Erm Watches Paper Towns to the Chagrin of Probably No One

I’m going to watch Paper Towns while making occasional comments like I did for Pinocchio, but first, a long-winded (and probably reductive anyway) discussion about contentious things like manic pixie dream girls, female characters in general, and John Green.

I’ve never read a John Green novel. I’ve seen the movie version of The Fault in Our Stars, and I don’t want to talk about it (mostly because I don’t want to seem heartless because I didn’t like it I’m so sorry). I’ve also seen some of his YouTube videos and he seems lovely. And I’m glad he’s as successful as he is, and I hope he keeps writing novels that are successful as his current novels are. Because when people, especially young people, are excited about and enjoying reading, everyone wins. But.

So.

I’m under the impression, perhaps (probably?) unfairly, that… well… doesn’t he write a lot of MPDGs?

It’s unfair of me to make that claim having never read his books. And I’m not getting into my thoughts on TFiOS, especially because I’ve only seen the movie. And also MPDGs are a contentious issue anyway, with the coiner of the term abandoning it because he now feels it’s reductive and often used incorrectly because of misogyny. And I’m probably using it wrong here anyway. And the reality is, as annoying as I might find this character archetype when she’s a woman, isn’t Jack Dawson in Titanic sort of the same thing, only male?

OK fine, one thing about TFiOS the movie: Gus, I think, is also a manic pixie dream girl, but a guy. But there’s more to him than the effect he has on Hazel, and in Titanic Jack isn’t really just there for Rose, but rather for the entire tragedy of the historical event the movie is based on. So sure, I’m going to agree that the term is reductive, because if the story in question uses the archetype well, then it’ll probably be fine.

I still think it’s harder for stories to get it right with the female versions, though. Female characters are always harder to get right, and it’s probably because there’s still a decent chunk of the population who think women are somehow less capable, adult, interesting, worthwhile, and human than men, whether they’re aware of those feelings or not. And media tends to sort of agree, at times. I’ve watched many a movie/read many a book in which the female love interest exists only as something for the male lead to obtain/have/enjoy or whatever. There’s the Bechdel Test (a movie must have more than one named female character, and they have to have a conversation that isn’t about a man) and the Sexy Lamp Test (where if your female character can basically be replaced by a sexy lamp because she has no agency or relevance to the story, you’re bad at writing). The Bechdel Test is reductive if you use it against individual movies – it’s mostly about showing just how seldom those three things happen in any given story, which, you know, means something. And the Sexy Lamp Test isn’t about complaining about female characters being attractive – it’s about them being irrelevant to the movie apart from their attractiveness.

There isn’t a name, or I haven’t come across it yet, for when a romance subplot is mainly about making the male lead seem cool – or if it takes a detour to make the male lead seem cool, but recently I watched two minutes each of two Chris Pratt movies: Jurassic World, and Passengers. In both moments I happened to catch before scoffing and changing the channel, Chris Pratt does something that I guess is supposed to be impressive (without context it’s hard to say), and then his love interest does a bit of swooning. In Jurassic World there are kids involved. “Your boyfriend is awesome.” Yeah. I noped right out of there.

I should hasten to add: it’s fine for characters to swoon over their love interests. Probably they should, in fact. But there’s something about the “male lead shows off while female love interest swoons” thing that makes me nope. I think filmmakers just have to be careful about it, so that the indulgence of “I get to be cool while the girl I like watches” is palatable and not just painfully obvious. For example, I don’t mind it when it’s Kirsten Dunst in Spider Man, because everyone stares at Spider Man when he swoops off like that, but it’s just extra special when she does it because he likes her. And who knows, maybe the rest of those movies add context that makes those scenes palatable if I’d been watching them properly (hahahaha I know they don’t but whatever).

I don’t remember what J Law’s character’s swoon moment in Passengers did to bother me. Probably nothing. I just know how that movie’s story goes so her swooning at all for him was enough to gross me out.

My point is that female characters often don’t get to do a whole lot, so even when they’re very important to the plot, and to the emotions, and to the themes that the main character has to engage with, like in a MPDG-type story, I think it’s probably easy for filmmakers to just allow the characters to serve a purpose solely about the male lead and not treat them like dynamic, flawed, interesting people in their own right.

With that said, I’m going to watch Paper Towns. Because I saw a couple of minutes of it, thought it looked like garbage, and now I’d like to either confirm or deny that theory.

