Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Punk Rock Girls v. Manic Pixie Dream Girls

I was creating a playlist for my new running strategy (which is working!), and I stumbled upon a song I hadn't listened to in a long time: "Punk Rock Girl" by The Dead Milkmen.

I was three years old when "Punk Rock Girl" was released, so I am too young to have really experienced the punk rock movement. But it wasn't for lack of trying. My teenage angst, rural isolation, and publicly displayed family chaos managed to combine with my longstanding outcast status and manifested itself as a Warped Tour-loving, weird clothes-wearing misfit. 

Anyway, I (mostly) grew up, but I still hold a soft spot for that elusive image of the "punk rock girl." I started to think more about what this character represents, and I realized that she comes up in several songs that I listened to in my teen years:

The Dead Milkmen's "Punk Rock Girl" (obviously)

Something Corporate's "Punk Rock Princess"

Bowling for Soup's "Girl All the Bad Guy's Want"

So, as I just re-listened to these songs with my now grad-school trained, overly-analytical, have-to-ruin-every-piece-of-pop-culture-from-my-past ears, I wondered if that "Punk Rock Girl" was just another version of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl. 

This video from Bitch Magazine does a great job of breaking down the MPDG trope, but it's basically a female character (like Natalie Portman's from Garden State or Zooey Deschanel's from basically everything she does) who "exists to be the inspiration for the troubled, tortured man." The AV Club has a list of films portraying this trope. And this Jezebel article calls them the "scourge of modern cinema" claiming that "Anyone who telegraphs their so-called weirdness so outlandishly is not actually weird, they're merely quirky enough to be vaguely interesting without having their own thing going on." 

But what's so wrong with a guy liking a girl because of her quirkiness? Don't we all just want to be able to be ourselves and be loved for it. And--whether I like it or not--I like Natalie Portman's character, I like Zooey Deschanel (except for in The Happening; there was no excuse for that, Zooey). So, what's the problem? Well, Jamie Peck sums it up nicely in her sort-of defense of the MPDG. We can like the qualities and the meaning behind the trope of the MPDG (like uniqueness, and living life to its fullest):
"But at no point in time should you stop being the protagonist in your own story. The true crime of the MPDG is not her failure to adhere to social codes or function in capitalist society, but her lack of agency. She exists solely to help the male character actualize himself. The muse can’t keep any of her inspiration for herself, and that’s a damn shame, because I bet she could make something pretty cool if she tried."
The MPDG is a problem because she's not allowed to be a full person. She exists to further the story for the broody young man, and that man never appreciates her as a complex human being with her own story, problems, wants, and desires. She is a vehicle for him, and denied mobility for herself.

Is that all the Punk Rock Girl (PRG) is, too? (Say it isn't so!) Using the lyrics from these three songs, I decided to take a closer look.

There are definitely some problems:

  • The Male Gaze- In all of these songs, the "girl" in question is the subject of the male gaze, and the man has the power of speech. Even if the girl gets her name in the title, it is--at the end of the day--the man's song, and clearly his perspective.
  • Reduction to Quirks- Just like the MPDG, the PRG is frequently reduced to her quirks. She becomes the qualities that stand out about her. This is perhaps most clearly shown in the videos for the songs. For "Punk Rock Girl," we never clearly see the girl's face. We see glimpses of her blue mohawk, her boots jumping up and down on the restaurant table, pieces of her that the speaker is drawn to. Similarly, the girls in the video for "Punk Rock Princess" are highlighted for their jewelry and clothing choices. This is, ultimately, what makes them who they are. We also see this in the lyrics for the songs. 
    • From "Girl All the Bad Guys Want": There she goes again/With fishnets on, and dreadlocks in her hair/She broke my heart, I wanna be sedated/All I wanted was to see her naked! 
  • The Need to Fill a Void- For all of the male speakers, the PRG represents a potential answer to a void in their lives, just as the MPDG does. This is the biggest problem because, when a woman is reduced to "fixing" a man's life, she ceases to have agency in her own. If these PRG's only fill this role, then they are--indeed--no better than the MPDG. And it's clear that the male speakers want them to fill the role:
    • From "Punk Rock Princess": Maybe you could step inside/Maybe when I look for things that
      I can't replace/ I can't replace/I can't replace
    • From "Punk Rock Girl": One Saturday I took a walk to Zipperhead/I met a girl there/
      And she almost knocked me dead/Punk rock girl please look at me/Punk rock girl what do you see?/Let's travel round the world/Just you and me punk rock girl
    • From "Girl All the Bad Guys Want": And when she walks/ All the wind blows and the angels sing/ She doesn't notice me 
Things look bleak for the PRG, but I'm not done yet. See, there's the issue of tone in the songs. Two of these songs are pretty obviously meant to be humorous.

