We all know the Manic Pixie Dream Girl of the contemporary romantic film. She’s that off-beat, mysterious one, that free thinker who enables the male hero to shake off the shackles of his dull, suburban life… and though she may seem carefree, she’s a problematic figure, defined and delineated by her relationship to a male protagonist.
In “Magical Woman”, an art exhibition curated by Aisyah Aaqil Sumito and Sophie Nixon, she’s being utilised differently, however. A platform for six emerging female and non-binary artists to explore representations of romance in film and popular culture, “Magical Woman” invites artists to use the Manic Pixie Dream Girl trope as a starting point to produce a new body of work, while taking into consideration the intersections of racism, misogyny, queer exclusion and trans exclusion. Nina Levy spoke to Sumito and Nixon to find out more.
Nina Levy: I think most of us are familiar with the concept of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl (MPDG) but can you talk about who the MPDG is and what she represents?
Sophie Nixon: The Manic Pixie Dream Girl is a colourful and quirky character who exists to uplift, enrich and fulfil the
lives of white-male protagonists. Think of films like 500 days of Summer, Scott Pilgrim vs The World, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. If you pay enough attention you may catch these women encouraging the male protagonist to try new things and step outside of his comfort zone.
Manic Pixie Dream Girls are characterised as having bubbly and eclectic exteriors, often partnered with underlying poor mental health; this is often romanticised as being part of their “quirk” to add seeming depth, mystery and intrigue to the character – a plot device in the central character’s narrative.
Aisyah Aaqil Sumito: Referring back to what Sophie said about encouraging centralised male characters to “live”… these characters are infantilised by their inability to communicate their feelings, how they act, and what they enjoy – while simultaneously being granted the emotional capacity to teach these men how to live their lives (almost like mothering). It’s a harmful and unrealistic representation of women that is very ingrained in our ways of seeing things. In more simple terms, it affects the way that we interact, and the warped standards that women and non-binary folk hold ourselves to – even if we don’t fit into the mould of a trope that applies to a very specific demographic.
NL: What made you decide to take the Manic Pixie Dream Girl as the starting point for this exhibition?
AAS: “Magical Woman” began as a means to vent about frustrations and representations of women in media. Initially we were only planning to respond to Manic Pixie Dream Girl trope itself – a small, spunky project that we would use to rock the boat. The longer we looked for a venue, the more time I had to actually think about this particular trope and how transgressive critiquing it would actually be, and how beneficial it would be for the artists. The Manic Pixie Dream Girl is a trope that only applies to white cisgender women. With that considered, I wanted to encourage the artists to go a bit deeper than the trope itself, critically engaging with intersections of racism, misogyny, trans exclusion, and queer exclusion, regardless of what kind of work they decided they would make. For me it’s really important that it is distinguished as a starting point, and that our exhibition is a small contribution to an ever-expanding conversation.
NL: You’re co-curating “Magical Woman” – how did you meet? And what made you decide to work together?
AAS: Sophie and I met around February 2017, for an exhibition that I curated alongside Olivia Tartaglia at City Arts Space for Propel Youth Art’s 2017 KickstART Festival “KickstARTISTS: Symbiosis”. Beyond the work we do as artists and as curators, we are good friends. Working together to embody discussions we have on a regular basis, in the form of a curated exhibition, was really beneficial and a huge learning curve for both of us.
SN: Outside of “Magical Woman”, I’m working to complete my honours in Fine Art at Curtin University and hustling odd-jobs. As Aisyah mentioned, we met within the happenings of the “Symbiosis exhibition”. I was a participating artist in mentorship with Jess Day, and Aisyah was co-curator with Olivia Tartaglia in a skillshare/mentorship context. Shortly after that, I produced work for another show that Aisyah curated alongside Claire Bushby. I remember being so in awe (still am to be honest) of Aisyah, their dedication, professionalism and how they carried themselves as a curator. For both of us, this is our first time curating independently (outside the program of a mentorship/institution). Knowing Aisyah and I were in this together made the process of applying for shows and grants so much easier, I don’t know if I would have had the same amount of courage, ambition and motivation if they weren’t there.
NL: You’re both emerging curators as well as visual artists… what draws you to curating? What are the challenges/rewards of being a curator?
AAS: My first curatorial project was “KickstARTISTS: Symbiosis”, since then I’ve curated “Borders and Transitions” (in mentorship with Claire Bushby) and “The Corsini Collection: Revisited” (in mentorship with Dunja Rmandić), all of which have been hugely rewarding learning experiences. Before I took on these projects, I was really interested in the role of the curator, and how that role fostered growth for emerging artists in a gallery context. It was something I started thinking about when I visited my first Paper Mountain exhibition “Stay/Keep” (2014), curated by Melissa McGrath.
I find working with artists, pushing their conceptual development, as well as their capacity to do and be better (despite inevitably recurring moments of doubt) incredibly rewarding. For the most part, balancing unpaid administrative labour within my curatorial practice, and setting my boundaries so that I don’t burn out from overwork, have been the most challenging aspects of curating. “Magical Woman” is the first show I have co-curated beyond a mentorship context, which is both nerve-wracking and exciting.
SN: During the last year (2016) of my Bachelor of Fine Art at Curtin, I was the student coordinator of the graduate showcase exhibition, which included organising several fundraising exhibitions. This experience gave me a taste for arts management and curating. After that I completed an internship at PSAS in Fremantle under the wing of their director Tom Mùller, which saw me curate an exhibition of their studio artists.
When it comes to the opening night I usually have this moment of stillness where I really take it in: reflecting on where it started and seeing a show in its resolution. It’s a very wholesome feeling. I think that’s what drives me to keep curating. One of the most challenging things about curating for me personally is managing my time between curatorial duties and honours research.
Pictured top: Artwork courtesy of Natsumi de Dianous. Work details: “Slime fantasy grrl”, 2018, Clay, acrylic, clear slime and temporary tattoo.