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Paper Towns: Revisited

My sophomore year of college I read a John Green book called Paper Towns and wrote a none-too-complimentary review of it here. Now, two and a half years later, said book has been made into a movie (which is fabulous, by the way, you should definitely watch it – after you read the book of course), prompting me to reread the thoughts I’d had upon finishing the book. In 2013, my biggest problem with the book was its perpetuation of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl character type. The fact that the entire plot of the book revolved around a girl who everyone thought they knew but no one actually did left a bad taste in my mouth. After leaving the movie theater there was no bad taste, quite the opposite in fact. I thought the movie did an excellent job of destroying the MPDG and showing that the real Margo Roth Spiegleman was nothing like what Q had made her out to be. I would be interested to reread the book and see if I still get a bad taste, and the movie was just that much better at explaining the concept and subsequently unraveling it, or if I find that I somehow missed the point the first time around. I have a strong suspicion it would be the latter. I like to think that in the two and a half years since I wrote that review I have grown immensely as a person, become a better critical thinker (If I haven’t then thousands of dollars and hours were wasted for that Political Science bachelors because let me tell you I have no “practical” skills) and gained more understanding of the world and people around me. What saddens me now is that as this story reaches a wider audience, there might be more people like 19-year-old me who misconstrue the ultimate message of Paper Towns. John recently wrote an article on Medium about Paper Towns press that addresses this issue:

Like, there’s a line in the beginning of the novel: “Everyone gets a miracle.” The male narrator of the story believes his miracle is Margo Roth Spiegelman, the character Cara plays in the movie. Later in the book, the boy realizes that Margo is not a miracle, that she is just a person, and that his imagining her as a miracle has been terribly hurtful to them both. But still, I was asked over a hundred times, “Who’s your miracle?” At first, I tried to fight it, tried to argue that we must see people as people, that we must learn to imagine them complexly instead of idealizing them, that the romantic male gaze is limiting and destructive to women. That’s the whole point of the story to me.

John, I get it now! I understand now that writing about something doesn’t have to mean perpetuating it, that writing about something could bring it to the attention of someone who had never thought about it before. I understand now that the point of Paper Towns isn’t to glorify the MPDG, but to challenge readers (and watchers) to imagine others complexly. This is not a retraction of my previous post – in fact, I still agree with almost everything I wrote, and I’m proud of 19-year-old Megan for thinking about the oppressive societal standards women live under – but a reflection. I’ve heard movie production for Looking For Alaska is moving right along, so we’ll see if I need to write another one of these after seeing its adaptation. I for one hope so.

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Manic Pixie Dream Girl: The broken toy in a pretty box

I recently finished reading two books, Looking for Alaska and Paper Towns. Both are written by one of my favorite people in the world, John Green. However, their subject matter is not my favorite.

In each of these books, John uses the character type generally referred to as the Manic Pixie Dream Girl (MPDG). Wikipedia defines the MPDG 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 protagonists of these books, Pudge and Quentin, are both high school boys who become infatuated with their “dream girls” — Alaska for Pudge and Margo Roth Spiegelman for Q. In Looking for Alaska, Pudge starts at a new boarding school where he meets Alaska and quickly becomes bewitched by her. Q has lived next door to Margo for years, but has only admired her from afar. Both of these girls are mysterious, and although the boys realize that, neither tries to find out why that is. Both are too focused on their own desires and the fact that Alaska or Margo might be interested in them that they fail to see how broken these girls are.

When Alaska dies tragically, Pudge realizes how much he really didn’t know about her. He starts digging and finally sees what he should have seen before — that Alaska was a deeply broken girl that needed to be truly loved as a friend, not put on a pedestal that no girl, no person, deserves to be put on. When Margo disappears, Quentin decides that she’s left him this elaborate trail to follow, when the truth is that she has no desire to be found. He’s so obsessed with the idea that this girl needs him that he can’t see there’s something  legitimately wrong.

Our society as a whole has really embraced the whole MPDG idea. Women are constantly being held to standards that they could never hope to reach — be thin but not too thin, have sex but don’t be a slut, be educated but don’t be a nerd, the list goes on and on. Even though Pudge and Q see their illusions shattered at the end of their respective books, simply writing the MPDG character is perpetuating the concept. This is one of the reason’s I like The Fault in Our Star, John’s most recent book, so much more than these. Hazel and Augustus, the two main characters, know what they’re getting into. They may overlook each other’s faults, as many teenagers in love do, but Gus never holds Hazel up to his own unattainable ideas.

I personally liked Paper Towns better than Looking for Alaska, but both books seem to promote an idea that I’m completely uncomfortable with. If you want to read John Green, go for Will Grayson, Will Grayson or The Fault in Our Stars, which no one can go wrong with. These promote much more positive messages and don’t wrap a broken character with a bow of perfection.

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