Whether or not you like the term, the following female protagonists are accused of being written only for the purpose of their relation to the male protagonists’ personal development. While there are certainly examples of just such a fallacy, I feel these specific female characters represent independent women, and my reasons are listed below.
1. Summer–“500 Days of Summer”
Summer does not exist solely for the inspiration of Tom. If anything, Tom exists for the temporary amusement of Summer. She dumps him in the end because he was an experiment to her. And does that make her, in the writer’s eye, a heartless bitch? No. (Though Tom’s character might disagree.) She actually finds true love in the end, just not with the male lead. Sure, his character is bitter, but the movie is from his vantage point. This doesn’t mean the writers are saying that Tom’s views are accurate.
Was she spontaneous? Yes. Was she some care-free optimistic hippie love-child? NO. Like many modern-day tweens, she carried with her a barrier of sarcasm and cynicism to fend off emotional attachments. She didn’t even believe in “true love” while they were dating.
2. Clementine–“Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind”
This movie toes the line for the trope in question as Jim’s character, Joel, is morose–bordering on useless–and his only inspiration is MPDG Clementine, who dyes her hair different colors and will eat off your plate the first time she meets you. In defense of the writing, though, this is noted as a personal flaw by the protagonist himself. Also, Clementine is independent from Joel in several ways, the most notable being that she deletes him from her mind so that she can get over him and move on! This independence is part of his agony and desperation to get her back.
3. Sam–“Garden State”
Sam might be most in danger of falling into the trope because she is so emotionally dependent on Large. But this also gives us a chance to observe finer nuances that make the difference between a reductive, poorly written MPDG and a well-balanced (though caricatured, but only as much as every other character in this movie) female role.
For one, thing, there is a long lead-up before the main character, Andrew Largeman, meets the female protagonist, which makes the movie less centered on romance and more centered on a ensemble cast.
Also, not only is Sam an inspiration for Large, but he is also an important part of her personal development as a functional human being. The movie is more about two people with social quirks who help each other love and grow, and less about how this girl only exists to help Large learn things about himself. Unlike other romance movies, Garden State also goes to great lengths to create an honest narrative, highlighting the unique experiences and ideas that punctuate the personality and give our lives story.
Men are allowed to appreciate the way a woman took part in their personal growth without reducing her value as an individual person. I can appreciate how various relationships were part of my personal growth without only considering the men involved as they relate to me. For most people, confidence in a relationship translates to confidence outside of that relationship and vice versa. You don’t develop as a person for the sole purpose of finding love. You don’t develop a relationship for the sole purpose of having a better life. But the two tend to go hand-in-hand.
So yes, we need female roles in the media that are more than just about women in regards to how they effect men.
But, though MPDG can easily be misused, that doesn’t mean we should wipe the board of this character type entirely. Because they exist. I am one. I stop what I am doing so I can go dance in the rain. I occasionally wake my boyfriend up at 5am so we can drive to our favorite peak and watch the sun rise over the city. I read local papers, drink local beer, listen to live music, and do almost ALL of my clothes shopping at the thrift store.
The trope really narrows down to is the belief that in order to be a carefree, fun-loving optimist you must be naive. But the truth is people can be care-free and optimistic while also being smart, wise, and responsible. This balance is what some forms of MPDG represents, and this is the character type I would love to see more often. On a larger scale, our society values need to reflect appreciation for women equally to men.
P.S. If you think women are poorly represented in movies, try playing video games and reading comic books. There is a huge feminist frontier in these mediums, and we are making progress inch by slow, painful inch.