his life; George, and particularly George’s father, inspires Lucy to grab hold of hers. Similarly, in the Lord of the Rings films, Eowyn is attracted to Aragorn even more strongly when she learns that he’s old enough to be her grandfather, because what attracts her to him is in fact his mystical, hyperbolic fatherness; his stature and power and fighting arm, all of which she desires for herself, and so desires in him.
Part of the poignance of the Eowyn/Aragorn relationship — and a big part of the reason the MPDG has more emotional heft when the genders are switched — is because it’s pretty clearly a reaction to sexism. Eowyn speaks repeatedly and eloquently about her frustration with the limits placed on her as a woman — about how she longs to be a warrior and fight for her people and her king, but is instead continually shunted off to cook and tend to children and the elderly. For Jim Carrey, the MPDG is a sop to make up for the fact that his ex dumped him. That sop takes the form of fantasy woman who acts as his ego appendage, which tends to diminish sympathy inasmuch as it suggests that his ex maybe knew what she was doing when she left him in the first place. For Eowyn, on the other hand, the magic man is a sop to make up for the fact that she is trapped by sexism. It’s not a good solution, perhaps (as the film realizes) — but that only makes her predicament more tragic.
Another example of this is George Eliot’s Middlemarch, which is basically a brutal critique of the Manic Pixie Dream Guy — or, in this case, of the Somber Genius Dream Daddy. Dorothea marries Casaubon because she sees him as a kind of intellectual phallus — a quintessential father who can usher her into the male world of thought and meaningfulness. In the event, though, it turns out that he is not the phallus, but a selfish old man. A romantic partner is just a person, not a gateway to a new self. In Middlemarch, other people can’t transform you — at least, not all at once, and generally not for the better. Which doesn’t mean that Eliot condemns Dorothea. On the contrary, Dorothea’s essentially feminist wish to escape her limited circumstances as a woman is seen as entirely reasonable. Looking to a man to help her do that is obviously not ideal and doesn’t turn out well — but limited options lead to less than ideal decisions.
Bringing us to Twilight. Meyer’s story is often seen as anti-feminist because Bella gives up everything — her friends, college, her human life — in order to be with Edward.
I think, though, that this is a fundamental misreading of the series. Bella doesn’t give up her life for Edward. Rather, Edward exists for Bella, in the same way that Manic Pixie Dream Girls exist for the guys they save.
In fact, Meyer goes out of her way to reiterate again and again that Bella’s specialness precedes Edward, and in some sense calls him into being — just as Lucy’s passionate Beethoven precedes, and structurally necessitates, her encounter with George. Much of the first part of the first novel of Twilight is given over to descriptions of how out of place Bella feels among her peers. We also learn that she has always been able to smell blood like a vampire does, rather than like a human — and of course Edward can’t read her thoughts, and finds her scent almost magically appetizing. In short, Bella, like Lucy, has depths. When she chooses Edward, she does not turn her back on her wonderful, magical life — she picks it up.
Edward, then, is less a character than he is an embodiment of Bella’s desire for herself — a kind of projected self-actualization. Meyer’s genius for giving Bella not just what she wants, but what she wants to be, is, then, at the heart of the book’s considerable appeal. Edward is both (old, siring) father and young lover, both dark vampire and sparkly elf, both safe (he’s reluctant to even kiss her) and dangerous, both outsider and — with his weird, incestuous, close-knit Mormon family — insider. Most of all, though, he is power. And that power is specifically the power to get out of the boring conventions of tween high school girlness — the clothes shopping, the gossip, the high school interpersonal angst that Bella clearly loathes — and into adventure and danger and superpowers and magic. If the choice is between going to prom and being stalked by a vampire, Bella would much prefer being stalked by a vampire — as she says at the end of the first book, when she is disappointed that Edward is taking her to the dance rather than changing her into one of the undead.
Again, there’s genius in Edward’s pixie dream guyness, not least in the fact that he is clearly marked as fantasy or dream — as a sparkling elf, who literally carries Bella off into the magic woods. George grants Lucy her own inner passion; Edward does the same for Bella, while acknowledging more explicitly that this dream is her dream. George is a bit indistinct to the extent that he’s supposed to be real — Edward, in being a figment, is significantly more vivid.
This is not an unalloyed good by any means. Edward as wish has the striking, indelible energy of Superman or Peter Pan — or, for that matter, of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl herself. But Twilight is ostensibly supposed to be not (only) a fairy tale, but (at least in part) a romance. In that context, Edward’s transparent non-existence ceases to make him iconic, and just makes him tiresome. Edward as idealized portal to NeverNeverLand has at least the power of its own over-determined longing. Edward as actual lover, though, runs aground in the same way that MPDG romances always do. The MPDG, after all, is not a person in her own right; she’s a trope whose purpose is to help the main character self-actualize.
You can certainly see why young girls might respond to Twilight. Cultural products in which the male ego gets to annex all the world are almost as prevalent as male egos themselves. But cultural products in which tween girls are themselves and their lovers and superpowered sprites as well are much less common. Still, while I can see the charm, I have to say that rereading the first volume was not exactly painful, but not especially enjoyable either. For me, at least Twilight fails not because Bella is erased by, or loses herself in, Edward, but rather because there isn’t ever an Edward there at all. The only problem with that magic pixie too good to be true is that he isn’t true. For a romance to succeed, there need to be two people present. When Bella talks to Edward, though, it’s hard to escape the conviction that she’s engaged in a lengthy and self-aggrandizing monologue.