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Presenter draws connection from manic pixie dream girl trope to violence against women with mental illness

Kyli Rodriguez-Cayro, a mental health educator, sex worker activist and writer for Bustle gives a speech to students about the manic pixie dream girl at Westminster College on Feb. 18. The manic pixie dream girl trope, prevalent in contemporary movies, is part of the history of violence against women with mental illness, according to Rodriguez-Cayro. (Photo by Alex Catmull)

She’s whimsical. She’s captivating. She’s completely attached, completely aloof, dissociative, hyper-sexual, manic, impulsive, charismatic and eccentric. She is the manic pixie dream girl.

The common trope and its detrimental effect on the real mentally ill women it embodies was the subject in Kyli Rodriguez-Cayro’s speech at Westminster College on Monday.

The term manic pixie dream girl was coined in 2005 by film critic Nathan Rabin, to describe female characters who exist solely in the minds of sensitive male writers and directors, to teach brooding, soulful young men to embrace life and all its mysteries and adventures. Many of the traits associated with the character trope are derived from mental illnesses, including borderline personality disorder and bipolar disorder, according to Rodriguez-Cayro.

“Looking at the manic pixie dream girl, I think a lot of people can see the harm that it does because it’s obviously sexist, but looking beyond that it’s an act of violence,” said Rodriguez-Cayro, a mental health educator, sex work activist and writer for Bustle.

Rodriguez-Cayro’s presentation traced violence against mentally ill women back through history.

Hysteria has been documented since ancient Greece and Egypt and was considered to be a sickness of reproductive organs.

Jean-Martin Charcot, the founder of modern neurology, shifted the narrative and started to see the issue as neurological. He created treatments that usually had to do with sexually assaulting women, according to Rodriguez-Cayro.

Fast forward to today, mentally ill women are seen as hyper-sexual by many including the president, and the majority of these women are silenced, because they are mentally ill, Rodriguez-Cayro said.

Rodriguez-Cayro connected this to her own experience as a mentally ill woman.

“What I found from my lived experience is that my disorders were often exploited,” Rodriguez-Cayro said. “So, I wasn’t allowed to have a sexuality outside of my relationships, or when my mental illnesses became more severe […] I became so disposable.”

Rodriguez-Cayro also discussed the violence mentally ill women face today.

At least 40 percent of women with a severe mental illness will be sexually assaulted at least once in their life Rodriguez-Cayro said. Also, 51 to 97 percent of women with a severe mental illness reported being victimized at least once in their lifetime.

“[This has] long term consequences,” Rodriguez-Cayro said. ‘“A lot of mentally ill women who are abused or who are victimized won’t disclose in the future when seeking treatment. They will refuse treatment. They’re more likely to be victimized again, […] and survivors of sexual violence won’t seek out regular reproductive health care, so it’s not just mental health care, almost every area of your health, and of your wellbeing is jeopardized.”

Audience member Shay Hudson said the manic pixie dream girl trope is so popular because the characters are “great to watch without thinking about [it] critically.”

Jess Hallenborg, a senior English major, said that women are often silenced in film because narratives are controlled by men.

“I think it’s about power, and who had the responsibility and the choice of the option to write and be visible and be seen in society,” Hallenborg said.

A more critical discussion about the trope is silenced because it’s uncomfortable to talk about, said Xavier Albin, a senior psychology major.

“Mental illness is already stigmatized […] but the idea that women themselves […] can have mental issues is just an unfathomable idea since we’re taught that women are basically almost perfect in every way until it’s inconvenient for us,” said Albin.

Rodriguez-Cayro said one way to fight the trope is to have the conversation.

“It begins with talking about it,” Rodriguez-Cayro said. “It begins with ending mental health stigma and also supporting mentally ill women and femmes in art, literature, advocacy, and film.”      

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Alex Catmull
Alex is a junior communication major who is currently trying to survive college. She loves superheroes, hanging out with her friends and pasta. When not at school, she can be found curled up with her cat watching TV.

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