"Punk Rock Girl" takes many elements of "punk rock" identity and parodies them into absurdity:
We went to the Phillie Pizza Company/And ordered some hot tea/The waitress said "Well noWe only have it iced"/So we jumped up on the table/And shouted "anarchy"/And someone played a Beach Boys song/On the jukebox/It was "California Dreamin"/So we started screaming/"On such a winter's day" 
She took me to her parents/For a Sunday meal/Her father took one look at me/And he began to squeal/Punk rock girl it makes no sense/Punk rock girl your dad is the Vice President/Rich as the Duke of Earl/Yeah you're for me punk rock girl 
Screaming "anarchy" over tea? Rebelling against a successful father by dating a perceived loser? These are silly teenagers, and--even within the fictitious world of the song--that's apparent.

The same theme comes up in "Girl All the Bad Guys Want":
She likes the Godsmack and I like Agent Orange/Her cd changer's full of singers that are mad at their dad/She says she'd like to score some reefer and a forty/She'll never know that I'm the best that she'll never have 
And the absurdity of this rebellion-driven lust is doubly highlighted by the obvious parody in the video where the band mocks several other bands of the time for trying to be too (inauthentically) emotional with their music (a point the band will later reiterate with the release of their single "I'm Gay" and it's lyrics "Don't hate us cause we're happy/Don't hate us cause we make you smile")

That just leaves Something Corporate's "Punk Rock Princess," which seems to be a much more serious song. And it's in that seriousness that I find my reprieve:
I never thought you'd last/I never dream you would/You watch your life go past/You wonder if you should
If you should be my punk rock princess/So I could be your garage band king/You could tell me why you just don't fit in/And how you're gonna be something 
If I could be your first real heartache/I would do it over again/If you could be my punk rock princess/I would be your heroine
This song is more serious than the first two, but it also recognizes that the PRG is just a phase, a phase brought on by the frustration of seeking identity during adolescence. "You could tell me why you just don't fit in/And how you're gonna be something." 

This punk rock princess isn't some stagnant muse that exists to drag the speaker out of his own adolescent funk; she's in transition, on her way to becoming "something." And the speaker recognizes this. He doesn't expect her to remain his punk rock princess forever; he only asks for the chance to be her "first real heartache," a relationship that she can remember long after she's given up her fishnets and mohawks.

In the end, it is this more serious view of the PRG that informs the other two songs for me. All of these speakers know that they are seeing a woman in transition, a phase that can lead to growth. They're not going to be jumping on the table and screaming "anarchy" at 30. The wind doesn't actually blow and the angels don't actually sing when she walks in the room. These aren't songs asking a woman to remain forever trapped in a state of subservience to a male protagonist the way the MPDG is. No, these songs can be the answer to the MPDG problem. We can appreciate that mode of crazy, free falling, carelessness for what it is: transient.

These are songs appreciating the way that this brief phase of identity exploration can create a perfect bubble for a relationship built on freedom and belief in ourselves as unique--a bubble that will soon be burst by adulthood. If we're lucky, we can hang on to some of that magic as we move forward, telling our own stories, remembering those times.

Enjoy it, punk rock girls. You deserve it. 


  1. As a former PRG, I, of course, found this fascinating.

    I'd like to point out that few of us cared about being anyone's muse. Some of us were more interested in keeping up with the boys - being perceived as one of the boys and not being objectified as The Dead Milkmen wanted to do.

  2. My PRG phase was also very much about "keeping up with the boys." Most of my friends were male, and I often used my clothing/style/music/concert-going, etc. to demonstrate that I was just as tough as they were.