Slippery SoftThe Rise of the Manic Pixie Dream Boy

Harry Styles in the "Golden" music video (Photo credit: Harry Styles/VEVO)

As I rewatched The Bourne Supremacy (2004) in a fit of lockdown boredom, I was struck by the opening sequence in which our lead, Jason Bourne (Matt Damon), runs along the beach. His back rigid, biceps tense, legs pumping like a machine, Bourne blasts into the shot. He is, in every possible way, the incarnation of the white action man ideal that reigned supreme in Hollywood in the late 20th century. This moment also illustrates Damon’s own career as a Hollywood heartthrob: While doing press for Bourne, he joked about “sucking in” his abs with an ABC News interviewer, and he was named People magazine’s Sexiest Man Alive in 2007. In clinching the title, he joined the ranks of men like Matthew McConaughey, Hugh Jackman, and Brad Pitt, who also became emblematic of hot white masculinity in the 2000s.

In 2021, however, this turbocharged paragon of masculinity feels a little outdated, due in part to a recent vision of a running megastar that falls more in step with our current idea of a “dream man”: Harry Styles, specifically in the 2020 music video for “Golden.” Shirt open, gait off-kilter, curls bouncing in the wind, Styles takes the “run like a girl” stereotype and embraces it with open, flailing arms. More ethereal than Herculean, the singer represents a new form of masculinity, one that is fluid, quirky, soft, smiling, and finds a home in the rising phenomenon of the Manic Pixie Dream Boy. We’re all familiar (and no doubt fed up) with the trope of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl, (MPDG) coined by film critic Nathan Rabin to describe Kirsten Dunst’s character, Claire, in Elizabethtown (2005). In a 2007 article for The AV Club, Rabin described her as that bubbly, shallow cinematic creature that “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 template for the Manic Pixie Dream Girl can be traced back to characters as classic as Maria (Julie Andrews) in The Sound of Music (1965), but the trope became prominent in the mid-aughts. Sam (Natalie Portman) in Garden State (2004), Sophie (Drew Barrymore) in Music and Lyrics (2007), and Allison (Zooey Deschanel) in Yes Man (2008) are just some of the carefree—usually white—kooky heroines who giggle their way into the lives of despondent (also white) guys in order to save them from the ennui of their conventional existence. Although Rabin coined the term in 2007 in an attempt to shut down this “fundamentally sexist trope,” the MPDG continues to thrive in an infinite feedback loop onscreen and online, prompting him to apologize in 2014 for ever having come up with the phrase. “Labels and definitions are inherently reductive,” he wrote in an article for Salon, before calling for “an end to articles about [the Manic Pixie Dream Girl’s] countless different permutations.”

Apologies to Rabin, but in the wake of the #MeToo movement and the increasing calling out of toxic masculinity combined with “dump him” culture, the reductive pop culture cliché of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl has given way to an arguably more positive alternative in our current times: the Manic Pixie Dream Boy. Unlike the MPDG, the Manic Pixie Dream Boy is less of a one-dimensional stock character and more of a new generation of male celebrity. With its roots in performers such as Prince and David Bowie, Manic Pixie Dream Boyism is evident in Donald Glover’s floral prints, in Styles’s glittering Gucci suit, and in Timothée Chalamet’s experimental red carpet looks. At the most “manic” end of the MPDB scale are actors such as Robert Pattinson, whose status as a “true chaos agent” was immortalized in his June 2020 “isolation” interview for GQ. The Tenet star rambled on about his dream to create “a pasta which you can hold in your hand” and attempted to cook a prototype on FaceTime, which consisted of penne, processed cheese slices, sugar, and cornflakes—and resulted in the explosion of his microwave.

Rather than being imagined in rom-com scripts, narratives of Manic Pixie Dream Boyism emerge through celebrity profiles like this one. Pattinson’s theatrics quickly began trending on Twitter and inspired adoring memes, debriefs, and thinkpieces. One Guardian journalist embarked on the dangerous mission of making the actor’s “ungodly” piccolini cuscino recipe while Rachel Leishman at The Mary Sue confessed to being “more obsessed” with R-Patz after reading: “I already loved Pattinson and his quirks, and this just made him so much more endearing.” Like GQ interviewer Zach Baron himself, many questioned whether the pasta stunt was a piece of performance art. Perhaps Pattinson is consciously catering to the public appetite for weirdness. Or maybe we’re hungry for celebrity profiles that aren’t just about being hot and strong but about our desire to be shaken out of lockdown boredom and entertained by eccentric characters who offer new perspectives on life—or pasta-making.

In Chalamet’s own soul-baring 2020 GQ interview (an article that verges on myth-making in its excessive length and existential musings), the actor is portrayed as the archetypal MPDB. Skimming stones and bouncing on the trampoline outside his cabin in Woodstock, he comes across as sensitive, thoughtful, poetic, playful, and a little erratic—or, as his friend and colleague Greta Gerwig describes him, “funny and anxious and delightfully all over the place.” Art-throb Chalamet is widely adored for being different from the buff, bronzed Hollywood stars that shone before; he is pale, waifish, gawky, and all the more irresistible because of it. This shift toward a more malleable modern manhood is something that Chalamet famously discussed with Styles in i-D in 2019. “There isn’t a specific notion, or jean size, or muscle shirt, or affectation, or eyebrow raise, or dissolution, or drug use that you have to take part in to be masculine. It’s exciting,” Chalamet says, to which Styles remarks: “I think there’s so much masculinity in being vulnerable and allowing yourself to be feminine, and I’m very comfortable with that.”

