You all know the story: Intelligent Boy-Man has talent but no direction. Intelligent Boy-Man has either no relationship or meaningless ones. Along comes the Quirky Girl. She’s Different. She’s an Individual (you can tell by her blunt bangs/blunt manners). She’s Damaged, but that’s okay, because she Just Might Be What His Life Needs, either indefinitely (a la Sam in Garden State) or just until Boy-Man learns what he needs to learn to become a full-fledged Man (a la Summer in (500) Days of Summer). The Quirky Girl throws Boy-Man a curve ball, spins his world around, and goes swimming in her clothes. And once a Boy-Man meets a Quirky Girl, his life will never be the same.
Ew. Gag me with a spoon.
There was a time (read: before I had any normal adult relationships) when I too found this kind of story appealing. I’m kind of a quirky girl, I thought to myself, I’m no femme fatale but I’m interesting and honest and loving and according to the movies, guys really dig that! In fact, it was once a commonly expressed opinion that the kind of girl worthwhile guys were really looking for was a girl like Natalie Portman’s character Sam from the Zach Braff film Garden State. I used to think it was because she was unpretentious and down to earth, but I noticed that this verbally expressed desire for an authentic lady in hoodies and sneakers didn’t really play out in real life, and these sorts of “Quirky Girl” portrayals have bothered me ever since.
In fact, it wasn’t until watching the 2012 film Ruby Sparks that I was really able to put my finger on why the Quirky Girl motif is so off-putting: it’s just another male fantasy (albeit a less large-breasted one), and Ruby Sparks writer and actress Zoe Kazan not only reveals this Quirky Girl fantasy for what it is, but makes the issue of the Quirky Girl as a male tool/accessory the focal point of the film.
The plot of Ruby Sparks revolves around Intelligent Boy-Man Calvin Weir-Fields (deftly portrayed by Paul Dano, who you might recognize as the silent brother from Little Miss Sunshine). Ten years after penning a best-selling novel at the age of 19, Calvin is stuck. His only major relationship ended in heartache, he has no friends, and has not been able to write anything significant since his breakout success. He’s crushed by others’ perception of his genius, and is terrified of social interaction. In a fit of inspiration, he begins to write a story about a girl he saw in a dream, a Quirky Girl named Ruby Sparks (Zoe Kazan) who opens up his world and loves him just as he is. The more he writes, the more he falls in love with his creation and the more he wants to spend time with her. One morning, Ruby strolls out of his kitchen and Calvin realizes that he has somehow made a real-life woman materialize from his mind; what’s more, so long as he continues writing his story he has the power to change her whenever he doesn’t like the person he has created. The ethics and responsibilities surrounding this kind of fantastical relationship are explored with significant and often uncomfortable implications.
What I find so effective about Kazan’s script is the way that she doesn’t need to go out of her way to point out that the Quirky Girl motif is a male fantasy–her Quirky Girl is a fantasy, pure and simple. What is interesting is how this fantasy plays out in “real life”, and how the male creators of this fantasy react when their ideal begins to examine her partner critically and attempt to make decisions about her life apart from him.
After watching Ruby Sparks, it is interesting to go back to those popular Quirky Girl films and take another look. Is the Quirky Girl really as independent as she appears? Whose interests does her existence in the story serve? Is she really a brand new kind of “strong” female character, or is she just another tired old female trope in bright new tights?
Though the film Garden State will always occupy a special place in my heart as a bildungsroman and a labour of love (two kinds of art I always enjoy) with a pretty wicked soundtrack, it must be said that the oh-so-special female character Sam is not really as strongly written as Zach Braff had probably hoped. Far from being a flesh-and-blood girl that could really exist in real life, Sam is merely a collection of odd-ball character traits wrapped in a super-cute face and body. Her character is a tool to facilitate the growth of the film’s hero, the emotionally-stunted Andrew Largeman (Braff), and she loves him without question, and without any goals of her own.
Zooey Deschanel’s character Summer in (500) Days of Summer is the dark side of the Quirky Girl. Far from being readily available to Tom (played by the always lovely Joseph Gordon-Levitt), Summer is aloof and abrasive, but no more human than the acquiescent Sam. Her character’s disconnect from her family means she is in a better position to focus the majority of her emotional energy on her romantic relationship, if only Tom can convince her he is worth it. When he does not win, Tom is forced to undergo major changes towards a more fulfilling life, and Summer is able to retain her status for him as the One That Got Away, imperfect perhaps but still idealized as well.
So on the one side we have Sam, celebrated because she’s a great sidekick, a cute and feisty little thing who channels everything that she has and is into loving the male hero and facilitating his growth. On the other side we have Summer, celebrated because she is aloof and unattainable–she gives nothing of herself except what is required to force the male hero to struggle and so facilitates his growth. These Quirky Girls are presented in very different packages, but deep down they are two sides of the same coin (heads Always Available, tails Forever Unattainable), and that coin is firmly and forever in the pocket of male fantasy.
Ruby Sparks comes right up the middle and ironically, though she is Calvin’s fantasy, she is, in the end, the most human. Once Calvin decides it is acceptable to control her (because she’s his, he made her), you realize how flawed the male fantasy of the Quirky Girl really is–whimsy and joie de vivre is all well in good if it’s directed towards being sexy-cute and taking your Boy-Man on quirky adventures, but what about what you want outside of your relationship? Is is important? Is it valued as equal to the desires of the Boy-Man, or are your interests/passions/loves only acceptable if they facilitate the improvement of his life in some way? Though Kazan’s script is kind and offers Calvin an opportunity for redemption, his intense conceit and selfishness is first exposed and his true feelings and impulses surrounding the girl he “loves” are scrutinized.
It would be refreshing, I think, for future Quirky Girl films to examine their motives in a similar fashion, because I’m fairly tired of watching Boy-Men chase Quirky Girls that can’t possibly exist. I’d rather watch them chase unicorns; at least I’d find it less insulting.