I fist saw Harold and Maude in a college class. I don’t remember which class. Like a lot of college millennials who had assignments on top of work on top of passion projects on top of clubs, I kept my head down and my laptop open on movie days. Turns out, it’s not really a movie that needs a lot of attention; my second viewing gave me about the same emotional depth that my first did.
Harold and Maude is a Hal Ashby movie, and has a reputation as the first in a long line of quirky indie films. It follows Harold, a nihilistic death-obsessed nineteen year old, and his relationship with Maude, the 79-going-on-17 year old local weirdo with a lust for life.
By now, the indie film genre has a tradition of bringing about female characters who meet their male characters at the perfect point in their lives. That is, the perfect point in the lead male’s life. Bored with the mundane by-the-book-ness of existence, our male lead needs a guide into the world of excitement, love, and risk. He needs someone to teach him how to really live.
The A.V. Club’s Nathan Rabin coined the term “Manic Pixie Dream Girl” when writing about Kirsten Dunst’s character in Elizabethtown, and he had this to say:
The Manic Pixie Dream Girl 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.
Many might associate the Manic Pixie Dream Girl with Zooey Deschanel, who practically cornered the market for the trope with 500 Days of Summer. But there’s been more than one list on the internet cataloging the Manic Pixie Dream Girl in all her iterations, and there are plenty of iterations. (Hats off to Refinery for putting Belle from Beauty and the Beast on their list.)
Since creating the term, Rabin has spoken out about the way it exploded across the internet and came to mean something entirely different than he intended. But I’m not going to quote the things that his reclamation stated about how phrases and definitions are a necessary evil for critics, or how as writers we should aim for nuance instead of simplicity–both are true, but I like the phrase Manic Pixie Dream Girl, because despite it’s popularity and ambiguation over the years, it still conveys what Rabin himself wanted:
The trope of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl is a fundamentally sexist one, since it makes women seem less like autonomous, independent entities than appealing props to help mopey, sad white men self-actualize. Within that context, the phrase was useful precisely because, while still fairly flexible, it also benefited from a certain specificity. Claire [from Elizabethtown] was an unusually pure example of a Manic Pixie Dream Girl — a fancifully if thinly conceived flibbertigibbet who has no reason to exist except to cheer up one miserable guy.
Harold, obviously, is one miserable guy. At least, he’s miserable to watch: burdened by all that wealth and free time (ha!), Harold devotes his waking hours to annoying his mother and going to funerals. He’s the definition of a “mopey, sad white man,” but Maude, who steals cars, poses nude for art at age 79, wants to be reborn as a sunflower, and lives in a train car, is the perfect “fanciful if thinly conceived flibbertigibbet” to teach our apathetic lead that life has more to offer than death.
Harold and Maude didn’t have stellar reviews among critics, which is pretty typical of indie films nowadays, but Maude’s MPDG-ness actively hurts the already tough-sell story. By its nature, writing Manic Pixie Dream Girls relies on taking shortcuts to emotional depth (the story is about the man after all), leaving us to do the work if we actually want to get to know the character. Maude is annoyingly quick-witted and free-spirited for most of the movie, and Harold falls fast for this–but the only explanation as to why she takes such delight in the randomness of living is the Holocaust tattoos on her arm. Harold silently registering, though not fully understanding, what she’s been through is an emotive moment that hints at the breadth of life experience caught between their age difference. Unfortunately, this glimpse of backstory is so brief that it hardly sticks with us through the rest of the film, and it’s never brought up again.
Similarly, why does Maude want to kill herself on her 80th birthday? We never really get the answer. I can hypothesize–she has faced death already and now wants to have control over how she ends it, she knows that death is a natural part of life, blah blah blah–but the point is that we’re left to do the math ourselves without much help from the text.
Maude’s only difference between the classic MPDGs we know and love today is that she’s old. Awesomely, Ruth Gordon would have actually been about eighty when she played the role of Maude, which is not something actresses usually get the privilege of doing (playing their age, that is).
But even though Maude isn’t young the way Natalie Portman or Kirsten Dunst is, Harold still manages to make her age about himself. “I’m getting married,” he tells his mother. He gives her a picture of Maude and she loses it. We already know that Harold loves to annoy his mother, and what better way to do so than to tell her he’s marrying an 80 year old woman instead of one of the practiced young ladies she’s tried to set him up with? Mission accomplished.
Harold, obviously, has a life outside of Maude, which he uses Maude to escape from. Maude, presumably, also has a life outside of Harold–I mean, the woman’s eighty. But the only glimpse of that we get is the brief moment in which she’s posing naked for a friend’s sculpture work. (I don’t even think the friend speaks a full sentence in this scene.) She immediately leaves the appointment to spend time with Harold, of course, because she has one job to do–teach him that life is worth living. She seems to have no other friends who she would like to spend her last days on earth with than the teenage boy on whom she can impart her wisdom about how things live, die, and are reborn.
The Manic Pixie Dream Girl, in all her iterations, exists to provide this for a male lead. I know perfectly real men who treat perfectly real women this way too, which explains why the trope shows up so frequently in film. Over at the Odyssey, Emily Gryffons laments the way real men have tried to access her as a Manic Pixie Dream Girl in real life, when what she really dealt with was a mental illness:
As someone with bipolar disorder, I find myself with similar qualities as the MPDG with the odd hobbies and frantic impulses I can’t control, and I usually do find myself falling into relationships with men who are depressed and stuck in some sort of rut. Up until recently, I unknowingly have guided six boys out of whatever phase they were in and became their muse. To follow the trope’s storyline, at the first sign of trouble on my end, my façade broke right before their eyes. They went running for the hills.
But the movies stops short before the actual issues underlying women who exhibit manic tendencies are truly examined. The story is about the Harolds of the world, after all, and Harold has his own issues to think about–he doesn’t need to fully examine and consider Maude’s, too. Shorthand suffices. The lead’s internal thought process–omg, she’s so shiny and new and deep and I love what she’s teaching me–becomes excruciatingly palpable in every scene; the MPDG is useful only insofar as she is satisfied with her role.
Also unfortunately for the movie, Harold’s disingenuous suicide résumé stinks of selfishness. He likes the buzz being dead gives him, because the women in his life end up crying or screaming. He even thinks he has the right to stop Maude from killing herself, a plan she’s had for quite some time, just because he loves her. It would have been curious to see a movie where Harold was confronted by the possibility that Maude wanted to spend her last days on earth with a person she actually knew, cared about, and loved for several years, rather than a boy she’d known for a week.
There’s only moment where this self-centered worldview is challenged. Harold procures a gift for Maude after a romantic day on the boardwalk. It’s a coin engraved with “Harold Loves Maude,” small enough to fit in a pocket. It’s the kind of trinket Maude might actually like to collect.
But after holding it close to her heart and returning Harold’s affections, Maude hurls the coin into the ocean. The startled look on Harold’s face betrays him. Harold wants Maude to carry his love around with her forever, but Maude tosses it away, with a classically quirky, “So I’ll always know where it is.” This open rejection of Harold’s intention challenges, for a second, Harold’s expectation that her life exists to enrich his.
That her suicide at the end of the movie is successful despite Harold’s efforts almost aids this point, but there are still so many questions the movie doesn’t answer about Maude. In the end, it’s still about what Maude taught Harold, and not really about Maude’s life at all. I guess some stories do have to be about men, but do we really have to sacrifice lead female character development so that Harold can commit another fake suicide by driving his car off a cliff? At least now he’s learned something, even if it is just how to play the banjo.
Bonus: Olivia Gatwood’s stellar poem about the Manic Pixie Dream Girl, which went viral earlier this year.