After seeing Paper Towns I was waiting in the theater corridors. While my girlfriend used the restroom, I overheard two young women – fellow moviegoers – complaining about the Margo character (Cara Delevingne). One of them rehearsed her climactic line, “You don’t know who I am. I don’t even know who I am.” The fellow patron responded to the dénouement, “That was bullshit!”
Indeed, it was.
Paper Towns, both the film and John Green’s book, are attempts to dismantle the Manic Pixie Dream Girl trope – a trope with a storied history that can be read here. It’s an end-of-high-school bildungsroman wherein the shy young boy has spent his entire adolescence constructing and projecting an identity of his female next-door neighbor. She’s the cool girl, unattainable to most, taken for granted and misunderstood by all.
Like another recent film that misunderstands its central thesis, Paper Towns’ ingénue suddenly disappears. Our protagonist, Quentin, spends the entire film rifling through improbable clues that Margo laid in the wake of her absence. He’s trying to find her; he’s foolishly in love and is convinced these clues are meant for him. Eventually, Quentin and an unlikely troupe find Margo in a titular paper town. She can’t believe he found her, but she isn’t flattered. “But you left all those clues!?” “I leave clues everywhere I go,” Margo responds bewilderingly.
She always leaves clues? Huh?
The aforementioned dénouement is refreshing in that Margo finds Quentin’s hunt odd and ill aimed. She tells him she isn’t who he thinks she is. This is a nice, admirable exchange. This young woman is standing up to the well-intentioned boy who doesn’t realize the damaging behavior he’s perpetuating. She’s telling him that no one could live up to these stupid expectations and projections that boys come up with for women, and that they need to start actually paying attention to who she is instead of who they want her to be.
But, like my fellow patrons, I call bullshit.
While the filmmakers, and presumably the book’s author John Green, want to believe the rug is being pulled out from under us at this moment, that the MPDG trope is being subverted, there are some large speckles that prevent it from being effective or affecting.
One, the film feels way too late. While the book was published in 2008, a year after the MPDG trope was articulated, the film arrives a whole year after Nathan Rabin called for a death of the use of the term. In other words, Paper Towns’ attack on the MPDG feels a bit like if Fahrenheit 9/11 was just hitting theaters. The presence of Paper Towns in 2015 also feels curious, considering the 2012 film Ruby Sparks takes the same initiative, to more interesting and slightly better results. Although the point of Paper Towns is well taken, in principle, its unnecessary at this point. I attribute this flaw to the popularity of The Fault In Our Stars. I’m sure Hollywood wanted to strike while the YA iron was hot with another John Green adaptation.
More importantly, the film ultimately doesn’t do enough (or anything) to distinguish Margo as anything other than an MPDG. Most of what we know of Margo, aside from Quentin’s subjective editorials, is derived from the film’s precipitous event. The night before leaving town, Margo summons Quentin to be her get away driver for a night. While she rains terror on all of her high school demons, her and Quentin bond. He’s as flattered as he is reticent to break out of his shell. And this – doing outrageous, often illegal acts in stark contrast to rote suburban behavior while dragging along a safe, shy nerd in order to get him to open up – is exactly what MPDG’s do. Of course, they also make time to do quirky things in a grocery store.
Margo does do all of these things. It would be one thing if we knew we were seeing Margo and Quentin’s night adventure through the subjectivity of Quentin, if it was addressed that Quentin had embellished upon her actions to make them seem more whimsical. But, as the film stands, there is no such amendment. The story relies on her MPDG-ness as a true characterization of her. All we know of her is this prototypical MPDG. And, even as she attempts to dissolve her MPDG image to Quentin, vocally, her MPDG qualities remain, if not increase.
Yes, she says that she is not who everybody thinks she is, but let’s consider what we're left with: she has left a figurative paper town (as she refers to Orlando) for an actual paper town, with no definitive plan – she is acting on whimsy – and will continue to be a fixture around town, but we have no idea about what constitutes Margo’s real life - whether she has a job, where she gets money from, what she wants to do now, away from her constructed identity. Her only aspirations are to ~find out who she really is ~.
