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A few days ago I saw this post written by a man who woke up to his sexism. It touched me, and I want to talk a little about it and make my own confession. This revelation may shock you, gentle friends and readers, but I was once a Manic Pixie Dream Girl.

Manic Pixie Dream Girl LARP character sheet
Manic Pixie Dream Girl LARP character sheet (Photo credit: colinaut). I’d actually play this.

To provide a little background, let me explain a bit. I’ve met plenty of men who said they were feminists who really weren’t at all. One of these actually had the gumption to tell me, in a discussion about abortion, that he (to paraphrase) probably “gave” women more rights than I did. And I think he really believed that. My response was that if he didn’t think women should have the ultimate right of consent to their bodies’ use, then nothing else he granted us in his gracious benevolence really mattered. That’s the ultimate civil right in a nutshell: the right to consent, the ownership of one’s own body. Women are still fighting for that right, and there are still people of both genders who don’t grasp how important that right is–how much of a foundational block it is for every other right. Overriding a woman’s consent over her body’s use is a seriously harmful thing, but somehow this guy–and a host of other people I’ve run into besides him–manages to think that’s perfectly okay to do to women while at the same time believing they’re feminists.

I bring this argument up now because I want to make the point that it’s possible for someone to reconcile two very different attitudes and mindsets, even if they totally clash, if there’s enough motivation to do it. Especially when it comes to dismantling male privilege, men who are otherwise convinced they’re very evolved can manage to be staggeringly sexist. That’s how there’s somehow a huge nest of Men’s Rights Advocates in the atheist community, producing an environment where one of the biggest (male) names in the movement has an entire video series about “Why ‘Feminism’ is poisoning Atheism” (scare quotes around “feminism” are his). It’s not surprising to me to see how younger women can drastically and completely misunderstand just what feminism is about. Feminism is proving to be a difficult concept for a vocal pocket of atheists/skeptics to understand, much less embrace.

“Stop treating women like subhumans” doesn’t seem like it’d be that tough to get through anybody’s head, but somehow way too many atheist men have shown themselves to be, time and again, even less welcoming of female voices than Christianity ever was–all while maintaining the utter conviction that they treat women far better than those nasty ole theists do.

In the middle of this swamp of misunderstandings and deliberate obtuseness (obtusity?) wades Tim Raveling, who was at one time about as sexist of a freethinker as one could imagine. His inability to show respect to his strong-willed female partners led to much pain and heartache before he finally realized how his sexism was destroying his relationships, and finally began to open himself up to learning how to embrace women as equals instead of as lesser beings. Unfortunately, in the doing, he lost a wonderful partner, but better late than never.

A big part of Tim’s self-education came from realizing how he had objectified his partners by making them into his “Manic Pixie Dream Girls.”

For those who’ve never heard the term, a Manic Pixie Dream Girl (MPDG) is a free-spirited young woman who enters a man’s life specifically to draw him out of his shell and improve him as a person. Often she helps the hero learn to embrace life, or else helps heal him of his depression or grief. For some reason we’re just fascinated with the idea of a magical, wacky, zany person who reaches into a stolid, sad, brooding person’s life to improve that person and make them better; here’s a list of tons of them. She doesn’t exist on her own; she can only exist as a definition of her affect on the hero. Often she’s doomed to die, because once she’s fulfilled her function, like a butterfly, there’s no energy left in her to keep flying. The movie ends with the hero having grown into a better-rounded person thanks to his living Maguffin.

When I first saw the trope’s name, I thought, “Oh my gosh, I’ve been a MPDG all my life!”

When I was younger, I had a quirky sense of humor and tended to attract partners who were more serious and settled. They loved how free-spirited I was and how cheerful. I was just getting out of Christianity at that point and rediscovering this big beautiful world without those shackles, and I guess it’s fun to tag along with someone like that. I ended up with partners who loved my strength of will and my ability to find amazing things to see and do.

But what happens when the MPDG settles down with someone? Eventually, that same quality that drew the hero to her repels him. She is indeed strong-willed, which means she won’t take stupid excuses and alienating behavior sitting down. She loves finding cool stuff to do, which gets tiring for introverted, broody partners who just want to nest and hibernate at home. Whatever short burst of self-improvement happens, the hero’s initial personality–controlling, serious, broody, pessimistic–eventually reasserts itself. He gets angrier and angrier with her for not having the same affect she did at first. And that’s just what happened to me several times before I realized what was going on and put a stop to such relationships.

I’m not responsible for anybody else’s improvement or growth as a human being. I’m not responsible for someone else’s feelings or moods. If I wanted to mommy someone, I’d have kids. If I want something, I’m allowed to want it. And if I need something, I’m allowed to need it. The same men who said they valued honesty beat me down emotionally whenever I offered my honest opinions and had all these messy needs and desires that these men didn’t want me to have.  When I showed myself to be a real three-dimensional person with rights to my opinion and my autonomy, they reacted viscerally. When I reached out to these men who said they loved how emotionally open I was, they closed up and resented me for trying to draw them out–something they’d enjoyed initially as a novelty, but were unable to maintain that facade for very long.

Red Sonja
Red Sonja (Photo credit: cliff1066™). I don’t look anything like this.

