The guy behind the “Manic Pixie Dream Girl” phenomenon has regrets. In a 2007 review of Elizabethtown, film critic Nathan Rabin coined this term to contextualize Kirsten Dunst’s character within a contingent of quirky female love interests who exist “solely in the fevered imaginations of sensitive writer-directors to teach broodingly soulful young men to embrace life and its infinite mysteries and adventures.”1 The MPDG quickly went viral, thanks to its brilliant distillation of traits shared by the childishly playful heroines of hetero rom-coms such as Garden State and 500 Days of Summer.
Rabin worries, however, that the term has lost its edge through misuse, overapplication, and even celebration. In a 2014 essay for Salon, he apologizes for inventing the phrase and calls for “its erasure from public discourse.”2 Pointing to the proliferation of variations on the MPDG theme—a young-adult novel Manicpixiedreamgirl; an essay on the “manic pixie dream guy”—he agonizes, “What have I done?!” The focus, he declares, should be on creating “more nuanced and multidimensional female characters,” not perpetuating this trope’s “Patriarchal Lie” by redeploying it.
I don’t disagree with Rabin that uncritical reiterations of the MPDG are troubling. But at a moment when a queer variation on this trope has begun taking shape in popular young-adult novels and films, it seems to me that we cannot afford to abandon a critical concept that could help us get a handle on the appeal and problems of such characters. Tracing how the alluringly peculiar and selfless character that I call the Earnest Elfin Dream Gay (EEDG) is simultaneously idealized and sidelined in the queer adolescent love story, I maintain, can help us to reinvigorate Rabin’s critique. Bringing queer romance into the mix might prompt us to be less judgmental in our analysis of the appeal of such characters, while enabling us to recognize that the forms of exclusion this trope perpetuates are not limited to sexism. It reminds us to ask the questions: what fantasies might the MPDG and EEDG be indulging, and to whom do they belong?
Here’s how I began thinking about the Earnest Elfin Dream Gay: I was enjoying Patrick Ness’s moving and eloquent novel Release (2017), which had been recommended to me by Angel Daniel Matos, a friend and fellow scholar of queer YA. I had just read a particularly poignant scene involving Linus, the novel’s EEDG, when I felt compelled to send Angel a Facebook message.
“Ugh, Linus, I love you,” I wrote.
“He is so pure,” Angel replied.
“Linus was cute, and that was a fact,” the novel tells us. “He was a nerd. … He wore black-rimmed glasses, had a thick swoop of brown hair that was already showing signs of handsome recession, and dressed with an old-fashioned formality that mostly, but not always, stopped just short of a bow tie.” Linus likes horror movies; he’s a ballroom dancer; “he almost exclusively read three-inch-thick fantasies with sexy elves on the covers”; and when his emotionally conflicted boyfriend, Adam, collapses into tears mid-coitus and begs, “Please don’t leave me unloved,” Linus is a picture of heart-rending tenderness. Linus holds Adam as he cries, “curved against him in the bed, breathing into the bend of his neck.” Adam finally confesses: he is haunted by his homophobic family’s suggestion that queers are unworthy of love; he might still have feelings for his ex. “I’m sorry,” Adam says. Linus, however, remains relentlessly agreeable in that quintessential EEDG way: “You are so not the one who should be sorry,” he replies.
Later in the novel, Linus retreats momentarily when he spots Adam sharing a tender moment with his ex. “I know what I want,” Linus insists, protesting Adam’s indecisiveness. “I want you. … All of you.” Linus’s certainty begets Adam’s, and their reconciliation is swift. Boy gets boy. This reader’s chest burst open, releasing into the atmosphere a million glittering heart emojis. Sigh. So dreamy.
As I slowly reassembled myself, I realized that Linus reminded me of other YA Dream Gays who made me feel similarly fuzzy. Two favorites came to mind: Noah, from David Levithan’s Boy Meets Boy (2003), and Robby Brees, from Andrew Smith’s Grasshopper Jungle (2014). Both had won me over with their sensitivity, warmth, and unwavering dedication to buttressing the troubled protagonist in their respective novels. EEDG Noah is dating Paul, who, like Release’s Adam, is (unsuccessfully) managing a muddled relationship with his ex-boyfriend, Kyle. Noah is an artist who is passionate about music. He invites Paul on a date where they engage in the almost insufferably cute activity of trying to paint a Chet Baker song. Noah is a lovable sprite. “His hair points in ten different directions. His eyes are a little close together, but man, are they green. There’s a little birthmark on his neck, the shape of a comma,” Paul narrates. The punctuation mark used to introduce subordination is literally written on Noah’s body. Indeed, managing a flurry of high school drama is Paul’s priority, and Noah’s task is to love, endure, and forgive. Noah catches Paul sharing a confused kiss with Kyle. Boy loses boy temporarily, but Paul’s series of compensatory grand romantic gestures ultimately proves sufficient. Boy gets boy back.
