PAPER TOWNS vs. The Manic Pixie Dream Girl

How John Green's latest dismantles the trope.

You know the type. She’s quirky, mysterious and often aloof, but also kind, funny and can hold her own in a battle of wits. She’s pretty, but not in a supermodel kind of way. She easily achieves the extraordinary, be it through her actions, words or the batting of her eyelashes. Those who know her either want to date her or want to be her. She’s Manic Pixie Dream Girl (MPDG) and she’s a figment of pop culture's imagination brought to life.

Although she wasn’t given a name until 2007, the MPDG has been flitting through pop culture for a long time. According to writer Nathan Rabin, who coined the term in a review of Elizabethtown: “The Manic Pixie Dream Girl exists solely in the fevered imaginations of sensitive writer-directors to teach broodingly soulful young men to embrace life and its infinite mysteries and adventures.”

After something is given a name, it often takes on a life of its own. And since 2007, the MPDG trope has grown and changed. (See: genderbent versions, Young Adult novels, Zooey Deschanel’s career.) But there comes a time in the life of every trope when people begin to rebel against the idea; in fact, Rabin has even apologized for his part in popularizing the term. John Green goes a step further with his portrayal and subsequent tear down of the MPDG in his YA novel Paper Towns (and its film adaptation, which opens this month).

Paper Towns tells the story of a teenager, Quentin “Q” Jacobsen (played by Nat Wolff in the film), who’s in love with (the idea of) his next door neighbor, Margo Roth Spiegelman (Cara Delevingne). Margo -- according to Q -- is perfection. She’s not exactly pretty, but never wants for the attentions of admirers. She does well in school, even though she occasionally disappears on adventures that, when she returns, spread through their high school’s halls like wildfire and are accompanied by admiring statements of disbelief in her moxie. Q sees the fact that he lives next door as to Margo as a miracle along the lines of setting foot on Mars or surviving being shipwrecked at sea. He’s certainly smitten, but it’s unclear at first if his interest in her goes deeper than her surface-level characteristics, the characteristics that make her appear to be, well, a trope.

At the start of their story, Margo ropes Q into an all-night adventure filled with pranks and mischief; basically, the best night of young Q’s life. The next day, she disappears, off on what most people think is yet another of her infamous adventures. When the days she’s gone start adding up, however, Q begins to worry. And when he finds what he believes to be a clue Margo left just for him, he ropes his friends into an adventure that rises to Margo’s level.

Throughout the journey to find Margo, Q and his friends discover things about her that only heighten her mystique. She becomes larger than life and all the more perfect for it. But when they find her, and most of these traits they’ve discovered turn out to be incorrect, they realize they didn’t know her at all. Q and his friends might think that they’re learning about Margo while on their quest, but they end up learning more about themselves and what it really means to know someone. (It is a YA novel, after all.)

At first glance, Margo is a quintessential MPDG. But Green has gone on the record more than once asserting that Paper Towns isn’t a MPGD story:

“PAPER TOWNS is devoted IN ITS ENTIRETY to destroying the lie of the manic pixie dream girl; the novel ends (this is not really a spoiler) with a young woman essentially saying, ‘Do you really still live in this fantasy land where boys can save girls by being romantically interested in them?’ I do not know how I could have been less ambiguous about this without calling the novel THE PATRIARCHAL LIE OF THE MANIC PIXIE DREAM GIRL MUST BE STABBED IN THE HEART AND KILLED.”

Does Paper Towns manage the subversion Green wants it to? Like with nearly everything in life, that’s a matter of opinion. But it’s clear that he at least tried. In the end, Margo’s not the ideal that Q thought she was. She’s a whole -- and flawed -- person. She’s not always upbeat, nor is she magical. But she remains Q’s dream girl, even as he comes to the realization that dreams are open to interpretation.

This was originally published in the July issue of Birth.Movies.Death. magazine. See Paper Towns at the Alamo Drafthouse starting Friday.