When I was between the ages of seventeen and twenty-two (or so), I wanted to be special. I’d seen how it was done in TV, in movies. And so I went to work, living fiercely, and writing stuff like this:
I’m balancing my soles on the curb, suddenly overwhelmed, watching the sky through foreign buildings, thinking something about chess and elephants and emptiness. Acid raindrops well in my tearducts. It’s the spontaneous a capella boy chorus that brings me back and if I’m not crying, I’m laughing, that’s what I am.
This time period was full of pretty words–words wrapped in colored cellophane, words that were delicate, diaphanous.
(See? I can still write like this, if I try.)
Tonight I watched the world while lying down, watched it out the rear window, the telephone wires and gray, naked trees. The night was a sea of lights reflected without dimension and my eyes struggled to focus, to follow and I was lost lost, utterly lost in the starless sky, all sensation and nothing concrete, all too aware of the way my neck was curved, the pattern of my breath, the pace of the music, and sticky sweet smell of cologne and gasoline that was all around, but fairly devoid of all thought and I wondered how I ever got this empty and this happy.
It’s painful for me to read these words now, though I see the value of them. I’m a lot more grounded today than I was back then. A lot more firmly embodied. Back then, I was always constructing a narrative around my life even as I was living it. I took pictures with plastic cameras (these were the days before the hipstamatic, damn it) and so I framed images in my mind even as I was living, too. You have to step outside of yourself to do that. You can never really be in the moment, always have to be self-conscious of the way you cast your eyes, the way the light looks against your skin.
Of course, I wanted to inspire boys, particularly.
I’d seen these girls in books, movies. The Marlas. The Clementines. The Holly Golighties. Back then, we didn’t have a name for it. So I called them “fireflies.” They burn brightly, and burn out by dawn.
I’ve seen beauty. Beauty is easy. Stop eating food and start eating drugs, alcohol, and razor blades. F— taught me what beauty was. Everyone loved her but no one could hold her. She was a joke, but a beautiful joke, flashing her bare breasts at anyone who would look her way. Her mouth was a dark, pouty smudge of black lipstick in the center of a cruel face. She was jealous, possesive, and just crazy enough to waste her nasal cavity and her parent’s money on white powder that burned when she breathed. She was blue at the base. She was fire. In the long run, everyone hated F— because she left them before they left her.
I saw the secrets but I couldn’t make the whispered words move past my throat. I’ll never wrap my tail around sailors’ legs, leave their bloated bodies bobbing at the surface after I’ve extracted their sex. I’m no siren.
What I am is the the eyes of the world, distended pupils. And when I couldn’t wrap my tongue around my thoughts tonight, that’s what my thoughts were saying. I think. I wonder if I’m pretty enough, if my flame burns too pale, if I’m enough for you. If you’re too much for me. If I’ve contributed to your complacency. And its all in my head, I know, I know. But I want to have Adventures and I want to have them with you or if not you can just be the shadows behind my eyes, my muse. But I’m afraid to make plans, sign the dotted line, make demands because that will be filling the frame the beautiful fireflies don’t, that will be saying I’ll live past the night and so will you. And I think, no, that’s not exciting enough, can’t be. It sounds too much like settling down to be applied to a banshee like you.
To a certain extent, with certain people, it worked. The first boy I ever kissed wrote me a letter about how, yeah, he’d cheated on his girlfriend with me, but it was all worth it to kiss Phoebe North. Like I was an idea of a person, and not a person myself. Because I didn’t know better, I went all swoony in my head.
But it wasn’t good for me.
I was kind of becoming crazy, you see (a trait that runs in my family, anyway). All of this depersonalization was really very bad for me. I was acting fickle, capricious, drinking too much and crying way too much and so ridiculously self-aware that I was a mess of panic attacks. Most of my panic attacks were something like this:
What if this boy doesn’t like me what if he likes someone more who am I if someone doesn’t see me for the person who I want to be but sees the rough, grubby creature underneath not a constantly evolving being of pure beauty and joy and whimsy?!
Eventually, I got over it. Ironically–or maybe not; I was, after all, frequently motivated by a desire to have a certain type of relationship–a lot of my getting better about things came about because of Jordan. Though I expected otherwise, he really wasn’t into the narrative of capricious whimsy. He had his own shit to deal with–and he wanted me to deal with my shit, too. To figure out what made me happy, instead of just what I thought would make him happy. It was kind of revolutionary for me, that I wasn’t going to be his Everything (and only his Everything), but that we’d still be able to be in love.
