John Green is a popular young adult fiction writer and YouTube video blogger, best known for books such as The Fault in Our Stars and Paper Towns, which recently became top-selling novels and movies. Green’s popularity has skyrocketed since the release of TFIOS, and has generated buzz around his frequent discussions about the manic pixie dream girl and male-female relationships as teenagers.
Although John Green did not invent any of the recurring tropes heavily found in his books, the impact of Green’s books has led me to develop a theory entitled the “John Green Formula.” This formula is commonly found in contemporary young adult fiction where person X (typically a girl who is “not like other girls”) and person Y (typically a boy who may have a plethora of personality traits, more than the girl) come together under turbulent circumstances, fall in love, and may leave a problematic impression on readers. There are a million and one interpretations over how Green uses this formula; other authors are now showing signs of it as well.
...But, what is the “manic pixie dream girl” trope? “Manic pixie dream girl” (MDPG) is a term coined by film critic Nathan Rabin in 2007. Rabin originally called for the term to describe a female counterpart to a male protagonist existing solely to provide happiness to a brooding male without having any of her own independent goals. Later, it became misconstrued to define characteristics of all quirky, Zooey Deschanel-esque female supporting characters. Rabin later disowned the term, and now the MPDG has become a marketable trope for young adult authors.
In books, the MPDG can be a toxic character, leaving an impression on young readers, both male and female. Mainstream views of women are inherently sexist. A mold for the “ideal female character,” especially in books, is usually a girl who embodies unadulterated femininity whilst disassociating herself with the entire gender. Examples in contemporary culture would be Robin Scherbatsky on How I Met Your Mother, or Alaska Young in Green’s Looking for Alaska. In other words, the ideal is the “she’s not like other girls” girl. Although MPDGs are different than their original textbook definition, it’s the quirky girl with nice hair who reads books by dead authors and has curves that look like they’ve been crafted by a Greek sculptor.
Green relies heavily on MPDGs in his books. In his first novel Looking for Alaska, the main character, Miles “Pudge” Halter, is obsessed with his classmate and new friend Alaska. Alaska smokes, hides alcohol in the grass of the soccer field, and has been through countless hardships that ultimately become her downfall. Pudge places Alaska on such a high pedestal, Alaska had to get herself down somehow. Much of the book’s analysis is focused on the dangers of this view, and how we as people must imagine people complexly. Pudge fails to imagine Alaska complexly in the “before” but learns in the “after.”
Green’s MPDG continues through his other works, too; notably, Paper Towns. Quentin--or “Q” as he is referred in the book--has been in love with Margo since the day she moved next door, and wholeheartedly believes he is able to persuade Margo into loving him and “saving” her from her antics. According to Green’s response on his Tumblr, he said Paper Towns is heavily devoted to “tearing down the Manic Pixie Dream Girl in its entirety.” It is often interpreted as a romanticization of broken people (particularly girls) who need to be saved by boys in order to be happy. Critics and even Green himself have noted the impression this may leave on young consumers if not handled properly in context.
The reliance on MPDGs in Green’s work is overused, and Green could benefit from exploring other topics outside of the traditional heterosexual teenage relationship. The "John Green Formula” is taking over, and misused tropes used as a message against said tropes will get lost in translation. Many newer authors--such as Green’s fellow YouTube star, Zoella or Rainbow Rowell--have taken it upon themselves to emulate the characters in Green’s novels. In Zoe Sugg’s (Zoella) debut novel, Girl Online, the protagonist, Penny, has a very similar characterization as the typical female character in Green’s novels. She suffers from panic attacks and writes a blog, but her character doesn’t begin development until she meets a boy. Penny relates to Hazel in The Fault in Our Stars, who also (in the text superficially) found happiness through a male counterpart--or, the Manic Pixie Dream Boy. A MPDB is just as toxic of an atmosphere for young boys as a MPDG can be for young girls.
The "John Green Formula” has toxic facets that may accidentally embrace the nuances of fabricated fairytale happiness. When writers of books, TV shows, movies, and other forms of media create for younger, impressionable consumers, the typical response is to develop similar personalities to those characters. This real-life interpretation becomes dangerous in the hands of those consumers. To quote Green himself, “Books belong to their readers.” Green’s quote is significant to the dismantling of these tropes because consumers need to sharpen the line between fiction and reality. When entertainment media is characterizing women as “weak” and using phrases such as “you run like a girl” as an insult, the gap between fiction and reality is pushed closer together.
Despite the problems associated to the “John Green Formula,” use of this formula/MPDG is a marketable way of writing novels and producing entertainment. To provide an anecdotal perspective, when I was 15-years-old and chasing after boys, I wanted nothing more than to be someone’s MPDG. Being “the quirky girl” who liked books and indie music seemed much more interesting than the girl who likes parties and pop music--at least that’s what books and TV taught me. Thoughts such as that shine a light on the internalized misogyny deeply rooted in girl-on-girl relationships. Young girls are taught from very young ages to treat men as competition and that if you don’t embody certain traits to look more interesting, “boys won’t like you.” The MPDG trope provides a template for young girls to become more appealing to the opposite sex. Unfortunately, mainstream societal expectations of how women must act are influenced by the opinions of men.Green plays into this ideal by showcasing its realistic nature, but readers may not recognize the lesson to be learned. Based on certain interpretations, Green’s use of the MPDG is genius, but also problematic. MPDGs are dangerous territory. Green is still a white, cisgender man who may acknowledge his privilege, but that does not stop him from benefiting from producing this type of content. In order to see the positive side of Green’s work, there must be more transparency in how women are perceived in books/media versus real life. Criticisms will not take away from Green’s success, but it just might open the eyes of consumers about the strict standards forced upon women in reality and fiction.