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I’m calling it: Ruby Sparks is the best feminist horror movie you’ll see all year.
The set-up, however, is so precious that you will want to gouge your eyes out within the first half-hour. Paul Dano plays Calvin, a quivering, brilliant wisp of a boy, who has written a novel so unutterably brilliant that we are never allowed to hear a word of it. Comparisons to David Foster Wallace and J.D. Salinger run rampant. His dog is named after F. Scott Fitzgerald. He is so sensitive that — should you not be tipped off by his floppy bangs — in his dreams, he only has conversations with girls, and never sex. When he meets a girl (Zoe Kazan, the titular Ruby) with appropriately chunky bangs, who name-drops an early Sonic Youth album in their first conversation, the theater-goer is confident that these two will found an artisanal pickle business on the second date, and shortly thereafter disappear up each other’s assholes, never to be seen again.
But wait! Dano is literally dreaming this dream girl. And soon, by writing her, he literally brings her to life. And, since Calvin has created Ruby, he can make her do, say and feel anything he wants.
That’s when things get dark. For Calvin is not quite the sensitive boy his bangs and conspicuously framed glasses declare him to be. Ruby calls him a “control freak;” he refers to his ex as a “heartless slut;” said ex’s reaction to learning that his new lady isn’t another writer, like herself (“that’s nice; that’s really unthreatening”) tells you all you need to know about what Calvin believes the proper function of a woman to be. In his quest to perfect Ruby — she can’t have her own friends, or interests; she also can’t be too clingy; she needs to be happy, but not annoying happy, you know? — he puts her through the wringer. If you think this relationship is going anywhere but to a scene of Ruby forced to shout “you’re a genius” over and over, tears streaming from her eyes, then you’re one of the world’s true optimists.
For Ruby is a deconstruction of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl — the adorably quirky, indie-soundtrack-appropriate female character who exists solely to light up some white male sad-sack’s life. Taking apart the pixie isn’t new — the first and best attempt, Clementine Kruczynski in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, appeared as early as 2004 — but it is fashionable lately.
Consider, for example, Parker Posey on the two recent “Daddy’s Girlfriend” episodes of Louis C.K.’s FX show, “Louie.” She’s one of the most graceful takes on the trope ever seen. The set-up, like Ruby Sparks, is obvious and precious, but its outcome is even darker and lovelier. It asks, simply: What if the Manic Pixie Dream Girl were actually, you know, manic? As in, she had bipolar disorder?
The arc of these two episodes was devoted to showing how Posey failed to live up to C.K.’s fantasies. But she also emerges as a real woman, with her own story. Within the first few hours of their date, she has been kicked out of a bar, told him a harrowing story of childhood illness, and pressured him to wear a dress. Her bullying, her hypomanic insistence on having her own way, is only barely disguised as flirting. He’s terrified. But her face — particularly as she kneels by a schizophrenic homeless man, talking with him about his medication — tells you that he’s the least of her problems. She’s closer to that homeless man than C.K. could ever be to her, because they have walked through the same stretch of Hell.
Obviously, this turns C.K. off. Any woman who has more dimension and texture to her personality than a Communion wafer has probably experienced a version of this: Being reduced to an adorably quirky fetish object, then being discarded once the other person learns that not all of one’s quirks are adorable. Author Emma Forrest summed up the problem in her memoir of bipolar illness, Your Voice In My Head: “Men want you because you’re sexy and broken,” a friend tells her, “and when it gets too tough they can say ‘Hey! This toy is broken!’ and then toss you aside without feeling bad.”
But the Manic Pixie has always been tricky. She has to be strange, without being disturbing; perky, without being grating; lovely, without being appreciable by anyone other than the white male sad-sack in question. These deconstructions — in Ruby, the girl-as-fetish-object is trapped and emotionally maimed by the man’s fetishism; in “Louie,” she escapes it only by becoming undesirable — point to a simple fact: No actual woman can live up to these fantasies. And no woman is truly loved if her partner asks her to try.
The problem of the girl-as-fetish, in Ruby, is the man’s responsibility: It’s his choice as to whether or not she’ll remain under his control. In “Louie,” it’s done with names. Posey introduces herself by saying that her name is Tape Recorder: Unique! Adorable! But after a night with her — a night which ends with her perched on a ledge of a building, her smile fading into a longing, weary gaze at the fall — she tells him her name is Liz. An ordinary name. An ordinary person.
But both of these statements, in the end, are the same statement. Once you know her, the Manic Pixie Dream Girl is just a woman. And she has to exist, even if you wake up.
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Jude Ellison Sady Doyle is an In These Times contributing writer. They are the author of Trainwreck: The Women We Love to Hate, Mock, and Fear… and Why (Melville House, 2016) and was the founder of the blog Tiger Beatdown. You can follow them on Twitter at @sadydoyle.