A lot of people, myself included, have toyed with describing Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez as the left’s Donald Trump because they both rely so heavily on exaggerated promises and bluster. There’s something to that, but I think I’ve found a better analogy: She’s the Democratic Party’s Manic Pixie Dream Girl.
Once you see it, you can’t unsee it. AOC is an MPDG, and if we had political satirists worthy of the name, NBC would already have brought in Zooey Deschanel to play her on Saturday Night Live.
The Manic Pixie Dream Girl is a stock character first classified by Nathan Rabin in a 2007 review of Elizabethtown, a film he described as “The Bataan Death March of Whimsy.” “The Manic Pixie Dream Girl,” he wrote, “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.”
In my youth, this sort of character was usually played by Julia Roberts, often opposite Richard Gere. More recently, the trope has been associated with the kind of chirpingly quirky free spirit, chock full of precious hipster mannerisms, often played by Zooey Deschanel (and widely parodied). You get the idea: strumming a ukulele, dancing in the rain, riding an old-fashioned bicycle in a sundress. The Manic Pixie Dream Girl is the vibrant, attractive young woman who, by the sheer force of her joie de vivre and childlike enthusiasm, rescues the brooding male lead from his cynicism or malaise.
The Democratic party certainly needs this sort of thing right now as it struggles to break free from the funk of defeat and the grey, hopeless compromises of Clintonism. So of course they were eager to idolize a slender, attractive young champion, with her flowing dark hair, improbably big eyes, and wide, toothy smile—many of the qualities, come to think of it, that qualified Julia Roberts for this role on the big screen. People of all persuasions love to see the tired old clichés of their political dogmas issue freshly forth from the mouths of attractive young people. It gives them the sense, at least for a moment, that they just might own the future. (This, by the way, is why candidates like Elizabeth Warren and Hillary Clinton tend to underperform, even if they have the preferred ideas or a big campaign organization: they seem too much like the wave of the past.)
That’s the “pixie” part, but what is more important is the mania. Ocasio-Cortez’s exaggerated mannerisms are by now well-known. She projects a kind of boundless nervous energy, an unbridled enthusiasm for even the most worn-out idea, an unshakable conviction that policies that have been tried (and failed) repeatedly would work if we just went a little bigger and believed a little harder. In this respect, her political model is not Trump—whose style is less “youthful enthusiasm” than “grandpa ranting on the Internet”—but Barack Obama. The whole appeal of Obama, the reason why he came out of nowhere to derail Hillary Clinton in 2008, was that he was able to convincingly act as if 20th-Century Big Government welfare-statism was an exciting new idea that had never been tried. He didn’t seem resigned to its failures, or at least to its unpopularity, in the way that the Clintons were.
Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has the same outlook, but on an even more grandiose scale. Obama was content to be a bit of a cautious politician and to let the far left project their most extravagant hopes onto him. Ocasio-Cortez goes out and explicitly endorses every item on their wish list. After all, the ultimate appeal of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl is the dream, the desire to be whisked away from normal life and infused with an outlook that seems more special and meaningful.
In film, the problem with the Manic Pixie Dream Girl is that if she is the girl who never grows up, then the boy who falls for her is also excused from growing up. He uses her infusion of enthusiasm to lift himself temporarily out of his funk, but he doesn’t learn to do it on his own power by actually confronting and solving his problems. The Democrats are succumbing to this same arrested development. Take their reaction to Obamacare. It has proven to be such a disaster in implementation that Democrats are now campaigning against Obamacare as the corrupt status quo. But having learned nothing, they are merely doubling down on the same ideas and pushing Medicare for All, for which purpose they have latched onto yet another enthusiastic young “idealist” to give them a fresh injection of enthusiasm.
Nathan Rabin later confessed that his identification of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl had gotten out of control, becoming a derogatory catchall for any quirky, free-spirited female character, in which capacity it has become yet another tool for the wokescold art critic to suck all the fun out of life. But there was a valid point to it in the beginning. The Manic Pixie Dream Girl could be a lazy cliché, a way to create a fantasy character built to serve a plot point without having to write her as a realistic, substantive, fully developed character.
You can see this problem with Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. As with the onscreen trope, she might seem refreshingly vibrant on the first encounter—but over time she ends up seeming like a mere vehicle for reinforcing an unrealistic plot line: the delusional conviction that we can do everything and have everything, immediately and at no cost. A substantive character trying to actually accomplish something might feel the need to fortify herself with knowledge of politics, economics, and, say, civil engineering. But the political Manic Pixie Dream Girl, who exists only to be a whimsical cheerleader for an agenda, does not. Hence the botched launch of the Green New Deal; the decision to come out with a proposal for a vast national high-speed rail network a week before California announced that it’s scrapping the idea; the failure to grasp basic aspects of how government works; the embarrassingly vague hand-waving and evasions in response to the simplest questions about how she’s going to pay for anything; the whining about the unfairness of straightforward fact-checking; the insistence that she is morally right for being factually incorrect.
If this Manic Pixie Dream Girl seems like she’s long on quirky enthusiasm and short on substance, as if she seems to exist only to perk up the long faces of sad sack “Progressive” activists—well, I am afraid there are no screenwriters to blame for that. The only author of her character is Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez herself, and its superficiality is nobody’s fault but her own.