Girls on Film: Zoe Kazan, ‘Ruby Sparks’ and the Problem with the Manic Pixie Dream Girl Label

Girls on Film: Zoe Kazan, ‘Ruby Sparks’ and the Problem with the Manic Pixie Dream Girl Label

Nov 01, 2012

Girls on Film is a weekly column that tackles anything and everything pertaining to women and cinema. It can be found here every Thursday night, and be sure to follow the Girls on Film Twitter Feed for additional femme-con.

Superficially, Ruby Sparks – released on disc this week – is another romantic tale where a creator’s reality collides with their fictional fantasy. The typewriter from Stranger Than Fiction transforms from a harbinger of death to a god – one who can create and manipulate humanity, pushing superficial quirks into a real, flesh-and-blood female body. This new person, Ruby Sparks, must then navigate life and love equipped with only the most rudimentary traits, and when she begins to evolve and grow as her own person, she must deal with the figurative shackles of expectation her relationship thrusts upon her.

The PR machine frames the project as an outbreak of couple fever. Writer Zoe Kazan stars alongside real-life beau Paul Dano, and the whole affair is filtered through the eyes of romantic directing duo Valerie Faris and Jonathan Dayton, as the “Real-Life Couples: Costars & Directors” feature explains. This is a spin that, presumably, mixes actual intent with manufactured public relations – whittling Kazan’s complex impulses into the most easily engaging and mainstream compulsions. 

But Ruby Sparks, and the reaction to the film, are anything but simplistically mainstream and straightforwardly romantic.


The Reality of Fantasy

It is easy for Ruby to love Calvin, because she was scripted to love him. Living, however, proves more difficult. She is a collection of aspects Calvin thinks he desires. In her critique of the film, Lauren Rosewarne links Calvin with Pierre Bourdieu:

“While Ruby Sparks makes no overt references to Bourdieu, his idea pervades the film: that we can only ever have an appetite for what we know. That our vision of the perfect partner at most is a version of ourselves. Calvin can only fantasize about the perfect girl by using the points of reference he has. …ideas are still only drawn from the finite pool of what he knows; from what he thinks he has a taste for.”

When Calvin runs into his ex, she states: “The only person you wanted to be in a relationship with was you.” Since Calvin is self-obsessed and can only fantasize from his limited frame of reference, Ruby is a victim of his limited experience. “You haven’t written a person; you’ve written a girl,” his brother warns. Femininity is filtered through a man’s limited perception, and therefore, Ruby struggles against the impossibility of conforming to his idiosyncratic desires and finding an identity in between her random quirks (always rooting for the underdog, having affairs with teachers, avoiding computers, being bad with money, having crushes on Bogart and Lennon). She begins to form an identity around those traits, and Calvin fears his loss of control just as much as he feared having control in the first place.


The Danger of Control

Kazan has stated that if she was “going to write a movie in which a man has that much power over a woman, I have to show the dark underbelly of it or I would be irresponsible” – that “if you’re going to allow the audience to enjoy him manipulating her at the beginning, they have to know what the moral ramifications of that are.” It is this move that wrenches Ruby Sparks out of any romantic framework and into a larger sphere involving the politics of control, the body and patriarchy. The film opens the can of worms, comforting us with the recognizable before revealing the darkness and problematic aspects of our status quo. It can never be simply romantic, because it speaks to real-world society (especially considering the current political battle over the female body), the inadequacies of mainstream cinema’s female characterizations, and how some of the darkest impulses are human rather than uniquely evil.

We aren’t allowed to be amused by Calvin’s mid-movie changes to Ruby for long because those characteristics – which so completely mirror many of the superficial female characters we’re accustomed to – are dangerous. The humorous turns dark, and the initially flawed but well-meaning actions become dark and sinister. The comedy of Ruby unknowingly speaking French at the drop of a few typewriter keys morphs into the horror of knowing you’re being manipulated as foreign words are thrown into your mouth. In this moment, the film is no longer about the idea of having your ideal love – it’s about what that requires – taking away a person’s agency and manipulating their physical form.

The Ending

After such an acute and thought-provoking twist, the ending of Ruby Sparks puzzles. After magnifying the many problems with creating and controlling a person, the film steps back, allowing Calvin to “learn” from his mistakes… if “learning” means writing about the story, gaining success from his mistreatment, and leading him straight back to Ruby (or some facsimile of her).

As the AV Club rightly noted: “Since he retains all his memories, and she doesn’t remember him at all, he’s still in the position of the creator contemplating and judging his work… the film undoes all the work it did to make Kazan a nuanced person in her own right, and turns her into a simplistic prize Calvin has earned by being something less than history’s most selfish asshole.” Without him losing power or her gaining insight, the dynamic hasn’t changed. The piece continues: “Once Dano finally realizes that she deserves to be a person, rather than an object, the storyline rewards him… by turning her into a compliant, accessible fantasy object all over again.”

