The “Hot Mess” has been the queen of the female-led sitcom (and sad-com) for two decades now, from Bridget Jones to Fleabag to Mindy Lahiri. She’s outspoken, impulsive and has big appetites, whether it’s for booze, food, shoes or men. There’s plenty that’s radical about the hot mess, from her slapstick comedy to the way her stories illuminate issues around sex, trauma and mental health from a female perspective. And, even if we’d most likely not make the choices she makes, the hot mess’ mixture of charisma and self-deprecation makes her relatable. But is it time to move on from her as the main representation of young-ish female protagonists onscreen?
In a rather iconic introductory scene, Mindy Lahiri, heroine of The Mindy Project, gets a little too drunk at an ex’s wedding, delivers an unplanned speech in which she discusses their intimate past at length, is called to the hospital to perform an emergency c-section, tries to get there on a bicycle, falls into a swimming pool, has an imaginary confrontation with a barbie, and runs the rest of the way to work barefoot through traffic.
This, in a nutshell, is the Hot Mess character type – and she’s been the queen of the female-led sitcom (and sadcom) for two decades now. Think: Carrie Bradshaw, Bridget Jones, Fleabag, Mindy Lahiri, Amy in Trainwreck, Mae in Feel Good, Maggie in Everything I Know About Love, Issa in Insecure, Suzie in I hate Suzie, Aine in This Way Up, Arabella in I May Destroy You, and other beloved millennial heroines.
Mindy Lahiri: “I just figured that if I’m going to be a mess I might as well be a hot mess right?” -The Mindy Project
What makes a “hot mess”? She’s a young woman in her 20s or 30s, living in a big city. She’s outspoken, impulsive and has big appetites, whether it’s for booze, food, shoes or men. She has a desperate need for connection and a very chaotic love life.
There’s plenty that’s radical about the hot mess, from her slapstick comedy (a rarity for pretty young heroines of earlier decades) to the way her stories illuminate issues around sex, trauma and mental health from a female perspective. And, even if we’d most likely not make the choices she makes, the hot mess’ mixture of charisma and self-deprecation makes her relatable. Plus, the hot mess is often the narrator of her own story making us see everything through her eyes.
Bridget Jones: “Unless something changed, I was going to live a life where my major relationship was with a bottle of wine.” -Bridget Jones’ Diary
Still, while these iconic heroines will be in our hearts forever, it may be time to move on from her as the main representation of young-ish female protagonists onscreen. As Rachel Aroesti put it in The Guardian, “chaotic female leads now seem to be the default, one-note expression of womanhood”. Not all stories of young adult women figuring themselves out have to involve erratic changes in mood, public outbursts, and dating a string of jerks. So, let’s take a look at the hot mess – who she is, what’s made her so appealing, and who the new heroines might be for young women in their 20s and 30s.
Let us introduce you to the Hot Mess. She is physically awkward; she falls and crashes into things with alarming frequency. Her lack of coordination is an outward manifestation of her inner qualities, such as her impulsivity. Comedically the hot mess is a delight, especially since just a few decades ago pretty female leads rarely got to engage to this extent in slapstick comedy.
She’s outspoken; the hot mess is outspoken and opinionated. She blurts things out without thinking. She is a big oversharer. She is the queen of the terrible impromptu speech, seemingly without any filter. The embarrassing public outburst is a staple in hot mess narratives because it is a miniature, snowglobe representation of how she interacts with the world at large. The hot mess exists in the tension between knowing what she is supposed to be doing and being unable to stop herself from doing what she feels she needs to do.
