dressed up like a lady: Manic Pixie Dream Girl Hall of Fame: Holly Golightly

Dec 12, 2012

Manic Pixie Dream Girl Hall of Fame: Holly Golightly

Don't kill me for saying this, but as  much as I will love Breakfast at Tiffany's until the day I die, you can't deny that Holly Golightly is 100% Manic Pixie. She's lively and impulsive, she's carefree and creative, and though I loathe to call out possibly the most beloved screen figure of the 20th century, she exists almost entirely to brighten up the life of stifled, semi-depressed sensitive-guy who lives in her building.

But it's a bit of a conundrum. Holly is an undeniable MPDG, and yet the film remains delightful, sweet, and endlessly captivating. This is mostly through the immortal charm of Audrey Hepburn's endearing performance, but it doesn't hurt that the movie was made way back in the 1960's with a dreamy score by Henry Mancini, allowing us to attribute its lack of naturalism to the romance of stylized Old Hollywood.

So put down your shotgun and calm down -- I'm not faulting anyone for loving Breakfast at Tiffany's, including myself! But since we've accepted that the movie is brilliant and lovely and the ending makes us cry, can we please acknowledge that Holly Golightly does, nonetheless, have all the worst trappings of a Manic Pixie Dream Girl? 

Eccentrically stylish:

Indomitably effervescent:  

Has drinking problem:

Sings wistfully when innocently thinks she is alone:

Has obvious eating disorder:

Is really a frail, pained creature beneath her chipper facade:

This is where the problems with her character get murky. Having already established that we love Holly in spite of or possibly because of the flaws in how her character was written, we've also gotta recognize that she showcases the worst possible variety of Manic Pixie Dream Girl: The Beautifully Troubled kind. Between the "Mean Reds," the overwrought pursuit of financial independence through gold digging, the crying in the rain, and the part where Jed Clampett shows up as the 50 year old dude who date-raped/married her when she was 13, and then implies she was like, abused or something by her own parents -- this movie romanticizes trauma like it's going out of style.

If the average MPDG is sort of problematic for being a 2-dimensional, overly idealized caricature who has no real problems, then the Beautifully Troubled MPDG is even more problematic for being a 2-dimensional, overly idealized caricature who has lots of problems -- all of which only manifest in ways that make her endearing and in need of an unrealistically simple rescue by the male lead. As usual, the MPDG's journey is only relevant as it relates to the man's path to self actualization. Her problems are there to make her a more romantic character, and so the dude can fix them.

Every teenage or 20 something girl who has clumsily cultivated a selective air of melancholy when she wants attention from a boy has this movie to thank for inspiration. Breakfast at Tiffany's totally encourages that whole embarrassing "Everybody else's girl/Maybe one day she'll be her own," bullshit culture of loving yourself by pretending to hate yourself. (P.S., if you use this indulgently whiny quote to describe yourself, it does not apply to you.) And guys aren't exempt from this mentality either. Just as often as chicks succumb to Holly's "Save me, I'm a wounded bird,"Damsel Fantasy, dudes succumb to the "Only I can save the wounded bird," Hero Fantasy.
(Comedy Fans: this mindset has had hilarious shoutouts on Parks and Rec and 30 Rock.) 

It's kind of amazing how a film so eternally engaging and pleasurable to watch is so guilty of reductive storytelling and emotional pandering with its leading lady. Though for the record, director Blake Edwards has a weirdly consistent habit of portraying the women in his comedies as smokin' hot, batshit crazy dames, who often turn a guy's life upside down (See: Blind Date, Days of Wine and Roses, Skin Deep, Justin Case, 10) As with all Manic Pixie Dream Girls, you're sort of supposed to fall in love with Holly Golightly, so long as you have disengaged the critical thinking portion of your brain.

