As coined by film critic Nathan Rabin after watching the “human embodiment of a hundred cheesy inspirational posters” played by Kirsten Dunst in the notorious Cameron Crowe dud Elizabethtown, the term “Manic Pixie Dream Girl” refers to a female supporting character in male-centric romantic comedies who exist solely to guide the male protagonist, usually going through an existential crisis, to appreciate the preciousness and unpredictability of life with the subtlety of a sledgehammer to the face. The MPDG is primarily a fantasy construct by romantic-minded beta males who desire an unattainably perfect combination of accessibility, attractiveness, infinite quirk, an adorable reaffirmation of life, and of course, a lack of personal goals and desires aside from fixing whatever’s wrong with the male protagonist. Over the years, apart from Dunst in Elizabethtown, a group of MPDGs have been identified by pop culture, ranging from Katherine Hepburn’s character from Bringing up Baby to the go-to culprit, Natalie Portman in Garden State. The trope even crosses gender boundaries, with the recent application of the Manic Pixie Dream Boy, like Ansel Elgort’s character in The Fault in Our Stars.
Since its identification, the MPDG cliché has been mocked, derided and parodied to death by many film buffs, mainly because they’re depthless creations of the male gaze that expects a female partner to act as their therapist, life coach, mother, and lover all in the same package. There have been rebuttals of the MPDG, in the form of Zooey Deschanel in 500 Days of Summer and Kate Winslet in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, who are introduced in the first act as straight examples of the trope, only to distance themselves from it by applying a sobering dose of reality to the male character by turning out to be their own complex individuals with their own problems and neuroses. It’s hard to find an MPDG with depth, a three-dimensional character with relatable motivation and agenda, who nevertheless is tasked with dragging the male protagonist out of his funk via lively quirks and life-affirming platitudes. Honestly, the only one that comes to mind is Maude from Hal Ashby’s absurdist yet heartfelt romantic comedy masterpiece Harold and Maude, energetically brought to life by the great Ruth Gordon. The character is certainly associated with the MPDG trope, with some articles even deeming it to be the first one in cinema. First or not, I would argue that she’s the best example of an MPDG, and proves that with the right execution, even the most cloying character type can find depth and purpose.
When we first meet her, Maude is far from a young ingénue—she’s one week away from her eightieth birthday—yet she still exhibits prime MPDG behavior. She’s wistful, eccentric, quirky, impulsive, life affirming, warm-hearted, naturally comforting … the list goes on. In this case, her age, and by proxy her wisdom and experience, gives her a marked advantage over the likes of Dunst and Portman, whose fresh-eyed youth and lack of worldly knowledge makes their endless plethora of “sage” advice come across as intellectually unsound and emotionally stunted. Maude, on the other hand, for lack of a better term, has seen some shit. As a result, her embrace of every beautiful moment or thing in life, no matter how small or seemingly minor, happens demonstrating a dogmatic grasp on the finality and insignificance of her existence. Ashby and screenwriter Colin Higgins stay away from long expositional monologues to telegraph Maude’s back story, but the snippets that we get, a reference to a lost love and a blink-and-you’ll-miss close-up of her WWII concentration camp tattoo, gives the audience more than enough to appreciation the cultivation of her current state of mind. While other MPDGs try desperately to turn the natural sourness of life into a saccharine denial of reality, Maude embraces the equally bitter and sweet nature of her existence. She possesses a graceful acceptance of the cold indifference of the universe, which in turn motivates her to spread as much good will and love as possible before her clock runs out.
Which brings us to Harold (Bud Cort), a depressed young man whose only joy in life is to stage elaborate fake suicides for his suffocatingly WASPy rich mother (Vivian Pickles), and attending strangers’ funerals as an outlet for his morbid yet playful obsession with death. In a plot point that could have inspired Chuck Palahniuk to have his depressed protagonists meet cute at fatal disease support groups in Fight Club, Harold meets Maude for the first time when they both end up as casual spectators to a funeral. While Harold sternly examines the sorrow of the deceased’s friends and family, trying desperately to recapture the only time he felt pure unconditional love from his mother (when she once thought that he was actually dead), Maude treats the procession as a picnic, complete with comfort snacks. Maude’s interest in death is not one of morbid fascination, but a graceful and zen-like understanding of the transient nature of existence.
At first, Harold is taken aback by Maude’s out there personality, his sullen and introverted behavior logically clashing with Maude’s madcap and impulsive conduct, such as stealing any random car as if she’s playing a senior citizen edition of Grand Theft Auto and grabbing a random tree off the street to plant it in a redwood forest. Yet as he is opposed to Maude’s life philosophy, he becomes more and more attracted to this crazy old lady, finding a unique order and wisdom in her outwardly chaotic application of free will. Through Maude, Harold gradually realizes that a naturalistic acceptance of death and an enthusiastic love for every bit of understated beauty that surrounds life are not mutually exclusive, and in fact frequently go hand-in-hand. One of the most important speeches from Maude to Harold occurs when she gives examples of people who are already dead, even though they’re technically alive, since they’ve lost the desire to take chances in life. From the mouth of a younger and more cloying MPDG, this could come across as a simplistic self-help book fodder, but Maude’s wisdom and self-assurance ends up being just the right push for Harold to open up to life’s infinite possibilities.
In some ways, Maude is her own independent character who operates with her own agenda outside of satisfying Harold’s emotional needs for personal growth, which makes her an upgrade of the MPDG trope. However, I’d argue that her motivations and goals in life—namely an insistence on living without any specific motivations or goals—is what makes her work as the perfect MPDG for Harold. By taking her every moment with Harold as they go, she inadvertently builds in him a tolerance of life’s many anxieties, including a comfortable self-awareness of death. During a midpoint scene, Maude references her past as a revolutionary, and admits that her revolutions are smaller in scale as she gets older. Perhaps she views Harold’s metamorphosis as her final revolutionary act. The final shot of the film brings this point home with the kind of understated beauty that only Ashby could pull off, as the last line of Harold and Maude carries with it the poignancy of a thousand MPDGs: After teary-eyed Harold proclaims his love for Maude, she holds his hand and mutters with joy, “That’s wonderful! Go and love some more!”
Oktay Ege Kozak is a screenwriter, script coach and film critic. He works as a reader for some of the leading screenplay coverage companies in Hollywood, and is also a film critic for The Playlist, DVD Talk and Beyazperde. He has a BA in Film Theory and an MFA in Screenwriting. He lives near Portland, Ore., with his wife, daughter, and two King Charles Spaniels.