by Sonal M.
In 2007, Nathan Rubin coined the phrase Manic Pixie Dream Girl, to describe a female character who “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.” This manic pixie dream girl (“MPDG”) is essentially the embodiment of the notion of carpe diem, who dances without music and makes heads turn, who enchants a tortured man with her joie-de-vivre – and who inevitably leaves the story, as exactly who she was to begin with.
The trope is problematic, in that it idealizes an archetypal female character whose sole purpose in a story is to improve the male character’s life and worldview. It’s also one that has comfortably settled in the home of the romantic comedy genre for years, and the dizi world has been no exception.
Several dizis like Aşk Laftan Anlamaz, Kiralık Aşk, and most recently Sen Çal Kapimi, have employed the sunshine-girl-meets-reserved-man formula with great success. And while these shows have been enjoyable as pure entertainment, they have been characterized by a discernible pattern of strong, free-willed leading ladies who eventually assume the role of a side character in their own story.
Looking back at popular MPDGs in Diziland
The character of Defne in Kiralık Aşk, a show which has achieved near-cult status in the workplace rom-com genre, also subtly but surely follows this formula. Defne starts off as a fiery woman who is trying to make her own path, but is soon reduced to a glorified sounding board for Ömer’s problems. Defne is ambitious, but only so long as Ömer is comfortable with it; she flourishes when she is with him, and abandons all hope of happiness when he leaves her; nearly everything about her from her appearance to her profession seems tailored to Ömer’s preferences, but that phenomenon is not reciprocated.
While undeniably charming and visually appealing, Defne and Ömer’s relationship revolved around the idea of her completing him by becoming his family. This comes across in the unbalanced treatment of their individual struggles by the writers. A plotline about Defne being abandoned by her mother as a child is casually tossed aside in half an episode, while Omer’s struggles with the loss of his mother form a major catalyst for several storylines on the show. Ömer regularly dictates Defne’s professional and personal relationships, and it is normalized as ‘love’.
Even Sen Çal Kapimi, which proudly started off as a story of Eda’s path to achieving her dreams and finding love along the way, gave her struggles and problems hardly any screen-time. In truth, the show has always been focused on Serkan’s growth from a grumpy, unhappy man into one who lives and loves openly – and Eda is the perfect, forgiving, sensitive fairy girl who guides him along that journey.
But while Serkan undergoes traumas and transformations galore, Eda remains, at the end of 47 episodes, the same character we were introduced to in the pilot. The most important storylines about her development – separating from Serkan, graduation, having a child – are relegated to flashbacks or not shown at all. But through it all, the viewers are reminded time and again that Eda taught Serkan how to live. Sounds familiar, right?
Why Is This An Issue?
There’s nothing inherently wrong with cliches and tropes; the very reason they are used, and overused, is because they work. Most rom-coms may not be critically appreciated, they don’t sweep award shows, and they follow a broadly consistent formula – but they continue to capture the hearts of millions nevertheless. A good rom-com knows that its audience isn’t watching for originality or innovation, as much as for tropes well-executed.
The issue is, that fiction creates real life. For many girls, myself included, the perception of our femininity has been heavily informed by the kind of women we see in our books and on our television screens. When the most common portrayals of women are as the side characters or accessories to the hero’s journey of self-discovery, that influence can be damaging. It’s important to portray quirky, unusual women who are characterized by their unique worldview and talk to their plants – but it’s equally important to portray those women with all their complexities and flaws, and not as paragons of virtue. Some say that the MPDG is a result of men’s attempts to perceive and write women, but that may be an oversimplification – often, such characters are written by women too. Perhaps it is a result of social conditioning, or in response to the popularity of the trope, or both.
A New Trend
This year has been significant for the leading ladies of Diziland rom coms, with a number of summer dizis focusing on unusual, multi-layered female characters who have more to their personality than a desire to save their love interests from themselves. I’m well aware that there have been many such women in non-rom-com dizis, but it is refreshing to see a paradigm shift in a genre that is riddled with the curse of the MPDG.
