when i find her... she’s a fish
My impulse for today was to write about the so-called manic pixie dream girl. Madison in Splash is perhaps an early prototype for a such-labeled character. But, then I was looking up pieces about those stereotypical cinematic women who, according the the TV Tropes definition, exist to "come along and open [the] heart [of a "soulful, brooding male hero"] to the great, wondrous adventure of life" and I realized something interesting... And not entirely unbelievable given the patriarchy's ability to self-perpetuate: the term coined by Nathan Rabin at AV Club that implied a weakness in "the fevered imaginations of sensitive writer-directors" turned into a way to put down female characters instead of their creators. As Zoe Kazan, who starred as an all too easily labeled manic pixie dream girl who quite literally sprung from the fevered imagination of a sensitive writer in Ruby Sparks (but that character actually came from Kazan's own imagination, as she wrote that film) responded to the label in Vulture:
Well, I am not a fan. ... That term is a term that was invented by a blogger
--and on behalf of bloggers everywhere, I think I take offense at the implication--
and I think it's more of a term that applied in critical use than it does in creative use. It's a way of describing female characters that's reductive and diminutive, and I think basically misogynist. I'm not saying that some of those characters that have been referred to as that don't deserve it; I think sometimes filmmakers have not used their imagination in imbuing their female characters with real life. You know, they've let music tastes be a signifier of personality. But I just think the term really means nothing; it's just a at of reducing people's individuality down to a type, and I think that's always a bad thing. And I think that's part of what the movie [Ruby Sparks] is about, how dangerous it is to reduce a person down to an idea of a person.
Elizabeth Donnelly, writing for Flavor Wire, suggests,
The way that "manic pixie dream girl" has memes it's way adorably through the world is a case study in how a trope can evolve from an empowering idea to a cliché and a conversation-stopper, all in the span of a couple of years.
And she asks:
But was there value to the initial diagnosis? Of course. The one-dimensional dream girl of film, television, and books isn't a very interesting character, once you get down to brass tacks. There's nothing round, nuanced, or person-like about her thoughts, fears, and desires; she's merely a prop for somebody else' story. That's bad writing and it deserves to get called out.
Unfortunately, in a male-dominated industry, male screenwriters all too often write their female leads in broad strokes. (The same is true, with bad screenwriters, of all characters, not just female ones, but the problem is sometimes more obvious and always more insidious when it comes to a female character, especially a love interest to a male protagonist.)
Who is Madison? If you've seen Splash, try to answer that question. What do we know about Madison as a person? There are interesting little details, I suppose. Like another mermaid years later, she heads into a sunken ship; Madison does so to check a map. She sees that Allen likes something--that mermaid fountain--and buys it for him... Which is kind, I suppose. Except she has no apparent concept of money, so that statue might as well be a random trinket she spotted at a corner store. There's a nice thought to it, but that thought is not as big as the visual of that statue in Allen's apartment implies. Otherwise, she's little more than cheap fish-out-of-water jokes (pun intended) and cheap romance... Except, you might as well call the romance here manic pixie dream romance because there's no real depth to the relationship either. Madison is very much a fantasy--a naive, innocent woman, with an adult body, no sense of body shame or "modesty", and an almost absolute attraction to Allen Bauer. They, of course, connected all those years ago when he jumped off that ferry, but what is that but a cheap prelude to the fairy tale to follow?
What is Madison but a collection--and maybe there would be room for something more satirical here in a different film--of impressions, and very shallow impressions at that, imposed upon her by advertisements, upper class department store standards, and television?
As I write this, the lady at Bloomingdales tells Madison, regarding a particularly thin-styled dress:
You want to try that on? Who knows? Maybe it's you. It isn't me. I couldn't get one leg in there. My daughter, on the other hand, is lucky. She's anorexic.
Because that's a nice positive detail. Or another thing that could have played better if the film were a satire. But, it makes no effort to be satire. It makes no effort at depth. Yesterday, I compared the film to The Shape of Water, mostly in jest, in shallow strokes at best. Where that film aims for more meaningful depth about others action and what it means to be an outsider, this film offers up an implication only in Hanks' performance that he wouldn't fit in with too many people. (This despite the impression at the wedding early in the film that he and his brother actually have numerous friends.)
And, because this film wants to time things really nicely for me today, I glance up just before Madison climbs onto the DON'T WALK sign and see a marquee behind Allen and Madison advertising none other than 1983's The Outsiders. Which could have been deliberate... except a minute later, they're in front of a marquee advertising The Evil Dead and Xtro.
Splash is not a satire. The same character and plot could easily be mapped onto a satire in a remake, but the film as it is makes no effort to link itself meaningfully to the real world. In fact, it doesn't even take place in the present day, as most any film that wasn't a period piece would inherently do. After the flashback opening, the film cuts to
NEW YORK CITY
And then the next night is the wedding. The morning after that is when Allen hits his head and Madison saves him for the second time. Later that day he is called to the police station (even though that guy who owns the grocery store chain Freddie said would be there that first morning is only now visiting). The next day, Madison goes shopping. That night she informs Allen that she is in town for another six days, then she has to leave or she can never go home. The film takes place almost entirely in the future.
But, it is a future in which characters exist in broadstrokes to serve the comedy and the only women in the film are mildly deranged after being struck by lightning, victimized by a mad scientist, or naive servants to someone else's story. A naive mermaid dream girl, I suppose.
The previously cited Elisabeth Donnelly explains:
The "manic pixie dream girl," or any half-written "dream girl" character, is a symptom of something being undercooked in art, but she's not the diagnosis. We need a culture where female characters can be written with agency and nuance, strength and weakness, ideas and goals in their heads that transcend something beyond just looking for love.
Inevitably, a romantic comedy will boil down both of its leads (whatever their gender) to some version of "just looking for love". A good romantic comedy will offer up something more. (Return to Me (2000) springs to mind as a good example where the leads have more going on than just their relationship.) But, most romantic comedies aren't aiming for good. Not like that. Romantic comedy is all about the fantasy, wish fulfillment. So, if they are written by men--and purportedly, Brian Grazer thought up Splash while driving up the coast and wondering what it would be like to fall in love with a mermaid. And, he wrote the scene in which Allen gets bitter and sarcastic because Madison won't marry him.
As part of the fantasy.
Laurie Penny, writing for New Statesman, points out the real world implications of perpetuating this sexually-imbalanced shallowness:
Men grow up expecting to be the hero of their own story. Women grow up expecting to be the supporting actress in somebody else's.
Coming on the heels of Footloose, this is interesting for me. Now. Subconsciously tricky back then, when I am just eight. Lone young man can save a whole town from its own conservative predilections even though the preacher’s daughter—who it’s actually reductive to call her that... Ariel should have been able to get through to her father without Ren. But, white cis male is the one who makes the changes. And, he’s the one who wins the girl, whether she’s a preacher’s daughter or a stray mermaid.
Yet, I’m also being told at this time, every day in bible class, every Saturday in church, that the world will be over soon. So, what world was I going to save? What girl was I going to win?