What ‘Master of None’ Got Wrong (And Right) About ‘The Bell Jar’ and Manic Pixie Dream Girls

In the final episode of the first season of Netflix’s Master Of None, Dev, played by Aziz Ansari, turns to The Bell Jar to help him make a big decision. Dev is uncertain about the future of his relationship with Rachel, and his father tells him he’s being indecisive. The oft-quoted “fig tree” passage comes recommended by Dev’s father: “You are like woman sitting in front of fig tree, staring at all the branches ‘til the tree dies.” Dev blinks and his father continues, somewhat admonishingly: “Sylvia Plath. The Bell Jar. You never read. You’re always on the YouTube.” Dev has seemingly never heard of the 1963 novel that, like Master Of None, takes place mostly in New York City. Dev’s father explains further:

“Look, you are a young man, you can do a lot of things with your life: career, girlfriend, travel, you can even start a family. But you have to make the decision and do something about it. If you don’t, you’re doing nothing, and the tree dies. Go to the bookstore and get that book.”

Instead of buying the book and reading the whole thing, Dev finds it in the bookstore and reads the fig tree scene in voiceover while we watch past and potential scenes in his life appear in a growing grid across the screen. When he finishes the passage, he slams the book down and walks away. Despite this “clip” of a larger work (like a .gif or seconds-long video) being completely out of context for Dev, it has enough of an influence on him to inspire him to make a decision. To grab a fig. And the phone.

In the next scene, he calls his girlfriend and asks to meet up and talk. She agrees they should. But when she arrives, she’s changed her hair colour, and immediately announces she’s moving to Tokyo. Dev’s decision regarding their relationship is made for him, and we’re left never entirely certain with what decision Dev made. Was he going to choose the fig that led to marriage with Rachel, or was he going to choose another and end it, too?

All of this use of the fig metaphor from The Bell Jar is convenient and cute in a “target audience likes American coming-of-age novels” sort of way. But for anyone familiar with The Bell Jar, Dev’s single-serve use of the quote completely devoid of context (or even having heard of the book) is troubling. The Bell Jar is about 19-year-old woman named Esther. It is set in 1953. Esther has a talent for writing and finds herself in New York City for the summer on a coveted paid internship at a women’s magazine. Coming from small-town Massachusetts, this is an adjustment for Esther, who is trying to figure out what her options are in life. This is the passage quoted in Master Of None:

“I saw my life branching out before me like the green fig tree in the story. From the tip of every branch, like a fat purple fig, a wonderful future beckoned and winked. One fig was a husband and a happy home and children, and another fig was a famous poet and another fig was a brilliant professor, and another fig was Ee Gee, the amazing editor, and another fig was Europe and Africa and South America, and another fig was Constantin and Socrates and Attila and a pack of other lovers with queer names and offbeat professions, and another fig was an Olympic lady crew champion, and beyond and above these figs were many more figs I couldn’t quite make out. I saw myself sitting in the crotch of this fig tree, starving to death, just because I couldn’t make up my mind which of the figs I would choose. I wanted each and every one of them, but choosing one meant losing all the rest, and, as I sat there, unable to decide, the figs began to wrinkle and go black, and, one by one, they plopped to the ground at my feet.”

There’s a reason this quote ends with an image a little more visceral and macabre than what you might expect from a typical Pinterest-type inspirational quote. Again, Esther is a young woman in 1953, and society’s expectations of her make many of these fig options very difficult to grasp. What’s more, whereas Dev’s character could very probably travel and take many lovers and pursue his own career while still being able to later grab the fig of marriage and family, for Esther, these unchosen figs would indeed shrivel up and die. A woman in 1953 didn’t come back from travelling abroad or devote herself to a career without suffering dearly when it came to social connections and potential marriages. In fact, Esther is already being aggressively courted by someone who doesn’t interest her from back home, and she is acutely aware of the pressure to marry him despite not actually loving him. Whereas, Dev and Rachel worry that getting married at 30 means the rest of their lives will be laid out for them, they already have more freedom than Esther did when contemplating these choices. For a 19-year-old woman in 1953, her life as wife and mother is most assuredly laid out before her, with no chance of adding “working” or “travelling” to those labels. The figs Dev considers may be similar, but he has the opportunity to pluck multiples from the boughs and eat them all at once or in succession at his leisure. Esther did not.

Related to these very gender- and era-specific considerations when contextualizing the quote, it’s important to note that Esther is a mentally ill character. For her, these choices represent an identity crisis linked to her mental illness. Esther attempts suicide in the book and that alone should be understood when comparing it to Dev’s situation.

Further, remember that the title of the show is taken from the saying “jack of all trades, master of none.” In The Bell Jar, Esther has the potential to master any of the lives the figs represent. Symptomatic of her mental illness anxiety and perfectionism inhibit her ability to choose between potential futures in a way that Dev’s character probably can’t relate to. Speaking as someone with an anxiety disorder, choices of all sizes can seem a lot more daunting and liable to shrivel up and die while we consider them. So because he is without all this context, how can we interpret Dev’s reading of The Bell Jar passage?

I’ll admit that when I first watched the finale, the literature student in me wanted to write this post in order to point out how ridiculous the writers are to have paid no mind to any of these contextual elements. But now that I’ve been sitting on the idea waiting for season two for nearly two years (two! years! Aziz!) I realize that the fact that we see Dev pick up the book in the store, read just that part, and slam it down without buying it, is so we are damned sure he doesn’t read the rest. If we saw a montage of him reading it in different spots around the city, we would safely assume he did as his father said and read the whole book. The show’s writers didn’t ignore the context; Dev did. “You don’t read,” his father said. It’s much easier to take in the quote as a Pinterest or YouTube standalone and apply it to your life, a kind of buffet of inspiration without worrying about where exactly these figs were sourced.