This year’s rom-com season began with the announcement of Cam Tavanlar, a show about Leyla (Bensu Soral), a young professional who is trying to make it in a boardroom full of stuffy elderly men that think a woman belongs at home. It is intriguing that the first episode of Cam Tavanlar does not introduce us to its male lead until nearly halfway into the first episode, because it tells viewers that this story is not about him. Although the show has been cancelled prematurely, perhaps due to a slow-moving story line and under-developed characters, it tried to tell a different kind of fairy tale where patriarchy is the only villain and Leyla isn’t looking to save or be saved.
In Baş Belası, we meet Ipek (İrem Helvacıoğlu), a high-society woman who is rudely jolted out of her picture-perfect life due to the misdeeds of her husband. A psychologist by training and Stepford-esque housewife by choice, Ipek joins the police force in order to investigate her family’s troubles. She resembles Midge Maisel (The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel) in appearance and Phryne Fischer (lead character in a series of detective novels) in intelligence, and gradually earns the respect of her colleagues and family through her keen observation skills and emotional intelligence. What is most interesting, is that the chemistry between her and her love interest, lies in their ability to call out each other’s problematic behavior instead of romanticizing it.
Aşk Mantık İntikam, a remake of the Korean ‘Cunning Single Lady’, introduces us to Esra (Burcu Özberk), a woman who (shockingly) does not idealize romantic love. Shaped by her circumstances and the words of her mother, she views marriage as a practical decision for companionship and support, and not necessarily a culmination of passionate attraction. At the same time, we see Esra having poured her heart and soul into her marriage to Ozan and supporting the both of them financially, till the point where she could not take it anymore and asked for a divorce. It’s a refreshing change to see a woman who isn’t obsessed with traditional notions of love and romance, but expresses her commitment in different ways.
Perhaps the most surprisingly interesting female character out of this year’s summer dizis, is Ada (Cemre Baysel) from Baht Oyunu. Based on the promotional material, I assumed Baht Oyunu would be just another traditionally gendered rom-com about a girl whose sole aim in life seemed to be getting married to her first love, and who was paired off with her grumpy workaholic boss. I am grateful that I was proved so delightfully wrong.
On the surface, Ada has all the characteristics of an MPDG – she’s larger than life, loves the idea of love, and brings colour to Bora’s otherwise straight-laced world. But with every episode, Ada turns the tired MPDG trope on its head. She may have started off obsessed with love and marriage, but her story isn’t about that – it’s about her journey to discover that her dignity is more valuable than her idea of love, and that her dreams are bigger than being the side character to her partner’s story. Ada is capable of blackmailing her boss just as well as caring for the stray kittens in her building, because she isn’t just an idea of a person that popped out of a fantasy-fuelled mold.
These four heroines, and many others that I couldn’t discuss in this article, are in some ways a feminist retelling of the manic pixie dream girl trope. These women embrace their feminine traits, but they are not damsels in distress; they are good people, but they have real flaws; they experience love but don’t solely aspire to it. Perhaps this trend is in response to the rising reportage on feminism and women’s issues in Turkey over the past few years, or perhaps just a gradual, organic death of the trope. It’s also a wonderful sign that all of these shows have at least one woman on their writing staff.
Either way, the writers of these shows have succeeded in reinventing a tried and tested romantic comedy formula, simply by making their leading ladies as interesting, meaty and nuanced as their men. Although it’s still early in the season, I’m hopeful that these characters will continue to tell stories as interesting and diverse as those of their real-life counterparts.
Article copyright (c) North America TEN & Sonal M./ @RigelB8la , twitter
All video clips and photos belong to their respective owners. No copyright infringement is intended. Please ask for permission before reprints. Please provide proper citations if referencing information in this article. Sources are linked in the article.
This is such an interesting essay! Very well-articulated. We do see romantic comedy dizi leads become side characters to the male characters’ journeys quite often. I was sad that Cam Tavanlar was cancelled so quickly because I loved the premise. I will definitely be thinking about other dizis with the lens of your piece and agree that I want to see well-rounded female characters who are protagonists in their own journey and partners with their love interests.
Sonal, thanks for this refreshing look at how the depiction of women within this trope is evolving. It is heartening to see that while MPDG’s retain their magical bright qualities, they are not just side characters. Instead of existing to prop up the arc of their male counterparts, they have inspired journeys of their own.
Thank you so much for your comment! This is exactly the thought I wanted to highlight while writing this piece 🙂
Thank you Sonal, I realized by reading all the comments that this group wants to paint Turkish women with the western paintbrush of feminism.
