Posted by S.E. Sinkhorn | Tuesday, October 1, 2013
Ruby Sparks this weekend. It's been on my "to watch" list for a long time because I love exploration of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl trope, and this film was supposed to be an excellent deconstruction of the idea. The bulk of the plot felt like a very accurate picture of why MPDGs are problematic, with the climax building to an emotional and frightening fever pitch. Sadly, I felt really let down by the denouement, which I want to explore in more detail. Overall, however, the film does what it sets out to do: literally create a young woman, make her real, and portray the fallout of her creator's realization that she's a person, not a fantasy.
Note: I'm going to be critiquing this film in detail, including major plot points, the film's climax, and its ending. If you haven't seen it yet and would like to watch unspoiled, I'd recommend doing so before reading this post.
Elevator Pitch of the film from IMDB: A novelist struggling with writer's block finds romance in a most unusual way: by creating a female character he thinks will love him, then willing her into existence.
We're immediately introduced to Calvin Weir-Fields, our film's protagonist. He's a reclusive novelist who wrote what could potentially be the next Great American Classic when he was a teenager. Fast-forward to a decade later, where Calvin is still suffering from writer's block while trying to write his sophomore novel. He doesn't enjoy social gatherings, owns a male dog that "pees like a girl" (film's choice of words, not mine), laments about his ex-girlfriend (a "heartless slut" who left him weeks after his father died), and is seeing a therapist about his writer's block and social anxiety. He expresses his frustration with Scotty (his dog), who is frightened of people. His therapist gives him an assignment -- write one page about a person who loves Scotty just as he is.
Calvin dreams of a girl. She's friendly, witty, straightforward, and an artist with no formal training. She meets Calvin and Scotty in a park, drops some adorably charming truth bombs on Calvin, then says she likes Scotty "just the way he is."
Eureka! Calvin's block is broken. He churns out page after page about this girl. He names her Ruby Sparks. It's a classic Manic Pixie Dream Girl construction. She's sexual, wise (in a cute way, not a threatening way), uninhibited, dresses in bright colors, and is immersed in living life. Most importantly of all, she loves Calvin. We're not sure why, exactly. She just does. Wholly and unabashedly.
In another classic "I have no idea how to write women" move, Calvin gives her a backstory of dropping out of high school after sleeping with her art teacher (or maybe Spanish teacher... he hasn't decided yet). This is supposed to make her worldly and sexual, when in reality it's very predatory behavior on the part of the men. But the fetishization of the teen Lolita is nothing new. Ruby is now a 26-year-old free spirit who only dates alcoholics and old men and assholes... until she meets Calvin.
Eventually Calvin reaches a point where he's willing to share his partially-completed manuscript with his brother, Harry. In an all-too-familiar-for-any-writer scene, he sits with bated breath, waiting for Harry to finish and give his thoughts. And Harry says something that cuts to the core of the MPDG issue: "Quirky, messy women whose problems only make them endearing aren't real." and "You haven't written a person. You've written a girl."
Calvin naturally brushes this off and proceeds to continue shaping Ruby. And then, one day, he wakes up to find Ruby has manifested in his kitchen in nothing but her underwear and one of his shirts. After a brief episode where Calvin is convinced he's had a mental break and is hallucinating, he discovers that Ruby is, in fact, real. Other people can see her and interact with her. His creation has come to life, and she's his girlfriend.
Next come several scenes that could easily be from any film featuring a MPDG. They take shots at a zombie movie, dance wildly in a club, eat incredible food... all of the things reclusive Calvin would never do on his own. Ruby is bringing him out of his shell and showing him the world... except not really. Calvin doesn't truly change, and Ruby never leaves his side. He keeps her at home, where she cooks and has sex with him. She has no life outside of him, especially since he insists she doesn't have to work because he'll "provide" for her.
Eventually Calvin calls Harry, who meets Ruby and immediately proposes an experiment: now that Ruby's here, can Calvin still shape her? After returning to the manuscript and typing that Ruby speaks French, she immediately begins chatting away fluently. This naturally leads the men to think of all the possibilities. Change anything you don't like instantly! Give her bigger tits! Make her give blowjobs all the time! (To which Calvin responds, "Ruby LOVES giving blowjobs," implying that he wrote her that way, which is a pretty clear wish-fulfillment fantasy).
