Editor’s Note: Below is an essay written by Film Blogger Ashna Sran on Charlie Kaufman’s 2004 film, where she explores the portrayal of women and relationships in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and common tropes in the Romance genre. Sran originally wrote this piece for her Intro to Film Studies class with Dr. Simone Muench.
Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is a film written by Charlie Kaufman at a time which many considered the peak of his career due to Being John Malkovich and Adaptation. Kaufman is a writer who is not afraid to step out of the conventional and explore ideas of a more weird and hypothetical nature. The movie is a romantic movie that is unlike any other. It portrays realistic characters and shows a side of them that not many other movies in this genre demonstrate. Often romantic films fail to follow common logic and display unrealistic actions done by the main characters. In Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, the characters don’t throw caution to the wind. The characters share a passionate, yet often painfully incompatible romance. This film navigates love, loneliness, self-esteem, memories, the fight to make something work, and the loss of the battle to do that. Something that the movie accomplishes is the destruction of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl (MPDG) trope, which deals with an eccentric female (or male) character whose purpose is to guide the protagonist to happiness and self-realization without ever having independent goals of their own. This trope has been seen in many projects, whether they refute it or try to redeem it, such as 500 Days of Summer (2009), The Fault in Our Stars (2012), and Garden State (2004).
It is incredibly important to portray women accurately in movies as not doing so can lead to many self-image problems in women and young women in the audience. Often the MPDG trope lumps together all individuals who are quirky and creates one-dimensional female characters who don’t have problems of their own and devote their lives to making the protagonist happy. The trope is highly unoriginal and belittling to women that may resemble a similarity to the common MPDG. In recent times, representation in media is increasingly important, and having a character that reduces an individual to their most basic form is offensive and challenges how young girls may see themselves growing up. However, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is an amazing film in which the complexity of the central female character is explored, and her humanity is highlighted.
As mentioned before the Manic Pixie Dream Girl trope is one in which a character solely exists to help the protagonist achieve happiness. The term was coined by Nathan Rabin in 2007 while observing Kirsten Dunst’s character in Elizabethtown (2005). The MPDG does not have any independent goals themselves, and the film rarely focuses on their issues. Instead, she is romanticized and any unpleasantly human traits she might have, are ignored. The protagonist sees her in a way that makes him hopeful of her saving him. When in reality, she’s a woman, not a superhero. In Eternal Sunshine, Clementine, played by Kate Winslet, fits this description well, except that she destroys the trope (Herman, 2014). She makes Joel (Jim Carrey) feel alive, she makes him smile, she takes him out to Montauk to lay in the middle of a frozen lake, and ultimately, she stretches the boundaries of his personality. She does everything that an MPDG would do, even color her hair a different color frequently, adding to her uniqueness. At one point, Joel says about Clementine that “her personality promises to take you out of the mundane, you secure yourself with this amazing, burning meteorite to carry you to another world, a world where things are exciting, but what you quickly learn is that it’s really an elaborate ruse.”. The last sentence is what makes Clementine different from other MPDGs. They are only ever seen the way the protagonist sees them, often through rose-tinted glasses. This makes their character flat and underdeveloped. Even though Joel is the main character of the movie, a lot of attention is given to Clementine when he is not there. She is seen coping with feeling forgotten and lost and not knowing why those things are happening to her. Details about her childhood are given and the complexity of her character is shown; most importantly, this line was said, “ Too many guys think I’m a concept or I complete them, or I’m gonna make them alive, I’m just a fucked up girl looking for my own peace of mind, don’t assign me yours.” At this moment, Clementine admits to Joel, and the audience, that yes, she has dyed hair and she’s quirky, but she is not a toy. She is not strong enough to carry someone else’s problems because she is not superhuman. She won’t be the one to fix Joel’s problems as she has her own baggage to deal with. This admission separates Clem from other MPDGs because Clem admits to being human rather than having Joel continue to perceive her as some superwoman who will lift him up and allow for his character development. This is why Clementine and characters like her are so important. She knows who she is, and she won’t be used by anyone else who wants to figure out who they are. She’s unapologetically herself and a well-rounded, interesting female character who shows women that you don’t have to be flawless or put on a pedestal to be interesting.
Something else that the film gets right is its realistic portrayal of a relationship. This was done in a couple of ways, but the one that stands out the most is the establishment of a cycle in relationships. The film itself is a circular narrative. To explore this, the delivery of the story needs to be examined. The audience starts the story by being disoriented like Joel himself. They are fed fragments of the relationship while not understanding the time frame or significance. While this is occurring, the audience meets Clementine as Joel meets her, supposedly for the first time. As the film progresses, it is established that they had met before, and the most important parts of their relationship are shown in reverse. This allows the audience to understand that as a viewer, their perception of events is distorted and fragmented like the real story is. The timeline for the film is as follows: 1. Beginning in the present time after Joel has his memory erased, 2. Meeting Clementine for the first time (supposedly), 3. Introduction to the old storyline, 4. Understanding that they have met before, 5. Watching the relationship run its course in reverse, 6. Ending in a breakup (Dashen Grizzly, 2016). By the end of the film, a full loop has been completed, with the audience now understanding how the more recent storyline fits in with the old one. The final scene shows Joel and Clementine on the same beach they had seen before, but this time in the present timeline. They resume their time with each other blissfully unaware that they have been here before. There are hints throughout the movie that suggest that at least some fragments remain even after the procedure. This is shown in the “Meet me in Montauk” scene when Joel’s understanding of Clementine is so great, that he can predict where to find her based on memory. This prediction stays with him unconsciously as it influences his decision to go to Montauk and run into Clementine once more. This could mean that the circular narrative is a continuing one (DashenGrizzly, 2016). As mentioned previously, this creates a realistic love story. This doesn’t mean that all partners will choose to wipe their memories after a relationship and go through the same experiences as Clementine and Joel, rather it means that often relationships don’t just end. They continue in cycles and people give them chances even though they might know that their relationship is doomed.
