When I was in college I dated a guy who always checked that I was listening closely before making proclamations like “Dead flowers are more beautiful than live flowers.” After learning my building had roof access, he insisted we sit up there one night and chain-smoke Marlboro 27s. I was too anxious that my super would find out, and he was disappointed. “You’re totally closed off!” he exclaimed. “You’re never open to what the world is telling you.”
By “the world,” he obviously meant himself. If the world was telling me anything, it was Dump this idiot. (He was hot, though.)
This sort of guy can be irresistible, especially to goal-oriented women who need a break from obsessing about work. “I had serious obligations, and cared about success, and he was just, YOLO,” explains Beth, a 26-year-old union organizer, of her ex-boyfriend. “He was like, I’ll read you my poetry and be romantic and freeing because I’ll find things about you that are valuable that have nothing to do with your personal or career goals.” In your early 20s, they’re the opposite of the boring lawyer you “should” be dating.
The college guy was my first encounter with a type I have come to think of as the Manic Pixie Dream Boy: the self-mythologizing “free-spirited” dude who’s determined to make your life magical, whether you want it or not.
Think of him as a variation on the Manic Pixie Dream Girl, a term A.V. Club writer Nathan Rabin coined in 2007 to describe the whimsical female onscreen love interest whose sole narrative purpose is to help the sad boy hero cheer up. The Manic Pixie Dream Boy has a cultivated crunchy-eclectic-hipster aesthetic. (“He had a tattoo of a deer woodcut with a banner that said, ‘Stay Hungry,’” recalled my friend Jenna, 31, of her MPDB. “While we were making out he kept the poncho on that he got in Guatemala during his gap year,” said another friend, Margaux, 28.) Back when I was in school, he listened to Panda Bear; ten years later, as a late-20-something, he listens to Getz/Gilberto — on vinyl, obviously. He relishes breaking rules, and relishes even more his complete lack of concern that he’ll get caught. He gushes about tripping on mushrooms at Burning Man and he’s happy to supply you with some, as long as you promise to do them in nature. And he is determined to show women — no matter how much more successful, wealthy, beautiful, happy, and confident they are than him — that they aren’t living life to the fullest.
If you need help picturing the type, consider a fictional example from the acclaimed web series High Maintenance: In a group of post-college friends who have moved into the adult realm of wedding-planning and LSAT-taking, Chad (Chris Roberti) makes it a point to remain responsibility-free. He judges his friends’ priorities — waking up early for work is lame, spending $60,000 on a wedding is “disgusting” — while crashing on their sofas and bumming drug money. In order to help them temporarily escape their humdrum lives, he plans a weekend of shrooming at a lake house, where he pitches an “intentional community in Portugal where we can grow our own food, or weed, or whatever.” His relentlessly adventurous spirit risks exasperating his friends, but it definitely succeeds in getting him laid.
Chad also demonstrates that while these tendencies may crystallize in college, they do not necessarily vanish with age. Jenna describes the 28-year-old man she recently dumped: “He carried a notebook he used to sketch people on the subway. He’d always talk about some magical conversation he struck up with a stranger ‘on the streets of New York’ about — kid you not — Derrida.”
Then she nailed it: “His whole personality seemed designed to be filmed by an awful college student.”
Over the last decade, women in their 20s and 30s have become increasingly ambitious professionals. Women are now more likely to go to college and graduate from college, and young, childless women out-earn men in 39 of the 50 biggest cities in the U.S. As such, the contrasts between my cohort and freewheeling MPDBs of the same age have become even more extreme. Beth dated her MPDB for a year before his quirkiness came between them. “On any given weeknight, he’d brew coffee at 3 a.m. so he could pull an all-nighter because he was ‘most creative at twilight,’ or whatever the fuck,” she remembers. “I’d be like, I have to wake up for work in four hours, can you not?”
Some of these women admit that the MPDB’s lack of tangible ambition can be refreshing, at least at first. Yet it comes with a dark side: The MPDB feels sure he knows best, and he pairs his affectations with condescension for everyone else. Living in the moment apparently requires denouncing the gainful employment of the women he dates. Jenna recalls, “When I had my first real journalism job, he’d accuse me of being careerist or not livin’ life when I had to work until nine instead of eating burritos in the moonlight with him.”
But even before career enters the picture, even if your sensibilities are the same, the MPDB still insists on teachable “This song will change your life”–style moments. Margaux describes her ex from college: “Every conversation would be him asking me, ‘Have you heard this song?’ ‘No, is it good?’ ‘Yeah, it’s good.’”
I asked Margaux whether the authority to recommend pop culture went both ways. “It was weird,” she said. “We were both writers and he really seemed to respect my work and think I was smart — but then he didn’t respect me in conversation and didn’t care about my opinions. But he welcomed the opportunity to hold court.” She added: “I made him mixes, but I don’t think he ever listened to them.”
But perhaps instead of letting such behavior bother us, we should recognize that the MPDB deserves our pity. Someone who forsakes being an actual person, instead choosing to be a collection of affected eccentricities with the compulsive need to display them to women might just be (bear with me, it’s far-fetched) slightly insecure. It would explain why MPDBs compulsively try to introduce women to revelatory, obscure pop culture — as a deflection technique.
Jenna’s theory: “It was like he was worried his actual personality wasn’t interesting enough, so he borrowed it wholesale from an irritating indie movie where people run while holding hands.”
Now, successful and in our late 20s, my friends and I have begun to value romantic reality more than romantic fantasy: a guy offering his seat on the train in a crowded commuter car, Sunday afternoons at Crate & Barrel, joint bank accounts. As for the MPDBs, stuck in romantic fantasy — they’re sad, really. We’ve outgrown them.
Jenna concludes: “Being ‘into’ things like getting caught in a sudden downpour does not make you interesting, it makes you the fucking ‘Piña Colada’ song.”
Sooner or later, the time comes when we must let the fantasy of the MPDB — like his oft-reviled counterpart, the MPDG — frolic off into the sunset. It’s almost a shame they can’t date each other. But without their straight-person foils, they’d just be two people in beanies talking over each other.