How Westworld’s leading lady is smashing up the Manic Pixie Dream Girl trope.
In the A.V. Club’s 2007 column “My Year of Flops,” film critic Nathan Rabin first coined the term Manic Pixie Dream Girl (MPDG) in his entry on Cameron Crowe’s Elizabethtown. In the piece, Rabin defined the MPDG as “that bubbly, shallow cinematic creature that 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.” She is frequently seen in independent films where she helps the male protagonist achieve his happiness but never pursues her own happiness. She is endlessly quirky and fun but has no discernable inner life and exists only in the context of the protagonist’s life. The mid-2000’s offered up some of cinema’s most famous MPDG, including Summer from (500) Days of Summer, Sam in Garden State, Elizabethtown’s Claire, and Polly Prince of Along Came Polly.
Almost ten years after these films were released, the MPDG has started to change. She is no longer just a character in a film, but rather a character created by someone in the film who is seeking freedom from her broody men. From 2012 to 2015, there were at least four films that featured characters of this nature: Ruby Sparks, Under the Skin, Her, and Ex Machina. In 2016 however, the woman to attempt to break the trope is coming from HBO’s new ambitious series Westworld in Evan Rachel Wood’s character of Dolores.
Even though just four episodes have aired so far, Dolores’ storyline caught my attention from the get-go because of the similarities it shared to Zoe Kazan’s eponymous character in Ruby Sparks. Dolores is the “oldest host in the park” and was created to be a vulnerable woman with no say in what happens to her. The first episode saw her repeated storyline of her being rescued by Teddy (James Marsden), her parents being killed, and her being raped. In the episodes that have aired since then, it is clear that she offers guests to the parks the chance to help a beautiful damsel in distress, as evidenced by William’s (Jimmi Simpson) arrival and infatuation with her. Like Ruby, whose very presence is controlled by the man who wrote her into existence, Dolores has no say in how she exists and interacts with people, however she is beginning to fight against her programming. She was programmed to “never harm a living thing” yet, the end of the first episode saw her kill a fly and in the third she killed a fellow robot. Those acts are causing her rapid growth in self-awareness to the point where she has abandoned her loop in search of her freedom. Dolores is slowly forgetting the helpless woman she was programmed to be in favor of wanting to fight and protect herself in the most recent episode. She no longer wants to be a passive Manic Pixie Dream Girl and is exploring what it means to take charge of her own existence.
Dolores’ character continues the trend of the post-human woman fighting against her status as just a Manic Pixie Dream Girl and I have no idea where the show is taking her next, but dang am I excited for it. The irony of her, as a robot, adhering to the MPDG trope is just reinforcing its impossibly nonhuman standards it has set on women. Hopefully, Dolores will continue in her quest for self-actualization and be celebrated for it. With the exception of Bernard (Jeffrey Wright), the programmers of Westworld, the park, are clearly underestimating her intelligence and will to survive. Her push against how she was created to be provides tangible evidence that, perhaps, the MPDG trope is finally on its way out of cinema as we know it.