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Manic Pixies (Calling To Mind Hair Dye And Powdered Sugar Sticks)

“When he thought of Ellen Olenska, it was abstractly, serenely, as one might think of some imaginary beloved in a book or a picture; she had become the composite vision of all he had missed.” — Edith Wharton, The Age Of Innocence

A week or two ago, The Guy I Am Currently Dating and I had a conversation about the concept of the “manic pixie”, which is actually a type of stock character in films (and I suppose, consequently, in all forms of artistic expression.) It made me laugh, because a week or so before that, another friend had used that phrase in an e-mail, and I thought it was a cute little description he’d invented to characterise a certain type of person he’d run into in his life.

To a certain extent, stock characters are the lifeblood of the acting industry, and also the nemesis of actors. If you are, like me, the type of actor who is more likely to land a role playing some exaggerated version of herself than transforming herself into someone quite different, being typecast is a hazard of the trade that can be difficult to overcome.

In theatre, it’s something you live with. Based upon your body shape, height, size, physical characteristics, vocal inflections, ability to sing and dance, and even your real, off-stage personality quirks, you’re able to figure out your type. Either you’re the leading lady or the ingenue, the girl next door or the evil, conniving vixen, the character actress or the comedienne who steals the show, a soprano or an alto, a featured dancer or one who’s hiding in the back fudging the steps. Almost every play or musical has a character that fits your “type”, so you spend a lot of time learning how others perceive you and how to make best advantage so you can play that perfect role for your “type”. You learn not to waste time auditioning for roles that don’t reflect your “type”; in fact, in most open auditions, you’ll be screened out before you even get to the theatre door. Once you’re Equity and your auditions are by appointment, your agent will typically only get calls from those who want to see you for a certain role. It can be frustrating, if you want to branch out and show you’re Meryl Streep, which is why many theatrical performers also work in television, on soap operas, and singing in rock bands or performing stand-up in their spare time.

The world of film is a little more forgiving, mostly because there are simply more “types”. Film is based to reflect the real lives of real people in a way that most theatrical productions and television shows are not; it’s often the reason why musical theatre stars can cross over to TV, but not into film. The habits that are ingrained that make everything larger than life are ridiculous on the silver screen, unless, like Nathan Lane and Christine Baranski and William Shatner, you play characters MEANT to be larger than life.

In any case, I learned that in film, “manic pixie” is actually a stock character, a modern-day muse that attracts others, despite being fucked-up in some way, because she opens the door to a world with which the main character—usually a love interest—is unfamiliar. Although disturbed, she is often idealised because of her ability to relate and connect and help others grow, to disconnect from the world of what is expected and retreat into a greater world of adventure and romance and possibility. Of course, this world is an illusion, an idealised version of life that can never hold up over the long term.

I had an acute moment of understanding when he discussed this with me, because it occurred to me that this has largely been reflective of my experience in real life. Although those who don’t think I’m anything special can’t quite figure it out, I’ve always had a certain ability to attract—-not everyone, but a certain kind of person—and to draw others into my world. I’ve always had the ability to draw others out of their shells, to inspire them to something different and greater, to succeed. I’ve dated normal people who have gone on to become millionaires, Broadway professionals, doctors, lawyers, idealists who work to change the world. I’ve dated a number of people who marry the first person with whom they share their heart after me, and who are quite happy as a result.

I’ve struggled with being idealised, and the sense of broken-heartedness that comes with the realisation that the one you love is in love with an image. The power of this image is so deluding it’s led me to involvements with married men who viewed me as something greater than the simple, ordinary girl I am, and has ended with people considering ending their relationships to pursue something with me…something that inevitably wouldn’t live up to the ideal.

All this, this is why people become interested in me, despite any obvious excess of wit or beauty or intelligence or grace or sense of humour or anything else people gravitate towards. It is why people not only forgive the many ways in which I’m screwed up and the oversensitivity I wear on my sleeve, but the flaws become endearing. It is also when I am devastated when I invest myself in another person, help them to make huge life changes, become the person they want to be, and they end up leaving me and marrying the next girl who comes along—whom I often notice is not as charismatic, not as vibrant, and often, not as open as I am. The inevitable feeling that follows is “Why am I always the person who molds other people so they can move on, and embrace a happier, more fulfilled life with someone other than me?”

The thing about life, as compared to movies, is that people grow…and even stereotypical characters have a layer of something else underneath that may take some effort to see, but it’s there. But, it’s scary to me in some ways to see how art imitates life, and vice versa. At least, it does in my case. I attract those who idealise some aspect of me, and in turn, am attracted by the idea of being seen as something larger and more unforgettable than I am. Unfortunately, this is not the basis for a healthy relationship, and it is the basis for a whole lot of friendships that become extremely complicated in one way or another.

Of course, for a person who also idealises everyone and everything else in the world, I suppose it’s right that I should attract the same. Finding myself in a relationship that has an aspect of rationality and logic and boundaries to it means that I am happier and stable than I’ve been at other points in my life, but I also often miss the sense of the whimsical, the spontaneous, the living in a world that’s somewhat unreal, but filled with big thoughts, big feelings, and big ideas.

I guess, in my way, I’ve always been a manic pixie…and never understood why anyone would tolerate, much less be attracted to, a “weird” person like myself. Suddenly, I understand how it happened that a guy I knew on the internet for a number of years fell in love with the illusion I created…often unknowingly…and I ended up moving to Atlanta to live out that perfect, intense romance, only to realise real life was nothing like I imagined. We hurt each other deeply, that ex and I, and I suspect a lot of it had to do with two overly idealistic souls not being able to face disillusionment and reality on a daily basis without feeling hurt, betrayed, and looking elsewhere for another person to fulfill that ideal.

And, yes, the Wikipedia entry makes reference to Audrey Hepburn in “Breakfast At Tiffany’s”, which I still haven’t seen. :P

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