How Do You Solve a Problem like Maria?

By Lindsey Steer

This past semester, I got really into The Sound of Music…and I’m not ashamed to say it.

I was taking a film analysis class during the spring and noticed The Sound of Music on our syllabus for week number two. My professor introduced the film by saying, “You’re all probably wondering why we’re going to be analyzing The Sound of Music; it’s because when adjusted for inflation, The Sound of Music is the most successful film in cinematic history…and we need to know why.”

I live for this stuff.

Photo by Bruno Soares

It’s hard to take a film that has a pretty significant marionette and yodeling scene seriously, but The Sound of Music does matter—and the answer to why can be found in the first few minutes of the almost three-hour-long film.

Nope, I’m not talking about the “LOOK AT ALL THE FUCKS I GIVE” meme, I’m talking about the iconic moment in which Maria invites the viewer to engage in a fantasy of perfection that is instigated by her high-spirited characteristics and all-things-delightful archetype. I’m talking about the moment in which Maria uses her goodness to act as a transformative function that the viewer experiences simply as a result of her presence.

Maria is a very readable character; she is clever, inventive, and determined beyond her means.  She makes clothes out of drapes, teaches the children how to use a mimetic function, and can remove dirt stains from Leisl’s rain-soaked gown with barely a wisk. She emerges out of a secluded institution to make the world—or at least the von Trapps’ world—a better place. She is simply delightful as she floats through life like the snowflakes that stay on our nose and eyelashes.

Maria is an agent of change in The Sound of Music, one to which the Captain eventually adheres. Before this point, he not only encourages but also creates an industrial service lifestyle full of formation. He lives an emotionless existence until Maria provides new meaning to his life.  Through the agent of entertainment, Maria creates a family model that is embraced by all who participate in the viewing experience.

Throughout the history of cinema and storytelling audiences have absorbed characters with the same qualities in a way that has become culturally influential. In 2007, Nathan Rabin established the term “Manic Pixie Dream Girl” to describe this cinematic trope. Popular culture knows this trope as the pure, quirky, fun character that acts as an agent of change to lifelong happiness.

Rabin claims that the Manic Pixie Dream Girl exists without independent goals and solely for the male counterpart so that he may find fulfillment. It is difficult to say that this is completely true when using The Sound of Music’s Maria as an example, seeing that Maria is the film’s protagonist and that puts her into a unique position. However, there is perhaps some truth to the notion that she exists to help the von Trapp family achieve happiness and does not seem to have true goals beyond that. Yes, Maria thinks that she wants to become a nun, but the sisters of the abbey knowingly sense otherwise. As a protagonist she is more than the Captain’s savior, yet she ultimately seeks companionship—despite her having a sexless demeanor. Additionally, Captain von Trapp is given a back-story during Maria’s entire performance on screen. The viewer knows that the Captain is a retired officer of the navy and that his wife died in the recent past (he has a five year old daughter). The viewer, however, knows little about Maria. She is robbed of a back-story. The viewer does not know why she wants to be a nun or why she makes references to her “loneliness” and “wicked childhood” in musical numbers. The viewer does not even know her last name until it becomes “von Trapp.” Perhaps Maria does not need a back-story in order to function as a perpetrator of transformation. She may simply be there to provide a service for Captain von Trapp when she hands him a heartwarming relationship with his children obtained with the use of her pixie-girl charm.

Maria von Trapp is just one example. Think Holly Golightly of Breakfast at Tiffany’s—her sparkling, make-the-best-of-anything attitude exists to fascinate her neighbor-turned-love interest, Fred. Her pixie-dreaminess transforms him; the unmotivated writer becomes brilliant again because she is there to fill his pages. Think Belle of Beauty and the Beast. She’s perfect, she’s fun, she’s pure, and she’s there to LITERALLY transform the beast into his humanity. Even think Kimmy of Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt. She is an imaginative, cheery heroine that reemerges into the world to effect quirky change despite her means.

Don’t get me wrong, I love these characters (except for Belle, I’m pretty indifferent about her). Perhaps, however, their lovability produces a ready-made response. It is important to question whether Manic Pixie Dream Girls exist as motivating, life-loving characters that serve their own purposes, or if they exist solely as agents of change for the people around them—especially their male counterparts.

So I must ask: how do you solve a problem like Maria?  I’m all about the positive character qualities that Manic Pixie Dream Girls embody, but it is important for these and other MPDG heroines to project those qualities in a way that doesn’t glorify the needs of their counterparts and disregard their own purposes.

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