As a side-effect, I quit projecting images of constant beauty and pain and drama out against the interwebz. There are times when that’s felt a little bit like losing, when I see girls who are able to see completely turn their lives into beautiful narratives and feel wistful. But whatever works for them, I guess–mostly I know it didn’t work for me.
There’s a new term for fireflies now. Manic pixie dream girls. Creatures beloved by John Green and Chuck Palahniuk and male Hollywood movie writers everywhere. They create girls who transform the lives of the male protagonist, and usually die, or disappear, by the narrative’s end. They write of capricious children of whimsy. They will into existence those colorful, beautiful, crazy girls who never seem to quite exist for themselves.
I think it’s an incredibly damaging narrative, because of all of the above. Because I tried to live like a firefly once, and it was no way to live.
Recently, on goodreads, the subject of MPDG came up. We were discussing the ways that an author can avoid MPDG tropes, and someone mentioned Margo from Paper Towns. Funny thing, Margo. When I read the book, I thought she was just a stock MPDG. She’s a creature of whimsy who disappears, spurring the male main character (who loves her, of course) on an adventure.
But then someone pointed it out to me that she’s supposed to be a subversion of that trope. Sure, the narrator tells us that: “She was not an adventure. She was not a fine and precious thing. She was a girl.”
But uh uh uh you wouldn’t really know it from the way the story plays out. Because, you know, she kind of is an adventure, narratively speaking, and we, the reader, never really get to know her as a girl.
That’s the problem with subverting this trope, I think, particularly when you do it from the point of view of a male narrator and ultra particularly when the girl is mostly absent throughout the story. You’re still viewing her life through a decidedly limited male lens. Her concerns are always going to be subjugated to the male protagonists if the story is really about his conflicts and his growth. And then you’re left with adventures who only look like girls, no matter what you tell us explicitly.
Here’s another example of why it’s so difficult to subvert this trope without inadvertently just enacting the trope, so that it doesn’t look like I’m picking on John Green.
In Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, punky, emotive Clementine comes right out and says to our hero that, “I’m not a concept. Too many guys think I’m a concept or I complete them or I’m going to make them alive, but I’m just a fucked up girl who is looking for my own peace of mind. Don’t assign me yours.” But Joel admits that he still expected her to save him, even after she told him otherwise. And since the only Clementine we know in the story is one filtered almost completely through Joel’s memories–the real (non-remembered) Clem is absent for most of the movie–she still pretty much comes out looking like little more than a splash of color in a bland dude’s life.
(In fact, now that I think about it, isn’t it kind of creepy what Joel does? She doesn’t want to be with him anymore, to the point of erasing her memory of him. But he holds on to his idealized memory and it’s because of that that they meet again and resume their relationship–the one she wanted to end. That’s . . . kind of less romantic and more stalkerish. Anyway.)
In some ways, this is a basic writing failure. The writers should have shown, where instead they told: don’t just tell us that these are real girls with real problems outside the lives of men. Breathe life into them instead. Give them their own problems, concerns, back stories, motivations, character arcs. And, for God’s sake, let them be present, not just some motivating force for your protagonist.
Of course, doing all of that kind of shatters the concept. I can think of two recent YA books that successfully sidestepped falling into the manic pixie dream trap–Kirsten Hubbard’s Like Mandarin, which gives you a rare female subversion but also manages to make Mandarin herself fully-fledged (to the point where she has trouble seeing what role she’s supposed to play in narrator Grace’s life), and Hannah Moskowitz’s Invincible Summer, where the Manic Pixie is so completely damaged that she’s essentially a predator–clearly illustrating the drawbacks of making your life sex-centered and male-centered. But neither of these are really playing with Manic Pixie tropes so much as giving us fully fledged, unusual, real, and vital girls.
Which is, I think, a step in the right direction. Because, even if it’s all an attempt to hastily dismiss the idea in the end, I’m tired of the media’s suggestion that girls should play a bit part in anyone‘s life. It’s not cute. It’s not creative. And it’s definitely not romantic. It’s kind of more like crazycakes. And I should know. I’ve been there, after all.