Essentially, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is a story about two people who were destined to meet, fall in love, fall apart, erase each other from their memories, and then meet again. Their personalities tell the audience that they cannot be together forever, as it will always fall apart, a fact they realize. But they accept this and are therefore destined to continue this loop. This is heightened by the fact that they cannot truly forget one another; and, some fragments transcend the procedure, such as a place to meet and salient points of the relationship or ideas as basic as an attraction to one another. It can be assumed that Joel and Clementine remain together, but not continually, as they are set to follow a relationship loop before hitting reset and beginning again. Something that Kaufman and Gondry should have included, or alluded to, in the film was Clementine’s point of view as she was forgetting Joel. It begs the question; would she have fallen back in love with him as she was forgetting him too? After all, she is not heartless, just impulsive, therefore she probably didn’t forget Joel without a hitch. Another aspect of the movie that is delightful is how Clementine’s hair corresponds with the state of her relationship with Joel, as well as the seasons. When Clementine and Joel first meet (actually) her hair is green, signifying growth and potential. This references spring, as a time for birth and new beginnings. In the next segment of their relationship, Clementine has red hair. Red is associated with the color of summer and it is a universal color of love and passion, which accurately represents what the couple has. In the next part of their relationship, Clementine has orange hair, signifying fall, and the death of a relationship. When she has orange hair, Clementine and Joel begin to fall out of love and grow distant from each other. After she wipes her memory, Clementine has blue hair, corresponding to an icy winter, which she is in. However, her roots show and they mix with the blue dye to create green, signifying the coming of spring (The Take, 2018).
Overall, the movie provides many take-aways. One is that the mind can forget, but the heart will never. The love that Joel and Clementine had for each other transcended any medical procedure, as they were bound to find their way back to each other. This can be seen clearly when they meet again for the second time. They had no reason to talk to each other, but for some strange unknown reason, they were drawn to each other. This could be supported by many reasons, but them recognizing each other in their hearts feels right. As for the title, it’s inspired by Eloisa to Abelard from Alexander Pope (Pope, lines 207-210):
How happy is the blameless vestal’s lot!
The world forgetting, by the world forgot.
Eternal sunshine of the spotless mind!
Each pray’r accepted, and each wish resign’d?
Joel and Clementine are two blameless vestals, but they are happy. This poem suggests that the mind is most happy in what is spotless, what is fresh and new and exciting. The eternal sunshine alludes to eternal happiness that can only be found in that which is spotless. The movie is really saying that true happiness is only discovered in that which is new for us. Eternal sunshine is to be found in the spotless mind, and spotless will Joel and Clementine’s mind remain.
Barsam, Richard M, and Dave Monahan. Looking at Movies: An Introduction to Film. New York: W.W. Norton & Co, 2010.
Print.DashenGrizzly. “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind Analyzed (Full).” YouTube, YouTube, 27 Aug. 2016, www.youtube.com/watch?v=JVBSIR3BvRo.
Herman, Alison. “’Eternal Sunshine’ Destroyed the Manic Pixie Dream Girl Stereotype Before It Even Existed.” Flavorwire, Flavorwire, 19 Mar. 2014, http://www.flavorwire.com/446166/eternal-sunshine-destroyed-the-manic-pixie-dream-girl-stereotype-before-it-even-existed.
The Take. “Eternal Sunshine: The Secret Symbolism of Clementine’s Hair.” YouTube, YouTube, 30 Dec. 2018, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lpFYNh2zj0o. Pope, A. “Eloisa to Abelard” 1719, Poetry Foundation, https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/44892/eloisa-to-abelard
—Ashna Sran, Film Blogger.
Ashna Sran is a senior at Lewis University, majoring in Biology and minoring in Chemistry. She was exposed to filmmaking and film criticism early on in high school and has stuck with it ever since. Currently, Ashna is involved in water remediation research in the Chemistry department and she finds it very interesting. After getting her degree, Ashna wants to attend medical school and become a physician. She has wanted to become a doctor since she was very young and she is very excited about the next stage in her life. In her spare time, she loves to watch movies and TV shows, listen to music, and spend time with her family and dog. Her favorite titles include Knives Out, The Haunting at Hill House, New Girl, and A Quiet Place. She tries not to limit herself to a genre, so she likes to watch all kinds of movies and TV shows. Ashna hopes to learn more about visual media while writing her blog and hopes to expand her taste in movies and TV shows.