But what about Rachel? Like I said before, she eliminated a fig from Dev’s tree by breaking up with him before he got to make his own decision. And the fig she took was the adventurous travel one. And remember, she dyed her hair. Does this remind you have anyone? Anyone I’ve complained about in past podcasts, maybe? I’ve recently come to terms with just how much I hate the trope of the manic pixie dream girl. And I’m not talking about the idea of one being an impossible fantasy the protagonist has to accept, like in High Fidelity. In that movie, the protagonist (extremely reluctantly) comes to terms with the fact that his girlfriends past and present are more than the one-dimensional epithets he’s assigned them. Somewhere between 2000 and 2010, movies decided that the lesson to be gleaned from the pink-haired girl you were infatuated with turning into a lawyer should actually be “dump the square and find new pink hair.” I’m talking about the movies that pretend the manic pixie dream girl is a tenable personality and not a stop on the Madonna/Whore stereotype continuum. I’m sure you’re picturing at least one while you’re reading this. Yes, I’m talking about that one.

In Master Of None, we meet a girl who, by all rights, should be a manic pixie dream girl. What separates Rachel (played by Noël Wells, whose real name is much more pixie than her character’s) from this tired trope is how boring and normal she sometimes is. She’s not any more whimsical or unpredictable than Dev or any of his friends. Sure, she’s got a ModCloth vibe, but that’s just where normal people shop if they want to approach quirkiness but don’t know how to thrift or make their own clothes. Basically (ha), Rachel is just like everyone else. She’s not a construct of all the most magical or mysterious or other sexist qualities cis het men commonly ascribe to love interests. Like Dev, she’s got real, not just cute, faults. She’s unsure of things not in an endearing carefree way, but in a worried Millennial way. She’s not unconventionally sexy (or sexy at all) and she doesn’t exist in the narrative only to bring out her love interest’s wacky/more relaxed/more thoughtful side.

But when she shows up with dyed hair saying she’s decided to move to Tokyo with no plan (she says she’ll “figure out” where to live and how to get a job without speaking Japanese), she has claimed the identity of the manic pixie dream girl. In order to find herself, she becomes the caricature of the woman who is perpetually looking for herself, and perpetually flighty and flippant. In claiming this new identity, she has reduced herself to a one-dimensional stereotype.

So why is manic pixie dream girl the fig Rachel decides to pick? Is it because she grew up on movies like the ones I described above that portray the manic pixie dream girl as an attainable ideal? And because when you’re a cis woman who doesn’t have a clear path (read: many Millennials of any gender) it seems like dyeing your hair and moving across the planet is the logical next step?

(I have purple hair and I’m moving to France in September, btw.)

Rachel says she has always wanted to move to Tokyo, and she has had time to think about how her sister getting married means she won’t have opportunities to drop everything and start over as easily anymore. Rachel has put consideration into choosing this fig, which is something Dev can’t really believe.

The last lines of the season are between Dev and an Asian woman on a plane. Dev spontaneously bought a ticket to an unknown destination and packed up to leave immediately. White people like me will probably assume that since there’s an Asian woman next to him, he has decided to follow Rachel to Tokyo. In fact, the conversation reveals that Dev has decided to move to Italy. He explains that his reason is “pasta.” He likes pasta and wants to enrol in a cooking course in Italy. The woman is surprised at the spur-of-the-moment quality of such a life-changing decision.

“You just decided? Just like that?” she asks.

“Just like that,” he replies.

After learning about the fig tree metaphor, and the anxiety that comes with deciding between all the possibilities, he says he picks one “just like that.” I suppose season two will show us just how honest he was being when he said that. After all, his initial choice was moot as soon as Rachel revealed her choice first. But I admire the double-subversion of the manic pixie dream girl. Rachel isn’t the spontaneous weirdo who books a trip to Nashville with a near stranger (again, that’s Dev). And it’s Dev that seems to be making a snap, poorly-planned, quirky choice in the end. He might not have dyed his hair, but season two is ten episodes long, so anything could happen, really.

Season two of Master Of None is on Netflix May 12th.

The podcast mentioned above where Caroline discusses the manic pixie dream girl trope is Episode #67 – Pulp Fiction


 

Caroline Diezyn is a podcast co-host and blogger at NetFlakes, and a PhD student, writer, and artist in London, Ontario. You can find them on Letterboxd and Twitter.

For more insights like this, subscribe to our weekly podcastThe NetFlakes Podcast, available on SoundCloud, iTunes, or whichever podcast app you use.

Check out the NetFlakes Patreon campaign to support the project and get rewards.

Master of None is also available on Amazon.

The Bell Jar is available on Kindle and paperback from Amazon.

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4 thoughts on “What ‘Master of None’ Got Wrong (And Right) About ‘The Bell Jar’ and Manic Pixie Dream Girls

  1. dootsiebug says:

    The last episode is always supposed to be The Big Emotions Moment. The inclusion of this specific text completely alters the impact of what’s happening depending on whether you are or are not familiar with The Bell Jar. If you aren’t, you get the Pinterest feelings and you have the “it’s meant to be! but wait! fate has intervened! what now?!” moment. If you are? The Bell Jar brings so much with it that you can’t not draw a comparison… and find Dev’s problem to be a complete non-problem. Is that intentional, or just fallout from trying to give the show some faux wisdom?

    Liked by 1 person

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