I first went into Ruby Sparks thinking it was going to be just another quirky, indie (500) Days of Summer-esque vehicle to cement writer and star Zoe Kazan as the newest Manic Pixie Dream Girl of the same first name to watch.
For the first third of the movie, I wasn’t wrong. It deals with main character Calvin’s decade-long writers block and feelings of “inadequacy” at not being able to live up to his “genius” and “boy wonder” monikers upon the release of his first (and only) novel when he was in his late teens. Naturally, the role of titular character and token MPDG, Ruby, is to come into Calvin’s life in a whirlwind of “messy”-ness, complication and coloured tights and help him out of his creative rut. Ruby Sparks is the exception to the MPDG rule, though, as where (500) Days’ Summer and Sam of Garden State are real women (though “girls” would be a more accurate description) whom the male protagonists envision as their ideal mates, Ruby is literally Calvin’s dream lover: he wrote her on his pretentious typewriter.
In an interview with the Huffington Post, Kazan responds to the idea of Ruby Sparks as a critique of the MPDG and how she didn’t initially have that goal when she wrote the screenplay. She also talks about the twist in the third act in which Calvin’s need to have Ruby conform to his dream girl stereotype turns into an abusive obsession with controlling her:
“I think if you’re going to make a movie in which a man can control a woman, if you don’t push it to the extreme, it’s going to be sexist.”
It’s funny she said that, as I had trouble reconciling the fact that a seemingly switched-on woman wrote Ruby Sparks with the first half of it which, as I mentioned above, had one of the only female characters succumb to the idea of what a certain kind of woman should be. (Then again, men don’t have a monopoly on sexism.) “You haven’t written a person; you’ve written a girl,” Calvin’s brother, Harry, tells him upon reading his first draft.
Ruby is a girl who at first seems like a fun-loving, spirited artist with no threatening aspirations of capitalising on her illustrative talents (she admits she’s “super good”) by parlaying them into a career. When Ruby does express a desire to get out of the house more, meet some people and maybe get a job, Calvin begs her to stay with him because “I don’t need anyone else”, and neither should she.
It emerges that Calvin’s last serious lover was a novelist, too, whom he bumps into at a book party at which Ruby frolics in her underwear in the pool with Calvin’s agent and subsequently gets slut-shamed by her boyfriend for it. Calvin’s ex tells him that “it’s like you had this image of me and anything I did to contradict it you just ignored… The only person you wanted to be in a relationship with was you.”
Ruby in her original form, before Calvin starts making “tweaks” the moment she develops some autonomy, is essentially a female version of her creator. Not only has Kazan taken the notion of the MPDG and the trope’s traditional role in shaping and changing her male counterparts’ life and turned it on its head, but she has indeed taken Ruby and Calvin’s relationship to the extreme in the ultimate spin on intimate partner abuse.
When Ruby’s had enough and suggests she stay at her apartment after the book party, Calvin reveals he has utter control over her because she’s not real. While on the surface the suspension of disbelief required by the audience makes this a true statement in the context of the film, the more insidious subtext is that Calvin has such a skewed view of what women should be that it seems he’s saying that not only does Ruby not exist in real life, but nor do real women in his. In fact, they’re more like domestic animals to be controlled, as with Calvin’s written manipulation of Ruby in this scene where he types her on all fours barking like a dog: the ultimate act of degradation.
Speaking of dogs, Calvin’s inferiority complex which so many abusive partners have is evident in his treatment of his dog, Scotty, named for fellow tortured soul and wife-beater, F. Scott Fitzgerald. He prefers the idea of a dog as opposed to actually being a pet owner, because he’d like fellow park-goers to “stop to pet him and I would meet them but Scotty gets scared when people try to pet him”. He gets defensive when Scotty goes to the toilet like a female canine as, by extension, it threatens Calvin’s masculinity. Of course Calvin appropriates Ruby’s shine to Scotty despite or perhaps because of his oddities into a metaphor for her feelings towards her future abuser.
If it wasn’t for the happily-ever-after cop-out of an ending, what initially seemed like the indie movie du jour has turned into a commentary on Manic Pixie Dream Girls and the danger of emotionally abusive relationships.
*Blanket spoiler alert.
Image via Groucho Reviews.