MC had a wicked crush on Holly Golightly when he was like 13. Trust the sensitive, musician kid to have a Breakfast at Tiffany's poster hanging up next to his Detroit Tigers pennant. Of course, when you're 13, you barely even know you have a critical eye when it comes to viewing movies, let alone when a movie particularly taps into the hero complex that I think a lot of "nice boys" grapple with -- the pressure to be a good guy, who's not a rat, like all the other guys. Have you ever watched Arrested Development? I know I overuse pop culture references, but Michael Bluth is a total comedic send-up of this phenomenon. His character is like 35 years old, but when Julia Louis Dryfuss pretends to be blind (And, uh, pregnant. It's a complicated storyline), he can't stop himself from saying he'll stay with her just to be a good guy. It's played for comedy on the show, but even in real life, it really can take us well into adulthood to shake some of these seemingly benign illusions -- ones that in this case, have been encouraged by pervasive elements in popular fiction. Like learning there's nothing magical or good about unconsciously picking partners with issues just so you can prove how much better you are than the people who let them down in the past. 

When I asked MC for a contribution to this post, this is what he offered:

"That sensitive-hero thing is the fantasy that Holly Golightly plays into as a Manic Pixie Dream Girl. And hopefully, most people see it as just that - a fantasy. But for a certain subset of people, it might be a slight surprise to learn that in real life, a  person who's haunted by the demons of bad experiences doesn't just need a nice boyfriend to make it all better -- they need therapy, and real support from someone they're actually compatible with.
In the movie, all Holly and Paul really have in common is that he wants to be needed and she is a person in need. But in real life, this dynamic offers you zero in terms of actually having good chemistry as a couple. And a girl with problems like Holly's is more likely to pick fights, withhold affection, cheat, abuse various substances, and generally be a miserable person to live with. Not to mention that a person like Paul is likely to become frustrated and ineffectual and equally miserable to be around. That's because dating someone because of your personal projections doesn't do either person any favors. It's narcissistic for both parties.
The beauty of Breakfast at Tiffany's is that it's so sweetly told and wonderfully acted that I can rewatch it with Cammila and love every charming, romantic minute of it. But I'm not really bewitched by Holly Golightly anymore. At least not the part of her that's so defined by deprivation and frailty. I think my crush on her whole fragile bird, unattractively thin, "save me from myself," climbing into a stranger's window at night JUST BECAUSE SHE WANTS TO BE HELD (written specifically for an overly romantic 13 year old?) image was  just my mixed up attraction to weakness. Everybody has their issues and imperfections, but generally speaking, as a grown man, I'm much more viscerally attracted to vitality, positivity, confidence and strength.
Although I will add that I'm more attracted to Holly's exuberance than everGo figure." -MC


  1. Great post! I was thinking of Holly as more of a 3-D MPDG, but alas, you're right.

    "the part where Jed Clampett shows up" -- haha, yes, I call him Jed Clampett, too.

    "dude who date-raped/married her when she was 13, and then implies she was like, abused or something by her own parents -- this movie romanticizes trauma like it's going out of style." -- True.

    What do you think about Maria Von Trapp as an MPDG? (Have I already asked that?)

    1. DOH! I'm sorry, Caroline, I really didn't mean to step on your point! You probably could still make a case for Holly being 3D -- she does have to make a choice toward her own growth at the end, and we do see some cause and effect with the ramifications of her MPDG lifestyle (all the stuff in Act III with the Brazilian dude).

      Ooooh, Maria Von Trapp is possibly an even MORE fun question! For a number of reasons, not least of which is that Julie Andrews was married in real life to Blake Edwards -- the director of Breakfast at Tiffany's, who had such a habit of portraying women in his films as being manic and crazy.

      I might have to rewatch Sound of Music to make any observations I can seriously stand by (since this conversation is, uh, so very serious), but offhand I'd say Maria is an MPDG, and although she's far from a Manic Pixie Dream Bitch, she's still *not* the typical kind of stock character, and she doesn't have the grossly problematic elements of the type.

