by Isa Meyers //
My middle and early high school years, like most teens growing up in the 2010s, were filled with cheesy YA romance novels. I flew through Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games in a matter of days. I became obsessed with The Perks of Being A Wallflower and its movie adaptation released in 2012 starring Harry Potter’s Emma Watson and Percy Jackson’s Logan Lerman. But we all know who transformed YA coming of age literature: John Green.
John Green is most commonly known for his books Looking For Alaska, Paper Towns, and The Fault in Our Stars (TFIOS). All three of these novels received major screen time as well. Most recently, Looking For Alaska was adapted into a Hulu mini-series, premiering in fall 2019. Even if you aren’t a Green reader, you know of him and you definitely could recognize the iconic blue and white jacket cover of TFIOS. John, and his brother Hank Green, still create content today for both YouTube and TikTok, continuing their legacy as “Vlogbrothers.”
It’s been exactly a decade since my deep dive into many different YA fandoms. And while I wouldn’t change my romance-filled, dystopian-obsessed, YA-novel-centric adolescence, I now have come to terms that these books played a large role in how I constructed my own femininity. In short, Green’s characters, especially Alaska Young of Looking For Alaska and Margo Roth Spiegelman of Paper Towns, made me long to be the quirky sidekick and the romantic pursuit of a struggling young boy.
During the time Green wrote these novels, this trope was not new by any means. Film critic Nathan Rabin coined the term “Manic Pixie Dream Girl” when writing about Kristen Dunst’s character in Elizabethtown (2005). He says that the stock character of “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.”
Green’s books made me wish I experienced tragedy in order to mark myself as different, as though my desirability relied on these outlandish (but also terribly clichéd) relationships between white, male protagonists and their alluring and mysterious love interests. I thought that you had to be quirky (and missing) like Margo to be noticed, or dark and perceptive like Alaska with her affinity for books (that I forced myself to try and read too) to be attractive. Because who doesn’t want to be the main love interest of a YA romance?
Green states that his book and film adaptation were meant to directly juxtapose this sexist trope: “Paper Towns is devoted in its entirety to destroying the lie of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl… I do not know how I could have been less ambiguous about this without calling the novel The Patriarchal Lie of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl Must Be Stabbed in the Heart and Killed.” The Manic Pixie Dream Girl, in Green’s words, is a patriarchal lie. And I agree. Female characters do not need to apologize for their femininity. But the reality is that nearly all of Green’s early protagonists and narrators are white, young men who are lost in this so-called adventure of life. Quentin (“Q”) Jacobsen of Paper Towns and Miles (“Pudge”) Halter of Looking For Alaska rely on their Manic Pixie Dream Girl counterparts to make them whole again.
In Paper Towns, after spending the entire novel trying to track Margo down, Q finally professes his love to her, in which she replies “You don’t even know me.” What Green is getting at is that Q built this ideal image of this girl in his head, only to realize that it was, indeed, idealized. In this sense, Green attempts to flip the Manic Pixie Dream Girl trope on its head to indicate Q’s shortcomings. In other words, no one can teach him how to live his own life. Only he can. Yet, journalist Anna Leszkiewicz writes: “When we leave the novel, Margo still isn’t given a voice. In the movie, Q acknowledges that Margo could be anywhere in the world by now, ‘but that’s her story to tell.’ Of course, the film finishes before she has the chance. We know less about her at the plot’s close than we did at the start, only, now, we know we know less.” While Q’s character arc aims to debunk his patriarchal notions regarding women, he still needs Margo to teach him this, to teach him that she doesn’t solely exist for him. And like Leszkiewicz says, Margo is still denied agency and an actual personality.
Alaska, similarly, is the perfect embodiment of the phrase “she’s not like the other girls.” Because it’s true, she’s not. At Green’s fictional Culver Creek Academy, Alaska is an enigma who stuns Miles with her witticism, beauty, and complexity. She is marked by tragedy, something Miles knows nothing about until Green kills Alaska in order to teach Miles this lesson about love and loss. Student Phoebe Yates for The Tufts’s Daily argues: “Certainly, if she were a living, breathing person, Alaska would be complex and multi-faceted. Instead, she comes across as two-dimensional—all meaningful looks and wooden feminist one-liners.” Alaska actually had to die for him.
I do recognize that even naming this trope strips these female characters of any agency and that it is unfair to them. Rabin actually released a formal apology for creating a term that is itself a way to minimize femininity. Elle writer Meghan Friedman summarizes: “A character can be free-spirited and female simultaneously, without existing solely for a male. And that’s why Rabin is calling for the ‘erasure’ of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl. Instead, he says, ‘let’s all try to write better, more nuanced and multidimensional female characters.’” However, it’s hard for me to view Margo and Alaska in particular as multi-faceted when they were written by an adult male author whose main characters all seem to vaguely serve as a conduit for his past teenage self. Looking For Alaska’s plot is actually inspired and driven by Green’s boarding school experience at Indian Springs outside of Birmingham, Alabama. In short, even if Margo and Alaska are not Manic Pixie Dream Girls, their construction by Green is still rooted in unachievable standards of femininity inspired by, and designed for, the white, male gaze.
It’s naive to “blame” Green for my teenage insecurities. I could have taken the books at face value. Even without these novels, I probably would have had the same complexes and personality crises throughout puberty. It’s funny, in hindsight, to see how badly I wanted to be unique and complicated when I no longer need male validation for my personality and existence.
Simply put, I wouldn’t change my childhood or it’s reading list. In fact, Looking For Alaska did provide comfort to me following the loss of a childhood friend at age 16. These books offered me the vocabulary to express notions of grief and loss in a way I might not have understood when communicating with adults alone.
While, hopefully, the Manic Pixie Dream Girl is on her way out of white, straight, male authors’ imaginations and as vocabulary for the critique of film and literature, we still have to reckon with the institutional facilitation of femininity within the media. A start would be to recognize, support, and fund female authors, directors, and screenwriters, and especially queer female artists of color.
To all female young adults out there, read. Read a lot. Read John Green if you wish. But know that you are more unique than any female love interest a middle-aged, white, straight man could possibly conceive of. You deserve more.