It is not enough for Margo to tell that us she isn’t an MPDG. If the film wanted to properly debunk her MPDG-ness, it would start to characterize her as a pragmatic, calculated, annoying or disgusting – anything other than whimsical and spontaneous. Instead, we are left with an essence of a person – of a hip vagabond who is living off the grid to escape the malaise of Orlando, which sounds incredibly MPDG to me. I can hear countless of her former classmates responding to her disappearance, “That’s so Margo.”
If she ran away to detract herself from the off-base discourse surrounding her and the idea of Margo her suburb had created for her, then don’t characterize her flee in MPDG terms. Don’t have her move to a paper town. Have her move to a regular city, with a plan to do something incredibly regular and boring.
Also, don’t have her leave “clues.” In an eye-rolling (that Cara Delevingne would be proud of) inducing scene, she maintains that she leaves clues everywhere she goes. What? Why? That’s not something people actually do. This is, perhaps, the most MPDG thing ever committed to paper yet it comes during the vocalization of her MPDG debunking.
To return to my fellow patrons’ problem with the film, Margo’s line, “You don’t know who I am. I don’t even know who I am” (paraphrased), I’m not sure what the intent is. If it was to convey Margo as personally perplexed as a result of how communities construct improper ideas of people, the film doesn’t support such a claim. Instead, it comes off as yet another MPDG-esque trait. She’s lost, a free spirit in search of herself or some other yucky trope straight out of the MPDG chapbook. Again, to properly subvert MPDG properties maybe try to characterize Margo via traits vehemently at odds with the MPDG.
It’s worth mentioning that Paper Towns, a film attempting to subvert a trope contingent on the male gaze, is written by men, adapted from a book written by a man. I suppose it’s not an imperative to be written or directed by a woman – men should be smart enough to know how to properly draw a fully realized woman character, especially when that is the one objective, but it’s glaring that the entire creative well is a boy’s club. Oh, I almost forgot. Perhaps if the film was trying to overthrow the MPDG, maybe the producers should have avoided employing THE SCREENWRITING TEAM THAT IS RESPONSIBLE FOR 500 DAYS OF SUMMER!!!!
I kept waiting to hear Margo reference The Mountain Goats poster Quentin had on his wall...
But maybe the film doesn’t actually want to subvert the MPDG trope. Maybe the film’s producers, among which is John Green (executive producer), are cool with perpetuating the MPDG trope. I mean, how else do we interpret this piece of marketing:
What we end up with, in Paper Towns, is a film that believes that vocally renouncing the MPDG trope is enough, that any other depiction is discounted, and less important than how the character tells us they feel. This storytelling is foolish, and it forgoes all other basic narrative elements and character building. A film’s meaning isn’t solely found in its dialogue. More specifically, how we interpret a character runs much deeper than taking their words at face value. Otherwise, we may be in for a stark reevaluation of Norman Bates.
Though a stranger to the book, this problem may be rooted in (though not excused by) John Green’s writing. That the film thinks merely addressing the issue through vocalizing the author’s message seems related to John Green’s misunderstanding of authorial intentions, more largely.
Green has gone on the record to strongly state his inspiration for writing Paper Towns was to destroy, not perpetuate, people’s MPDG proclivities – to get men to stop constructing these damaging stereotypes for women. This statement came as a response to the following question posed through tumblr:
This is his first response:
As you can see, Green does exactly what I criticize the film of doing: correlating its intention with the character’s overt vocalization.
Here is part of his response to the rest of the question:
Again, clear as day, Green renounces any accusation that his overall storytelling or framing of the characters’ illness can be perceived as romantic or fetishized because the characters discuss such topics. Okay, cool. Just like how you know I’m not racist, cuz I tell you, “I’m not racist, buuuuutttttt…..”
Anyways. Good for you, John. I’m really glad you think message pieces are the way to go, in the first place. In no way can I speak to Green’s literary work – perhaps the problem I have explained concerning the film doesn’t occur in his written handling – but 1) he was a producer of the film and has incessantly endorsed the film’s end result, and 2) there is such a strong parallel between how the film handles the film’s message and how Green thinks his books, The Fault In Our Stars and Paper Towns, properly handle their issues.
I’m sorry, Mr. Green, but merely telling us how you feel without having characters developed enough to support how you feel isn’t enough. The author is dead; we can and will read the film based on our apprehension of the narrative in full. A story holds and relays truths outside of those you intend.