by Matt Zarzyczny
I have a confession to make. I used to be Scott Pilgrim. And for the first time, I realized how bad of a thing that really is. Let’s back up a little bit. Scott Pilgrim vs. The World is a film made by Edgar Wright in 2010, and it’s based on Bryan Lee O’Malley’s 2004-2010 graphic novel series, Scott Pilgrim. There will be massive SPOILERS ahead so if you haven’t watched Scott Pilgrim vs. The World or read O’Malley’s series, you’ve been warned. And really, do yourself a favor and at least watch the movie. It’s one of the most charming and visually stunning films of all time and features a cast that is full of today’s Hollywood elite (Aubrey Plaza, Chris Evans, Anna Kendrick, and Brie Larson all play minor roles in the film).
On its surface, Scott Pilgrim vs. The World is the story of a slacker named Scott Pilgrim (Michael Cera) who is meandering through his Canadian life like any good millennial. He has a band, Sex Bob-Omb, which no one really likes, he doesn’t have a job, he doesn’t really own anything other than his bass, he shares a bed with his gay roommate/best friend Wallace (Kieran Culkin) in a tiny apartment literally across the street from the house that he grew up in, and he’s dating a young girl (17) named Knives Chau (Ellen Wong). This is how we find Scott at the beginning of the film. He’s a young man in flux.
A year prior to the events of the film, Scott went through a brutal break up with Envy Adams (Brie Larson) who is the lead singer of the now hugely popular band, Clash At Demonhead. Knives is the first girl that Scott has dated since the breakup, but he finds himself having to defend her status as a minor to all of his friends. Through these exchanges, primarily with Wallace and his bandmates Stephen Stills – the Talent (Mark Webber), Kim Pine – the Drummer and Scott’s ex (Alison Pill), and Young Neil – the Groupie (Johnny Simmons), we find that Scott doesn’t really like Knives all that much. They have a bit of a passive relationship with them mostly riding on the bus together and almost holding hands once.
The opening credits of the film roll while Knives experiences Sex Bob-Omb for the first time and freaks out over how amazing she finds the band. We get to experience the budding relationship of Scott and Knives with her basically following Scott everywhere, doing everything that Scott wants to do (thrift store shopping, arcade game playing, music shopping, etc). You can really see the pedestal that Knives is putting Scott on, while Scott appears completely oblivious to the love that Knives is developing. This is absolutely necessary in the Scott Pilgrim story as it shows that his ego-centrism truly knows no bounds. Scott’s needs and wants are fully front and center for him. Because he can’t afford to live on his own, he sleeps in the same bed as his best friend regardless of Wallace being engaged in his own sexual activities right next to Scott. It’s obvious that Kim and Scott did not have a great breakup, and she definitely harbors strong resentment towards Scott and his behavior, but he thinks everything is OK. Scott only sees what he wants to see in his life regardless of the people around him trying to make him take accountability for his actions. This is when Scott Pilgrim meets the girl of his dreams, Ramona Flowers (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) who has 7 evil exes that Scott has to fight creating the plot of the movie. If you need more of a refresher, check out the trailer.
I’ve been a fan of Scott Pilgrim since the first time I read the graphic novels, and I was on the ground floor of the current cult status of the film. I identified with Scott Pilgrim. I was a bass player in multiple mediocre bands, I was oblivious to the way that my behavior affected those around me, and I was also chasing the archetype of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl. I thought that I knew Scott Pilgrim. I figured out that the film was not really about Scott having to literally battle 7 evil exes, but it was actually about entering a relationship with someone and having to deal with their past. I think we’ve all been there at some point, where we find ourselves comparing who we are to who our partner has been with before. Ramona’s ex-partners are definitely exaggerated to extreme proportions with her exes being everything from a famous skateboarder/movie star to a famous musician and even one of the hottest young music magnates. I understood this so well that I essentially went through it in a past relationship. An ex of mine was with a guy that literally tattooed his name on her in multiple places. It was a constant reminder of who she was with before. There’s no way that I could physically compare to this guy. No matter how many times my ex would tell me how much better of a guy I was than him, I could never really get past the idea that she would rather be with pudgy, nerdy me instead of Mr. Masculinity. Partially due to the tattoos being a constant reminder, I really had a hard time making amends with her past, and this was one of the reasons why the relationship failed.
That was my takeaway from Scott Pilgrim vs. The World: chase the Manic Pixie Dream Girl, overcome the exes that she has been with, and then live happily ever after. That is until recently. I’ve entered into an incredibly healthy relationship and happened to revisit Scott Pilgrim. I’ve grown a lot since the last time that I watched the movie. I chased my Manic Pixie Dream Girl. I fought her league of evil exes. But at the end of the day, I lost. So it’s with that life experience that I rewatched Scott Pilgrim vs. The World. And wow. My reading of this film has completely changed: Scott Pilgrim is an asshole and Ramona Flowers is a screamingly hollow example of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl.
