In honor of this week’s release of the film adaptation of John Green’s book, I decided the reward myself with a reread of Paper Towns before committing to academic reading as the semester’s beginning looms closer and closer. As it turns out, the experience has given me plenty to think about in reference to my master’s thesis project, so it was really a win-win situation.
Let’s back up a bit. I’m not sure if I’ve written about my MA thesis topic on my blog, so here’s a crash course: I’m writing about the Manic Pixie Dream Girl trope in independent film (click the link for a quick virtual journey to Wikipedia if you don’t know the term). I read recently that John Green said he wrote Paper Towns to debunk the MPDG trope, so I was intrigued to read the book with that idea in mind.
Margo Roth Spiegelman is the book’s MPDG in question, at least in the eyes of her life-long neighbor and the book’s narrator, Quentin Jacobsen. Quentin has been hopelessly in love with Margo since childhood, so when she sneaks into his room late one night and recruits him for an evening of escapades around their hometown, he hopes that there’s a chance of romance. Until Margo vanishes the next day, that is.
Here’s the thing about John Green trying to dismantle any perceptions we have of MPDGs: I don’t think a MPDG is necessarily a bad thing for a character to be. When the term’s creator, Nathan Rabin, first mentioned it in a review of the movie Elizabethtown in 2007 (a movie that is, coincidentally, named for my hometown), he criticized the trope as representative of a specific type of male fantasy, one whose two-dimensional existence works only to help a male character have some personal revelation, and then her purpose has been served. By his definition, MPDGs are “bad,” and I whole heartedly agree that this is a false, fantastical representation of what a female can and should be on screen (if you’re looking for a good example of this, I’d point to Natalie Portman’s character in Garden State, a movie I find rather repulsive).
But this version of the MPDG, in my opinion, is only the basis of the character. It is a foundational archetype, one who can exist in this capacity only, or one who can grow in complexity and depth. This second version (one I’ve been loosely calling the “MPDG 2.0” in early drafts of my thesis work) is the one I’m most interested in, because she is more than a stereotype, though she can certainly embody many of the same basic characteristics.
This is where I see Margo Roth Spiegelman fitting in. Early in the novel, Quentin sees Margo as he chooses to see her; not as a real human girl, but as a projected fantasy that he’s imagined for years. It’s only Margo’s disappearance that makes Quentin start to realize everyone has a different perception of the Margo they know. She is much more than Quentin’s imaginings ever allowed.
It becomes most clear at the book’s conclusion what Green is trying to say about MPDGs when Quentin comes to realize how “dangerous” and “treacherous” it is to think of a person as an idea. Margo sees the same thing in herself, saying she’s a “paper girl” who everyone loves because they can mold her into a different person for their own pleasure. We realize that Margo is more than Quentin imagined, because she is human and exists as something more than the fantastical daydreams of those around her.
So, after lots of thoughts that I hope are somewhat sensical, I have to say this: I think Margo is a MPDG, but she’s a good one. On the surface she’s seemingly perfect and daring and exciting, at least in Quentin’s eyes. In reality, though, she’s human, flawed and insecure like the rest of us. For this fact I thank John Green. If he keeps creating characters like Margo, a pixie grounded in reality, then I’d say young readers are in safe hands.