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On Teens, Love, and Manic Pixie Dream Girls: John Green’s Problematic Problematic Love

Updated: Dec 31, 2020

Enter Protagonist. Protagonist has one unrealistically supportive best friend, and on the fifth or sixth page of the book, they make new friends. Enter Love Interest. Build tension. Love seems imminent. Build more tension. Protagonist has a fallout with the unrealistically supportive best friend. Build even more tension. Abruptly exit love interest, tension unresolved, cue self-reflection.

Sound familiar? How about this: does it, by any chance, sound like the plot of every single John Green novel?

A week or two into my spring vacation, I realized that, for all of my religious referencing of the philosophies and love-related idiosyncrasies preached by The Fault in Our Stars in almost any conversation, I had all but forgotten the plots of the many other (in my memory) beloved John Green novels I’d perused years ago. There were, in addition, a handful of them that I hadn’t ever gotten around to finishing, which felt like a small crime to me.

So I used my first handful of weeks to read this handful of books, and as a preface to what may very well turn out as a rather disappointing review by a rather disappointed reader, I do believe I may have mistakenly read his novels in an order of descending quality, which may have heavily informed the review that is about to grace your eyes.

First came Turtles All The Way Down, an allegedly brilliant piece esteemed for its refreshing perspective of teenage love (and, to give you a sense of timeline, a book that I never finished reading before I broke up with my ex, who was the one who recommended it to me). Then came Looking for Alaska, the faraway Green classic that I’d read x years ago and that had left what I remembered as a rather flavorful and—dare I say—edgy impression. Finally, An Abundance of Katherines followed to complete the holy trinity. (Paper Towns was left out, because I was rather confident that I still remembered its message.)

The entirety of Turtles held me in a consistently enraptured state all the way until its heart-shaking conclusion, especially with its quotes comparing romance to the sky. I was left drowning in a confusingly heavy sensation of awe and sadness and hope all churned together as I tried to process the messages behind Aza and Davis’s love story, so realistically and unforgivably imperfect. Holding these emotions within me, I embarked on Looking for Alaska…only to be met with a story that rather let me down. Never mind An Abundance of Katherines—the further I read into these books, the more I began not only picking up on that increasingly banal-feeling storyline but feeling pressed down by the fact that Green’s novels all seemed to preach a teen love that was, in the words of The Fault in Our Stars, “Romantic, but not romantic.” Through this ever so predictable storyline, Green was almost saying to me, “This is what teenage love is when boiled down to its bare philosophical content. And this is what your romantic experience did/does/will look like. Love sucks, life sucks.”

It wasn’t until a bit of time after that I made the discovery about the appearance of so-called “manic pixie dream girls” in Green’s novels. Attractive, eccentric, and damaged in some way or another, this girl appears out of nowhere and launches the male protagonist into an epiphanic journey of self-discovery. In Paper Towns, this manic pixie dream girl was Margo Roth Spiegelman. In Looking for Alaska, she was, well, Alaska Young. In Katherines, she was Lindsey Lee Wells. In Turtles, she was, in fact, Aza Jones. But, after all the wild, wild adventures she takes her boy on, and after he’s realized his life’s potential, where does this manic pixie girl go? Where does her story conclude? Where did it even begin, for that matter? These female characters all remain relatively static while aiding their dynamic male counterparts, and even though Green often constructs them to be nuanced characters who are bursting at the seams with backstory…they are never resolved. The story circulates around the male protagonist’s growth, and the focus on the female character’s life and choices all but dims.

At this, I couldn’t help feeling just the slightest bit enraged. So many of us, including myself, grew up with John Green books. I read The Fault in Our Stars when I was a mere nine year old, naive to the true matters of love and hurt in this world. If this is the picture of romance that Green is painting for tweens, and the set-up that he insists on feeding to teens who are around the same age as the protagonists in his books, what message does this give the adolescents of our generation as we mature and try to find ourselves in love? Not a very hopeful or appealing one, that’s for certain. Green presents a scene of flawed, incomplete, overly philosophical love stories involving a flawed, incomplete, and overly unrealistic girl. When his main audience is taken into consideration, one can’t help but be struck with the realization that all this would more than likely serve as a standard of life for these young readers, who may go on to view it as a source of discouragement and growing hopelessness. My words may sound drastic, but something such as confidence in love—especially in one’s teen years—is something that should be built up constructively through one’s preadolescence into adolescence, not something that is put forth as foolish and futile.

Art by Michelle Dong

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