The Manic Pixie Dream Girl
It’s hard to pinpoint when female archetypes are created. Some have very specific origins such as the creation of the blonde bombshell archetype by Hollywood in the 1930s, but others are more subtle in their creation. There’s also a little bit of the “which came first” situation when it comes to entertainment and the creation of archetypes. The term Manic Pixie Dream Girl (MPDG) has its origin with film critic Nathan Rabin, who coined the term after observing Kirsten Dunst’s character in Elizabethtown. Rabin describes the MPDG 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.” While this kind of phrasing works great for stock characters, what Mr. Rabin forgets is that our society is obsessed with pop culture, and we tend to take what we see on screen and use it in our daily lives. This means that a whole generation of women that are unique, have strong opinions on music and probably color their hair in unnatural hues are being chased by men who envision them as this cinematic personification of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl.
Why the Manic Pixie Dream Girl Archetype is Dangerous
I believe that all archetypes are dangerous as they remove individuality from us in favor of generalized group behavior. However, at the end of the day, a lot of archetypes are fairly harmless. There are pros and cons of being a goth, a cheerleader, a soccer mom, a cougar, a jock, a nerd, etc. that apply to all genders in different ways. But look at those different archetypes. They’re fairly simplistic and broad. The archetype of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl is incredibly specific in its scope. The true danger of it, though, is the quite ridiculous expectations placed upon women that fall into this archetype by the men that chase them. Manic Pixie Dream Girls have become more than just a fashion statement or a way of perceiving the world. Men have put something far more troubling onto the Manic Pixie Dream Girl: SALVATION. The Manic Pixie Dream Girl has somehow become a sexual Jesus to boring, suburban white men in their 20s and 30s. So now, if you have short pink hair, a witty attitude, a unique style and strong opinions, there is going to be a man (more than likely several men) who would sacrifice you on a cross to save their insipid, bland life.
Aside from being martyred and discarded, Manic Pixie Dream Girls have to deal with men reflecting a lot of things onto them. “Hey she’s wearing a Beastie Boys shirt, that means that we are into the exact same style of music, and I’m in love with her.” Unfortunately, this is the day-to-day life for Manic Pixie Dream Girls. For some reason, men see these very individual, unique women as blank canvases that they can put all of their interests onto. I never got this facet of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl problem. Why would men that are attracted to a woman because they are unique and interested in more obscure types of entertainment then want to completely ignore their interests in favor of the man’s interests? I don’t get it, but it happens.
Scott Pilgrim vs. The Manic Pixie Dream Girl
If Kirsten Dunst’s character in Elizabethtown defined the Manic Pixie Dream Girl, Scott Pilgrim vs. the World cemented it in the heads of everyone who watched it. Ramona Flowers is literally magic in the film and is used by Edgar Wright as a blank slate that Scott Pilgrim can put all of his dreams onto. From a cinematic standpoint, it’s ok that Wright used a Manic Pixie Dream Girl as a stock character in his script. Unfortunately, the cult status of Scott Pilgrim keeps growing and more and more young women are starting to aspire to be like Ramona Flowers.
Keep in mind is that Ramona Flowers is a stock character in a movie. Every real person in life is more than just a two-dimensional sketch of a character. Ramona Flowers is never given any real depth, and she definitely doesn’t exist as a three-dimensional character. I guess what I’m saying is that you can aspire to look like Ramona, to do your hair like Ramona, to dress like Ramona, but due to the behavior of men with relation to Manic Pixie Dream Girls, prepare yourself for a lot of one-sided relationships where you’re going to end up used and discarded.
There is a chance though that Edgar Wright was saying more with his portrayal of Ramona Flowers than just putting another Manic Pixie Dream Girl on the big screen.
The Manic Pixie Dream Girl as a MacGuffin
A MacGuffin is a term used for a plot device in a movie that is pursued by the protagonist (and often antagonist(s)), moves the plot forward, and is usually given little or no narrative explanation. MacGuffins have existed for as long as storytelling with many people pointing out The Holy Grail in the Arthurian mythos as kind of the archetypal MacGuffin. In films, The Maltese Falcon is usually singled out as one of the classic examples of the MacGuffin. I personally like using the briefcase in Pulp Fiction when discussing MacGuffins, because it might be the most ambiguous MacGuffin to be featured in a modern film. All that we know about the briefcase is that Marcellus Wallace wants it and whatever is inside of it, Jules and Vincent are willing to kill for it. Do a brief Google search for Pulp Fiction briefcase and you’ll find theories saying everything from the contents being the diamonds that were stolen in Reservoir Dogs (not likely true because the briefcase glows with a golden light when opened) to Marcellus Wallace’s soul, because Ving Rhames is wearing a band-aid on the back of his head which indicates that his soul was stolen. The beauty about the briefcase, is that according to Quentin Tarantino himself, it is literally just a MacGuffin. It’s nothing. It’s irrelevant to the plot. All that you have to know is that it’s important to the characters. Every meaning put onto the contents is done by the viewer of the movie, not its creators. Quentin himself has also regretted making the gold-colored light come out of the briefcase, as it also makes people assume too much about the contents. As far as Quentin was concerned, having a briefcase with an orange light bulb inside just looked cool.
