Manic Pixie Tennis Players

In the film Ruby Sparks, award-winning novelist Calvin dreams of a girl called Ruby and begins to write his new book with her as the protagonist. Magically, Ruby comes to life and Calvin proceeds to fall for her. Upon meeting Ruby, Calvin’s brother Harry warns him that women are mysterious creatures and things may change. When he realises that Ruby is, in fact, a relatively simple girl written entirely by Calvin, Harry adds, “You haven’t written a person, okay? You’ve written a girl.”

The film’s writer Zoe Kazan (who also plays Ruby in the film) is seemingly putting forward her opinion on the much loved but also often criticised trope of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl. The MPDG is supposed to be the fantasy of the Everyman. A woman – nay, a girl – who is gorgeous in a non-threatening fashion, excited to be alive, and even more excited to bring joy, frivolity, quirkiness and meaning to the life of a solemn, brooding, lonely male protagonist. Kazan’s film appears to say that these characters have their place, but that they’re clearly not supposed to be seen as anything like fully developed women.

As it turns out, (slight, but unsurprising, spoiler alert) Calvin eventually realises that his brother is right: real people who we love and want to spend our lives with have true depth of character and aren’t just simple excitement, sweetness and light.

In amongst all of the talk and posturing about the response to Marion Bartoli’s Wimbledon title, she was often referred to as a quirky, enigmatic, unique, or refreshing player who has more character than the usual female tennis star. Bartoli’s defenders to the negative comments regarding her looks have been everywhere, and reasonably so. However, they have completely missed the fact that most of the comments have been equally offensive to other players: those who are perceived to be gorgeous but completely bereft of character or personality.

What has been missing is a nuanced consideration of the coverage of women’s tennis. Much of the commentary has incorporated, or at least implied, a simple linear equation: BBC commentator says Bartoli is not a looker + most blokes think most tennis players are traditionally “hot” = those who watch the sport only do so because of the players’ looks.

This argument is based on a ridiculous generalisation, of course, as many popular female players are never spoken about in this fashion and are actually represented as more “complete” women. But perhaps this is the point, and where the criticisms of the average tennis-media-producer and tennis-media-consumer find some validity. The more complete women often appear to be mothers like Clijsters, gay like Navratilova, or someone deemed not to have girl-next-door looks like Li Na or the Williams sisters. Meanwhile, if you’re a player under the age of 25 and have athletic good looks to match the cuteness of Dunst, Portman or Deschanel, then you are most likely to become a Manic Pixie Dream Girl of the sports pages.

Of course, for casual sports fans and the media – who, in turn, are only casual purveyors of tennis news – the great unanswered question relates to how similar they are to Calvin. Do the fans want attractive tennis players to be represented as more fully formed characters? Would the media benefit from representing them in this way? And as a related thought, do fans want a more complete portrait of male players than female ones?

In the film Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Kate Winslet’s character Clementine – occasionally referred to as a Manic Pixie Dream Girl – openly detests how most men respond to her quirky, exuberant, carefree nature. “Too many guys think I’m a concept, or I complete them, or I’m gonna make them alive,” she says. “But I’m just a fucked up girl who’s lookin’ for my own peace of mind; don’t assign me yours.” The depth of Clementine’s character and the film as a whole is well documented, but while she, and it, are deemed classics by the kind of people who watch the ABC, the film didn’t perform nearly as well at the box office as most of the cuter MPDG flicks.

The athletes who live inside our televisions and who we occasionally see in person are but characters in the great reality-drama that is sport. Individually, we choose our own heroes and villains, project our hopes and dreams onto our favourites, and tune out when only characters whom we dislike remain. Many of these choices are clearly influenced by the media’s representation of the athletes – including media organisations who are desperate for us to tune in to the sports they broadcast – even when the media do not or cannot present us with anything resembling a representation of a whole person.

The criticisms of both the Manic Pixie Dream Girl trope and the coverage of women’s tennis have many levels of truth to them. Perhaps for now, the question that should be asked is why so many men don’t appear to want to watch or read about real people when it comes to females. Instead, they’re happy with girls.

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