euro pixie dream girls

Master of None Fails to Give Its Female Lead a Personality

Alessandra Mastronardi and Aziz Ansari. Photo: Netflix

In the Master of None season finale, a bereft Dev (Aziz Ansari) draws up a pro-and-con list regarding his “relationship” with Francesca (Alessandra Mastronardi), the engaged, unfathomably attractive Italian woman with whom he has spent the past few episodes pursuing a chaste emotional affair. This is what the “pro” list includes: She’s “magical,” she “made you laugh,” she’s “the most beautiful,” she “made you feel something,” “everything is fun with her,” and, the clincher: “She makes pasta.”

It’s not a character sketch that would pass muster in any undergrad fiction workshop, but given what we know about Francesca, it’s actually pretty comprehensive. Who is Francesca? She is a magical, beautiful, pasta-making goddess who seems to exist fundamentally to make Dev feel something. She is, in short, the ultimate Euro pixie dream girl.

A brief apology: I know that we all agreed to retire the phrase “manic pixie dream girl” around 2013. Even the writer who coined it, Nathan Rabin, publicly disowned it, after overbroad use made it a critical cliché. But it’s the fact that it became such a cliché that makes its applicability here all the more startling. We’ve been through this all before, to the point of boredom! And yet, here we are again, somehow, watching a beautiful, whimsical love interest help our hero find the unexpected magic in his day-to-day life.

The only explanation I can come up with goes something like this: I like to think Ansari would be too savvy to write such a thinly sketched American female lead (Rachel, his love interest last season, certainly had more going on). But making the dream girl European — cloaking her in a set of regionally specific interests and an adorable accent — provides a cover. It becomes an easy way to prop up a charming character without actually providing any convincing inner depth.

You’ve probably seen the Euro pixie dream girl before. Perhaps you’ve seen her biking along the Ponte Vecchio in a polka-dot neckerchief or feeding ducks along the banks of the Seine, in the form of some cartoonishly gorgeous French, Spanish, or Italian actress (Scandinavians and Eastern Europeans, for some reason, don’t share those countries’ proclivity for whimsical rom-com adventures). Some examples: Léa Seydoux in Midnight in Paris wooing Owen Wilson with lines like, “It’s okay, I don’t mind getting wet — Paris is the most beautiful in the rain”; Marion Cotillard in A Good Year (and Midnight in Paris, for that matter — poor Marion); Mélanie Laurent in Beginners, gazing out a window and musing, “People like us, half of them think things will never work out, half of them believe in magic”; pretty much any time Penélope Cruz shows up in a Woody Allen movie; and of course, the alpha and omega of Euro pixie dream girls, Audrey Tautou in Amélie. (In the interest of gender parity, see also: any Diane Lane movie where she takes a spin with a Euro pixie dream guy.)

In Master of None, Dev’s Euro pixie dream girl is played by the very talented and delightful Italian actress Alessandra Mastronardi, who immediately sent the internet into spasms over how charming and gorgeous she is. Truly, hers is a face that could launch 1,000 ships, or 1,000 Vespa-riding American tourists hoping to run into her in the nearest piazza. When we first meet this Italian goddess, she’s wearing a polka-dot headband and dropping off fresh produce at her nonna’s pasta shop. Later in this episode, she celebrates Dev’s birthday by bringing him leftover lasagna and a first-edition Maurizio Cattelan book, because he’s her favorite Italian artist and she wants to expand Dev’s horizons. (These characters always seem to have a direct pipeline to their nation’s supply of rare, first-edition books).

Of course, the first episode — a caper about a stolen phone shot entirely in black and white — is intended to be a riff on various Italian film classics, and Francesca makes sense when she’s depicted as one cinematic trope among many, down to her L’Avventura-inspired, polka-dot-filled wardrobe. Yet even when the show leaves its Italian film homage behind (although it returns to it frequently), Francesca never seems to transcend being Italian as her main personality trait. She introduces Dev to Italian music and Italian film and Italian literature. She teaches him to dance the twist and explains art to him. Like a classic MPDG, she laughs at all his jokes and never gets annoyed, while also being an endless source of zany activities — like pajama dance parties and kissing through glass doors.

I asked a friend-of-a-friend, who is Italian, if Francesca felt real to her, and she wasn’t totally convinced. “She’s, at times, way too kind,” she told me. “This doesn’t mean Italian girls are not ‘nice,’ but they usually have a more sassy and direct way.” Yet the Euro Pixie Dream-Girl always has endless time and patience and goodwill to indulge the protagonist’s whims. Just as Europe is often depicted as the land of vaguely-creative-guy self-discovery, the Euro pixie dream girl becomes the portal to that place: a cultured and sensitive aesthete who is able to unlock the mysteries of the European continent for our American rube.

Much like the classic MPDG, the Euro pixie dream girl serves fundamentally to bolster the male protagonist — as Rabin put it, to “teach broodingly soulful young men to embrace life and its infinite mysteries and adventures” — although with a slightly different spin. She helps make the protagonist more cultured and worldly, while simultaneously building up his self-esteem by being endlessly fascinated by his quaint American ways. This culture gap is somehow supposed to bamboozle us into thinking the pair are a viable match, even when the dream girl is so far out of his league that they aren’t even playing the same sport. (No offense to Dev, but Francesca is out of everyone’s league.)

In the second half of the season, Francesca somehow finds time to take two extended vacations to New York, abandoning poor nonna in the pasta shop. Once there, she has limitless free time to explore the city with Dev and do whatever he wants to do — namely, eat tapas and engage in long Woody Allen-esque walk-and-talks. Her preternatural easygoingness and boundless enthusiasm make her the perfect companion to help Dev rediscover the wonders of New York through a non-jaded set of eyes (a skyline helicopter tour! A trip to Storm King! Doing funny role-play in Washington Square Park!), while her endless appetite for banal Americana (she loves Duane Reade!) yields countless whimsical adventures that restore joy and meaning to Dev’s emotionally impoverished life.

Just like Rachel, Francesca is funny and has a knack for banter. But her ability to go with the flow and carry any conversation seamlessly makes her seem even more like a projection of Dev’s fantasies than a discrete individual with specific tastes and opinions. That, and when you actually break it down, 80 percent of Dev and Francesca’s conversations tend to revolve around parsing the differences between their respective countries of origin. These involve Francesca quizzing Dev on America (“What cashews is?”; “What are dating apps?”; “What’s the difference between washroom, bathroom, and toilet?”); Dev quizzing Francesca on Italy; and both of them adorably mispronouncing things while making fun of the other’s language skills and/or accents. We learn that Francesca’s mom died when she was young, that she used to be an art-history major, and … that’s about it. Any other available conversation time is spent talking about how much fun they are having together.

Maybe Ansari didn’t want Francesca to seem too much like a real person, to help him make some larger homage to Italian cinema? (Am I too much of a philistine to get this?) Or maybe the show is making some larger point about modern romance by having him fall in love with a total fantasy object? (An illusion to be punctured in the finale’s final moments?) But given how good the show has been at exploring specific cultural worlds rooted in lived experience — like the parent episodes, or Lena Waithe’s episode this season — writing its main female character as a flat Euro-fantasy feels less like a deliberate choice than a lazy omission, leaving a bad taste in my mouth that no amount of hand-rolled pasta can mask.

Master of None Fails to Give Its Female Lead a Personality