Muses Wanted: Inquire Everywhere
Remember The Princess Diaries with Anne Hathaway, Hilary Duff’s career-defining role in Lizzie McGuire, or Alexis Bledel and her impressive pratfall as Lena in the Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants films? In the early 2000s, these clumsy characters told equilibrium-challenged chicas like myself that somehow, though we’re not quite sure why, being a klutz is endearing. Falling over: hot. Tripping on every curb: magnetic. Yeah, because I’ve never felt sexier than that time when I took a nosedive off the trampoline. Although it is encouraging to think that maybe some (super attractive, wealthy, witty, even royal) people are attracted to those of us who don’t always put our literally best foot forward, I’m glad the trope of the Girl Who Falls Over has gracefully left the scene. We all know it was a lie. Polite people will help the fallen damsel regain her center, but that doesn’t mean a whirlwind affair is inevitable. It’s more likely that she’ll get an honorable mention at the rescuer’s dinner table later that night as “a girl who fell over.”
In recent years it seems the Girl Who Falls Over has been edged out by her neighbor trope—the girl next door perhaps?—the Manic Pixie Dream Girl (MPDG). Rather than proving that the physically incapable woman is indeed lovable, too, dammit!, critics such as Feminist Frequency‘s Anita Sarkeesian suggest that the MPDG, sometimes a bit awkward, functions as a supporting character to the heroic male lead. Sarkeesian says of the hero, “Sometimes all that pressure of running the entire world really gets them down. Enter the Manic Pixie Dream Girl, the shining beacon of childlike joy that will rejuvenate our fallen hero . . . to help the usually white and definitely straight male hero to loosen up and enjoy life.” She goes on to say, “She [MPDG] really has no life of her own. She has no family, or interests, or much of a job that we ever see.” The editors at the refreshingly snarky blog Jezebel describe these characters, whom they have “long despised,” as “ideal muses whose beauty, sweetness and gentle, studied eccentricity renders them entirely docile.”
Yikes. There’s not a lot of love for the trope Nathan Rabin first defined 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.” Natalie Portman’s townie Sam in Garden State, Kirsten Dunst as the spunky southern flight attendant Claire in Elizabethtown, “Penis!” shouting Zooey Deschanel as Summer in (500) Days of Summer (and everything else she has acted in since then), Kate Winslet as the neon-haired Clementine in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind: all these characters, as MPDGs, are, according to Sarkeesian and Co., poor representations of real women that perpetuate the age-old stereotype of the childlike female muse.
Sarkeesian rightly points out that, historically, as the person who coaxes the male lead from his misery and inspires him to live and pursue the work he loves, the MPDG has been problematically and unrealistically a muse who seems to be without her own purpose. Concluding her video blog on the topic, Sarkeesian tells Hollywood filmmakers: “Women are not here for men’s inspiration, or celebration, or whatever else. We are musicians, and artists, and writers with our own creative endeavors . . . But you wouldn’t know that from the Manic Pixie Dream Girl trope. . . . So, Hollywood . . . how’s about you stop using us as your muse and start writing us as real people.”
The problem I think Sarkeesian sees with the representation of women à la the Manic Pixie Dream Girl is based on the empirically strengthened assumption that a muse essentially has no voice of her or his own but is instead the pliable object of the inspired one. Irish poet Eavan Boland, among others, has pointed out this same problem, for certainly muses have had a long history of silently evoking the artist’s aesthetic or the poet’s sentiment, and women have had a long history of being muses. Of being talked about rather than talking. But there’s got to be a way to be inspired without exploiting people, because it happens in real life, and not just in arts and literature. People are inspired by other people all the time. Sometimes we tell them and sometimes we don’t. As Anne Lamott says, just write; we can worry about libel later. Or, we could say learn to be happy now, and be sure to view the person who helped you as a full person now, too.
Here’s my problem with quickly hating the Manic Pixie Dream Girl. I once was her.
Can’t say for sure whether I’ve been anyone’s muse, but I did, not long ago, see the world with childlike wonder. And instead of being thoroughly grateful for my experience-earned layers of cynicism, I’d kind of like to think that way again. Of course I internally roll my eyes when I hear women in their early twenties (or older) speaking wistfully in extra high voices or when I see them wearing a baby doll dress and a headband, but I’m trying to be less critical of these expressions. I don’t think grown adults should dumb themselves down or be incompetent at common real world tasks, like paying their bills on time, or spout optimistic jargon they don’t believe in, but the Manic Pixie Dream Girl in all her simplicity is a complicated representation of femininity that betrays both culturally masculine (and straight) desires to meet a whimsical woman, and culturally feminine desires to help and/or inspire someone. The fact that these are culturally popular desires and characteristics does not nullify their manifestations in real women, real men, and real relationships, of the Manic Pixie Dream variety or not.
Whimsy aside, I have also been that friend who tells a guy bluntly to stop talking about hating his job and hop on a plane to a place he’s never been, or to stop living according to other people’s expectations and try something new. Because I want my friends to be happy. Because I have high hopes for them. Does this mean that if they take my advice they are using me? If, by some (unlikely) chance they write a poem about me, am I simplified to a literary trope? If sometimes I feel unappreciated, does that mean my friendships are worthless? Does being encouraging, optimistic, and a little wacky render a person entirely docile? In some cases probably yes. I know I’ve manically pixied myself into some less than egalitarian situations, but I’ve also been able to help friends—male and female—when they’ve needed me and I’m not going to keep a tally of “who has the most power now.” The fact that I can choose to give seems empowering to me.
So, being the non-manic-somewhat-pixie-dream-girl that I am, I’ve written a crappy poem, quite hastily, about the problem of being a muse, because that seems like the most fitting response. Of course I have. Laugh all you want; I am. Pardon WordPress’ strange formatting.
You may, without written consent, evoke my mouth,
make it soft and rosy, dewy even if you wish,
ever ready to open with a kiss for you alone
as long as after the poem I may rant about
Rick Santorum’s history of aspirin or curse
my hands for jostling the morning coffee.
If my eyes make you think of deep caverns
in dark, mysterious coal mines where a man
could get lost for days, brought to the brink
of death before emerging a new creature,
write it down, as long as I can still see
through your bullshit, and admire the moon.
Say anything you want about my ass,
the junk in the trunk, my badonkadonk,
how it sways or does not sway like a ship at sea.
It’s all behind me anyway. And I will sit wherever
I want, and that may not always be next to you,
though that is the most likely scenario.
They’re nothing to write home about, but
if you mention my breasts, remember
that my heart still beats behind them
and while we could say it belongs to you,
it is ever always mine to share
and it is breakable, very breakable.
And my skin, I hope you write about my skin.
Other poets may say what they want about eyes
being windows to the world and then wax
nonsensical about skin being supple & smooth,
as if they were writing a body wash commercial,
when it is my skin that faces the sun, keeps out the rain,