Like Noah, EEDG Robby Brees is an artist with retro taste in music. Robby is in love with his best friend, Austin, who is torn between feelings for his girlfriend, Shann, and Robby. As the Rolling Stones play, Robby sits shirtless and sketches Austin, who writes poetry. They drink wine, pop a few Xanax, and then sleep together. Filled with shame and guilt, Austin begins treating the perpetually loyal Robby with cruelty. Yet, even as the world around them is destroyed by horny mutant grasshoppers (yes, actually), Robby remains devoted to Austin, while Austin remains tormented by his own sexual confusion. Robby and Austin’s ending isn’t as hopelessly romantic as the previous two: boy “gets” boy in the sense that boy dwells semi-romantically with noncommittal boy and boy’s girlfriend in underground Cold War–era shelter. Can’t win ’em all.
Now that boy gets boy, what boys actually get the boy? What boy do they get, and at what cost?
“I feel like there’s a gay YA equivalent of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl, but it’s the Earnest Elfin Dream Gay, who is so pure and is willing to heal the emotional wounds of the protagonist with his unflinching love,” I wrote to Angel, upon reflection.
“In my queer YA class, I referred to them as the pure gay love interests,” Angel said.
“Isn’t this the fantasy, though?” I replied. “We’re just emotionally damaged queers, and all we want is someone to love us with the pure, pure heart of a gay elf.”
These examples of the EEDG are evidently not interchangeable. However, their narrative function is strikingly similar. The EEDG is a supporting character in someone else’s queer coming-of-age story. He loves the anxious, confused male protagonist purely, wholly, and unconditionally. Similar to the MPDG, the EEDG’s obsession with the protagonist often seems to flout logic. He exists primarily to support and nurture the conflicted hero—to smooth another’s path to happiness, sometimes at the expense of his own. The EEDG is quirky to the point of being twee. He has eccentric taste in art, poetry, and/or music. He is described as a loveable nerd with distinctly adorable features: cute hair, dazzling eyes, twinkish stature, and some sort of charmingly idiosyncratic physical trait. He is cisgender and almost always, but not exclusively, white. When cast in a fantasy book-to-film adaptation, he is probably played by Timothée Chalamet.
The EEDG both incorporates and transforms enduring gay adolescent narrative conventions. In 2008, Thomas Crisp described three common, reductive gay YA character types: the Tragic Closeted Jock (TCJ), the Sensitive Understanding Doormat (SUD), and the Queer and Proud Homosexual (a.k.a. the Sexually Insatiable Target).3 The first two typically form a couple if/when the jock comes out; the last is victimized for being a bit too out. Today, however, closeted protagonists and bullying episodes are dwindling. Boy routinely gets boy, and happy endings have become increasingly tenable. Gay characters pervade books, television shows, and films. We have our Love, Simons and our Alex Strangeloves. The EEDG is a contemporary composite of Crisp’s three types: he is generally more comfortable being “out” and/or is surer of his desires than the protagonist; like the SUD, he allows his heart to be trampled upon in the name of love; like the TCJ, he is a vessel for and product of gay wish fulfillment.
Just as the MPDG ostensibly appeals to the unconscious desires of straight men, I think the pervasiveness of the EEDG—and my own affective response to it—illustrates how this trope performs a similar, if gayer, function. My story is likely a familiar one: I am a 30-something, middle-class, white gay guy who lived his nerdy adolescent years deep in the closet, crushing on Leo and JTT, while being simultaneously consumed by shame at these longings. Like Adam, I felt as though I’d never truly love or be loved. I couldn’t really bring myself to admit that I desired men until my 20s. It took years and years to begin undoing years and years of internalized homophobia.
And I’m still working on it. I often grieve the gay adolescence I never lived. What wouldn’t I give to have had a Linus to love me openly and tenaciously despite my wounds? In return, I would have loved and nurtured him back. I could have made someone like Robby—so lost to his unrequited devotion—feel happy. Gay YA’s EEDG animates this fantasy, again and again.