In the end, Calvin says he's never going to write another word about her. Ruby is exactly what he wants, and he is such a supposedly noble and good man that he wouldn't dream of trying to change her now that she's real.
You can probably guess that it's around here that the film takes a turn, and there's a very clear reason why: Ruby begins developing agency. She starts having wants and needs of her own, and Calvin doesn't like it at all.
It starts small: Ruby wants to meet Calvin's mother. After spending more time with other people in Calvin's life, there's a sort of break in her. The honeymoon period of their relationship has ended, and all of her oh-so-adorable quirks begin to annoy Calvin. Ruby becomes sullen and withdrawn because she has no support system or relationships outside of Calvin. When you make yourself the sun of someone's entire world and then you devalue them, things begin to collapse.
Ruby tells Calvin she's lonely. "You don't have any friends," she says.
"I have you," he says. "I don't need anyone else."
"That's a lot of pressure," she says.
It's here that we really see the imbalance and abuse inherent in their relationship. It's insidious, because Calvin is painted as someone who isn't violent; someone who just wanted to be happy. He's a "nice guy." As our hero, he deserves adoration and happiness. When Ruby tells him she needs space, that she wants to take art classes and spend one night a week at her apartment, he agrees. But even as he says okay, the audience knows that it's not okay. He doesn't want her to have anyone else. He wants her in his kitchen, in his bed, painting her quirky paintings and being emotionally and sexually available at his behest. It's a pretty classic abuser MO -- sever or prevent outside relationships.
Ruby grows distant. When she decides to stay out for a drink with some friends instead of coming home to Calvin, he reaches a breaking point, pulls out the manuscript he said he'd never write again, and adds a single line: "Ruby was miserable without Calvin."
This action leads to the film's rush to its inevitable climax. In one swipe, Ruby's agency is revoked and she's reduced to a clingy mess who is literally incapable of functioning without Calvin. If he leaves her for even a moment, she becomes so emotionally distraught that she's essentially paralyzed. In answer, Calvin writes that she's full of effervescent joy, which fills her with a kind of childlike mania. When he tries to balance it by writing that she feels whatever she feels, happy or sad, she sinks back into depression, not knowing what to do with herself outside the context of Calvin.
After talking her into attending a party, Calvin leaves her listless and alone while he mingles. He runs into his ex-girlfriend, the "heartless slut," who talks with him and gives more insight into the fact that this is not the first woman Calvin has applied his unrealistic standards to. "The only person you were ever in a relationship with was you," she says.
Meanwhile, Ruby meets an older writer friend of Calvin's and, much as she's been written to do, feels attracted to the attention he pays her. When the man asks her what she does, she says "nothing" in all honesty. When Calvin finds her stripped to her underwear and about to go skinny dipping with this man, his reaction is chilling.
The couple speed home, Calvin driving angrily and recklessly. Once they're home, he yells at Ruby, telling her that 1) she's not supposed to fuck other men, and 2) she's not supposed to let other men think about fucking her. When she accurately points out that he's saying she's responsible for how other people think of her, he rails that when she acts a certain way, she's inviting it. "When you act like a slut..." It's very familiar victim-blaming behavior; especially disturbing given the fact that Calvin wrote her this way -- uninhibited, sexual, attracted to older men. She cries, clearly upset, and says, "You don't get to decide what I do."
And Calvin, with cold, vindictive anger, says, "Wanna bet?"
From here, we're propelled into a climax that felt very much like a horror film to me, personally. Calvin sits at his typewriter, ignoring Ruby as she enters the room with an overnight bag and says she's staying somewhere else for the night. He types away, then glares at her. She rolls her eyes and tries to leave... only to bounce against thin air in the doorway. She's confused and asks what's happening. Calvin doesn't respond. She tries again, and again hits an invisible wall.
As she grows more and more upset, Calvin finally drops the bomb: she's his creation, and he can make her do anything he wants. She denies this, angry that he's writing about her, saying it's private. In answer, he makes her speak French again, then snap her fingers, then sing and striptease. She becomes panicked, but he doesn't stop.
In what was perhaps the most frightening scene in the film for me, he literally dehumanizes her by forcing her onto all fours to act like a dog, barking. She backs against the wall, snarling and growling at him. The scene continues to crescendo, with her rolling across the wall repeating, "I love you, I'll never leave you," and then leaping into the air and screaming, "You're a genius, you're a genius" until her voice begins to break while Calvin beats his fists against his desk, reveling in his power. At last, he releases her and she collapses to the floor.