Remember that men tend to reflect a lot of things on to Manic Pixie Dream Girls, much like audiences reflect their own beliefs and interests onto typical MacGuffins. This makes the Manic Pixie Dream Girl almost a perfect human MacGuffin, and I would argue that Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World uses Ramona Flowers, the Manic Pixie Dream Girl, as just that: a MacGuffin. Take a look back at the movie. What do we learn about Ramona Flowers? We learn that she’s American. She has seven evil exes. She moved to Toronto to get away from all of that. She works for Amazon.ca as a delivery person. She’s bisexual and changes her hair color on a whim. She seems to like a lot of different types of tea. She has issues with guys becoming obsessive over her, and she tends to buck societal trends. For someone that’s supposed to be one of the main characters of a movie, that isn’t a whole lot of information, and I dare you to find more hidden in the subtext. Everything that we learn from her flashbacks regarding the evil exes is unreliable, as it’s clear that she exaggerates their relationships, unless you take a literal reading of the movie and believe that the characters actually have “mystic powers” and it’s not just a metaphor for sexual prowess or emotional development. My point is that we never even find out whether she likes Sex Bob-Omb. We know nothing about her actual interests. Everything that we think we know about her, we put onto her. We assume that she likes the same music as Scott. We assume that she likes the same food as Scott. When put into comparison to Knives Chau, we see a fully developed character in Knives with interests, goals, a family life, a school life, a social life, etc. and we see a maybe two-dimensional character in Ramona that is just a fashion statement with changing hair. But, like any good MacGuffin, she drives the plot of the movie forward while the audience puts all of their own ideas and beliefs onto her.
Is It On Purpose?
If Edgar Wright intended on creating Ramona Flowers to be a MacGuffin due to her status as a Manic Pixie Dream Girl then, frankly, he is a cinematic genius and an expert satirist of our society. If, however, the opposite is true and Ramona Flowers is an accidental MacGuffin, then Edgar Wright is as bad as every guy that’s ever used and thrown away a Manic Pixie Dream Girl. I think the key to unlocking this lies in the ending of Scott Pilgrim vs. The World. The movie was shooting at the same time that Bryan O’Malley was writing the last book of the series, so although Edgar Wright communicated with O’Malley, the ending of the film was created by Edgar Wright, and it is different than the ending created by O’Malley, but mostly in complexity. The books in general give you a much more three-dimensional view of Ramona Flowers, and the ending in the book follows through on that. The ending of the movie, however, is only focused on Scott Pilgrim. Scott finds the power of self-respect for the first time and finally apologizes to the people in his life that he has hurt before battling with Gideon (the second time). After defeating Gideon, there is a real opportunity for the film to actually make a statement about Ramona Flowers and Manic Pixie Dream Girls in general, but I think that the movie completely drops the ball. At the end, Ramona starts walking away with the anticipation that she’s just going to move to a new city and start a new life this time unencumbered by the evil exes of her past. Scott stops her from leaving and Ramona might give the most cringe inducing line of dialogue, because it fully reinforces the stigma of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl archetype. Ramona tells Scott, “I should thank you though…for being the nicest guy I ever dated.” Here’s the thing. Even if Scott Pilgrim, someone who I thoroughly believe to be a complete asshole, is the nicest guy she ever dated, that’s really not saying much. The evil exes that she gives timelines to are often during her high school years. If the evil exes are presented in the order in which Ramona dated them, we don’t even get to know anything about numbers 5 and 6, the Katayanagi Twins convinces her that they should give their relationship a fresh start. If you do a Google search on MacGuffin and Scott Pilgrim, I found one review that mentioned in passing that Ramona Flowers might be a MacGuffin. This doesn’t bode well for Edgar Wright.
The Danger of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl Archetype
At the end of the day, I believe that Ramona Flowers joins the ranks of Manic Pixie Dream Girls of cinematic history. This history dates all the way back to the character Susan Vance, portrayed by Katharine Hepburn, in Bringing Up Baby (1938). There is a danger to this archetype, like any archetype, as movie characters are two-dimensional images created by writers that bestow whatever backstory they want onto their characters while real-world people are three-dimensional beings with real history and real emotions. At this point, it’s up to the male population to stop their obsession with the Manic Pixie Dream Girl. Being a young woman that finds themselves in the Manic Pixie Dream Girl archetype shouldn’t automatically mean that you have to deal with men using and discarding you just because of the way you dress or the kind of music you like. Women should be free to be whatever they want. It’s time for the men of this world to stop being such Scott Pilgrims and instead treat every woman with the respect they deserve.