In Praise Of The 'Hot Mess': The Fabulous, Messy History Of Flawed Female Characters
The Debrief: We are complex, nuanced creatures and that ought to be celebrated. Yet, throughout the history of pop culture, we've so often been presented with neat, sweet female characters, all mothers and daughters and wives to the far more interesting male protagonists.
Being a woman is a thing of great beauty and chaos. It is a shambolic, profoundly contradictory experience and frankly, I think it’s an act of great nobility to 'have our shit together' at any one time in our lives. We may live in an era of Instagrammable perfection, but if you look past the Amaro filter in most people’s lives, you’re guaranteed to find a more dishevelled reality.
We are complex, nuanced creatures and that ought to be celebrated. And yet, throughout the history of pop culture, we have so often been presented with neat, sweet female characters, all mothers and daughters and wives to the far more interesting male protagonists. That, or we’ve been given the 'strong female character' trope which is equally one-dimensional in its portrayal of lady protagonists.
Certified legend Phoebe Waller-Bridge summed up this rather frustrating cultural message in an interview with The Guardian: 'Being proper and sweet and nice and pleasing is a fucking nightmare. It’s exhausting. As women, we get the message about how to be a good girl – how to be a good, pretty girl – from such an early age. Then, at the same time, we’re told that well-behaved girls won’t change the world or ever make a splash. So it’s sort of like, well, what the fuck am I supposed to be? I’m supposed to be a really polite revolutionary? It’s impossible.'
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We all know, by now, how Waller-Bridge dealt with her frustration. She wrote and starred in the epic hit, Fleabag, which started out as a one-woman stage show in Edinburgh and ended up a mega-smash on BBC3 here and Amazon in the States. In it, Waller-Bridge plays a cantankerous, promiscuous, crude and completely dishevelled anti-heroine known only to us as ‘Fleabag’. When we meet her, she is deep in mourning for her best friend and she’s just been caught by her ill-suited boyfriend, masturbating in bed to a speech by Barack Obama. As a protagonist of a prime-time TV show, she is revolutionary: sexually unapologetic, shameless in her moral ambiguity and probably vastly unlikable to a lot of viewers (I was quite fond of her, renegade that she is). Women went mad for the character, though, because it is so rare to see someone that unhinged on our small screens. Someone who hints at the fallibility of being female.
Waller-Bridge’s best mate and creative partner, Vicky Jones, with whom she started the production company DryWrite, has just opened a new play at the Soho Theatre with a similarly honest character at its helm. Touch stars Amy Morgan as Dee, a gloriously shambolic 30-something Welsh woman just trying to work out who she is and what space in the world she can take up. She, like so many real-life women, is sort-of half-heartedly trying to find the person she should marry, while struggling with the idea that there’s a socially-allotted deadline for that kind of milestone. She sleeps with multiple people, performs drunken strip-teases for mediocre tall men, goes home with the posh office intern, asks whether you can still be a feminist and like BDSM and tries to survive the rental market in London. She is what we could a Hot Mess.
The term ‘Hot Mess’ is defined by Urban Dictionary as 'a person or thing that is a mess, as in being disorganized, confused, or untidy, yet remains attractive or appealing'. It’s usually used self-reflexively, as a sort of endearing put-down alluding to the chaos of your own life ('Sorry I haven’t called/left the house/done the laundry, I’m such a hot mess at the moment'). It’s taken on a definite female vibe and, I’d argue, has somewhat shed its originally negative connotation. Journalist and author Lucy Vine has just released her first novel, called Hot Mess. It’s about a woman called Ellie Knight, who is described as the 'spirit animal' of any woman who chooses Netflix over responsibilities and turns up at Sunday brunch smelling like Saturday night.
Ellie has already been called 'the Bridget Jones of a new generation' for her wine-swilling, convention-bucking ways. Lucy tells me she thinks we are reclaiming the term Hot Mess and along with it, our right to be imperfect. 'There’s so much talk about Imposter Syndrome and so many women feeling like imposters in their own lives, and I think we are learning to rebel against those feelings. I’m a big chick-lit fan but I’ve always found that protagonists are flawed in a very vulnerable sweet sort of way. You know, “I’m pretty but I fall over a lot”, that kind of thing. A lot of people have told me that Ellie is whiney, that she worries too much and overthinks things, that’s she unlikable. But I didn’t focus on making her likable, I wanted to make her real, like us. I think we should all embrace our Hot Mess selves more. We used to look down on them in culture, like it was just Lily Allen unconscious in a field in Glastonbury, but now I think it’s more about breaking down the façade and rebutting the Cool Girl phenomenon, where we are all expected be beer-drinking Cool Girls with no problems.'
There have, of course, been hot messes in the past. You could say, if we’re going by a criteria of character flaws, that Anna Karenina is the OG. She was unfaithful to her husband and left her family… though I’m significantly less excited to include her in a list of greatest hot messes because she was written by a man, in 1877. Emma of Madame Bovary could similarly be classified as a historical hot mess, but again she was written into life by a man and I suspect there was an element of moral chastising from her author. We have long had hints that the renegades of literature are the best characters, though: that’s why Jo Marsh is the favourite sister in Little Women and Jane Austen’s Lizzie Bennett is significantly better liked than her rather bland sister, Jane. We have been given some great hot mess heroines over the past few decades, too – the most notable of which is possibly Bridget Jones (the first book in 1996, the first film in 2001). Carrie Bradshaw and her Sex and the City girlfriends were the hot messes of late ‘90s, early noughties, proudly showcasing their sexuality and rejecting the timeline on which we are supposed to achieve certain life milestones.
More recently, we’ve had Kristen Wiig’s character, Annie, in the 2011 film Bridesmaids and Rebel Wilson’s character, Robin, in How to Be Single from last year. They both play the comically shambolic best friends to more conventional leading ladies, but definitely stole the show. Then there’s the most sinister spate of hot messes, the thriller contingency of unlikable female protagonists like Amy from Gone Girl, Ani from Luckiest Girl Alive and Rachel from Girl on the Train. None of whom are exactly aspirational, but certainly mark a trend in female writers moving away from likability as the dominant criterion for their protagonists.
For so long, male characters have been allowed to be complicated, brooding, acerbic, contradictory, bitter, reclusive, cruel, unkempt and independent. They have been allowed to own their own misshapen lives because men in literature and pop culture have been deemed worthy of nuance. Think Sherlock Holmes, Batman, Han Solo, James Bond and every leading man in between. It is far rarer to read, hear and see women who are permitted to be the custodians of their own messy, complicated lives. We have had a few great hot messes – Jones, Bradshaw, the entire cast of Girls – but I reckon we could do with a few more. The experience of being female is messy and confusing and wonderful, and we should be seeing it in its full, uncensored glory.
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