A good example of the codependent entitlement or covert narcissism I described in the last post comes in the Manic Pixie Dream Girl fantasy that many introverted, artistically inclined men have. These codependent men are withdrawn, shy, introverted, and afraid to call attention to themselves. But along comes this fantasy girl who acts insane, outgoing, exhibitionistic, kooky, and draws him out of his shell. The whole appeal of the girl is that the codependent protagonist believes she fits his fantasy image of what an ideal girlfriend looks like, even if he’s projected many of these qualities onto her with his own fevered imagination. Her main appeal to him is how she reflects and brings out his greatness. She also is inexplicably drawn to him despite little effort and zero game on his part. She’s both a mirror for his false, idealized self as well as an extension of him. She exists to draw out and reflect his greatness, without any deep, abiding needs of her own other than to take him on an emotional rollercoaster ride and reveal his own desired greatness back at him. In this way she acts as a mirror to him, reflecting his idealized self-image. She acts flamboyant, eccentric, and outgoing for him in a way he feels he can’t directly, and in this way acts as an extension of him. She has no other purpose but to “rescue” the protagonist and bolster his spirits, and he (sometimes) gets to rescue her in return.
The Manic Pixie Dream Girl term was coined by critic Nathan Rabin after watching Kirsten Dunst’s character in Elizabethtown:
The Manic Pixie Dream Girl exists solely in the fevered imaginations of sensitive writer-directors to teach broodingly soulful young men to embrace life and its infinite mysteries and adventures. The Manic Pixie Dream Girl is an all-or-nothing-proposition. Audiences either want to marry her instantly (despite The Manic Pixie Dream Girl being, you know, a fictional character) or they want to commit grievous bodily harm against them and their immediate family.
In an article where about the 16 types of Manic Pixie Dream Girls, Rabin describes:
the Manic Pixie Dream Girl archetype is largely defined by secondary status and lack of an inner life. She’s on hand to lift a gloomy male protagonist out of the doldrums, not to pursue her own happiness.
As this article from Bitch Magazine says:
The…Manic Pixie Dream Girl must never grow up, because that way, men never have to grow up, either. Peter Pan might lose most of his hair while his beard goes gray, but at heart, he’s still a little boy, and his companion in life reflects that: She’s not Wendy, but Tinkerbell. The “dream” supplied by…Manic Pixies past and present is one of a Never-Never Land where, although we cannot stop time, we can do without sobriety and reasoned maturity, and where a childlike fascination with the whimsical and fanciful is the way out of, never into, every nightmare of crisis and grief.
My theory is that the guys who write Manic Pixie Dream Girls and the guys who love watching and fantasizing about them are codependents. Meanwhile, the Manic Pixie Dream Girls themselves are Cluster Bs, usually either borderlines, narcissists, and histrionics, explaining their flair for the dramatic and the feeling of intense connection they generate with others. Cluster Bs, when you first meet them, are incredible charming and exciting, and the reason they create these intense first impressions is because they are overcompensating as much as they can up front, often because they know they’re crazy and hard to tolerate and are worried about the other person discovering what they’re really like and abandoning them. They also create great first impressions and a sense of intense connection because they work to figure out what you want and then try to appear as that thing to cater to your ego and fantasies in order to suck you in deeper and extract narcissistic supply for you. They have no problem being admired for something they’re only pretending to be. It still counts as narcissistic supply. Studies even back up the idea that narcissists make more intense, positive first impressions than others. (PDF of the original study; Psychology Today article summarizing the study)
I think what happens with Manic Pixie Dream Girl movies is that they only capture the idealization stage of the codependent/Cluster B pairing, the honeymoon phase, and as a result they feel intoxicating to the young, codependent men watching them. The movies end before the inevitable devaluation phase of every relationship with an emotional vampire. For example, to everyone reading who has had a relationship with a Cluster B, don’t you remember how intoxicating and euphoric those early days of the relationship were? With MPDG movies, you don’t stick around long enough to see the red flags that get huger and huger, the tantrums, the meltdowns, the crazymaking behavior, the cheating, the escalating disrespect, the erosion of the partner’s self-esteem, and the eventual discarding.
The self-obsessed male protagonists in the Manic Pixie Dream Girl dynamic perfectly illustrate the dynamic I was describing in yesterday’s post about Codependent Entitlement. Just like the dynamic I described in that post about the ways in which codependents can be manipulative and narcissistic in relationships, the codependent protagonists in these movies can’t see the MPDG in any way except for the ways in which she’s an extension of the him or a mirror for his false, idealized self, and the dream girl he sees her as who exists to complete him never actually exists in reality but is rather just a fantasy the protagonist want to exist so badly that he (and the screenwriter and the male audience members) projects that fantasy onto a person who he never actually got to know and who he never sees for who she really is.
This video discusses these topics, as well as more self-aware examples of the dynamic that subvert the trope. It’s does a good job of dissecting the covert narcissism of the codependent men:
Two movies the video discusses, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and 500 Days of Summer, are great because they explore the long-term dynamics of entering into such unions and what happens when the idealization stage wears off. My favorite quote from Eternal Sunshine is when she says: “Too many guys think I’m a concept, or I complete them, or I’m gonna make them alive. But I’m just a fucked-up girl who’s looking for my own peace of mind; don’t assign me yours.”
For comparison to the ways in which the narcissist idealizes and objectifies others, treats them as mirrors and extensions, projects his idealized fantasies onto them, and never sees them as flawed individuals in their own right with their own inner lives and needs, read this Mad Men-related post about Don Draper. Then compare to the dynamic described in the post you’re currently reading, along with yesterday’s post, and you’ll hopefully see similarities and understand how a sense of covert narcissism exists in many codependents.
I’d like to add, this post is not intended in any way to excuse the behaviors or cluster Bs, or to somehow “blame the victim” by creating some sort of moral equivalency between codependents and cluster Bs. I think cluster Bs are without a doubt worse than codependents. I do think though that codependents do have to learn to recognize the quiet grandiosity that lurks within them too if they want to break the dysfunctional cycles they get caught in, because that quiet grandiosity is exactly what creates much of their chemistry and toxic dynamic with cluster Bs.
UPDATE 2: A lot of first-time readers have read this post, and have emailed to tell me they feel they fall into the codependent category and want to know what to do to change. I would recommend a few things. For men, I’m currently big on recommending the book The Great Female Con, an ebook which you can download and buy here for $20. It’s well worth it, and despite the title it’s not as harsh as it seems. It will change the way you view everything. I’d also recommend this post about boundaries by Mark Manson. Finally, I’d recommend reading the past 2 years or so of this blog.