Tuesday, October 14, 2014

An Editorial: Is Augustus Waters a Manic Pixie Character?

 Note: This post contains spoilers of novel and movie adaptation of "The Fault in Our Stars" by John Green

     As a reader, I have a somewhat complicated relationship with the Young Adult genre. On one hand, I'm of the opinion that most YA novels are just repetitions of the same tropes and characters, with different settings, titles, and variations of the same dystopian/supernatural world. On the other hand, I can't help but fall victim to these tropes, even though I know I'm being ensnared by less-than worthy hooks. I can't help but be charmed by the first person narratives of the Tris/Katniss/Mia's of these YA universes, because they're just ordinary, relatable girls like meeeee!! I could totally be any of these girls/women and so could any of you out there!!! Young or old, we all want to overcome our insecurities, save the world, and fall in love with, and have all our needs met by a mysterious, handsome, powerful man, who may or may not be a vampire. So I get what the authors of most YA novels are doing: writing what they know sells. This is my complicated relationship with the YA genre; I reluctantly love what I actually despise. Now that I think about it, this is the exact premise of a YA love story.

     Regardless, I do think there are some novels which are misrepresented, simply because they fall into this genre. Not all YA novels have the intellectual merit of a pineapple. Some are actually trying to say something. In my opinion, The Fault in Our Stars by John Green, is one of these books. I understand that many people, reviewers and actual people-I know alike, are completely indifferent to, or totally hate Green's very popular novel about a couple young, cancer patients who fall in love. I understand not everyone loves this book, and that's okay. I completely don't get it, but it's okay(...okay!!). The major complaint about The Fault in Our Stars which keeps coming up in reviews and conversations with friends, surrounds the character of Augustus Waters. The objection/accusation to his character (particularly with Ansel Elgort's portrayal in the movie version) usually has to do with his being a male version of the "manic pixie dream girl."

     This term, was originally coined by Nathan Rabin in his 2007 review of Cameron Crowe's film Elizabethtown (side note: the opening of the all too self aware film version of The Fault almost echoes this article in describing what this story is not). The term basically describes the sexist archetype that "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." Since then the term has found a foothold in the minds and vocabulary of pop-culture. In accusing Augustus Waters in The Fault of being the male embodiment of a manic pixie, one is accusing him of being less of a character than a sexist archetype in reverse, that only exists to enlighten our female protagonist-Hazel Grace Lancastor- to the beauty of life and the enjoyment of such. This accusation is not totally unfounded, as it could be used to describe any male lead in the female-led array of characters in most YA novels. Ansel Elgort's somewhat over-the-top performance in the film version, only added fuel to the flame. So do they have a point? Is Augustus (aka: Gus) really a character or is he merely an archetype? In my opinion, to reduce the character of Gus to such, ignores the complexities and insecurities assigned to him, as well as the overall themes of the novel itself.

      If I could fault this novel in any way, it would be the fact that our teenage protagonists Hazel and Gus (or any other characters for that matter) don't really speak like any teenagers I know. Rather, they sound more like writers themselves. This hamartia (see what I did there?) fades into insignificance when you begin to see the tough life that these two individuals lead. Gus is a seemingly recovered cancer patient, who lost his leg to his disease, and Hazel has a pair of lungs "that suck at being lungs" due to her terminal cancer, and she is condemned to dragging around an oxygen tank for the rest of her short life. If there's one thing the book gets right, its the realistic portrayal of the hell that is cancer, and the depiction of the sub-culture that develops around those that suffer from it. So it's fine that our teenagers don't sound like normal teenagers, because they aren't normal teenagers.

    Gus, at first glance is a perfect example of manic pixie-ism. What with his ridiculous metaphors involving cigarettes, and his constant positivity, his irrepressible humour, and his-riding up in a limo to fulfill the dreams of our female character (total addition by the film for some reason). He is a little bit of a clique. However, Gus isn't so much of an archetype as he wants to be one. Gus' whole hang-up is he wants to be remembered. He wants to be the hero. His whole mantra of being on "a roller coaster that only goes up my friend" is a paper-thin facade covering his biggest fear: oblivion. While, Hazel's problem is the childish fear that the lives of the people who love her begin and end with her, Gus fears that they won't. He wants and needs to be important and remembered and to make his mark on the world.