As with any stereotype or trope, there’s a racialized element to our acceptance of the Manic Pixie Dream Boy, with whiteness providing a veil to criticism.

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Coming from two celebrities at the apex of millennial fandom, this acknowledgment of gender as something that is plural and unfixed is powerful; in attempting to deconstruct the binaries of masculine: feminine, strength: weakness, Chalamet and Styles will hopefully forge a brighter path for the generation of young boys who view them as role models. It’s worth noting, however, that while conservative critics were up in arms about Styles wearing a dress on the cover of Vogue last December, his ability to play with gender in the spotlight and largely be praised for doing so arises from a position of privilege. As Dejan Jotanovic astutely noted in a recent piece for Bitch, “a white cisgender man like Styles may be an alluring poster boy for genderfuckery but should not be positioned as the radical revolutionary that the Vogue cover suggests,” due to the many Black male artists and Black femmes who aren’t afforded the same platform when challenging gender norms.

Take, for example, Jaden Smith. Manic Pixie Dream Boyism is manifest in the whimsical tweets of the actor, singer, and genderqueer icon: “Watched Wonder Woman Last Night and Cried”, “The Holidays Remind Me of How Weird I Am”, and “Flowers & Soft Rain” are some recent highlights, which hang on Smith’s Twitter timeline like abstract artworks. However, the star’s own chaotic energy has been the subject of ridicule and loathing on celebrity gossip sites. As with any stereotype or trope, there’s a racialized element to our acceptance of the Manic Pixie Dream Boy, with whiteness providing a veil—no matter how thin, as Styles was indeed attacked by commentators—to criticism. But even as the cultural appetite for softer forms of masculinity grows, a darker flip side has emerged, so much so that the phrase “soft boy” now carries negative connotations. Definitions vary from “a less masculine boy who is described as ‘cute’ based on their soft or gentle characteristics,” to a fuckboy in disguise, who “goes for the heart and emotions rather than just the body.” In line with the former definition, TikTok is awash with #softboyaesthetic videos, featuring collared shirts, argyle sweaters, baggy pants, and puppy-dog eyes. The second, more cynical definition refers to those who would affect artistic sensitivity and emotional depth to slide into your DMs—and mask their own misogyny, much like the Male Feminists of the 2010s. Think brooding, guitar-playing Kyle (Chalamet) in Lady Bird (2017), who condescends to our heroine (Saoirse Ronan) for smoking “industrially produced” cigarettes instead of “hand-rolled” ones. Soft or not, criticizing women is still the name of the game.

The popularity of Instagram accounts such as @beam_me_up_softboi attest to how widely recognizable this behavior has become. The account reposts anonymous screenshots of encounters with softboys that are equal parts hilarious, patronizing, and mildly disturbing. One notable entry reads like a bot that’s been fed all the sad-boy indie lyrics from the noughties in order to come up with its own, and glitched in the process: “[You’re] like morphine for my soul, it’s so weird cos like I know you’re not conventionally attractive but you just have such a transcendent quality that compels me to keep coming back, like a Tolstoy novel or the Smiths on vinyl aha.” It’s the quintessential softboy cocktail: a base of philosophical language and casual insults, a shot of drug references, a sprinkling of classic literature, and a squeeze of Morrissey melancholia. While this internet trend is mostly comical, softboi artifice has real-world implications in the practice of “wokefishing,” which became a buzzword last year against a backdrop of political and humanitarian crises. As Serena Smith summarized in a 2020 article for Vice, wokefishing is “when people masquerade as holding progressive political views to ensnare potential partners.” You might bond with someone over a shared passion for social justice, for example, only to hear them using derogatory language or playing devil’s advocate at every opportunity a few months later.

This soft facade is more slippery than straight-up fuckboy behavior; it’s harder to prove that a man who has spent time cultivating a gentle, and therefore trustworthy, persona has harmed you than it is to call out the “manly men” we have already been taught to distrust. Wokefishing is further proof of how well-intentioned progressive politics can be undermined—or even weaponized—when they are repackaged as fashion accessories and slipped on and off like a cropped beanie. Some may sigh at the very concept of the Manic Pixie Dream Boy, viewing it as another unnecessary gender stereotype that’s constructed around an elite group of male celebrities. Others may remain frustrated with the limits of softness as an aesthetic: Does someone’s gait or outfit really reveal anything about their character or values? Ultimately, though, the Manic Pixie Dream Boy’s challenge to preconceived notions of masculinity in mainstream media is something to be celebrated, whether it takes place on the red carpet, on the phone with journalists, or while eating a banana in a baby-blue pleated hem suit. Its popularity points to a long-overdue encouragement of vulnerability and emotional intelligence in men. When it’s not being manipulated by softbois, Manic Pixie Dream Boyism resists the clean-cut mold of macho masculinity and strives for multiplicity in definitions of manhood—hopefully steering us toward a point at which gendered “types” don’t need to be articulated at all.

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by Madeleine Pollard
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Madeleine is a freelance journalist covering art, culture, current affairs, digital trends and gender. Her work has been featured in the Financial Times, VICE, The Independent, EXBERLINER Magazine and Elephant, among others. She lives in Berlin. To see more of her writing or to say hello, check out her website.