Over time I came to realize that what they really wanted was to take a beautiful, free spirit and subdue it; they wanted a free, independent Red Sonja so they could show the world that they had defeated me in battle and won me. They wanted to think that they had been found worthy of me, but once that Kodak moment was finished, I needed to conform to their expectations of me as their subordinate. I needed to be their humanity receptacle–the woman who was the outward show of their strength, power, and yes, their goodness. And I also needed to be their life coach, helping them stumble toward becoming decent people.

Incidentally, in the same way that we must be men’s inspirations, women must guard themselves lest they be stumbling blocks for men. Here’s a hilarious page about Christian modesty surveys in which some 15% of Christian respondents declare that women sitting cross-legged is immodest. The take-home lesson from the survey is that short of wearing a burkha and never leaving her home, everything a woman does, wears, or says can make a man “stumble,” so she should be super-aware of all of these things so she doesn’t accidentally make someone sin, because she is responsible for these men’s feelings and reactions.

In the same way, I’ve noticed many men expect their mates to draw them out or improve them somehow as people. When I was Christian, I was definitely under that pressure with Biff, my preacher husband at the time. He was the hard worker out saving souls and earning money, and even though I was also working full-time, I was expected to be his sanctuary, his “helpmeet” (oh man that misused term makes me rage), his keeper, and his sex-object-and-secretary. Since then, I’ve noticed many men talking about how they view their actual or potential partners in terms of what they will or can do for them. And many of them crave a Manic Pixie Dream Girl.

Why shouldn’t they, though? Media bombards men with images of gorgeous sprite-like girls who skip and prance into their hearts and show them the magic of true love. We get put on these pedestals like that’s some kind of wonderful thing, but it isn’t. A figure on a pedestal is not one who is allowed to have flaws or needs of her own. I once met a Men’s Rights Activist who sincerely believed that all women want to be on a pedestal and idolized, that we want to be queens. That’s not fair to men, though, or to women. I want to be an equal partner, not a statue to be worshiped. I want to be a knight riding beside another knight, not a queen who lords it over her partner–who is, by that reckoning, a king pretending to be a knight because it amuses him; when he stops having fun, like if the “queen” gets out of hand with demands, he can always re-assert dominance and behead her. I want a partner who wants all of me, not just the Manic Pixie side of me, and who won’t settle for anything less than my honesty and my forthrightness. Especially I want a partner who won’t punish me for displaying either of those qualities. And I’m not alone here.

Christian men and women often live under the mistaken idea that a relationship “team” requires a leader and a follower, and maybe that is true for some couples, but I think most couples function best when the partners are equals. It was always so stressful to be with a partner who thought–either explicitly or implicitly–that I was a lesser being whose opinions and needs took second place to his own. The Manic Pixie dynamic–a MPDG and a stodgy, authoritarian male partner–is one that inherently is unequal because of how it dehumanizes and devalues one partner. The MPDG is not actually someone who can survive on her own; she is childlike and incapable of making long-term plans or big decisions. She needs her big strong male partner to do all of that for her. And what’s really bad is that just leaving Christianity doesn’t exorcise such an attitude from anybody, which is what this guest blogger Tim Raveling discovered eventually.

The MPDG is everything that is wrong with our romantic culture. It’s okay to be wacky and have fun like that sometimes, but when women get habitually thrust into that role, they lose their essential humanity and their autonomy and become their male partners’ “fixers.” Indeed, we live in a world where way too many men (and women, to be fair) think that women are responsible for “civilizing” or “taming” men. I’ve heard the joke way too often about how some women will boast about just how childish or crude their mates were when they met (the punchline that is never spoken, of course, is “well, you’re the dummy who slept with the beast”).

Isn’t life just a little too short for that sort of lifelong do-it-yourself project? Isn’t it also just too short to make someone else responsible for your own self-improvement? I don’t know about you, but this assumption that we’re supposed to fix each other–that we’re supposed to put ourselves up above our partners and parent them–is a little insulting to me.

Tim Raveling realized where he went wrong a bit late, but there’s still time to meet other women he’ll love. What he wrote spoke to me because I saw in his writing what I wish so many of my past partners would realize. I lost a lot of time and a lot of tears over the pain caused by my own inability to see what I was doing by trying to build a relationship with men who really didn’t want a real partner but rather a movie heroine and sidekick.

One of the most magical and miraculous things I can think of in this whole universe is how two people can open up to each other and connect meaningfully, honestly, and intimately on an emotional and intellectual level. All we have on this good dark earth is each other and all we know for sure we’re ever going to get is this one lifetime. By buying into the MPDG mindset, people rob themselves of the chance to connect and waste their all-too-brief lifetimes. So this is a fight worth having, and I am glad that Tim Raveling had that fight with his conditioning. I’ve had similar fights with mine and I know it isn’t easy to question one’s mental training, one’s culture, and one’s egotism. If he’s not already, if he keeps this up, he’ll be ready to receive another human being’s openness and honesty, and he’ll cherish it like the rare jewel it truly is.

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ROLL TO DISBELIEVE "Captain Cassidy" is Cassidy McGillicuddy, a Gen Xer and ex-Pentecostal. (The title is metaphorical.) She writes about the intersection of psychology, belief, popular culture, science,...