07.20.09

Indie Dream Girls

Zooey Deschanel’s adorable character in (500) Days of Summer is the latest in a line of beautiful ciphers who bewitch men onscreen. Doree Shafrir on their eternally shallow appeal.

In the new indie romantic comedy (500) Days of Summer, the female lead, Summer, played by Zooey Deschanel, toys with the emotions of Tom (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), a twentysomething who writes greeting cards for a living and seems to have been unlucky in love. We know that the relationship is a failure from the beginning of the episodic film, which goes backward and forward throughout the 500 days of their relationship, trying to figure out exactly where and when things went wrong. And while we learn much about Tom's life and his friends, Summer remains enigmatic throughout the film; the audience learns little about who she is, beyond the superficial. (Warning: spoilers below.)

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Deschanel's Summer just the latest manifestation of the female character that The Onion last year called the Manic Pixie Dream Girl, but I don't think that term is wholly accurate. She's more of an elusive cipher, and this is a road Deschanel's been down before, in Elf and All the Real Girls. Also think Natalie Portman in Garden State and Beautiful Girls; Scarlett Johansson in Lost in Translation (director Sofia Coppola, herself an elusive cipher, is a master at these characters); Kirsten Dunst in practically every movie she's ever made; and of course, the prototype, Audrey Hepburn's character in Breakfast at Tiffany's. Like these other women, Deschanel's Summer is detached, mysterious, impulsive. The most we learn about her is that she likes The Smiths, and Belle and Sebastian, and seems to have great style; throughout the film she's decked out in adorable, vintage-y outfits.

She refuses to commit to Tom, saying that she's not looking for a relationship, but just a couple months after they finally end things, she's engaged to another guy. She's not so much manic or pixie as flighty and, frankly, callous. Summer and her ilk use their "honesty" as an excuse for insensitive behavior; she was always up front with Tom about their relationship, wasn't she? And yet, to keep having sex with someone who clearly has more interest in you than you do in them, and to dance intimately with them at a wedding of a co-worker after you've broken up, and then to invite them to a party is simply cruel.

Still, girls like Summer invariably serve as combination muse/object of obsession, usually allowing the guy in the equation to finally unlock his true creative impulses. Consider this cryptic exchange from (500) Days of Summer:

Summer: You always wanted to write greeting cards?

Tom: No, I don't even want to do it now.

Summer: Well, you should do something else then.

Tom: Yeah. I studied to be an architect, actually.

Summer: You did? That's cool. What happened there?

Tom: Didn't work out. I got a job, and here we are.

After things don't work out with Summer, Tom quits the greeting-card company in a rather dramatic fashion, and decides to apply for architecture jobs. But we never learn whether Summer had dreams or goals beyond being an assistant at a greeting-card company. Did she want to be an artist? A singer? A writer? Tom never asks, and we never find out. She's there, ultimately, as a vehicle for Tom to realize his goals and dreams.

Of course, men find these women utterly bewitching. And why wouldn't they? They're the ultimate unattainable muses. They never make any demands; they never nag; they keep everything operating on a level of fantasy. It's like they're women who read The Rules while listening to Elliott Smith. (See also: the girl in the band, who is often the ultimate ingenue.) And of course, it's not difficult to see the appeal of a woman like Summer. She's always just out of reach, making herself scarce at crucial moments and artfully dodging any of Tom's questions about whether they're boyfriend and girlfriend.

Girls like Summer invariably serve as combination muse/object of obsession, usually allowing the guy in the equation to finally unlock his true creative impulses.

And that's why portrayals of women like Summer are, ultimately, retrograde. For Summer turns out to be the bewitching villain in this story, breaking Tom's heart without a second thought. When Tom finds out she got married, he asks her how she was able to get engaged to someone so soon after they'd broken up; after all, she'd told him many times that she wasn't looking for a boyfriend. "It just happened," she says, batting her big blue eyes at him. Thanks for the closure.

What about a romantic comedy about a woman who actually has opinions, who doesn't play hard to get, who articulates her hopes and dreams and expects her boyfriend to get excited about those, too? Or is that too much to ask even from indie Hollywood?

Doree Shafrir has contributed to The New York Observer, The New Yorker, Slate, and The Awl, and is the co-author of Love, Mom. She is a former editor at Gawker. Her Web site is www.doreeshafrir.com.