If you’re a fan of Young Adult novels (or have ever been on YouTube) then you’ve most likely heard of author John Green. In recent times there has been a lot of debate surrounding John Green’s representation of women and whether it is positive or negative. As his target audience is generally young adults and teens, the way he portrays women is incredibly important as it creates a mould for how young girls may believe they are perceived by others. Personally, I believe that Green can, and has, written strong powerful female characters, but I think he falters by utilising tropes commonly seen throughout literature and film.
In the context of this article, the term ‘trope’ is describing an overused literary device, also known as a cliché. I have decided to consistently use this term as the two tropes discussed within this article have been labelled as such by the inventors (Rabin, 2014).
In this article, I will be discussing two of Green’s most popular novels: Looking for Alaska (2005) and Paper Towns (2008), as both of these books focus on a strong female lead through a doting male perspective. I believe that Green’s attempt to write strong female characters could benefit if Green didn’t heavily rely on tropes to further the plot.
Firstly, let’s take a look at Paper Towns and the character of Margo Roth Spiegelman. The story follows a teen boy, Quentin, as he searches for his missing friend/potential love interest after she runs away. The female character he is pursuing, Margo, is described as independent, spontaneous, and brave, as shown in one scene where she breaks into SeaWorld. But here’s the problem with Margo: because the book is told through the perspective of Quentin — an unpopular, unassertive boy who has loved Margo since childhood — Margo is transformed from strong female representation to the dreaded ‘Manic Pixie Dream Girl’ trope.
For those who are unaware, the concept of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl (MPDG) was coined in 2007 by Nathan Rabin in his review of the film Elizabethtown. Recently, he has described the concept of the MPDG as a male character’s “…fantasy woman who sweeps in like a glittery breeze to save you from yourself, then disappears once her work is done” (Rabin, 2014).
By this, Rabin is describing a female character whom the male protagonists idolise for her strange, quirky, and spontaneous behaviour. The character purely exists to aid in the stubborn male character’s development while remaining the same throughout the story.
While some critics believe that the term has been unfairly attached to quirky characters in order to “…chastise unconventional female supporting characters” (Metcalf, 2014, pg. 2), I believe that Green’s use fits Rabin’s original definition, as Margo’s purpose throughout the novel is to assist Quentin’s development. For example, Margo running away forces quiet, mousy Quentin to make new friends and become more assertive as he searches for clues to eventually find Margo. All the while Quentin idolises Margo to an unhealthy level, even saying: “…everyone gets a miracle...I ended up living next door to Margo Roth Spiegelman” (Green, 2008, pg. 3). However, throughout this novel, Margo is barely seen, as she is hiding in an unknown area, and does not go through her own character development at all. Instead, Quentin’s fantasy of Margo exists throughout the novel, rather than Margo herself.
So, what’s the problem with the MPDG trope? Rabin describes the trope as “fundamentally sexist” as it “…makes women seem less like autonomous, independent entities than appealing props…” (Rabin, 2014). By this, Rabin is stating that the trope gives importance to the development of male characters while forcing women into a role as the ‘helper’ who don’t deserve their own development. It also creates an unhealthy idolisation of the ‘quirky, spontaneous girl’, viewing them as a prize, while simultaneously villainies un-quirky women.
Green has been accused of using this trope in Paper Towns before, however, and has fought against the accusations, stating that:
Paper Towns is devoted IN ITS ENTIRETY to destroying the lie of the manic pixie dream girl... I do not know how I could have been less ambiguous about this without calling the novel The Patriarchal Lie of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl Must Be Stabbed in the Heart and Killed. (Green, 2014).
Green argues that Margo herself stomps on this trope as, in the climax of the novel after Quentin finally finds her, she tells Quentin that she didn’t need rescuing. She goes on to say that he needs to stop idolising her and expecting moral desserts, stating: “…you wanted to save poor little Margo from her troubled little self so that I would be oh-so-thankful to my knight in shining armour…” (Green, 2008, pg. 284). However, I argue that this one line of defiance from Margo, a character who barely has a voice throughout the novel, does not suffice in ending the trope. I believed that if we were able to see through Margo’s perspective, even for just a few chapters, then her strength and positive representation would have shone brighter. By doing this, Green could have avoided using the trope entirely.