Turkish women are very strong but they try not to sacrifice family values for individual feminism.
It is the east west divide. There is no meeting point as it is the individualistic society versus a family based society where interpersonal relationships are honored and taken into account in all walks of life.
Just a different culture nothing to do with suppressed women.
Believe me Turkish women are strong they just don’t call it feminism and don’t strike out their families for personal growth most of the time everything is in perspective and balance which is the most beautiful aspect of Turkey.
You will see it in action if you ever go to the Karadeniz.
Sen Cal Kapimi failed with the Turkish people because it had very little to do with any of the cultures in Turkey it was a “ wannabe of FOX” wanting Turkey to be like the west.
I am enjoying how the women in this group instead of looking at a different culture with a refreshing outlook want to judge it by American behavior and values.
Thank you for letting me share an opinion of an expat.
Thanks for your comment Asma. I think we are speaking on two parallel tangents here. I have nowhere commented about the values or cultural beliefs of Turkish women. The argument is not for Turkish dizis to portray Western values or for Turkish women to adopt Western behaviour – it’s just for media to write female characters better. Whether they be homemakers, office-goers, mothers or single women, all women have full personalities replete with good qualities and grey ones, and this spectrum often goes unrepresented in rom-coms, which tend to focus on the qualities in women that make them good love interests and nothing more. This is what I have criticised about the character of Eda in Sen Çal Kapımı as well. In fact, I would have the same critique of many Western rom-coms.
There are many Turkish dizis such as Hayat Şarkısı, Alev Alev and Sen Anlat Karadeniz (among the ones I have watched) which show very strong portrayals of women from different socio-cultural backgrounds, some more traditional and others more urbanized. It would be nice to see the same treatment extended to the heroines of the romantic comedy genre. In my humble opinion, this does not amount to advocating for a dilution or erosion of Turkish values, but merely for a more well-rounded representation of women.
I so appreciate this point of view. Let’s start with the fact that in Turkey there are more female screenwriters than in the USA! We have hope that they will continue to re-examine the roles of women in the dizi format. Your take on Kiralık Aşk is so interesting ( which by the way a woman writer for all 69 episodes). It is why I loved the second season more than season 1 because Dafne gets to shine on her own merits and intelligence. Don’t you just love the scene where she is at the business dinner and all the men sit at attention just listening to her in awe, and how at the end the businessmen ask if they can consult her from time to time. Season one was more about her fulfilling Omar’s dreams, but I still thought she was able to shine and grow. I could not get through the other two you mentioned so I can’t comment. But your insight is spot on that women in many of the stories are there to fulfill their men’s dreams. But I find the dizi so much more satisfying than the USA series because at least the women have prominent roles and often are multi-layered. I will be submitting an essay reviewing 5 dizi’s that feature women’s stories and the strengths in women’s friendships. I totally understand and agree with your premise that the rom-com format is not celebrating women’s strengths, but instead celebrates them getting their man. I am interested in your perspective as I watch the new ones you mention. Thank you for your insight and your feminist lens.
Thank you so much for your kind words! I too found it interesting that Kiralık Aşk was written by a woman. It’s the reason I felt the need to highlight that the MPDG may have started off as a man’s creation, but women also tend to write such characters because women internalise and propagate the perceptions they grow up with. Rom-coms traditionally aren’t known for celebrating much about women other than what attracts men to them, but that trend is changing and every conversation about it helps. At the end of the day, most of us aren’t watching rom-coms for pathbreaking feminism – but wanting to see more well-rounded female characters surely isn’t that radical! Would love to hear your thoughts on the new summer shows of this season too. There are many dizi dramas that feature very interesting women, and I look forward to reading your upcoming piece on the topic.
Wonderful review Sonal. Perfectly calls out how women, especially in romcoms, are subtly pushed to the supporting role while men’s issues always take center stage. And how the women are expected to supress their own aspirations and issues and even characters to the background to ‘save’ or ‘enhance’ the men. The new crop of summer dizis do show more ‘real’ women, which is a small step in retelling the women’s side of stories. Hope we continue to see further normalization of ‘imperfect’ women taking center stage.