      On the one hand, Maria is upbeat and creative and interminably high on life, and she uses these characteristics to breathe joy back into the life of the stick-in-the-mud male lead. But on the other, she is not actually fixated on the male lead, and doesn’t direct her MPDG-style attitudes at him directly. On the contrary, Maria basically thinks Captain Von Trap is an asshole, and we aren't fully clued into their underlying romantic connection until they have a tension-breaker kiss in a gazebo.

      While Maria is hardly shown to have the kinds of flaws that flesh out the MPDGs in Eternal Sunshine or Scott Pilgrim, she does, nonetheless, feel like a real person with her own desires, not just a fantasy projection of the screenwriter. Like with Holly Golightly, some of this has to do with Julie Andrews' performance, and some of it has to do with how forgiving we are of older movies when it comes to being unrealistic and romanticized. But that doesn't mean that she isn't, in fact, a very well written character.

      I think it's also pretty helpful that for most of the first Act, we see Maria engaging her MPDG exuberance with the children, not the man. She's not loitering around the Captain all the time, fixated on making him do cute things and trying to poke holes in his stern facade, à la Garden State or Sweet November. We get the impression that Maria's actions are genuine -- that this is how she would live her life regardless of who she was interacting with. Maria, through her exuberance, does "fix" the man in the story. But this seems to happen more as a result of him holding his own attitudes up for comparison.

      Maybe the simplest way to explain how Maria doesn’t succumb to appearing like nothing but a male fantasy is the fact that the narrative is mostly from her perspective. While Audrey is the lead in Breakfast at Tiffany’s, she narrative is clearly from Paul’s point of view. Whereas if there’s any one character we’re following on their internal journey in Sound of Music, it’s Maria.

      Oh fuck, I’m gonna have to turn this into a post, aren’t I? Well you’ll be credited all over it, that’s for sure. ;)

  2. Worth noting that Julie Andrews also played another fantasy, dream-fulfilling female icon in Mary Poppins. Perhaps we've hit upon yet another MPDG type?

  3. I always feel like there is something wrong with me, as an American, as a movie lover, as a woman, whenever Breakfast at Tiffany's [and Audrey Hepburn] comes up because I have never understood the appeal. I think her earplugs are rad, and that's it. Yawn. Boring. I have zero interest.

    1. Haha, I love it!

      As an insomniac, I've always looked at her earplugs and thought "There's no way those would work."

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  5. frankly, cammila you make the story much more interesting that I actually found it to be. however, her clothes will never get old.

  6. No, I haven't seen it in a while, but I think you're right about Holly being 2D. She has real, serious problems but they're trivialized/romanticized to make her more mysterious and troubled-in-a-cute-way.

    I agree -- she's being MPDG with the kids, and even before that -- in the convent! ("How do you solve a problem like Maria. . ." ah, one of my favorite songs ever.) That her intentions aren't just to loosen up the Captain is a good point. Even after he starts loosening up and they kiss, she doesn't persist, but actually runs away from him and back to the convent.

    Yay! Love all your movie posts.

    I think this is where I first saw it suggested that Maria is an MPDG:


    Not sure if my post is going through. . . trying again. . .

  7. Thanks for posting this, Cammila.

    I've just been watching Breakfast at Tiffany's tonight for the 1st time in about a hundred years and had forgotten most of it.

    When 50 yr old Buddy Ebsen showed up and did his lines wherein he "date-raped/married her when she was 13", I couldn't believe what I was hearing! THIS is one of America's most beloved classics??? "Romantic Comedy"???

    (Yes, I know Ricky used to pull Lucy over his lap and spank her when she was bad... Fortunately, we no longer seem to think that's funny!)

    We will have gotten somewhere as a civilization, in my opinion, when reviewers no longer use the term "child bride" and use the more accurate term "child rape" instead!

    Yours is the ONLY review I found who took issue with this!!

    I thank you!


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