To me, this was a stark portrait of abuse and misogyny. What misogynist hasn't wished he could force a woman to do whatever he wants without consequence? That he could debase her and knock her down when she displeased him? Who felt he was owed affection, adoration, sex? Who grows angry and possessive when his "property" displays interests and relationships that don't revolve around him? The images of Ruby being physically unable to leave, unable to control her own body, are darkly reminiscent of abuse on every level.
This was ultimately a portrayal of one man's complete refusal to allow his partner to have true agency. His partners are not allowed to truly be angry, or sad, or unhappy. It happened with his previous girlfriend, who was a "heartless slut" for leaving him after five years of feeling alone and barely put up with, and it happened with Ruby, who he literally created to be a puppet for his wants. He didn't want a relationship. He wanted assisted masturbation with a side of ego-stroking.
And it was after this intense and disturbing climax, which I felt was excellently done, that I thought the film lost its way.
After Ruby is released from Calvin's clutches, she runs and locks herself in their bedroom, sobbing. Calvin has a sudden change of heart and writes that once Ruby leaves their home, she will be "free." He places the manuscript outside the door for her to read, then falls asleep downstairs. When he comes back, he finds that she has packed her things and fled, unsurprisingly. Instead of facing what he's done wrong or accepting this, he curls on the ground in tears, sobbing that she's "left" him, and it's clear that he never intended to free her at all. He expected her to be released from all the horrible things he'd done... and then turn right around and come back.
Worse yet, the film sets the audience up to feel this way, as well. His brother supports him, telling him that he can tell the story of his "broken heart." He finally writes his second novel, titled The Girlfriend, where he tells the story of his "great love." The book goes to print, and he's shown reading from it in front of an absurdly packed bookstore crowd, who are clearly hanging on his every word. He smiles softly, nodding and feeling the bittersweet cocktail of success and heartbreak.
And then, while he's walking Scotty, he runs into a young woman. It's Ruby, but she has no memory of him. She's reading his book (of course) and asks if they've met before. Calvin says, "I don't think so." He joins her on her blanket, where they both smile. We fade to black, assuming that they will rekindle their relationship and Calvin will get another chance at his "great love." Ruby came back, after all.
This, to me, was the film's biggest failing. It painted this portrait of how wrong it is to expect someone to be a concept instead of a person, to treat a human being as your property, to strip someone of their agency and force them to do things against their will. Calvin acted as an abuser, arguably even a rapist. In the end, however, Calvin has a tiny moment of the barest shred of human decency in releasing Ruby, and he is rewarded for that above and beyond imagining.
His pain and suffering is framed as more important than Ruby's. He abused and literally dehumanized her, but his heart is just so broken! He controlled every aspect of her personhood and forced her to be emotionally tied to him when she didn't want to be, but he was just so sad when she left. She had to deal with the pain and betrayal and fallout of being created to be someone's sex toy, but he's the one who writes a "brilliant" book and profits from her story. Best of all, she gets to return to her abuser without even being equipped with the memories of her abuse.
I just don't believe for a moment that a man with a clear history of control, emotional manipulation, referring to women who displease him as "sluts," and various other large and small instances of misogyny is going to be different now. Abusers do not just have some teensy spark of clarity and change their ways. Ruby is about to be trapped in the same relationship she was able to escape.
It would have been nice if upon Ruby's escape, the viewpoint changed. If we were able to see that she's now in control of her own story, and her agency has been restored in full. It would have been cathartic to see her walk away and never return. To have the opportunity to become the full person she was never allowed to be under Calvin's wing. I wanted some acknowledgement that Calvin's behavior was abusive, not loving. But alas, it was not meant to be.
Ultimately, this was a film that was worth watching if you're interested in seeing exactly why the concept of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl is so flawed. I would have preferred it if the focus didn't remain on the typical tortured-but-bland male protagonist and went further outside the box to make it the MPDG's story, but the exploration of the tropes does make interesting food for thought. It may be triggering for those sensitive to depictions of abusive relationships.
If you made it all the way to the end of this essay, I commend and thank you! Have you seen Ruby Sparks? What did you think?