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February 15, 2010

In defense of Y Tu Mama Tambien, or at least, why Luisa is no Manic Pixie Dream Girl

Amanada argues that Y Tu Mama Tambien is a lousy movie because the character of Luisa is the ultimate Manic Pixie Dream Girl. I'm not going to mount an unqualified defense of the film, but I've got to resist that characterization.

The Onion defines the MPDG as a "sentient ray of sunshine sent from heaven to warm the heart and readjust the attitude of even the broodiest, most uptight male protagonist." The MPDG is the free-spirited stock character whose main function is as a psychological tonic or crutch for the nice guy male lead, i.e., the full-fledged human whose fate we're supposed to care about for its own sake. Natalie Portman plays an archetypal MPDG in Garden State.

Onion AV writer Nathan Rabin coined the term to describe Kristen Dunst's character in a scathing review of Elizabethtown:

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. The Manic Pixie Dream Girl is an all-or-nothing-proposition. Audiences either want to marry her instantly (despite The Manic Pixie Dream Girl being, you know, a fictional character) or they want to commit grievous bodily harm against them and their immediate family.

We feminists roll our eyes at the MPDG character for obvious reasons. It's an annoying form of objectification most commonly perpetrated by male writers who are smugly convinced of their own progressive sensibilities. They think they're better than the guys who leer at pinups, but the MPDG doesn't have any more depth. The MPDG is wish-fulfillment for all those nice guys out there who just want someone conventionally beautiful to see their inner beauty and appreciate their mix tapes. The writer doesn't want you to doubt that the guy totally deserves her--maybe not in the sense of being handsome, successful, or charming. But, see, those are bullshit social norms that are keeping our hero down, which is why he needs a crazy girl to truly appreciate him in ways that shallow cheerleaders cannot. Lazy writers think that if they make the girl a little daft, they can skip the part where they explain what she sees in him. She's whimsical, that's why!

Whatever else you can say about Y Tu Mama, and it's not a flawless movie by any means, Luisa is no MPDG.

NB: If you have not seen this movie and think that you might ever want to do so, stop reading now. Massive spoilers follow.

Here's the basic plot: Tenoch (Diego Luna) and Julio (Gael García Bernal) are best friends, graduating seniors from Mexico City who find themselves at loose ends when their steady girlfriends leave for a summer in Europe. At a country club wedding, they meet, and are smitten by Luisa (Maribel Verdú), a beautiful woman in her late twenties who is married to Tenoch's even older cousin. In a bid to impress her, they invite her on a road trip to a fictional beach paradise called la Boca del Cielo. She initially blows them off. Later on, in the throes of an existential crisis, she decides she wants to go after all. So, the three of them get in a station wagon and set out for the beach.

One of the things that's bothering Luisa is that her husband recently confessed to being a serial philanderer. Revenge alone would explain why she decides seduce her brother's pissant cousin and his BFF. Again, stop if you don't want to hear the spoiler... We later learn that Luisa decided to leave her husband and take the road trip after being diagnosed with terminal cancer, a fact she never shares with the boys.

Granted, the fact that Luisa's reaction to her diagnosis manifests itself in a desire to sexually educate immature 17-year-olds who love jerkoff jokes should raise our MPDG index of suspicion. But Verdú's performance is rich enough that you never doubt that she's getting off on the whole process. Partly she's rebelling against having been a good girl all her life. Maybe she wants to leave some sort of legacy by giving these guys an initiation they'll never forget. Luisa's character is outwardly charming and free spirited, Verdú's performance still hints at a certain amount of manipulative creepiness that you don't see in a MPDG.

By definition, a MPDG is a foil for a sensitive but misunderstood hero. Tenoch and Julio are neither sensitive nor misunderstood. They're both relatively popular guys who are cheating on their beautiful high school girlfriends. Tenoch and Julio have a few "alternative" pretensions, but they're more budding frat boys than anything else. Luisa doesn't see their inner beauty, she sees them as likable but easily manipulated. They are a means to her self-actualization, not the other way around.

Moreover, their pathetic self-centered horniness is the central joke of the movie. Time and time again, the joke's on them because they assume that Luisa is an MPDG who thinks they're special, only to be disappointed because her desires only sometimes coincide with theirs and because, unlike their girlfriends, she feels no compunctions about bruising their egos. Eventually she lures them into a threeway. The next morning, the boys wake up with horrible hangovers and gay panic. By this point Luisa has already ditched their sorry asses, having gotten exactly what she wanted: A sexy road trip and a ride to a beautiful beach. They never see Luisa again.

If this was a MPDG movie, the caper would have been win-win. But Y Tu Mama shows the episode exacts a real toll in the guys. The boys, who were once as close as brothers, can't face each other again because they're weirded out by having transgressed a macho taboo of actually touching each other--even though we've seen throughout the movie that they're perfectly comfortable jerking off together, sharing sexual fantasies, having sex in the same room (IIRC), and doing basically everything but having sex with each other. At one point, Luisa even sarcastically points out this homoerotic undercurrent in their relationship.

A MPDG character would make these boys into better people, but Tenoch and Julio don't learn anything. In the end, they allow homophobia, jealousy, and class differences to erode their friendship. A MPDG would have given them a special adventure to cherish for the rest of their lives, or at least some kind of lesson to live by. At the end, they still don't get it.

It's only well after Luisa's dead that they realize she didn't just sleep with them because she was a free spirit. She was a dying woman working out psychological issues they never guessed at, and couldn't have grappled with even if they had known.

