I was born a MPDG, and I blame it on the following films: The Sound of Music, Mary Poppins (thank you, Julie Andrews!) and Pollyanna. These were all films about magical women coming into the lives of crotchety men and bringing them light, bringing them love, bringing them hope that opened their hearts, and I watched them over and over as a kid — over and over and over. And over. And over.
I’ve always wondered: Did I aspire to be a MPDG because my idols were, or were these women my idols in part because they were such successful MPDG’s?
Mary Poppins obliterated class lines even at the suspected cost of losing her job (she could also FLY WITH AN UMBRELLA so ya know) and Froiline Maria made clothes out of curtains so she could take children on wild, canoe-toppling adventures, and left a convent so she could boink the endlessly dapper Captain von Trapp to her heart’s content, so there’s something to be said for both of these remarkable women (and if you ever read P.L. Trevors’ Mary Poppins series, you know the terrifying nanny is far from being a MPDG!) But Pollyanna has few, if any, lastingly redeeming characteristics. Her charms lie essentially in the fact that she’s an optimist and a little girl. Even as a little girl myself, I was annoyed by her response to learning she needed surgery, which was essentially no response at all. At nine, I’d had an operation, and something about her unwavering smile struck a very dissonant chord. So perhaps I was starting to get suspicious of the MPDG trope, but not nearly enough so.
For years I remained determined to do what my movie-mentors did, so I set out to find some worlds I could light up, some sadnesses I could heal, some issues I could transform into confidence-fueled strengths. But no one wanted to sing! At the end of the faulty scripts of attempted lives throughout my youth, Mr. Banks wasn’t flying kites, Pollyanna was righteously pissed off about her surgery, and rather than singing “Adelweiss” with his beautiful eldest daughter, Captain von Trapp was all too aware that his family was in danger, his brother was essentially a collaborator, and his country was under siege. What was I doing wrong?
The least-discussed problem I see with the MPDG trope is this: A woman in that role can never come to grips with the hidden sides of who she is. A MPDG must always smile, brighten, spin the earth, to the best of her limited ability, in a single optimistic direction. To do this, you have to essentially block out the world. If you can’t sing a cheerful song about it, it can’t be acknowledged, and that’s no way to prepare for being alive. It’s not about making the medicine go down with a spoonful of sugar, but rather about appreciating the complexities, or even, sometimes, understanding the necessary bitterness, in complicated medicinal herbs, if you’ll forgive the winding metaphor. Most people living already know this, because it’s a lesson living teaches you, but I think my early efforts to find voids where I could see them and fill them with as much be who you are just as you are love as I could muster, I blocked out so much of what actually helps us grow. The MPDG isn’t allowed to grow, because the message she carries is supposedly the ‘highest’ in the story. Other characters grow by learning to be more like her, but the reality of relationship is exchange. To understand who you can be, you have to come to grips with everything you don’t like, everything you’ve pushed back, everything you’ve denied in favor of some other, more pleasing image. The MPDG is a pleasing image disguised as truth, but the truth rarely, if ever, has a damn thing to do with images. In image is a projection, but three-dimensional human creatures hold weight. Our needs are complex — and while music is uplifting, conversation can be igniting, and art can change the hell out of us — no one can actually enter your life and, on their own, change it from a prison to a palace. Some of the scariest traps out there are self-set, and shining a torch on them isn’t the same as setting you free. Love can do a lot of things, but change comes from ourselves, and the dangerous lesson of the MPDG is that change comes from other people. Other people’s capacity to teach are limitless — you can’t really be alive (for better or worse) without learning. But other people can’t make us less stupid or less limited or less anything — we become wiser by becoming wise to our faults, by understanding that humans have faults-by-default and that we never reach a no-more-learning-needed stage, and by bringing our own strengths to the forefront. There is no beast who’s calling out, with a maw full of glistening teeth, for a beauty to come and break the spell. The reality is, we’re all capable of being that lumbering body, that rash primal being. The beauty who seems like she can save us — she is us. We’re all of it, we’re everything. We’re the beauty, we’re the beast, and to see each quality in each one is to break open the MPDG trope and admit we have no idea what it takes to get us out of our ridiculous heads, grow the fuck up, and turn into a captain who can shed his military past, move on from his grief, and fall in love again, or a banker who realizes that money isn’t everything, and his kids won’t be kids forever, there to enjoy flying a kite.