Greta Gerwig Doesn't Want to Be Your Manic Pixie Dream Girl

by John Boone 10:00 AM PDT, August 20, 2015
Photo: Getty Images

Brooke is on the verge of 30 and dreams of opening a bistro/hair salon/art gallery.

Brooke, as played by Greta Gerwig in director Noah Baumbach’s brilliant indie screwball comedy, Mistress America, is also a freelance interior decorator of at least one hip laser hair removal center waiting room, a plagiarized T-shirt designer, a writer of stories — not short stories, though — an aspiring SAT tutor, and maybe a cabaret singer too, sometimes.

She doesn’t just have jobs; she “curates” her employment. She lives in Times Square -- no, not near Times Square. In Times Square. She talks in that clipped non-sequitur way that no human does, but every screenwriter wishes they could, and says semi-profound things like, “He’s the kind of person I hate, but I’m in love with him.” Or, “I think I’m sick, and I don’t know if my ailment has a name. I just am in love with everything, but can’t figure out how to make myself work in the world.” And she’ll make sure you have the best night of your life. The kind of night that makes you want to live again.

Just don’t mistake Brooke, or Gerwig, for a Manic Pixie Dream Girl.

“Oh, well...I don’t like it,” Gerwig muses when Etonline asks for her thoughts on the “MPDG” trope. “I guess, we don’t like it, right?” The actress has finally taken off her high heels after a long day of press and is curled up in a chair in the corner of a sunny West Hollywood hotel room. “It’s never said in a nice way, I’ll tell you that much.”

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Photo: Fox Searchlight

It’s a trope that writer Nathan Rabin coined when discussing Kirsten Dunst’s role in Elizabethtown, and has also been used to describe Natalie Portman in Garden State and Zooey Deschanel's role in (500) Days of Summer. It’s the a carefree nymph of a woman who exists in the world -- a world often created by a male screenwriter -- to ease the (again, often male) protagonist of his depression and ennui and teach him to “embrace life and its infinite mysteries and adventures.”

Gerwig adds, “I do think a lot of the idea of how they function is in relation to a guy, that they pull some guy out of their malaise and help them like, dance at a party, or something.”

There isn’t that guy in Mistress America, but there is Tracy (breakout Lola Kirke), a lonely college freshman new to the city who calls on her soon-to-be-stepsister, Brooke, to bond. And it’s worth pointing out, one of the very first things Brooke does with Tracy is bring her to a party and get her to dance. So maybe there is something to the idea of a Manic Pixie Dream Sister, then?

“I remember reading something where someone was like, ‘Well. the first Manic Pixie Dream girl was Katherine Hepburn in Bringing Up Baby!’ And I was like, ‘Well, I mean, are we just throwing everybody in? Or where’s the cutoff?!’’ Gerwig exclaims. “I understand why it was created as a term, and I understand why it resonates with people as a way to describe certain characters, but I don’t like that term.”

In fact, you could look at Gerwig’s career as a deconstructing of the MPDG. The New York City women she has become famous for playing — like Brooke, or the titular character in another Baumbach-directed film, 2012’s Frances Ha — may be dizzily manic and have a certain contrived quirkiness to them, but they’re fully realized women. They have baggage and dreams that don’t rely on a man...or anyone. They have fears and failures, all of which are revealed the more time you spend with them. These women aren’t swept under the rug.

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Photo: Getty Images

If anything, Brooke pulls people into her life in order to figure out her own sh*t. She refuses to be a prop for another character’s story, Kirke’s Tracy included. As it was intended: While we may start and end the film with Tracy, the movie was created as a genesis to explore Brooke. “She was a minor character in another piece of writing,” Gerwig, who co-wrote the screenplay with Baumbach, recalls.

“She just had so much steam. She had a lot of things to say, and she was instantly so rich, that we decided to scrap that other project and build an entire movie around her.”

“Something we talked about a lot were these ’80s movies where there were these female characters, like in Something Wild, the Melanie Griffith character,” Gerwig explains. “Or in After Hours, Rosanna Arquette— there is a version where they could fall into that trope of Manic Pixie Dream Girl. But they’re much more dangerous. They’re not just charming. There’s something kind of down and dirty and off-kilter about them, and you fear for your life a little bit when you’re with them.”

In Mistress America, Gerwig points out, “I think it’s pretty clear very quickly that Brooke is mad. She’s got more than a little bit of a touch of madness.”

“All of her damage is not charming, it’s real damage, and her flaws are real flaws,” Gerwig reflects. “It is what it is.” She pauses, then laughs, breaking into a huge smile. “Whoever came up with that term must be mad that they didn’t copyright it, because they would be raking it in right now!”