Laurie Penny’s article for the New Statesman, “I Was a Manic Pixie Dream Girl,” and the ensuring conversations I had with friends about it, spoke to a specific type of erasure women all too commonly encounter: many of my female friends recall experiences similar to Penny’s, where former boyfriends expected them to expend emotional labor “fixing” them, while these men wouldn’t lift a finger trying to find out about the smart, dedicated, and driven women I knew they were underneath the surface.
You may be wondering why I even care about the Manic Pixie Dream Girl archetype, which, as black feminist writers have noted in the past, is almost exclusively a white archetype. What resonated with me was the critique’s concern with projection, and how that projection has real-life consequences for women.
Central to Penny’s argument is the assertion that the stories we tell matter, and inform the social roles we end up playing. Because girls only see themselves playing supporting roles, especially in film, they, in turn, conform to those roles in real life. By contrast, men’s autonomy and self-actualization has endless cultural representation, and is too often built on the backs of archetypes like the manic pixie dream girl (as well as people of color, I might add). Even though women constitute 52% of movie theatre audiences, lack of representation both behind and in front of the camera, as well as conservative ideas about what audiences want to see continue to translate to limited narratives for female characters.
For Penny, finding her identity as a political writer may have had the consequence of driving away men who were looking for her to fill the role of fictitious girl-muse, but Penny feels casting her own spells is worth the compromise. She writes: “What concerns me now is the creation of new narratives, the opening of space in the collective imagination for women who have not been permitted such space before, for women who don’t exist to please, to delight, to attract men, for women who have more on our minds.”
Finding positive models to articulate my identity has been a challenge I’ve faced my entire life. As a quiet, awkward black teenager, I didn’t see people like me on television or in movies. I had to build an oppositional narrative for myself on suburban Long Island, even as the story I crafted at the time was deeply self-hating. That story was built on accommodating white people’s comfort, making myself smaller in the process. Feminism provided a way out of the partially self-imposed cage of internalized racism, and gave me the means to reaffirm myself. From Rebecca Solnit’s definitive essay on mansplaining to the phenomenon of gaslighting, I learned how to center my experiences and articulate truths about interpersonal power dynamics that made me uncomfortable.
Structurally, culturally, and interpersonally, men take up a lot of space. For years, I never questioned their entitlement. Instead, I chose to defer to men, to accept their opinions as correct and legitimate in comparison to my own. (But afterward, I’d review the conversation in my head and find myself thinking, “Hey, wait a minute…”) Living in a world where my experiences weren’t seen as reliable for a matrix of reasons – my race, my gender, or my age – I eventually internalized the lesson that I was wrong, I was unreliable.
This combination of entitlement, projection (of who I am, and whose experiences get to be legitimate) and erasure gets to the heart of why I no longer find it safe to pursue interpersonal relationships with men. It’s too easy to fall back into the automatic habits of doubting my own experiences just so a man doesn’t feel uncomfortable, a courtesy that is never extended back to me (or any other woman, I’m sure.) These behavioral patterns are incredibly self-hating, and emotionally draining. Like Penny, I’m no longer interested in dumbing myself down or doubting myself to assure men of their superiority.