How Paper Towns Falls Short

John Green once dubbed his 2009 novel Paper Towns an attempt to “disembowel the evil construction of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl.” So it’s more than a little disappointing that the sneakily sexist Manic Pixie Dream Girl archetype is alive and well in the Paper Towns film adaptation.

Coined by A.V. Club writer Nathan Rabin in 2007, 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.

Think Natalie Portman in Garden State, Kirsten Dunst in Elizabethtown, Zooey Deschanel in (500) Days of Summer. The Manic Pixie Dream Girl is a paper doll designed to make men feel better about themselves, to serve as a guide and sidekick to the men’s journey while revealing no inner life of her own. Instead of personality, the Manic Pixie Dream Girl possesses a collection of cutesy quirks, such as only wearing blue or pretending to snap photos with her fingers. By the third act of the film, the Manic Pixie Dream Girl morphs into a damsel-in-distress: She’s damaged and needs the male protagonist to save her from herself. Usually, all she really needs is a kiss.

Crucially, Rabin’s description does not actually refer to the woman herself, but rather the male protagonist’s—and by extension the audience’s—impression of her. Women can proclaim Ringo as their favorite Beatle without automatically shrinking down to a stereotype. The Internet peanut gallery has often missed this distinction; the term, shortened to “MPDG,” bashed around the web until it lost all meaning, was declareddead” and eventually even disowned by its creator. Of course, that doesn’t mean the MPDG archetype itself is gone. Far from it.

Like many others, John Green rightfully recognized the MPDG’s sexism, and even acknowledged his own guilt in perpetuating it with his book, Looking for Alaska.

Paper Towns, Green says, is a treatise against the MPDG myth. “I do not know how I could have been less ambiguous about this,” he writes on his Tumblr page, “without calling the novel The Patriarchal Lie of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl Must be Stabbed in the Heart and Killed.” Since Green executive produced Paper Towns the movie, he’d likely want to preserve that message in the big-screen version.

That doesn’t happen. (*Spoilers from here on out.*)

In both the literary and cinematic versions of Paper Towns, narrator Q is in love with mysterious girl-next-door Margo Roth Spiegelman. (You know she’s a MPDG because she has three names and everyone feels the need to repeat all of them, all the time.) Q and Margo were childhood friends, before Q became a band nerd and Margo the beautiful ruler of the “divine right monarchy” that is high school.

When Margo (played by Cara Delevingne in the movie) finds out her boyfriend is cheating on her, she enlists Q’s help in a night of wild revenge. The next morning, she disappears. Q, dazed with puppy love and convinced Margo wants him to follow her, eventually tracks her down to New York. Spoiler: She doesn’t want to be found at all.

This is when the film’s supposed “disembowelment” of the MPDG falls apart.

In the book, the Margo that Q discovers is in the midst of a messy breakdown. She shouts and sobs, struggling with selfishness and the role she plays in furthering her own myth. She doesn’t know who she is or what she wants, and figuring that out is understandingly painful. Q listens to her, realizes he only ever knew and loved his idea of her and, perhaps most importantly, does not fix her. She’s fixing herself. The novel thus fashions two parallel, yet equal narratives: Margo and Q are equally complicated and significant, but Margo’s story happened to take place off-screen.

“Imagine others complexly,” the book warns. Advice the film fails to take, because Margo’s chill façade never cracks.

True, she turns down his proposal of love—“You love me? You don’t even know me”—but Margo mostly listens serenely to his experiences instead of explaining her own. Q kisses her, then heads home alone to rock out at prom. Because her stories remain untold, Margo never becomes truly human. We’re told Margo has changed, but we never see from what or to what or the chaotic process in between. We never learn who she really is. Margo’s status as a Manic Pixie Dream Girl holds fast.

It’s disappointing to watch Paper Towns fail so profoundly at its takedown of the MPDG because its message is important, especially for the pre-teen and teen women at whom the movie was targeted. Young women should be able to watch women as multifaceted as themselves on the big screen so that they may learn that cultivating complexity is both normal and important. As Q says, “What a treacherous thing to believe that a person is more than a person… Margo was not a miracle. She was not an adventure. She was not a fine and precious thing. She was a girl.”

If only the movie actually showed her being a human, too.

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Carter Sherman is a former Ms. editorial intern. She recently graduated from Northwestern University, where she studied journalism and international studies, and has previously interned at Elle and Los Angeles Magazine. Follow her on Instagram at @heyyymizcarter.