"The oblivion fear is...fear that I won't be able to give anything in exchange for my life. If you don't live a life in service of a greater good, you've gotta at lest die a death in service of a great good, you know? And I fear that I won't get wither a life or death that means anything"

 This is why his favourite book and movies revolve around big, grand swooping heroic acts, this is why he wants to bring Hazel to Amsterdam, and this why the return of his cancer is such a blow to him. Gus is the more idealistic of the two, while Hazel is much more grounded. For Gus, his life isn't significant unless it's in service of something, while for Hazel her life is significant simply because it's all she gets.

"It's really mean of you to say that the only lives that matter are the ones that are lived for something or die for something. That's a really mean things to say to me" 

     Gus seems like a teenage girl fantasy because he's created a fantasy in himself. His ambitions and ideals are fantastic ones. It's not an accident that John Green (who is an atheist) wrote Gus to be the only one of the two who believes in some sort of a god and and hopes for an afterlife. These beliefs take their place quite comfortably with Gus' other notions about life and death. 

     There is a significant history to the character of Gus which was left out of the film version: a shame because it's heavily revealing. This history revolves around Gus' previous relationship with a brain cancer victim. This almost abusive relationship with a girl going out of her mind, is very telling when analyzing Gus' character. His insistence on staying with her is mostly motivated by guilt, but also (although he never says so) by his need to be a hero and a rescuer. This history is also the reason Gus stares at and later approaches Hazel in support group. Hazel closely resembles this previous girlfriend in appearance and Gus is immediately drawn to her.

     Gus appears and sounds confident, but he has his insecurities. These mostly surround his missing leg. Although he jokes and laughs off his physical deficiencies, in his moments of vulnerability (like in the hotel room with Hazel) you see his confidence in himself falter. The film version of The Fault sadly condenses these moments, it being literally a condensed version of the source material, as all adaptations are. However, the film leaves enough in to show the layers to Gus' character. The most telling is the parking lot scene, one of the most effective scenes in the movie. Gus's facade breaks down in front of us, as he is forced by his disease to come to terms with his own limitations.

     Another obstacle to the idea that Gus is just a fantasy for our protagonist is that instead of Gus saving Hazel, Hazel in some ways, saves him. She is the one who breaks through his need to be remembered. It is enough that she and the people who loved him best remember him. Hazel has her own flaws to overcome, but she grows and develops mostly without Gus' help. It could be said that Hazel is deeply aware of who Gus really is, even at the beginning of their relationship, which would be an explanation to her obsessive concern with hurting him. Gus may be every girls fantasy, but that fantasy like any, breaks down when life gets hard. This is true in the book and this is true in life.

     In this discussion, it worth asking the question is it really a good idea to start labeling written characters as manic pixie dreams at all? Nathan Rabin later went on to bitterly regret ever inventing the term (read here), saying the use of such a term became part of the problem it was intended to prevent. Taking characters, beloved by others, and labeling them as nothing more than sexist manifestations is indeed sexist in and of itself. In some sense it's a term which has had it's meaning diluted by overuse. It is also worth mentioning that John Green himself hates the term, even writing whole novels to the issue (read here).

     Whether or not Augustus Waters is a fully fledged, well written character is not for me to decide. It's strictly a reader decision. That's the great thing about books, movies or any other art form for that matter. It's what you take away from it that counts. In the hearts of many readers, Augustus and Hazel are teachers in positivity in the midst of suffering, and while popularity does not a good novel make, it isn't for naught. For me, both Gus and Hazel are engaging, witty, interesting, and deeply flawed characters, which should be the goal of any novelist in creating character. They, like any live person cannot be limited by labels or tropes. It is my opinion, that Gus is not a manic pixie character, and I'm not sure I have the right to apply the phrase to anyone: alive or fictional.

1 comment:

  1. "As a reader, I have a somewhat complicated relationship with the Young Adult genre. On one hand, I'm of the opinion that most YA novels are just repetitions of the same tropes and characters, with different settings, titles, and variations of the same dystopian/supernatural world."

    Well said, Leah - and I agree! Mainly I read the YA/Teen genre just to be entertained and even though I can be annoyed by the whiny, immature voices, I still enjoy the stories. Most the time. ;)

    You make some great points in this piece. These two are NOT the normal teenage character of literature, but like you point you, they AREN'T normal because of life's circumstances and that's a breath of fresh air.


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