At this point, I probably don’t require an analyst to help me unpack the unconscious logic behind my career choices. I do, however, have Julia Kristeva to remind me that the adolescent novel indulges our most narcissistic impulses.4 That said, I don’t think I’m alone in my literary predilections. Numerous studies have demonstrated that adults are, in fact, the biggest market for YA. Publishers Weekly, for example, claims that readers 18 years and older were responsible for 79 percent of YA purchases from December 2012 through November 2013.5 And queer YA has become wildly popular. Author Malinda Lo points out that the number of mainstream LGBTQ YA books released annually has quadrupled over the last 15 years, soaring from under 20 titles per year in the early 2000s to nearly 80 in 2016.6
When tropes emerge and circulate with cumulative intensity, they are often useful indexes of some kind of cultural desire or anxiety.
In an era when young people have ever-growing access to queer media, it is noteworthy that storytellers remain invested in working through the attachments and longings of gay adolescence as influenced by the damage and trauma of homophobia, both external and internalized. Who, however, does the healing, and who gets to be healed? Now that boy gets boy, what boys actually get the boy? What boy do they get, and at what cost? As a New York Times review of the 2018 Netflix teenage dramedy Alex Strangelove indicates, recent queer coming-of-age stories tend to feature young women who are mistreated by male protagonists and often denied a satisfying or redemptive arc.7 This occurs to varying degrees in Love, Simon (2018), in the 2017 film adaptation of Call Me By Your Name, as well as in Grasshopper Jungle, which leaves Shann unhappy and silenced at novel’s end.
We might also consider the queerer, gender nonnormative characters and characters of color who habitually find themselves at the margins of these texts. Think Love, Simon, which offers Simon as an EEDG variant. He wants to love and be loved so desperately that the identity of the mysterious boy behind their email correspondence doesn’t seem to matter. We, in return, love Simon for his urgent want to love. Simon does end up in an interracial relationship, a perennial rarity in queer-youth narratives. However, the boy doesn’t turn out to be Ethan, the unapologetically gender-nonconforming student of color who is bullied throughout the film.
Or, we might ponder Strangelove’s pansexual and genderqueer Sidney, played by queer actor and drag artist Jesse James Keitel and deployed only briefly in the film as part of a punch line intended to highlight the relative banality of contemporary queerness. Queerness has not become so banal, though, that Sidney and Ethan are permitted participation in the kind of narrative wish fulfillment that remains largely restricted to white, gay, cisgender boys.
I don’t want to perpetuate the EEDG in a manner that risks flattening complex characters (that, admittedly, I love) created by thoughtful artists whom I very much admire. Nor do I wish to foster uncritical celebration of the EEDG. Already, Rabin might never forgive my reiteration of the MPDG and its attendant risks. But when such tropes emerge and circulate with cumulative intensity, they are often useful indexes of some kind of cultural desire or anxiety. They also raise important questions. Who is invited into relation with this trope? What or whom does the EEDG elide? Who do storytellers of gay adolescence position as the fulfillment of gay male fantasies and wishes, and who remains unimagined, undesirable, undesired?
White, gender-conforming gay boys shouldn’t be the dominant vehicles for navigating the twisted and often harrowing labyrinth of queer adolescence. Queer storytellers can do better than that—and, in fact, they already are. Many artists have been pushing at the confines of current conventions: see, for example, the beautifully rendered, heart-wrenching queer relationship between indigenous teens Jonny and Tias in Oji-Cree, Two-Spirit author Joshua Whitehead’s Jonny Appleseed (2018). We need more of these stories, however. We need to elevate more diverse characters to the level of our Simons, Alexes, and Linuses, alongside our other most widely disseminated Earnest Elfin Dream Gays, and we need queerer dreams—many more of them.
This article was commissioned by Marah Gubar.
- Nathan Rabin, “The Bataan Death March of Whimsy Case File #1: Elizabethtown,” AV Club, January 25, 2007. ↩
- Nathan Rabin, “I’m Sorry for Coining the Phrase ‘Manic Pixie Dream Girl,’” Salon, July 15, 2014. ↩
- Thomas Crisp, “The Trouble with Rainbow Boys,” in Children’s Literature in Education, vol. 39, no. 4, 2008, pp. 237–61. ↩
- Julia Kristeva, “The Adolescent Novel,” in New Maladies of the Soul, translated from the French by Ross Mitchell Guberman (Columbia University Press, 1995), pp. 135–53. ↩
- Cited in Michael Cart, Young Adult Literature: From Romance to Realism, 3rd ed. (American Library Association, 2016), p. 146. ↩
- Malinda Lo, “LGBTQ YA by the Numbers: 2015–2016,” author website, October 12, 2017. ↩
- Glenn Kenny, “‘Alex Strangelove’: Boy Meets Boy. Awkwardness Ensues,” New York Times, May 18, 2018. ↩