(Can I just ingratiate myself to you, whoever you may be, whether you’re a Paper Towns fan or not, whether you like the odd MPDG or swooning female love interest or not, right now: I like plenty of garbage. Like Spice World. I LOVE Spice World. So. It’s fine. Whatever happens, I’m still the person who loves Spice World knowing it’s terrible and I’m still the person who will passionately defend its existence because of its depictions of female friendships or something. Also I don’t really like Beauty and the Beast. What I’m essentially saying is, feel free to not listen to anything I ever say, ever.)

10:26 pm. I’m just home from seeing Lego Batman so this movie is going to pale in comparison, even if it’s good.

10:28: He fell in love instantly, and they became friends as kids. They find a dead guy.

10:30: “It’s a shame, don’t you think? All the strings inside him broke.” I know it’s Green’s thing, but come on. Kids don’t talk like that. No one does.

10:31: She sneaks out the window all the time. They drifted apart and he still thinks about her and wants a second chance. What was your first chance, man? Investigating a suicide at Sea World in the middle of the night as kids?

10:32: Her life is epic. Toured with a band, and a circus, among other things. Leaves clues in alphabet soup for her sister as to where she’s going next.

10:33: This “I want to have sex with your mom” bit is one of the most obnoxious ones I’ve seen. Which, you know, is saying a lot.

10:35: His friends have weird quirks too. Radar’s parents have too many Black Santas. Ben is plagued by rumours that his bloody urine caused by a kidney infection was actually caused by chronic masturbation. K.

10:37: Senior year Margo is still making obnoxious demands but it’s less cute now that she isn’t a kid. Has a stupid name for her “goddamn dog” who “despises” her.

10:38: I’m trying, I really am. I don’t want to hate her. I don’t know anything about her. But UGH.

10:39: All right she’s criticizing his plans that will make him happy in the future and thinks he should find something that makes him happy now. She’s not wrong. But. Why are they talking about this?

10:43: This would be more interesting if he weren’t whining about everything she does as she does it. Just go with it, Quentin or you should have stayed home.

10:44: They got shot at.

10:45: Oh. He progressed. He’s spray painting a saran-wrapped car.

10:47: In 6th grade at the dance this particular guy they’re getting revenge on told all the girls not to dance with Quentin and they went along with it and she’s really sorry. And now she’s talked him into removing the guy’s eyebrow.

10:49: She’s very invested in Quentin’s new ability to have fun for a girl who’s supposedly fixated on revenge against her cheating boyfriend and disloyal friends.

10:52: Title drop. She’s being deep about how shallow everything and everyone else is.

10:53: She regrets not being friends with him this whole time.

10:55: I still think she’s too invested in how he feels about things instead of focusing on her own stuff for either of them to be worthwhile characters. But maybe it’s just early.

10:57: Now he’s threatening to release the nude picture of the ex-boyfriend to avoid getting beaten up.

10:59: She disappeared.

11:00: Margo’s parents suck.

11:02: Oh nice, a gay joke.

11:11: K they’re going to find her and I’m reading my twitter feed.

11:15: Ooh, the title now has an alternative, mysterious meaning. Moby Dick reference ftw.

11:24: “No one ever looks at me and thinks that I’m smart or interesting or clever.” Lacey’s saying this, because the first word people use to describe her is “beautiful.” Had chlamydia at one point. I actually liked that little moment between her and Quentin. Can’t this movie be about her instead?

11:29: Oh good, Lacey’s here now.

11:40: The Gus cameo was worth looking up from the kindle for.

12:01: Aaaand here’s the deconstruction.

12:09: I’m glad it ended like that. It very much redeemed itself.

So yes, I was being unfair to John Green. Paper Towns seems like it’s an attempt to write the manic pixie dream girl as if she’s a real person, with actual flaws, and criticizes the male lead for “being in love with her” when he doesn’t even know her, and she doesn’t even know herself. Margo still helps Quentin get in touch with his own sense of happiness and living in the moment, though, because she sets him on the path of going back to his friends and enjoying prom with them. It was a nice little story, worth the watch.

I wish I’d read the book rather than just watching the movie, because I think it would have been a lot better as a book. But maybe now I’ll read the Alaska one, or the too many Karens one. Katherine, I mean. Abundance of Katherines.

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