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How I got ‘Manic Pixie Dream Girl’ into the Oxford Dictionary

Not too long ago, I took to the cyberpages of Salon to apologize for creating the phrase "Manic Pixie Dream Girl" and to call for its death ('cause if you're not going to be ridiculously hyperbolic, why even be on Salon?). At the time, my reasoning seemed sound. I had created the phrase in a 2007 essay about the film Elizabethtown to describe a puzzlingly pervasive cinematic archetype: the endlessly effervescent, motormouth life-lover who cheers up morose, sad-sack protagonists in movies such as Elizabethtown and Garden State.

I coined the phrase to call out the inherent sexism of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl archetype, the way the trope pretends to romanticize and deify the exquisite mystery of womanhood at its most ebulliently whimsical while robbing these characters of their fundamental humanity and reducing them to gorgeous props to help men find themselves and their lust for life.

Yet something I created to criticize sexism in all of its forms, particularly the disingenuous and faux-celebratory, quickly became a tool to attack all female characters who were quirky, goofy and wild. And I came to feel terrible about coining a phrase guaranteed to make every actress asked about whether the character they're playing qualifies as a Manic Pixie Dream Girl feel innately defensive. I would not want to go on a press tour and have journalists ask me what it feels like to play a thinly conceived male fantasy figure with no internal life or agency that hews neatly into regressive gender roles. I fully understand why actresses such as Kirsten Dunst and actress/writer Zoe Kazan resented being asked about playing Manic Pixie Dream Girls.

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Yet on Thursday morning, when I discovered that the Oxford Dictionary was going to include "Manic Pixie Dream Girl" in this year's crop of new phrases, alongside such glorious contributions to the vernacular as "butthurt," "mic drop," "awesomesauce" and "manspreading," I felt an overwhelming surge of pride. Part of that is attributable to ego: I'm a freelance writer who lives in his in-laws' basement so the idea that a silly idea I came up with eight years while writing about a silly movie would acquire so much cultural currency that the freaking Oxford Dictionary would consider it worthy of entering its official lexicon is incredibly flattering and surreal.

But time has also given me a new perspective on the venerability of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl. I realize now that it's much bigger than me. When you release an idea like that out into the world, you have no control over how it's used, or misused. Once a phrase or an idea catches fire the way Manic Pixie Dream Girl did, it takes on a life of its own. I must admit I enjoyed when I stopped being identified as the creator of the term every time it was used. People would sometimes ask if I was offended not to be identified, and I can assure you that I have plenty of problems, but not being associated in the public mind with the phrase "Manic Pixie Dream Girl" strongly enough is not one of them.

Inclusion in the Oxford Dictionary is the universe's ultimate sign that the Manic Pixie Dream Girl belongs to the world and not to me, so I am now officially setting her free. It's frustrating to see the term serve sexist purposes, but I am never going to be able to police how it's used or misused. That's not my role. It is now part of the cultural conversation. I called for its death not too long ago, but now that it looks like it is officially here to stay, my attitude is more one of ambivalent pride mixed with weary acceptance. As a writer, you strive to create something that lasts, and while I would prefer that my books would be my legacy (largely because I would benefit financially from that), I happily accept that my enduring legacy will most likely be this strangely useful, easily misused and perversely unkillable idea.

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