Here follow spoilers for Harold and Maude.
I just watched Harold and Maude for the first time, and as I watched it I became preoccupied with wondering if Maude is the original Manic Pixie Dream Girl. The term was coined by Nathan Rabin in a review of Elizabethtown, Cameron Crowe’s widely panned 2006 romantic comedy:
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. The Manic Pixie Dream Girl is an all-or-nothing-proposition. Audiences either want to marry her instantly (despite The Manic Pixie Dream Girl being, you know, a fictional character) or they want to commit grievous bodily harm against them and their immediate family.
Kirsten Dunst in E-town is of course the archetypal MPDG, but there have been many, and every feminist film-lover has their least favorite. Mine is Natalie Portman’s Sam in Garden State. (To be fair, Garden State made me want to manic-pixie-dream-kill myself from beginning to end, so describing any component of it as my least favorite thing is a bit of a cop-out.) Sam, like any good MPDG, exists within the universe of the film to save Depressed Male Protagonist from himself. She is adorably quirky; insightful like a fortune cookie the depressed male protagonist hasn’t eaten yet; passionate, often irrationally and unreasonably so; and flawed in a “unique” way that only makes him love her more and want to save her back (though of course we never see that part). You should know that the simple fact of writing this paragraph has made me want to break shit.
Criticizing female characters in mainstream films for being two dimensional can get circular fast. In point of fact, very few film characters of either gender are three-dimensional, and so one quickly finds oneself criticizing movie characters as a concept. That’s not what I’m interested in doing here. The primary objection to MPDGs – or at least, my primary objection – is their almost Magical-Negro-like devotion to helping emotionally flaccid protagonists become tumescent with meaning without any clear sign of what’s in it for them. (Get it? Get it? I’ll wait.) This is both a broadly negative message to send into the world and a fucking boring and reductive way to depict women in media. Rich, multifaceted women with huge, ugly character flaws – that is to say, women just like you and me – are way more fun and interesting to watch than adorable, quirky MPDGs whose character flaws are portrayed as lovable and charming. (This, incidentally, is what I love about Judd Apatow’s women, and why I have no patience for criticisms of them. Hey, I think I just figured out my next blog post! Cool.)
So, Maude. She definitely fulfills several MPDG criteria: quirky as shit, no real goals outside of a devotion to Harold’s self-improvement, adorably flawed in charmingly-portrayed ways, full of well-phrased insights. Several people before me have suggested that she fits the bill. While it’s tempting to make that argument, I think two factors put Maude squarely outside the MPDG box: her age and her suicide.
Above, I described MPDGs as “insightful like a fortune cookie.” Part of why their wisdom feels so forced is that they’re usually young. When they drop their wisdom pearls, it’s like, okay homegirl, you are like 25. You don’t know much about much. I know, because I am 24 and also don’t know much about much. That is how it feels even if they’re totally right. On the contrary, when Maude says, “Vice, virtue. It’s best not to be too moral. You cheat yourself out of too much life. Aim above morality. If you apply that to life, then you’re bound to live life fully,” it’s being spoken by someone who, we are given to believe, has been living life fully for 79 years. She knows whereof she speaks. Maude is flawed and nuts and probably slightly deranged, but she knows who she is. Unlike Sam, or pretty much any other MPDG I can think of, she isn’t looking to complete herself through completing Harold. She’s looking to complete Harold because she thinks he deserves it. Maude’s age makes her quirkiness seem less feigned and her aimlessness earned. When your MPDG is an old woman, her otherwise-erratic choices and actions become the fulfillment of a life well-lived rather than the manic behavior of a young person desperately seeking self-definition.
The other, and ultimately more important, element that puts Maude outside the MPDG category is her suicide. When Maude kills herself on her 80th birthday, it’s the ultimate statement of independent agency (something MPDGs either lack or sublimate to their partner’s desires). Moreover, it clarifies the degree to which taking up with Harold was a lark for Maude, if a deeply-felt one; at no point do we see her considering a deviation from her plan. Maude knows who she is, and that is a woman who loves life but chooses not to live it beyond 80. (Apparently, an earlier version of the script implied early-stage dementia.) Her love for Harold is one small, if exciting, event in her long, long life. So: no. An MPDG Maude is not.
If you’re interested in reading more about MPDGs, or the portrayal of women on-screen in general, here’s a link round-up that I used in writing this.
Wild things: 16 films featuring Manic Pixie Dream Girls by Donna Bowman, Amelie Gillette, Steven Hyden, Noel Murray, Leonard Pierce, and Nathan Rabin at The Onion A.V. Club
Forever Your Girl by Holly Welker at bitch
The Bataan Death March of Whimsy Case File #1: Elizabethtown by Nathan Rabin at The Onion A.V. Club
Manic Pixie Dream Girl at TV Tropes
Manic Pixie Dream Girls Are The Scourge Of Modern Cinema by Jessica G. at Jezebel
Manic Pixie Dream Girls: A Cinematic Scourge? by Neda Ulaby at NPR
Soapbox by The Petite Sophisticate