Ruby Sparks and manic pixie dream girls

Why are women on screen so hopelessly unrealistic? Not always, of course, but I’ve lost count of the number of films and television programmes purporting to show a “real” female character – that is, not  a rom com creation or a fanboy’s pneumatic fantasy – that have gone horribly wrong.

Usually, this involves the women in indie films, where the male characters have been written precisely to go beyond stereotype, yet the women are one dimensional cartoons. Case in point; Zooey Deschanel on New Girl.

As the blogosphere has labelled her, this woman, who is a foil to the agonising male, is a “manic pixie dream girl” (there is even a Wikipedia page dedicated to this). Invariably, this woman is quirky, spontaneous, emotional but adorable; intelligent yet impractical; delightful yet different to everyone else.

She wears oddly-matched clothes, has flowing wavy hair, a small nose and just enough angles on her face to not be conventionally beautiful (but she is attractive nonetheless). She is clumsy, yet endearingly so. She likes obscure music and art, and is outspoken yet accurate in her descriptions. And I’ve never met her in real life.

So it was enjoyable to watch a film that picked up on the failure of male writers to script their dream women in a convincing way. Ruby Sparks, in which a male wunderkind writer (Paul Dano) writes about his dream woman (Zoe Kazan), only for her to morph from mirage to living, breathing girlfriend, features a character that conforms to most of the above specifications.

Of course, she isn’t real; she’s just a composite of what a man thinks he wants and thinks a woman can be. And as the romantic miracle starts to go awry, this becomes clear to the writer and the audience. Written by Kazan herself, the main message of the film is about the possibility or impossibility of changing someone, but the sense that she is challenging the indie film staple – the quirky dream girl – is there too. As is said in the film: “The quirky, messy women whose problems make them appealing are not real.”

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