Over 200 weeks on the New York Times Bestseller List. A 4.15 out of 5 average rating on Goodreads. The School Library Journal 2005 Book of the Year.
John Green’s Looking for Alaska must be the perfect novel.
I must have been about thirteen the first time I heard about this book. I had been scrolling through a blogging website called Tumblr, when I found a greyish image of quote saying, « If people were rain, I was a drizzle, and she was a hurricane. »
After that encounter, I would hear about the novel repeatedly for two more years. People shamelessly showered the book with praise, stating and restating all the ways in which the novel had made them into better people. I’d stumble upon flawless review after flawless review, each promising me that the book would change my life.
I would not actually read the novel until I was fifteen. Nevertheless, when I did finally get around to it, I was expecting one hell of a story.
Miles « Pudge » Halter narrates Looking for Alaska. As his nickname suggests, he’s a shy, self-conscious teenager who can be slightly socially awkward at times—though I found him endearing. However, despite the book’s being told from the perspective of Pudge, the novel truly revolves around Pudge’s dream girl, a seventeen-year-old bombshell named Alaska Young, who attends the same boarding school that he does.
Here’s where my problem comes in.
Let me just begin by saying I love romance. Perhaps not the clichéd ones, but a good romance plot has always profoundly spoken to something in me like nothing else. Love triangles, unrequited love, you name it—it’s all fantastic, if it’s done well.
So Pudge’s unrequited love for Alaska was not necessarily the problem.
The problem was that Alaska Young is the perfect girl.
She keeps hundreds of books in her « life’s library » in her dorm but never actually reads them because she’s too busy smoking cigarettes and giving angsty-teen monologues. She beguiles boys with her unanticipated wit and unavoidable allure. She loves porn. She is known for being sensational at sex. She pulls Pudge out of his shameful introverted shell and shows him the beauty and adventure that life has to offer. Her name is Alaska Young for Christ’s sake.
Alaska has no faults according to Pudge. None. One could argue that her fault her « sadness » or « brokenness, » but these traits merely exist to satisfy Pudge’s need to heal a hurting soul. Alaska’s « depression » is portrayed as romantic instead of something that needs to be treated. Pudge doesn’t help her get the psychological help that she would need if she were depressed; instead, he falls in love with her brokenness.
Every guy is in love with Alaska. And we, as readers, are supposed to be also.
Let’s go back that rain quote again: « If people were rain, I was a drizzle, and she was a hurricane. »
Now, I will reiterate, there would be nothing wrong with Pudge’s being in love with Alaska, if Alaska had been an authentic character with human faults and complexities. What’s wrong is that John Green portrays Alaska so spectacularly, so unrealistically, that this sets unreasonable and impossible expectations on girls to embody this perfect archetype of a woman.
Many men, especially young, adolescent men, have the dangerous tendency to project their fantasies onto the women they lust over. (Women do as well, but I will get to that later.) Their crushes transform from regular, ordinary human beings into flawless, hilarious sex goddesses.
This toxic idealization of female characters is known in film as the Manic Pixie Dream Girl. Film critic Nathan Rabin coined the term in 2005 after watching Kirsten Dunst in Elizabethtown. These are fantastical women who sweep in like a glittery breeze to save the troubled, young protagonist from himself.
Some may question why the Manic Pixie Dream Girl is such a bad thing, or why I would get so worked up about some book character.
Not only is the Manic Pixie Dream Girl profoundly sexist—women become less of their own characters and more of catalysts to male character development—but the trope puts an unutterable amount of pressure on young girls to be the male idealization of a woman. When adolescent men encounter this character, they get the false impression that such an amazing girl truly exists, and thus are never completely satisfied with their relationships because no living girl could ever amount to their prodigious fantasies. What is worse is that women feel an obligation to conform to this unattainable ideal, as the media tells us that this kind of girl is what all men want, the kind of girl all women should aspire to be: wild, fun-loving, spunky, and utterly passive.
Though it seems as if I have been berating men for idolizing this illusion of a girl, it is vital to include that women have also fallen prey to conjuring up their own « Manic Pixie Dream Boys. » (Yes, I’m looking at you, romantic comedies.)
Unlike most romantic comedies would suggest, I would project that most men would feel pretty stupid walking up to the girl they liked and serenading her with a love song or putting on a grand, public display to ask her out and demonstrate his unyielding devotion. Romantic comedies ignore the fact that men can be shy and insecure too, that they might have a hard time just approaching the girl they like, much less writing her passionate sonnets and giving her endless bouquets of red roses. Consequently, many young women feel unwanted or unloved simply because they do not realize that, in reality, nobody goes about parading their love in such a melodramatic manner. Moreover, these idealized Manic Pixie Dream Boys are always strikingly handsome, have some form of gem-coloured eyes (I cannot tell you how many times I’ve read about boys with « emerald eyes » or « deep sapphires for eyes »), and are oftentimes unimaginably wealthy.
Personally, I do not believe the media idealizes romance. Love, outside of film and television, can be spontaneous and unpredictable, thoughtful and tender, quiet and considerate. Like I said, I love a good romance.
Love, however, is also acknowledging one’s faults and accepting the one you love, imperfections and all. If you have a crush on a girl, and you think she is perfect, that is an immediate indication that what you are experiencing is not love, but your fantasy of the perfect girl projected onto someone who I promise you is not perfect.
Pudge does not acknowledge Alaska’s faults, and as a result, he cannot love her because he hardly even knows her. And yet thousands of readers despair at the fact that the two did not ultimately end up together. Whatever Green’s intentions were in writing the novel—to denounce the Manic Pixie Dream Girl or to utilize it—are irrelevant, as the novel’s story remains the same: awkward teenage boy falls in love with mysterious, popular girl. Girl dies, and awkward teenage boy understands the importance of living life to the fullest. (This, by the way, is the same plot for Green’s The Fault in Our Stars, except with the gender roles reversed.)
While I am a firm believer that journalists and news writers should always report the truth, despite however dire or polemical the consequences, fiction writers must take more responsibility to ensure that what they put out into the world does not attribute to societal misconceptions, whether that be telling adolescents that to love someone is to believe that they are perfect or endorsing a harmful racial stereotype that causes a young African-American man to refrain from applying to medical school because he believes he is not intelligent enough. Though most may not realize it, what we see and hear has a profound influence on our subconscious; while you may laugh off the homophobic one-liners in your favorite sitcom series, and while you may believe it’s merely « just a joke, » these subliminal messages can manifest themselves in your day to day life without your even perceiving it. As we progress further into an age that relies more and more heavily on the media, it is no longer enough to tell stories; we must be mindful of the consequences we may provoke in writing them.