10 years since Kirsten Dunst first quirked onto screens in Elizabethtown, a new generation of talent is transforming the sexist trope by bringing girls to the front
Pop culture has reached peak Pixie. It’s hard to pinpoint exactly when. Perhaps it was after Zooey Deschanel’s umpteenth flick of her heavy-set fringe in New Girl (reprising her usual stock role, but this time playing for the meta-laughs). It was probably some time before Cara Delevingne launched herself in Hollywood, as she did this summer with Paper Towns – there, she’d find interviewers who wanted her to act as fun-loving and quirky as her character. Critic Nathan Rubin coined the phrase back in 2007, after performing a take down of Kirsten Dunst’s character in forgettable mid-aughts film, Elizabethtown (released 10 years ago this week). His description of the thinly-drawn, unreasonably bubbly love interest caught the imagination of a culture trying to find a new term for all those secondary female characters on film: those girls who “exist solely in the fevered imaginations of sensitive writer-directors to teach broodingly soulful young men to embrace life and its infinite mysteries.”
But that delicate creature has become unwieldy of late. As Nathan Rubin would later write (and publically apologize), the “unstoppable monster” has gotten out of hand, morphing from an accurate term for a misogynist phenomenon of cinema into a misogynist journalistic term. It’s a weapon employed by critics haphazardly, whenever they sense a whiff of Wes Anderson-like twee. But if the Manic Pixie is dead, she shouldn’t have died for nothing. For a generation of filmmakers, all those manic pixies that have come before are a clarion call for something better: film scripts that create fully-rounded, believable female characters. Remove males out of the picture, delve a little deeper into female sexual desire and best friend problems, and the result is female leads whose character arc is entirely in their own orbit. Here’s the five best examples of the new breed of girl narratives on film – with all their quirks intact.
MINNIE GOETZE – THE DIARY OF A TEENAGE GIRL (2015)
“I refuse to be some snivelling crybaby, I’m a woman and this is my life.” With her bangs, flares and penchant for tape-recording her diary entries, The Diary of a Teenage Girl’s Minnie (played by Bel Powley) could be a recipe for a full-baked manic pixie dream. But with its setting in 1970s San Francisco and realistic depiction of a fifteen year old girl’s sexual awakening, Marielle Heller's adaptation of Phoebe Gloeckner’s graphic novel-meets-memoir is a cinematic revelation. Bold and unconventional, the film’s no-fear approach to its subject matter – that of Minnie’s affair with her mother’s much older husband – is a female-fronted riposte to the usual romantic relationships we are presented on screen. And though UK cinemas slapped the film with a ridiculous 18 rating, there’s an argument that characters like Kirsten Dunst’s in Elizabethtown or Natalie Portman in Garden State (2004) are far more dangerous viewing for teenagers: planting the idea in young people’s brains that girls should only exist to help a man fulfill his life arc.
LYDIA LAMONT – THE FALLING (2014)
“We’re quite cool with talking about sexuality in women or boys and men, but not girls”. That’s former Dazed cover star Maisie Williams, dissecting the main problem with what a girl gets to be – and do – on film. She breaks that taboo in a big way with her character in Carol Morley's The Falling, which provides a rare insight into the subjectivity of difficult girlhood. Set in an all-girls boarding school dealing with a fainting epidemic in the 1960s, the film’s brimming sexual tension isn’t between an adolescent boy and the crush of his affections. Instead, Morley’s script challenges you to try and force a neat storyline onto any number of the dark directions that bubbles under the surface: taboo familial bonds, supernatural sisterhood and girls whose penchant for swooning is an essential expression of the constraints of their context.
BROOKE – MISTRESS AMERICA (2015)
Mistress America is the kind of film that doesn’t let you catch your breath – a whirlwind of droll comebacks and inner-city quickstepping, Noah Baumbach’s third film to star his wife Greta Gerwig feels like it is constantly set to fast forward. At the centre of it all is Brooke, a character bursting with the kind of quirks that all women who are friends with other women will relate to. We all have that friend – beautiful, cool, essentially a bit “mad”, who you want to be with all the time. But yes – they’re simultaneously egocentric, difficult and deeply complex. Reality bites, and, post-Frances Ha, Baumbach and Gerwig yet again resist the temptation to make a woman’s existence anything simple or straightforward.
KATRINA CONNORS – WHITE BIRD IN A BLIZZARD (2014)
There’s no two ways about it – like the majority of Gregg Araki’s showreel, White Bird in a Blizzard buzzes with no-holds-barred, hormones-raging, teenage lust-fuelled sex. But it’s the way in which that teenage sex isn’t presented in the context of a boy falling for a girl that makes this coming-of-age tale stand on its own (miles apart from the John Greens of this world). Shailene Woodley’s character, who has to deal with the mysterious disappearance of her depressed mother (Eva Green) when she is 17, rewrites the rulebook of the girl usually at the centre of these thrillers. She spends much of the movie indifferent to her mother’s absence, and delaying the moment where she will try and find out the truth. Instead, her love of her own body and having sex is what drives her: the divine selfishness in this is what makes this a story of the infinite mysteries of female introspection, not of a male trying to project mysteries onto the female body.
DIGGY – DOPE (2015)
In a film already determined to shatter hood stereotypes, breakout star Kiersey Clemons’ character splinters some ingrained cinematic tropes on her own. The only girl in a gang of three, Dope's Diggy is a punk-loving lesbian who doesn’t play second fiddle to the film’s leads. The coolest of all the three characters, she is strong without being a “strong female character” – that is, she doesn’t have to strive for masculinity to be taken seriously. As Clemons told Dazed Digital earlier this year, “Diggy doesn’t want to be a boy, she just thinks certain things are cool that other people identify as masculine. She’s different.” Besides, can you remember the last time a lead female in a gang of geeks on screen wasn’t set to auto-deploy manic pixie dream girl? Exactly.