Editor’s note: a trope in literature is a stereotype that is repeatedly portrayed that reduces real, complex, and typically-marginalized people to a role they play in order to advance the plot or enhance the lives of the main characters without benefitting personally in any way.
Marginalized people are often portrayed as objects, having traits, talents, and cultural expressions leveraged as an advantage to be exploited for the benefit of someone who gives nothing in return. The traits themselves are usually positive and resemble real life, but those traits are exploited as one-dimensional, flat, and for the entertainment or benefit of main characters in fiction.
Tropes harm the populations they objectify by establishing a norm in the mainstream that people with those traits are expected to fulfill the same roles, selflessly, as the fictional counterparts– as an athlete, a lover, a servant, a giver of sage advice, etc.– without any consideration of the needs, dreams, or consequences of those roles and how they affect real people personified by them.
The real life impact of tropes is that marginalized people are not given room to be a whole person with their own unique traits and needs that exist outside of their media stereotypes.
This article is about a trope that reflects a reality for many autistic people, but instead of honoring these characters with roles that demonstrate the fullness and complexity of their whole selves, only a portion of them–the portion that serves and benefits the privileged– is demonstrated.
Cinema and television are filled with staple tropes. Stereotypical characters seemingly taken off of the rack to meet the needs of not only the writers, but also the characters within the stories.
Not only can these tropes be frustratingly repetitive, they can also be downright harmful. Of all the basic tropes that grace our screens, few are more concerning than the manic pixie dream girl (often abbreviated to MPDG- yes, it’s discussed enough to have an abbreviation).
The MPDG is one of the fundamental tropes of cinema and television. It’s a young woman, usually in her mid-to-late twenties in appearance, with bright and fun hair, a whimsical attitude, separated from social conventions, child-like in some ways, who can be found metaphorically (and sometimes literally) chasing rainbows.
The MPDG usually meets a man who is jaded and takes life a little too seriously, and whimsifies his life, teaching him that there is more to living than his boxed-in world. She takes the man on outlandish adventures, or creates adventure out of the ordinary, and disarms him with her hypersexuality and child-like wonder.
On the face of it, it may not seem too problematic. Indeed, many of my favourite characters on television have been typical of the MPDG character, but as it turns out, this is because I can relate to their worldview, not to my need to have a woman save me.
You see, the MPDG trope unintentionally describes many autistic people, specifically, autistic women. These characters living outside of societal expectations are so relatable to me because their traits are the traits I see in many of my female autistic friends.
So why is this trope harmful?
The MPDG trope reduces autistic women to a concept, an ideal that troubled men must find in order to recover from their particular brand of existential nihilism. It’s perhaps said best by Clementine from Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (perhaps one of the most famous MPDG’s):
Too many guys think I’m a concept, or I complete them, or I’m gonna make them alive. But I’m just a fucked-up girl who’s lookin’ for my own peace of mind; don’t assign me yours.
It was that particular quote that really woke me up to the negative connotations of the MPDG trope. It’s not a woman’s job to fix broken men, and we especially should not be asking this of autistic women, who are already at a signifcant risk of abuse when compared to the general population.
This idea of eccentric women who swoop in to save a man from himself takes the onus of self-improvement off of men and places it onto a marginalised group. It almost seems akin to gaslighting that we are telling young autistic women that they are responsible for the wellbeing of the men in their lives.
Autistic people already struggle to find their place in society. It is unfair to expect them to be the saviours of those who will likely grow bored of them, casting them off as an object to be disposed of. That’s what the MPDG does to autistic women, it objectifies them. It relegates them to a supporting role in someone elses story rather than the leading role in their own story.
We need autistic women to take the leading role in their stories, we cannot allow them to be boxed into a concept with no more purpose than to fix broken men.
Of course the MPDG is not just harmful to women. I can imagine that many AFAB Non-binary people also experience the expectations placed upon them by the MPDG trope. The autistic trans community are already extremely marginalised and stand at least an equal– if not more– risk of being fetishised and romanticised for the novelty they bring to people’s experiences. We need these marginalised voices to have the starring role in their own story.
The MPDG trope makes for a fun night at the cinema, but we must consider it’s ramifications for those who fall naturally under its definition. Now is the time to rewrite the script, and not turn people into concepts that serve no purpose beyond furthering the plot for someone else.
Autistic people are human beings, not imaginary characters.