A few days ago, I found out that Stargirl was released on Disney+ channel on March 13th, 2020. It stars the winner of 2016 America’s Got Talent, Grace VanderWaal, as the titular girl. The movie is based on a young adult novel with the same title by Jerry Spinelli, published in 2000.
Watching the first few minutes of the movie, I remembered feeling delighted when I had finished reading the novel for the first time in my second year of junior high. I had decided right away that Susan “Stargirl” Caraway was the kind of girl I wanted to grow up to be; someone who was unapologetically quirky and had their own ways. It was definitely my all-time favourite. But, then again, I was just a 13-year-old girl who only knew so much.
I had my first crush on someone that year. He was a well-liked person at school. As one of the guys in the basketball team, he was moderately admired by the girls. He was my schoolmate in kindergarten, throughout first to sixth grade, and then throughout junior high. I knew him pretty well when we were in third grade, as I always sat in front of him in class. But then, like always, something happened and we kind of stopped being friends.
I realized I was sort of having feelings for him awhile after I had finished reading Stargirl for the second time. It felt exciting but, at the same time, terrifying. Inspired by Stargirl, I developed a desire to become a part of his story. I started doing quirky things that Stargirl would possibly agree with, including hanging around him quietly until he became aware of my existence, and singing happy birthday to him through his landline at 6 a.m., anonymously. I finally did become a part of his story, however briefly.
Strangely enough, when the movie got into its first fifteen minutes, I started feeling...not amused. I was reminded of my younger self wanting to be as quirky as Stargirl, just to be seen by the boy I liked. I remembered I had thought to myself, “Maybe if I seemed unique, quirky, and carefree, he would notice me again like in the third grade.” I had aspired to be the girl who would turn his life around; the girl he never would have considered lovely, but as it turned out, she was. I felt uncomfortable being reminded of all of this, like someone was telling me how pathetic I was for trying too hard.
I guess the discomfort – which was unshakable until the end of the movie – probably stems from fact that I now know better. I possess more than adequate knowledge to recognize that aspiring to be ‘Stargirl’ in some boy’s life is a sheer manifestation of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl (MPDG) character, and that is problematic.
The term was coined by Nathan Rabin, a film critic, in his review of the movie Elizabethtown (2005) published on AV Club, to describe a recurring trope for female characters in movies. An MPDG character is usually a one-of-a-kind, happy-go-lucky, and larger-than-life female character, mainly existing in a story to improve or even revamp the male lead character’s humdrum life. He later denounced the term a few years after the publication, but still, I cannot deny its valid functionality.
While following every scene from Stargirl (2020), I recalled some of my past dating experiences to review whether the influence of my favourite MPDG character had determined the way I managed my romantic relationships after junior high. The answer is unfortunately yes. I used to always want to be the cure, the pleaser, or the escape route in my exes’ life. It was important to me to be the one with ideas and initiatives, thinking that that would make their life much easier. One time, it got to a point where one of my exes told me that I was so controlling. In my defense, I was not being overly controlling; I was just being the girl I thought I had to be.
There I was as the closing credits rolled, sitting in front of my laptop in my living room, thinking about how my favourite Manic Pixie Dream Girl character has moulded me into the girl that I was. I think it was at the end of my second romantic relationship that I gave up the desire to become the cure, the pleaser, or the escape route for anyone ever again. Perhaps it was because I got severely heartbroken at that time that I finally opened my eyes – to see that I needed to be those roles for myself first, before anyone else.
It is undeniable that the movie left me feeling ill at ease. However, thanks to it, I became more aware that stories in movies and books can really influence someone’s life. One of my best friends even used to want to marry a bad boy who has repented, saying that it might make her feel good if their relationship can keep him on track towards becoming a better man. I’m guessing she was going through an MPDG phase, just like me.
It would be wonderful for authors and screenwriters to stay away from creating selfless female characters, preventing a sexist and unrealistic representation that might settle in too deep in someone’s mind.