Fox’s new sitcom, New Girl, has been marketed with the kind of tagline that just invites mockery: “Simply adorkable.” It’s as if the network was telling potential viewers, “Hey, don’t take this show too seriously.” Perhaps that’s why so much of the pre-air and post-air conversation about the show, from both critics and regular viewers, has been dismissive, pigeonholing its central character, Jess (Zooey Deschanel), as a manic-pixie-dream-girl (MPDG) fantasy for male hipsters, without further analysis.
Full disclosure: I enjoyed New Girl. That is to say, I liked it, but I didn’t adore it. (Adork it?) But I’m not leaping to the show’s defense here. People are allowed to like what they like and dislike what they dislike. What concerns me is that aforementioned dismissive attitude towards the show. It’s disconcerting when it comes from viewers and even more so when it comes from critics. When the conversation about New Girl has been reduced to talking about whether or not it fits a TV trope, we’re not really discussing the show anymore. Instead, we’re discussing the validity of a trope, trying to lend false objectivity to what should really be a matter of opinion. It’s not even a clear conversation, because there doesn’t seem to be agreement about what a “manic pixie dream girl” is. If this “reductio ad tropium” – pardon my Dog Latin – becomes the new norm, then it has profoundly disturbing implications for the state of television criticism and online television discussion as a whole.
What is a manic pixie dream girl?
No really, that’s a serious question. Is it a mentally-disturbed oneiric sprite? Or is it a harmless, quirky young woman who daydreams about unicorns and rainbows? Ask someone else that question, and you might get a different answer entirely. There doesn’t seem to be much agreement on what an MPDG is; one person’s MPDG is another person’s regular character. Words and phrases tend to take on a life of their own on the Internet, overused and misused in so many different contexts to the point that their original meaning is forgotten. Take the phrase “Mary Sue,” for example, which depending on whom you ask can mean anything from a fanfiction writer’s self-insertion into her story to a character with no recognizable flaws. Or, as another example, look at the word “angst.” Its constant misuse on the Internet probably has Noah Webster rolling in his grave. MPDG isn’t yet in the territory of either of those two terms, since most people tend to agree that an MPDG is quirky or free-spirited, but any nuance that could be gained from converging on a definition – or from actually discussing the character in question in detail – is lost.
But let’s say, for argument’s sake, that we could agree on a definition for MPDG. For that, we turn to TV Tropes, widely regarded as the most reputable catalogue of television tropes. The website defines “manic pixie dream girl” as follows:
Let’s say you’re a soulful, brooding male hero, living a sheltered, emotionless existence. If only someone — someone female — could come along and open your heart to the great, wondrous adventure of life… Surprise! It’s the Manic Pixie Dream Girl to the rescue! The Manic Pixie Dream Girl is there to give new meaning to the male hero’s life. She’s stunningly attractive, high on life, full of wacky quirks and idiosyncrasies (generally including childlike playfulness and a tendency towards petty crime), often with a touch of wild hair dye. She’s inexplicably obsessed with our stuffed-shirt hero, on whom she will focus her kuh-razy antics until he learns to live freely and love madly. From the girl’s perspective, this trope becomes Single Woman Seeks Good Man, though whether the hero qualifies varies.
New Girl, and its central character, Jess, clearly don’t fit this trope. For one thing, Jess is the protagonist, not a female character who exists solely in service of a male hero, and she’s the one who needs her three male roommates to “fix” her, so to speak. If anything, New Girl is built around a reversal of the MPDG formula. But for some reason, many Internet users have decided that any character Zooey Deschanel plays must be an MPDG, and they have decided to apply this incorrect analysis to her new show. Because an MPDG is supposed to be “stunningly attractive” and serve as a romantic interest, many people have trouble believing that a character played by someone as good-looking as Deschanel would be unlucky in love. But Jess isn’t an MPDG. She’s not portrayed as a male fantasy. She’s supposed to be unlucky in love; indeed, that’s the show’s premise! (Moreover, the idea that good-looking people can’t be unlucky in love is borderline sexist, because it implies that women need only to make themselves attractive to be romantically successful and that men will pursue anyone who is physically attractive.) Incorrectly applying a trope to a show can lead one to make false conclusions about it, and in the case of New Girl, the MPDG is actually the opposite of what’s happening on the show.
Now, let’s say, again for argument’s sake, that New Girl indeed did fit the MPDG trope. (Or that “MPDG” were redefined to fit Jess and New Girl, whatever is less costly for your mind.) Dismissing the show as nothing more than the story of an MPDG does a disservice to those who want to participate in online television discussion, and it’s all the worse when it comes from TV critics. Calling Jess an MPDG tells me nothing about the merits and flaws of New Girl. It doesn’t tell me whether or not I would want to watch New Girl. It doesn’t tell me that New Girl is well-acted and good at characterization, but it needs to improve in the joke-writing department. In fact, it doesn’t tell me anything other than that Jess might be an MPDG. So what?
It’s fine to discuss which tropes a story follows and which ones it doesn’t. Classifying shows according to tropes is a worthy part of television analysis. But classification isn’t criticism. It can’t and shouldn’t replace criticism. At best, it’s uninformative to reduce programmes to tropes; at worst, it’s lazy and counterproductive. When shows are dismissed solely for the tropes that they employ, it creates a culture in which programmes are rewarded not for actually being good, but for being unique or for reinventing the wheel. In this environment, ambition is valued over execution. But it isn’t true that a unique programme is necessarily good, nor is it true that a more typical or trope-filled one is necessarily bad. In fact, TV Tropes even warns readers that tropes are tools; they’re not inherently good or bad.
I can understand the desire to classify shows by tropes. It’s human nature to want to organize and categorize things, and even if classification can’t help us think about television critically, it can help us talk about TV. Last TV season saw no fewer than six new shows about people in various stages of their romantic lives, dubbed “relationship sitcoms.” Despite the fact that they had wildly different tones and sensibilities, I could see why their similar subject matter would make people want to lump them together (though it did result in Happy Endings being unfairly dismissed until long after it had improved from its shaky pilot). However, because those shows were viewed as copycats of one another, the entire “relationship sitcom” concept was summarily dismissed. We might be witnessing the same phenomenon with this season’s new crop of “mancession”-themed shows. Much of the conversation surrounding those programmes has been about the stupidity of the “mancession” concept rather than the quality of the the programmes themselves.
If all those shows were dismissed for adhering too closely to a trope to which other shows were adhering, then it seems strange to do the same to New Girl. I can’t think of a single other supposed “manic pixie dream girl” sitcom premiering on American network television this season. If those other shows were dismissed for not being unique, isn’t it ironic, then, to dismiss New Girl for being unique? I mean, if there are no other MPDG shows out there, is the MPDG even really a trope?
Unfortunately, very few people seem to be willing to discuss those questions. The Internet and the critical press have latched onto the idea that New Girl is a show about an MPDG, which for some reason is a bad thing, and that’s that. But saying so doesn’t tell me anything about the show, nor is it necessarily accurate. In fact, it might even mean different things to different people! If this is the direction in which TV criticism is moving, towards uninformative classification and away from deeper analysis, then there’s no point in discussing television online anymore. Any Tom, Dick, or Harry can spend an afternoon browsing the TV Tropes website reducing any show to a collection of tropes. The people who read the critical press and participate in online discussion deserve better. If TV criticism continues in this direction, towards making value judgments based solely on tropes, then I might have to dismiss it as having “jumped the shark.”