Deep Dive: Film tropes and their toxic depictions of women

Madison White


Movie tropes. In cinema, a trope is what The Art Direction Handbook for Film defines as “a universally identified image imbued with several layers of contextual meaning creating a new visual metaphor.” But I found that the most common tropes we have come to know through film today, feel more like stereotypical character elements essential to the predictable plot. So I have decided to take a deep dive into some of the most used film tropes in the industry and analyze what it says about us as an audience that these stale, gender stereotypical plots keep us coming back for more.

The “nice” guy, the funny fat girl, the “cool” girl, the best friend who’s only value seems to be comic relief, and only interests are listening to the problems of the main character, yet they always seem to have more of an interesting personality than them. Is this ringing any bells? Stereotypical character types like these have been replicated in film throughout cinema history. 

Today, we are talking about one of my favorite tropes to analyze, The Manic Pixie Dream Girl. A character type film critic Nathan Rabin describes as “a female character 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.” Natalie Portman in the film “Garden State,” Kate Hudson in “Almost Famous,” Mary Elizabeth Winstead in “Scott Pilgrim vs. the World,” are all prime examples of the trope. These characters tend to be beautiful, yet quirky women, who are “different from other girls.” They’re outgoing personalities usually attract a “sad, and brooding” male protagonist and the MPDG tends to make them “feel alive.” While they’re usually the most interesting characters in the film, they’re sole purpose is to help their men without ever even pursuing their own happiness, which is why such characters never grow; thus, their men never grow up. 

So what does this trope reflect about society, or more-so what does it reflect about the men who write these characters. I think the film “500 Days of Summer,” starring Joseph Gordon Levitt and Zooey Deschanel, answers this question perfectly. When watching this film for the first time, most people automatically view Deschanel’s character as a manic pixie dream girl. But in reality, this film was actually written to deconstruct this trope and expose that most of the time, because we are seeing the MPDG through the male protagonist’s gaze it is obvious that he puts the woman on a pedestal due to her quirky qualities. And doesn’t ever actually see the woman for who she truly is, only looking at her as a “thing” he must obtain. All the while, never actually listening to what she wants or her perspective, and only admiring the superficial aspects about her. 500 days of Summer is a movie you can watch twice. Usually the first time hating  the character of Summer, and wishing she ended up with the protagonist, Tom. And the second time, seeing how the movie blatantly exposes how her character is just a mockup of what we see through the male gaze. She is aware that her male counterpart isn’t looking at who she is from a deeper perspective, which is why she chooses to not end up with him. And our male protagonist Tom is left in agony, never understanding Summer’s choice because he doesn’t even really know Summer.  

So what can we take away from this deep dive: that oftentimes the film industry likes to exhibit female characters with amazing qualities and outlooks, and yet they are always minimized to so little. Films like these send messages like, “men need fixing, and women need a project.” When in actuality the male protagonists are completely capable of growing on their own. They just choose to idolize a woman instead, thinking her eccentric personality and good looks will do it for them. 

 Lastly, I really recommend watching 500 Days of Summer, even if you have already seen it, give it a second watch because I think it is a truly misunderstood movie with a powerful message.