(Men still love Zooey Deschanel right?)
Will all my women of color understand the desirability of themselves.
Manic Pixie Dream Girl. I can’t say it, let alone write it, without visions of Zooey Deschanel dancing across my head. The brunette with the bangs, the wispy voice and whimsical clothing who serves as nothing more than a muse for the male protagonist of a movie. She is the instigator of passion and adventure the man has always craved (even if he did not know it). More than anything, she embodies everything that is carefree. She listens to indie pop and screams into the abyss, trash bag covering her for no reason.
But the manic pixie dream girl is also white. Almost always white. She’s beautiful, quirky, smart, although hardly ever more financially independent than the man but with a perfect red lip on her fair skin.
I’m not surprised women of color are not the love interest for a white man. They rarely are the love interest of anyone if their race has already not been accounted for as plot, think Guess Who (for those who remember that Ashton Kutcher Zoe Saldana semi-flop). When they are the main love interest in a film the man is almost always not white either (think Hitch). And when both cis heterosexual people are of color, and do manage to engage in romance and sex, the film is usually inclusively “a black film” targeted at black audiences because white people won’t admit they don’t care as much about seeing people of color fall in love in their theaters.
The need for different racial representation has been a heated discussion recently, especially within elite Hollywood and the oh so white Oscars. Romantic-comedies or relationship dramas are usually not the movies that people turn to for said representation, mostly because films about relationships tend to not be heavily favored by critics. Within the context of media, romantic films and novels fall into the same category, a flighty story with minimal merit although exceptions do happen. Gone with the Wind, Casablanca, Brokeback Mountain, Titanic. But they don’t happen often, and the idea of women of color being represented in them is pushed to the back burner.
When romance does appear on the screen, becoming the movies we “hate to love” but watch anyway, the woman does not look like me.
Women of color are never able to be the carefree woman that white women are in movies because racism runs rampant on the screen. I give no credence to the directors who would be educated enough to recognize the real reason is that women of color are never given the opportunity to be the exclusionary woman of a (let’s face it) man-child’s gaze. Often, if true to life, they are too oppressed and too busy fighting for representation to be cute for the sake of being cute. That’s a white woman’s privileged world to be the pretty bow wearing optimist who men dream over.
The carefree woman that the director envisions for this role is a “virginal” white woman. Kirsten Dunst in Elizabethtown, Natalie Portman in Garden State, and the ever coveted Summer in 500 Days of Summer hold sexual autonomy, but their sexuality is never vulgarized. It hides behind petite women with modest breasts. Their butt is small, their face is gorgeous. Women of color aren’t allowed to be the object of desire in this area. While I commend most romantic comedies of this sort for not over-sexualizing women, the brooding intelligent men who are drawn to this women eventually want them as a life partner. They can love having sex with these dainty women because they are allowed to love having sex with them. By society’s standards, the man does not have to justify enjoying the curvaceous bodies that are frequently, but not all the time, women of color’s bodies. The thicker lips, thighs, and butt of a woman who considers herself identifying with a black or Latina culture does not make the big screen when the man who is pursuing her is white, especially in the world that romantic comedies set up – a man who surprisingly does not fetishize the woman he wants but loves her as much sexually as emotionally. A man in a similar film would have to defend his love for a woman of that size and of color. And defend his desire for a future with her.
Women of color are fetishized more often in pop-culture. They are degraded as purely sexual for a man’s pleasure in shows, music videos, and even pornography. Therefor as a romantic lead, the man in the partnership cannot see “end-game” with the woman who is perceived as being overtly sexual. Manic pixie dream girls are hot but beautiful. They are sexual beings that have the privilege of not being sexualized because they are seen as people and not as a stereotype of a feisty Latina girl in bed. This woman has never been called “exotic” or been pressured into doing something the world perceives she participates in.
Additionally, the carefree white manic pixie dream girl, by association to the man who pursues her, is supposed to be an influx of cultural knowledge and creativeness the man has almost purposefully avoided throughout his life. Natalie Portman, Sam in Garden State, is a wonderful distraction to Zach Braff’s inner turmoil of his dead mother. She shows him which songs will change his life. She introduces him to the Shins, movies he would never have seen, and a huge hamster maze for no.fucking.reason. Or Kirsten Dunst, Claire in Elizabethtown who coincidentally helps her new-found attraction get over the death of his father by introducing him to mix-cds and scrap books he obsessively pours over which lead him to throw dirt in the air in the middle of a forest for no.fucking.reason.
