How Zooey Deschanel’s ‘New Girl’ character avoided the Manic Pixie Dream Girl trope

  • Jake Johnson and Zooey Deschanel play Nick and Jess in the final season premiere of “New Girl,” which airs Tuesday. MUST CREDIT: Ray Mickshaw, Fox Ray Mickshaw

Washington Post
Thursday, April 12, 2018

The Manic Pixie Dream Girl trope demonstrates our culture’s compulsive need to categorize people.

Coined by critic Nathan Rabin, it initially referred to an eccentric female character whose sole purpose is to teach a brooding man to appreciate life – a long-existing phenomenon in film and television, and one that became more apparent once we had a way to describe it. But as often happens with catchy terms, the definition eventually distorted, and every quirky woman got put into the MPDG box. So we assumed Jessica Day would, too, after Fox plastered the word “adorkable” all over promotional materials for New Girl in 2011.

Thankfully, we were wrong.

New Girl has defied expectations over the years, and Zooey Deschanel’s character cleverly subverts the notion that being whimsical and multifaceted are mutually exclusive. As the series’ end approaches – the final season premiere airs Tuesday night – it seems as though the MPDG has started to disappear from mainstream discourse altogether.

Rabin introduced the term in 2007 to describe characters such as Kirsten Dunst’s airline stewardess in the Cameron Crowe movie Elizabethtown. He wrote in an essay for the A.V. Club that you are intended to either hate or love MPDGs – there is no in-between. Dunst, playing the MPDG to Orlando Bloom’s depressed shoe designer, fell into the former category. Natalie Portman, who had similarly stepped into the role for Zach Braff’s lonely actor in the 2004 film Garden State, fell into the latter.

Portman played Sam, one of the most frequently used examples of an MPDG and a pathological liar who blurts out every thought that passes through her troubled mind. But we don’t get to explore the deeper reasoning behind her behavior; we are exposed only to her eccentricity and girlishness. Sam exists to expose Braff’s restrained character, Andrew, to meaningful life experiences and cool bands like the Shins.