by Sonal M.
In 2007, Nathan Rubin coined the phrase Manic Pixie Dream Girl, to describe a female character who “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.” This manic pixie dream girl (“MPDG”) is essentially the embodiment of the notion of carpe diem, who dances without music and makes heads turn, who enchants a tortured man with her joie-de-vivre – and who inevitably leaves the story, as exactly who she was to begin with.
The trope is problematic, in that it idealizes an archetypal female character whose sole purpose in a story is to improve the male character’s life and worldview. It’s also one that has comfortably settled in the home of the romantic comedy genre for years, and the dizi world has been no exception.
Several dizis like Aşk Laftan Anlamaz, Kiralık Aşk, and most recently Sen Çal Kapimi, have employed the sunshine-girl-meets-reserved-man formula with great success. And while these shows have been enjoyable as pure entertainment, they have been characterized by a discernible pattern of strong, free-willed leading ladies who eventually assume the role of a side character in their own story.
Looking back at popular MPDGs in Diziland
The character of Defne in Kiralık Aşk, a show which has achieved near-cult status in the workplace rom-com genre, also subtly but surely follows this formula. Defne starts off as a fiery woman who is trying to make her own path, but is soon reduced to a glorified sounding board for Ömer’s problems. Defne is ambitious, but only so long as Ömer is comfortable with it; she flourishes when she is with him, and abandons all hope of happiness when he leaves her; nearly everything about her from her appearance to her profession seems tailored to Ömer’s preferences, but that phenomenon is not reciprocated.
While undeniably charming and visually appealing, Defne and Ömer’s relationship revolved around the idea of her completing him by becoming his family. This comes across in the unbalanced treatment of their individual struggles by the writers. A plotline about Defne being abandoned by her mother as a child is casually tossed aside in half an episode, while Omer’s struggles with the loss of his mother form a major catalyst for several storylines on the show. Ömer regularly dictates Defne’s professional and personal relationships, and it is normalized as ‘love’.
Even Sen Çal Kapimi, which proudly started off as a story of Eda’s path to achieving her dreams and finding love along the way, gave her struggles and problems hardly any screen-time. In truth, the show has always been focused on Serkan’s growth from a grumpy, unhappy man into one who lives and loves openly – and Eda is the perfect, forgiving, sensitive fairy girl who guides him along that journey.
But while Serkan undergoes traumas and transformations galore, Eda remains, at the end of 47 episodes, the same character we were introduced to in the pilot. The most important storylines about her development – separating from Serkan, graduation, having a child – are relegated to flashbacks or not shown at all. But through it all, the viewers are reminded time and again that Eda taught Serkan how to live. Sounds familiar, right?
Why Is This An Issue?
There’s nothing inherently wrong with cliches and tropes; the very reason they are used, and overused, is because they work. Most rom-coms may not be critically appreciated, they don’t sweep award shows, and they follow a broadly consistent formula – but they continue to capture the hearts of millions nevertheless. A good rom-com knows that its audience isn’t watching for originality or innovation, as much as for tropes well-executed.
The issue is, that fiction creates real life. For many girls, myself included, the perception of our femininity has been heavily informed by the kind of women we see in our books and on our television screens. When the most common portrayals of women are as the side characters or accessories to the hero’s journey of self-discovery, that influence can be damaging. It’s important to portray quirky, unusual women who are characterized by their unique worldview and talk to their plants – but it’s equally important to portray those women with all their complexities and flaws, and not as paragons of virtue. Some say that the MPDG is a result of men’s attempts to perceive and write women, but that may be an oversimplification – often, such characters are written by women too. Perhaps it is a result of social conditioning, or in response to the popularity of the trope, or both.
A New Trend
This year has been significant for the leading ladies of Diziland rom coms, with a number of summer dizis focusing on unusual, multi-layered female characters who have more to their personality than a desire to save their love interests from themselves. I’m well aware that there have been many such women in non-rom-com dizis, but it is refreshing to see a paradigm shift in a genre that is riddled with the curse of the MPDG.
This year’s rom-com season began with the announcement of Cam Tavanlar, a show about Leyla (Bensu Soral), a young professional who is trying to make it in a boardroom full of stuffy elderly men that think a woman belongs at home. It is intriguing that the first episode of Cam Tavanlar does not introduce us to its male lead until nearly halfway into the first episode, because it tells viewers that this story is not about him. Although the show has been cancelled prematurely, perhaps due to a slow-moving story line and under-developed characters, it tried to tell a different kind of fairy tale where patriarchy is the only villain and Leyla isn’t looking to save or be saved.
In Baş Belası, we meet Ipek (İrem Helvacıoğlu), a high-society woman who is rudely jolted out of her picture-perfect life due to the misdeeds of her husband. A psychologist by training and Stepford-esque housewife by choice, Ipek joins the police force in order to investigate her family’s troubles. She resembles Midge Maisel (The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel) in appearance and Phryne Fischer (lead character in a series of detective novels) in intelligence, and gradually earns the respect of her colleagues and family through her keen observation skills and emotional intelligence. What is most interesting, is that the chemistry between her and her love interest, lies in their ability to call out each other’s problematic behavior instead of romanticizing it.
Aşk Mantık İntikam, a remake of the Korean ‘Cunning Single Lady’, introduces us to Esra (Burcu Özberk), a woman who (shockingly) does not idealize romantic love. Shaped by her circumstances and the words of her mother, she views marriage as a practical decision for companionship and support, and not necessarily a culmination of passionate attraction. At the same time, we see Esra having poured her heart and soul into her marriage to Ozan and supporting the both of them financially, till the point where she could not take it anymore and asked for a divorce. It’s a refreshing change to see a woman who isn’t obsessed with traditional notions of love and romance, but expresses her commitment in different ways.
Perhaps the most surprisingly interesting female character out of this year’s summer dizis, is Ada (Cemre Baysel) from Baht Oyunu. Based on the promotional material, I assumed Baht Oyunu would be just another traditionally gendered rom-com about a girl whose sole aim in life seemed to be getting married to her first love, and who was paired off with her grumpy workaholic boss. I am grateful that I was proved so delightfully wrong.
On the surface, Ada has all the characteristics of an MPDG – she’s larger than life, loves the idea of love, and brings colour to Bora’s otherwise straight-laced world. But with every episode, Ada turns the tired MPDG trope on its head. She may have started off obsessed with love and marriage, but her story isn’t about that – it’s about her journey to discover that her dignity is more valuable than her idea of love, and that her dreams are bigger than being the side character to her partner’s story. Ada is capable of blackmailing her boss just as well as caring for the stray kittens in her building, because she isn’t just an idea of a person that popped out of a fantasy-fuelled mold.
These four heroines, and many others that I couldn’t discuss in this article, are in some ways a feminist retelling of the manic pixie dream girl trope. These women embrace their feminine traits, but they are not damsels in distress; they are good people, but they have real flaws; they experience love but don’t solely aspire to it. Perhaps this trend is in response to the rising reportage on feminism and women’s issues in Turkey over the past few years, or perhaps just a gradual, organic death of the trope. It’s also a wonderful sign that all of these shows have at least one woman on their writing staff.
Either way, the writers of these shows have succeeded in reinventing a tried and tested romantic comedy formula, simply by making their leading ladies as interesting, meaty and nuanced as their men. Although it’s still early in the season, I’m hopeful that these characters will continue to tell stories as interesting and diverse as those of their real-life counterparts.
Article copyright (c) North America TEN & Sonal M./ @RigelB8la , twitter
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