Women of color are rarely represented as being creative and by being captivated by music, art, and films which are not isolating to white people. The addition of women of color as a love interest in the manic pixie dream girl role would be to convince the audience of two things. One is that a woman of color can be excluded from the box of perceived musical taste (hip-hop/rap/Tejano). This is to say that a woman with dreadlocks, a woman with dark skin could hold up headphones of a band like Spoon and encaptivate a music-snob man in the making. Or worse the opposite occurs too. If that woman of color is someone who identifies with their cultural influences in art then the screenplay writer, producer, etc. would be unable to fully represent and describe that art in a way which would not be demeaning or dismissive. The result is that white women create less work for the writer to flesh out their character which is hardly even given agency at all.
Finally, white women in the United Stare are still seen almost exclusively as the most desirable mate. To the “misguided” racist viewer who makes up a part (but not all) of the American box office, seeing a white love story is the true epitome of a romance. It is a love story that does not fall into “other category.” Interracial, cultural, diversity.
In an industry which struggles to bring in money, alienating viewers who are unable to stick themselves into the role of the man or woman in the film is potentially dangerous. Although the ethnic makeup of the United States points to the fact that black, Hispanic, and Asian population make up a large majority of our country the narrative script remains, rarely shaken up. White man falls in love with white woman. They have white babies. Their white families expect nothing less.
As a person who has subscribed to the American and Mexican-American culture since birth, I find the context of white romance on screen, particularly quirky romance, as containing a slight coating of unrealistic ideas. When almost every couple does not look like you you begin to wonder if the relationships themselves mirror your actual problems and stories. Other times, you insert yourself into the narrative because you have no other choice, because the normalcy of white-only relationships creeps up on you. But it never feels completely your own. You think to yourself subconsciously, whether you admit it or not, that those are white people living a white life. You understand, know, that people are almost always just people at their core. You are also not that naïve.
When manic pixie dream girls are in a film you decide to watch, it feels like a mockery. While I, and other women of color subscribe to the American culture we are not treated the same as all Americans. Women of color in the United States are empowered and active, but rarely are they carefree, because they have not been allowed to be. They are fighting for equal rights, equal pay, the idea of being seen as “equal” itself. Women of color’s sole identity in life is never what they strive for, nor should it be, but it’s important to remember that women of color live in a different world than white women, even if they inhabit the same physical one.
White women do not understand the struggle of the balancing-act which can frequently occur in the mind of an ethnic woman who is dating a white man. It’s some of the same questions ignorant people have already asked us while single. Why do you sound white? Why do you act white? Why do you not listen to the art/music/etc. that other people who look like you listen to? Is it weird not dating someone of your own ethnicity? And the comment:good for you for landing a white guy!
In entering an interracial relationship with a white man, women of color can feel as if they lose some bit of their racial identity to being the token partner of a white man and a lot of the time a group of white friends to accompany him. It’s a constant stream of questions to provoke debates with yourself. How do I deal with the racist friend my white boyfriend has? How do I deal with strangers who disregard us as a couple or who make subtle racist comments they are able to take back if I call them on? How am I supposed to straddle the line of being chill without being complicit to a culture which regularly insults not only my gender but race more often than white men realize? And how do I react to the inevitable “compliment” of fitting in with my boyfriend from others who were cautious about our relationship because of my skin color?
The questions minority women are asked are not that of a manic pixie dream girl. They create too many “real world” problems a film like this wont explore.
Minority women lack the ability to be as self-absorbed as a white female protagonist, who is able to get away with continuing the limited growth of the man she is in a relationship with who often himself has limited goals. Who needs someone to save him instead of taking the accountability to save himself. More women of color than white women are forced to “grow-up” earlier in life on account of being raised in areas and in situations that come from the systematic pull of racism. The experience of childhood, the wonderment that follows white women in musical montage scenes, stops short with others.
Although not all minority women should be grouped into certain experiences, the fact remains that black and Native-American women are more likely to be sexually assaulted and in domestic abuse situations. They are more likely to be living in poverty and making less money. They are faced with obstacles not all other people face.
Minority women are more than the buzzed karaoke going woman who a man stares at, and all time stands still, and he is lost. They have to be.
Sure, the manic pixie dream girl is never a real woman because a real woman has flaws that do not stem from a man. She possesses a personality that does not exist to serve her partner’s need. She lives outside of how she affects a man’s story-line which ultimately ends up being about him rather than them.
In a world where women of color are constantly tossed to the side, dismissed as taking up less space, the hope for representation exists even in this cliché. Perhaps it comes down to being wanted in a way which men fawn over us as the “ideal” women. It doesn’t make us the ideal woman because a man says we are, instead it reinforces to us that while we may not want to be the ultimately stupidly naïve somewhat weak woman in the film (and this is a good thing) we can be a woman in film period.
Perhaps we are allowed to be the “prize” too.