We're supposed to think that Luisa grasped what was really important and seized it for herself at the end of her life. At the end, she defies convention and dies happy and while the boys are poised to slouch into boring, conventional adulthood.

Comments

Natalie Portman's character in Garden State "doesn't have any...depth"?

The movie tells us about her medical issues and shows the inside of her house and her relationship with her mother.

What would the movie have needed to tell us about her to give her depth?

Thanks for drawing my attention to the MPDG classification. God knows I've been seduced (cinematically) by too many of them and it's only been in the last 8 years or so that I've realized that they don't actually exist in real life. Oh sure, there are some manics out there, even some manic pixies, but there ain't no manic pixie dream girls. If you end up with a manic pixie, well, you just got yourself a manic pixie, and that's where it ends.

Very much agree about YTMT. I thought the movie had a trick-within-a-trick. It's not that we learn about her disease, but in learning so we learn the entire movie is about her but told through the eyes of the characters we thought were the leads. A film about a person with cancer going on a road trip may not have been as moving if the approach had been direct. Tenoch and Julio lead us through a comedy while the movie is actually a drama. They're C3PO and R2D2, but hogging all the screen time.

Not to mention that the title itself ends up saying "And your mother is like this too." Which is a lesson for guys, but not the ordinary self-centered stuff of MPGD movies.

[re: Natalie Portman's character from Garden State] What would the movie have needed to tell us about her to give her depth?


Why the #$%*& was she interested in the Zach Braff character? A collection of quirks does not equal "depth."

sad -

Zach Braff's character is a handsome actor who is successful enough to be recognized from a TV role.

When I watched "Garden State," I didn't consider it mysterious that a girl might be interested in him.

A film about a person with cancer going on a road trip may not have been as moving if the approach had been direct.

Droog, you absolutely nailed it. Y Tu Mama pulls off a brilliant bit of narrative sleight-of-hand as it slowly dawns on us that Luisa is the protagonist and the emotional core of the movie. It's actually very similar to what David Foster Wallace does in Infinite Jest, where we eventually realize the novel isn't Hal's story at all -- it's Don Gately's. And it's done for similar reasons -- it's easier to draw the audience in and get them to lower their defenses by telling the story through the point of view of callow youth behaving badly. Leading with the more emotionally complex and tragic character would come off as cheap melodrama.

Was Lacey Underall a MPDG in Caddyshack, or was Chevy Case a MPDB?

Zach Braff *handsome*? Really? Well, OK.

I guess Audrey Hepburn's version of Holly Golightly would be the ur-MPDG; surely such a character appears before that, but where?

The ditz that Goldie Hawn portrayed in her early career is something of an MPDG also: in "Butterflies are Free" she's pretty much the Life-Embracing Free Spirit, IIRC.

For deliberate, even willful, protagonist confusion: No Country for Old Men. It's not for the bait-and-switch as described here, but I'm not sure what it's for.

I think Infinite Jest is long enough to be about Hal *and* Don.

We're supposed to think that Luisa grasped what was really important and seized it for herself at the end of her life. At the end, she defies convention and dies happy and while the boys are poised to slouch into boring, conventional adulthood.

It's been a while since I've seen Y Tu Mama También but I'm not totally sure that, in revealing that Luisa had the upper hand throughout the story, the film went so far as to say Luisa got what she always wanted and died happy. I mean, she repeatedly breaks down in tears outside of the boys' earshot. What I got out of it is that Luisa was making a desperate attempt to stave off despair as well as finally breaking out of her conventional adult life, etc. Because breaking free of convention wasn't enough – why would it? She was facing death after all.

I've been avoiding this movie. Is it worth watching? (mkay bad question. but pandagon movie taste is notoriously questionable.)

maybe I should published my 10 movies of the decade. heh... for vanity sake.

We feminists roll our eyes at the MPDG character for obvious reasons. It's an annoying form of objectification most commonly perpetrated by male writers who are smugly convinced of their own progressive sensibilities

Nailed it. Every single time that I see this happening it makes me grit my teeth: part of the whole part of being a progressive (esp. a progressive male) is to develop & maintain the ability to pause & reflect on what makes one tick & why, especially in the pursuit of avoiding any meme/assumption/groupthink that leads to this kind of intellectual laziness. Gah!

I think the MPDG who best seduced me was Geena Davis' character in Accidental Tourist. Maybe because I'm a bit like the Accidental Tourist.

My MPDG is Janeane Garofalo.

I agree with you, Lindsay, that Cuaron's film undercuts, or at least complicates, MPDG convention by featuring the boys' moment of transformation as a negative ephiphany (i.e. the uncomfortable revelation of the homoerotic dimension of their friendship), and also by granting Luisa a somewhat fuller inner life.

Whether this is enough for Luisa to escape the MPDG classification is a good question. I wonder to what extent Luisa is simply teetering out of one cinematic stereotype and into another, such as the Manipulative (and sexually experienced) Older Woman who takes advantage of callow youth, or perhaps the Dying of Cancer stock type. The murkiness of her motivations, and the film's refusal to delve into her thoughts keeps her locked in secondary status. Perhaps it's a lateral move at best.

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"Why the #$%*& was she interested in the Zach Braff character? A collection of quirks does not equal "depth.""

Why was he interested in her? She is a mentally unbalanced pathological liar.

Oh I forgot, she's a girl.

See, assman, it was a bad movie. Would you like to supply a catchy acronym for the XY couterpart to MPDG? We could use a good acronym for that.

the Manipulative (and sexually experienced) Older Woman who takes advantage of callow youth

Would that be the MM (Maggie May)?

Parse, Maggie May (MM) sounds about right!

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