Are we looking for fairy tales or realistic understanding of cultures without imposing our culture on them?
The reason Turkish Dizis are popular is because they touch on human emotions and give the entire gamut to be expressed.
Fox and Netflix obviously wants to modify that and make it a western copy of women being stripped and portrayed in sexually graphic scenes which is not the normal
Culture of Turkey that I witnessed .
Thank you for your comments.
Sonal’s article is interesting and why we chose to publish it is because it talks about the depth of a female character and how it has the potential to be more realistic, allowing deeper expressions of the many facets of a woman. It discusses how trends are evolving to make her a central character with her own hero’s journey instead of making her a derivative of the male protagonists’ complicated journey. I do not see any strain of male hatred; rather a nod to the Islamic value of treating males and females with similar importance.
There is no mention of Westernized values, and in this global world, entertainment does not need to become political. The four examples Sonal cites as well written, rounded characters, are a blend of upbringing and background, some representative of very traditional and conservative family values.
Urban areas in secular Turkey lead very different lives than in outer lying areas and entertainment naturally expands over time to give a voice to all factions in a culture. Within the changes, Turkish storytelling through dizis maintain the hallmark of portraying human emotions in relatable ways, particularly resonant with modest, Asian cultures.
Change in style is inevitable as the Arts community diversifies its artistic expression. Netflix is a different platform than the dizis and it is not really comparing apples to apples. This piece focuses purely on dizis on public TV without any linkage to channel policies. I understand you may be unhappy with the direction of recent dizis, but that is outside the scope of this discussion. If you have further comments, please direct them to me: email@example.com
Sincerely, -mh. Editor, North America TEN
Thank you so much! What you said about normalising the portrayal of imperfect women, is so important. Whenever a story is woman-centric, it is expected to be a social message on feminism. We need to let our fictional rom-com women be who they are and not who their men want them to be 🙂
Thank you for your feminist review bordering on male hatred.
In this review you do not see the muslim culture, ethics and gentleness and respect towards women in 90% of Turkey.
The heroine in Sencalkapimi has an illegitimate baby which doesn’t bat an eyelid which is totally a FOX invention NOT Turkish culture which is deeply steeped in the muslim culture of honoring families and the responsibility of men as fathers and husbands.
If the Turkish Dizis copy American soap opera values they will also become near porn shows which is why they have faded and become extinct from the market of watchers.
The international charm of the Turkish Dizis is their inherent muslim values of respecting women, elders chivalry and protecting children in general.
Reducing them to a feminist and LGBT stamp would take away the authenticity of their culture.
I sincerely hope they don’t bastardize their Dizis to become copies of western values because it is obvious by the popularity of the Turkish Dizis that the audience are looking for authenticity in human values not a revolution to impose western failed values on them.
Hi Asma, thanks for your comment.
I think you may have misconstrued some of the statements in my article. I was merely trying to highlight the need for more well-rounded characters of women in romantic comedies, not to advocate for the Westernization of dizis. I am Indian, and find the representations of family values in Turkish dizis much more close to my reality than those in American shows, for instance.
Women serve many roles in society – as homemakers, professionals, wives, mothers, partners, etc. – often simultaneously. And we deserve to have our stories told authentically, and not merely as the accessories in the growth of our love interests. I’m sure you would agree that having realistic representations of female characters, in all their facets, are important to all cultures and religions. That’s all I wanted to say 🙂
Have a good day!
Turkish person here and just writing this because I disagree with everything you said. This comment has nothing to do with this piece. It looks like you were just looking for an excuse to impose your views on everyone and let me tell you you missed the mark. Turkish dizis are not relevant because they impose muslim values, they are successful because they have good storytelling. Obviously we have values and we even have censorship to protect those values so no need for you judging a woman raising a child on her own if she has to. This type of narrow minded world view is not the Islam we believe in. This is a piece on how women are portrayed in dizis and not on how Islam can improve people’s life so take that propaganda elsewhere please. Not everything is about religion. Islam is about peace and respect and love. And your comment is none of that. It’s really not that hard to write comments respectfully. You might want to try it next time. May Allah open your eyes and help you find peace.
We have to accept cultures as they are not how the west wants them to be.
India is a great example, to graft a western feminist viewpoint on their culture is taking away the authenticity of the culture.