Ryan Gosling's character in La La Land is as dreamy as the movie itself. As Sebastian, a down-on-his-luck but oh-so-passionate jazz pianist determined to open his own club and save the music he loves, you could say that he reaches peak Gosling, that signature combination of aw-shucks sheepish smile and moody pensiveness. He's also funny — really funny — as he shepherds Emma Stone's Mia towards her dream of becoming an actress with heartfelt emotion. If this description sounds familiar, it's because you've seen it onscreen before. If you can't quite place it, try switching genders. Ryan Gosling is the male version of a Manic Pixie Dream Girl. The term, first used by Nathan Rabin to describe Kirsten Dunst's character in 2007's Elizabethtown, is defined as: "a fantasy figure 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." At its core, the term describes a fundamentally sexist trope (one Rabin actually regrets coining): Boy meets Girl. Girl Inspires Boy. Boy succeeds. Girl — who knows? The MPDG only exists to further the boy's ambition/dreams/goals/self-discovery. She has no inner life of her own; her endgame is tied up in his. The Manic Pixie Dream Boy isn't exactly new, either. Molly Lambert once described the phenomenon as one "who builds up the heroine’s self-confidence, providing comfort, inspiration, and nurturing vibes without demanding anything in return. He patiently tamps down her stubbornness and temper while appreciating her quirks, helping her to become her best possible self."
The main difference between the male and female versions of this trope is that men can have their own goals and ambitions.
Mia's meet-cutes with Seb provide a turning point for her so-far stagnant life. She's been puttering along in L.A. for six years, slogging through the painful auditions process and working at a cafe. Then, she meets Seb, and after two false starts, they fall in love. The relationship is ultimately doomed — wrong place, wrong time — but it provides a space for Mia to feel safe and challenged enough to write her first play and take a chance. When she flops, Seb — who, granted, has let her down a couple of times in pursuit of his music career — is there to give her some tough love. Even as their romantic commitment to each other falters, his belief in her ability to succeed remains. But the main difference between the male and female versions of this trope is that men can have their own goals and ambitions. They can be nuanced and driven, and succeed, even as they nurture their significant other. The Manic Pixie Dream Boy is a reverse-sexist trope, which under the guise of propping up women, actually gives more agency and goodwill to the man. Seb is both simultaneously deeply charming and supremely stubborn in his refusal to adapt to the world around him. He is holding on to the past so tightly that he can't innovate. He's a dreamer in the Old Hollywood sense of the term, but there's also something very millennial about the way he refuses to settle. And while he starts out as the failing artist of the relationship, by the end of the film he has achieved his goal: He owns a jazz club, and it's packed with young people enjoying the music. As a famous actress, Mia is more commercially successful, but part of the MPDB charm is that he's unconcerned with money. As Seb tells his sister when she tells him to get a job: “You say life's got me on the ropes? I want to be on the ropes.” You could say that Gosling himself is the ultimate expression of the MPDB. He's the nice guy — sensitive, good-looking but non-threatening. When Michael Fassbender breaks your heart, spits on it, and tramples it on the floor, Ryan Gosling will be there to pick it up and dust it off. Other MPDBs include Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Jake Gyllenhaal, and Andrew Garfield. It doesn't matter if they're not actually this way IRL — it's how we collectively choose to imagine them. The most important thing to remember about the MPDB is that he doesn't truly exist. He is pure fantasy. But at least in a movie about romantic idealists singing and dancing their way through Hollywood, it's a fantasy we can embrace.