Frances Ha and the Death of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl

The Millennial Generation's ideal woman—on the Big Screen, anyway—is already worn out.

For the past couple months, I’ve told anyone I can get to listen to me about an essay by journalist Michelle Orange, called “The Dream (Girl) Is Over.” In it, Orange talks about the transformation of the pop culture feminine ideal, from Rita Hayworth and Marilyn Monroe through today’s myriad American Sweethearts.

After sitting through Frances Ha last night, Noah Baumbach’s new, 90-minute indie comedy about a wayward millennial’s quest for adulthood, I leafed Orange’s book back open, to her description of everybody’s favorite 21st century feminine archetype:

“All two-dimensional tics and self-conscious dysfunction, she is more formula than fantasy, more personality than persona… Having problems and being ‘funny’ [have become] leading dream-girl qualities.”

These women—dubbed the “Manic Pixie Dream Girls” a few years ago—have been populating our screens like ants with bangs for the past ten years: Zooey Deschanel may have perfected the form.  Some (including Orange) date the phenomenon back to Natalie Portman’s jabbering character in Garden State. A friend who watched the movie recently shuddered at the absurd moment where Portman declares that anytime she’s feeling unoriginal, she “does something no one’s ever done before,” flailing her arms around to demonstrate her impossibly unique personality.

Such characters rose in prominence as projections of male fantasies, perhaps, but the archetype exists on its own now: It’s taken on a life of its own.

Which brings us to Frances:

As Frances, played by Greta Gerwig, drags her feet through her post-graduate, New York quasi-existence, a deer-in-headlights expression constantly paralyzing her face, Baumbach positions this flitting, helplessly confused, foot-in-mouth character as (shudder) our new cinematic heroine. Like Orange suggests, this very well may be our new Marilyn.

Part of that has to do with the movie’s classic aesthetic: Black and white, with romantic montages of Manhattan and Paris. Watching it has the weight of watching a great cinematic romance, as though Humphrey Bogart will turn the corner at any moment. No leading man ever really enters center stage, but there are many scenes in Frances Ha that feel nearly as predictable. When Frances spins and dances down a street in Chinatown (an underdog moment reminiscent of both Rocky and Flashdance), it occurred to me that this story, wherein otherwise competent women are so far up in their heads that they lose their footing in reality completely, is its own genre now, as familiar as When Harry Met Sally, as predictable as the Evil Dead.

In fact, I’d say this post has some spoilers, but you’ve already seen most of the scenes in Frances Ha. Humiliation over a declined credit card at dinner (“I’m not a real person yet,” she tells her date as she rifles through her purse for cash); a dinner amongst “real” grown-ups where she’s so needlessly Tourettic you want to reach into the screen and grab the bottle of wine yourself; the resolution, where she finally takes the desk job, only to find that it doesn’t kill her and that the jig isn’t up quite yet.

I couldn’t be anything but bored and disappointed as I watched Frances try (too hard) to charm us with her unstoppable strangeness. With Frances Ha, it seems that this odious paradigm of young womanhood is here to stay. To cite Orange again, “as the aughts wore on, [I felt] a gorge of dread and mortification rise every time one of these painfully constricted specimens motormouthed across the screen. Her rate of replication seemed to suggest something dire about us.”

There is something about this depressing caricature that feels even more oppressive than the bombshells and sex kittens of cinematic yore. Frances describes herself as “undateable,” and she spends most of the movie barricading herself in oddness. It’s a theme we see every week in Girls and New Girl: Smart, lovely women incapable of relating to anyone around them (including, yes, men) because they’ve retreated so far into their own neuroses. And while I used to think this surplus of independent women swimming up the mainstream was refreshing, the more I watch them, the more I think that this new ideal is in some ways even less substantive, and even less empowering, than the ones that came before it.

To illustrate this point is the name “Frances Ha” itself, which is not the main character’s actual name, but in fact what appears above her new apartment’s doorbell at the end of the movie, because the slot for her name tag can’t fit her full name name. It is, like Frances herself, sort of cute, and sort of funny, but mostly just annoying in its incompleteness.