The viewer is tasked with coming up more palatable alternatives. Perhaps we saw the film version of Calvin’s fictional world, which never really existed – it certainly makes sense since this new girl could never, ever be introduced to anyone who met Ruby. Perhaps Ruby is only on paper, birthed in a forgotten memory of seeing this park girl elsewhere. Perhaps it was a dream…

There is something else to consider. Glenn McDonald argued that the film “tells you how to feel” with “audience instructions” at the film’s end. But it isn’t exactly a happy ending forcing us in one direction. How we see those final moments is an extension of ourselves. Kazan’s film gives us no reason to believe that things will now turn out differently. As soon as Calvin decides to act as if he’s never known her, the cycle repeats; well-meaning will likely turn into danger. Just as he could never tell Ruby she isn’t real in the beginning, he cannot go to a stranger and deem her his ex-Pinnochio now. Yet both options set up the path for imbalanced power and fetishized romance. She is Calvin’s Manic Pixie Dream Girl, for better or, inevitably, for worse.

The Manic Pixie Dream Girl Trope

Originally, the MPDG was one who “exists solely in the fevered imaginations of sensitive writer-directors to teach broodingly soulful young men to embrace life and its infinite mysterious and adventures.” Kirsten Dunst in Elizabethtown inspired it, and MPDG happily clung Garden State’s Sam and Zooey Deschanel. But just as quickly as it overtook the populace, the label fractured into problematic and condescending manifestations. A year and a half after its reveal, the site offered 16 examples, expanding its reach to the likes of Almost Famous, The Apartment and Annie Hall. The designation began to represent any memorably quirky female character regardless of the agency and dimensionality she possessed.

Historically, a great many female characters exist solely for how they help the male hero. One of cinema’s biggest problems has been the shackles restraining women in film. This is the world where the Bechdel Rule is relentlessly relevant, where women become little more than objects to fulfill specific male needs. The biggest difference with the MPDG seems to be her modern idiosyncrasies – the indie music she listens to, the left-of-dial interests she enjoys – which sometimes leads to a condemnation of uniqueness rather than narrow utility.

Kazan, herself, has expressed displeasure in the many comparisons between Ruby and MPDGs. When Vulture asked, she stated:

“I don’t think of her as that; I hope other people don’t think of her as that. I think if they do they’re misunderstanding the movie… It’s a way of describing female characters that’s reductive and diminutive, and I think basically misogynist…. women get described this way, but it’s really reflective of the man who is looking at them, and the way that they think about that girl. Not about who that girl really is or what her personality actually is… I’ve read pieces that describe Annie Hall as a manic pixie dream girl. Katharine Hepburn in Bringing Up Baby. To me, those are fully fledged characters that are being played by really smart actresses.”

At the same time, Kazan wrongly condemns the label because it came from “a blogger,” while actually agreeing with the term’s original point, but she also hits on the term's problems and widely growing barriers. Now, a certain quirky essence or physicality, regardless of the woman’s depth, earns the signifier. She wrote this film to ruminate on love and fight against women being put in boxes, which is just what the MPDG designation does – not only to her character, but to her real-life physicality.

“With her headlamp eyes and crimson bow of a mouth, Kazan has the sort of faintly retro prettiness that might make her a shoo-in for the next 'It' hipster pinup,” LA Weekly writes.

“Donning big bangs and bigger eyes for the film, [Kazan] looks like a diluted version of that other Zooey, manic pixie vet Deschanel,” another blog compares.

A Question of Authorship

We don’t have control over what we create. It’s one of the defining themes in the film and one that extends to the real world. As much as Kazan challenges Calvin’s actions, in a way she becomes him in the real world, contending with our unexpected responses. She denounces the MPDG designation, while others argue that “the film is an unmistakable assault on the conceit,” or “a calculated takedown” of it. She critiques the habit, and the label grows stronger. Additionally, as much as the film is Kazan’s, there is a tendency to refer to her in a bubble outside directorial control. It’s been said Ruby Sparks “loses its nerve,” that she didn’t “let herself get darker.” But the film wasn’t created in a vacuum – the failure of the ending isn’t a result of her solitary weakness.

In a number of interviews, she discussed working with Dayton and Faris on the story. She rewrote the script for months based on their notes, noticing that “their version is different.”  For all the romance-centric spin in the press tour, she even admitted: “There was a slightly different ending. … I think I’m a little more cynical than they are; they’re more romantic.” Perhaps the changes were “slight,” or perhaps this description was said in kindness to refrain from blame. Regardless, she’s clear that they were striving for a more romantic ending than her originally cynical one.

The Resonance

It’s actually apt, however, that Ruby Sparks didn’t end up a flawless example of cinema. Everything about the story, and how it’s received, work into its thematic focus. Ruby Sparks questions the limitations of desire and categorization. It unmasks the darkness of casual misogyny and idealizing aspects of humanity, as well as our desire for control in a chaotic world. It’s beautiful, messy and unexpected, like Ruby, and it’s also a great lesson in the importance of points of view. A male writer might be able to craft a wonderful female character, but there’s no replacing the power of female viewpoints and the fresh insight and critical discourse they can offer.

Categories: Features, At Home, Editorials
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