Let’s move on to Looking for Alaska, Green’s first published novel. The story follows teen boy, Miles, as he falls in love with Alaska Young. Alaska is one of the strongest and most complicated female characters I have read in a Young Adult novel. She is self-aware, independent, and an open feminist. However, Green, once again, utilises a trope that destroys any positive female representation in the novel. The trope is known as ‘Fridging’.
McMillan describes Fridging as “…doing something horrific or tragic to a female character with the sole objective of causing an emotional reaction from the male lead of a storyline” (McMillan, 2014). The trope was first recognised, but certainly not invented, in the 1994 Green Lantern #54 comic, in which the titular character discovers his girlfriend’s corpse stuffed in his fridge.
In Looking for Alaska, Miles obsesses over Alaska, waiting for the day that she finally loves him back. However, Alaska is gruesomely killed in a car crash, where it is described that the steering wheel “…fairly well crushed her chest” (Green, 2005, pg. 195).
Hong describes Fridging as “gendered violence” (Hong, 2017, pg. 283) that forces the female character to be “reduced to ﬂesh” (Hong, 2017, pg. 278). By this, Hong is stating that Fridging is common amongst female characters, and strips them of a personality, leaving them to be a lifeless body for further audience sympathy towards the male protagonist. By using this trope, the weirdly-obsessive Miles suddenly becomes sympathetic and vulnerable, forcing the reader to feel sorry for him and even hate Alaska, as Miles states: “…that bitch, she killed herself” (Green, 2005, pg. 156).
The major issue with this trope is that it completely erases the female character’s development, turning her into an object to further the male character’s development, similarly to the MPDG. While Alaska was written as a strong and complicated feminist, her thoughts and ideas are absent from half of the novel. Instead, the male characters argue over who knew her better, completely eliminating any impact her character had on the audience and using her as a plot device. Furthermore, Fridging can isolate female audience members, especially a young girl. Solomon states that the use of tropes, particularly in Young Adult fiction, enforces a specific reading on the audience, describing it as an “apparatus of capture” (Solomon, 2017, pg. 1). By this, she means that, with the use of tropes, a readers own interpretation is overtaken by the authors forced ideals. I recognise that to avoid this trope, Green would have to realign his entire plot, but perhaps this brings in the issue of Green’s plotlines and if they are strong enough to survive without cheap tricks.
The use of both tropes, MPGD and Fridging, takes strong, independent female characters, such as Margo and Alaska, and uses them as plot devices to further the male protagonist’s development. While I do enjoy Green books, as many do, I believe that ditching the cheap tropes for strong plots and well-developed characters can strengthen his representation of women in his novels. I’m curious to see where Green’s career continues to take him, however, as more and more readers notice his use of tropes in lieu of strong plotlines.
Green, J. (2005). Looking for Alaska. New York: Dutton Children's Books
Green, J. (2008). Paper Towns. Grand Haven, Mich.: Brilliance Corp.
Green, J. (April 26, 2014). @fishingboatproceeds, Tumblr post.
Hong, T. (2017). '‘Of course we record it’: legacy, textual violence, and fridging in Ales Kot’s Zero', Journal of Graphic Novels and Comics, vol. 8, no. 3, p. 277-294. Available from: 10.1080/21504857.2017.1307242. [10 September 2018].
McMillan, G. (2014). 'Downton Abbey and Rape: Anna's Excruciating Fridging Problem', Time.com, p. 1.
Metcalf, M. (2014). Manic Pixie Dream Girls. Thesis. Bachelor of Arts with Honours. Faculty of Emory College of Arts and Sciences of Emory University.
Rabin, N. (2014). I’m Sorry for Coining the Phrase “Manic Pixie Dream Girl”. [Online] Salon. [Accessed 4 Sep. 2018].
Solomon, C. (2017). Anarcho-Feminist Melodrama and the Manic Pixie Dream Girl. CLCWeb: Comparative Literature and Culture, 19(1).