Words || Jasmine Phillips
CW: discussion of mental illness, including mention of character suicide in the Manic Pixie Dream Girl section of this article.
Okay, readers, the time has come.
R U OK Day looms precariously closer, with the threat of dudebros everywhere ready to make a mess out of a well-intentioned wellbeing campaign. “Triggered” is forever the satirical buzzword of the right-wing, ready to slam anyone immediately for being emotional. And Tinder dates everywhere are frozen by the fated line; “Yeah, my ex-girlfriend was crazy.”
It’s time to talk about women and mental health in popular culture.
While we shuffle desperately closer to a culture in which mental health concerns are met with empathy and understanding, I can surf “Popular on Netflix” and still come up with the bare crumbs of mental health representation.
Quicker than you can ask “what about the men?*”, please enjoy this healthy dose of actually recognised, researched and evidence-based debunking of popular culture stereotypes surrounding this generation’s madwomen in the attic.
*Suck on my English Major, buddy.
Crazy in Love/Cute and Psycho
Oh, she’s sweet but a psycho / A little bit psycho
I challenge you, dear Grapeshot reader, to be well-versed in mainstream comedy and not be well-versed in this trope.
Crazy Girl is perfect, gorgeous, cute as a button – and absolutely bonkers. She might be the hottest girl our protagonist has ever dated, but she’s prone to unexpected extreme mood swings and overall less stable than the San Andreas fault. Our main character isn’t sure whether to cum in his pants or file a restraining order.
Local problematic fave Barney from How I Met Your Mother gives us a helpful chart to assess the ratio of hot to crazy. He tracks specific women on a graph where the x axis equals craziness and the y axis equals hotness. Dutifully, he informs us that girls can be crazy – as long as they’re equally hot. “You want the girl to be above this line,” he illustrates, gesturing to the line of best fit (shout out to Yas for taking Stats units) running through the centre of the graph.
I can’t tell if Ted’s continued dating of Jeanette (the girl who literally threw the contents of his apartment out the window if she thought he was talking to a female friend suspiciously) is meant to be ignorance or application of the Barney Simpson Hot Crazy Ratio.
Let’s cut to the chase: if your girlfriend refuses to let you have female friends, constantly checks your phone and/or destroys your possessions, you should absolutely break up with her.
But let me be perfectly clear: that is not a mental health issue. It’s a toxic person.
While these can most definitely overlap (I’ve known my fair share of toxic people who are mentally unwell) the critical distinction is that, while mental illness might exacerbate anxiety and paranoia, no one ever has the right to prioritise their unwell behaviour over your rights to friendship, safety, and privacy.
I have coaxed many a mate out of downright abusive relationships for this kind of nonsense. It is truly lovely that you want to help them but take it from your local Crazy Lady (Depression/Anxiety/PTSD flavour): mental illness does not excuse toxic behaviour. If they love you, they will (at least learn to) respect your boundaries.
All this trope does is serve to reinforce extremely unhealthy cultural narratives: we’re teaching people to stay in relationships with toxic partners and teaching toxic partners to dismiss their ex-girlfriends as crazy.
Manic Pixie Dream Girl
Ah, the Ophelia of the New Age. The pop culture trope that not only delayed my lesbian awakening for several years, but also convinced me that I was destined to be the long-awaited reward for a lonely awkward geek boy who “just needed to believe in himself”. The Manic Pixie Dream Girl.
Between the flower crown, the pink hair, the polkadots and the ukulele, the Manic Pixie Dream Girl is the ultimate Quirky Cool Girl. There are so many disturbing levels to this particular trope – the explicitly child-like demeanour, the contradictory cool and universally-desired but somehow unpopular status – but we’ll focus on the archetypal trait of MPDG that many critics are incapable of comprehending.
The Ophelia really does precede this archetype beautifully: a tragic madwoman who weaves flowers into her hair as she sings and twirls her way into the lake where she drowns herself.
Like the Ophelia figure, Manic Pixie Dream Girls are defined by their total lack of actual substance. However, without the tragic suicide, the consequences of the character’s obvious mental health concerns are never addressed. Manic Pixie Girls exist only to pour life back into the soulful, brooding and unequivocally male protagonist. In her fun-loving excitement and dizzying lack of inhibition, she’ll breathe meaning back into the life of the Depressed and Nihilistic main character – while simultaneously lacking any kind of agency, backstory or thought of her own.
This is where critics (especially male ones) get confused: Zooey Deschanel cannot be a Manic Pixie Dream Girl. She is a real-life human being who has played quirky characters. Even 500 Days of Summer can itself technically be considered a deconstruction of the MPDG trope, particularly when it is revealed that Summer has a life (and a fiancé) that exist outside of the relationship with Tom (which she gave very clear guidelines about the entire time, thank you very much).
You can keep Deschanel’s role in Hitchhiker’s Guide, if it makes you feel any better? Along with Ramona Flowers from the cinematic adaptation of Scott Pilgrim, Noelle from Its Kind of a Funny Story Penny Lane from Almost Famous, the eponymous female lead of Elizabethtown, and Penny from Seeking a Friend for the End of the World.
Those of us feminine-inclined people who do suffer from mental illness navigate a truly nightmarish maze of stereotypes that have a visible impact on our real lives. In a world where our representation is limited to a reductive dichotomy of Possessive Toxic Girlfriend vs Manic Pixie Dream Girl, it’s even more difficult to assess our mental health needs and how to address them.
And when we finally can establish some kind of authentic representation of mental illness, maybe we’ll also be able to address the complete lack of intersectionality in representing mentally ill women.
But if you’re going to serve me a half-baked woc character whose mental health struggles become a mess of Manic Pixie/Cute But Psycho/Angry Ethnic Woman rubbish, you can keep your shitty representation.
I’ll write my own story.