Mindy Lahiri: “And after four Vodka sodas, I realized I had something to say…” -The Mindy Project
Her vices are played for laughs; the hot mess has unhealthy habits and a tendency to overindulge. Mindy Lahiri’s obsession is food. Fleabag’s is sex. Bridget Jones smokes, and drinks more than she’d like to. Carrie Bradshaw also smokes and is a shopaholic. The vices speak to the way the hot mess is, by definition, out of (her own) control, and they also point to things lacking in her life, issues she needs to fix. But much of the time, her overindulgences aren’t treated as seriously as they should be or are even glamorized in some way. Sure she might have an emotional breakdown after an especially rough night, but (with a few exceptions), we rarely see her addictions have irreparable consequences. It’s impossible to imagine, for example, an episode of Sex and the City where Carrie is diagnosed with lung cancer.
Her love life is chaotic; hot messes date a lot, and their taste in men (almost all hot mess heroines are straight) is terrible. What we eventually realize about the hot mess is that at the root of her many failed relationships is her inability to figure out who she herself is and, therefore, who would be a good partner for her. Bridget wants to change pretty much everything about herself in order to find a boyfriend. Mindy Lahiri wants a relationship just like in her favorite rom coms. Maggie of Everything I Know About Love seems to be modeling herself and her relationship after rock and roll heroines of yore.
She is both charismatic and relatable; the hot mess is fun. Her appearance and charm are aspirational, while her down-to-earth attitude and small struggles make her relatable. If a pretty and charming woman embarasses herself in public, it makes us like her, because it reminds us that she isn’t any better than us.
This idea has backfired, though, over time – take the fascinating case of Jennifer Lawrence. In the 2010s, when her star was rising, Lawrence cultivated a hot mess public persona. She was brash and unfiltered, made sure to let everyone know she was a big drinker, would constantly fangirl over other celebrities and even, iconically, tripped on the way to receive her Oscar (an event that people still debate over whether it was real or fake). At some point Lawrence’s awkwardness began seeming performative and the relatability of her persona crumbled.
Stephen Colbert: “You don’t mind seeming like you’re not perfect.”
Jennifer Lawrence: “No, I don’t have a choice.” -The Late Show with Stephen Colbert
Hot mess heroines range from purely comedic and lighthearted, to tragicomic. Comedic hot messes tend to have good jobs, which is surprising, considering how supposedly scatterbrained they are. Mindy is an Ob-Gyn, Carrie is a stable, high-earning writer, Bridget Jones works in publishing and ends up becoming a bit of a reporting sensation, Suzie in I Hate Suzie is a successful actress. This incongruous professional success is key to the secret meaning of the comedic hot mess. Her character is built to be the diametric opposite of the old-fashioned “ladylike” woman. A lady is supposed to have a perfect boyfriend and a happy nuclear family – a hot mess tends to date a lot of jerks (at least, before finding the right guy). A lady is poised, the hot mess is impressively uncoordinated. A lady is polite and tactful, the hot mess is tactless, and loud. To highlight this contrast the hot mess is often juxtaposed with women who “have it together” or who exemplify a traditional model of femininity. Bridget’s rival in love is Natasha, an accomplished and suave professional; Mr. Big’s wife (weirdly, another Natasha) is polished and tasteful. Meanwhile, Mindy’s friend Gwen is the picture perfect representation of serenity and motherhood, and so is Amy’s sister Kim in Trainwreck.
But the final differentiator is that, unlike the archetypal ladylike lady, the comedic hot mess has a cool and interesting job that makes up a significant part of her self-image. Or, at the very least, she has cool and interesting job aspirations. The progressive message of the hot mess is that she is unafraid to take everything our post second-wave-feminism-world has to offer – she will date everybody while she tries to figure out who is right for her, she will chase (and achieve) a fulfilling and successful career, and the qualities that allow her to do all this, we are shown, are her gusto for life and irrepressible individuality – none of which she would be able to have if she adhered to the stifling old-fashioned model of femininity or to the impossible standards of the modern “having it all” woman.
Natasha Naginsky: “I’m sorry he cheated on me with you…” -Sex and the City
Still, while her message is progressive and affirming, there’s an illusory quality to the comedic hot mess. First of all, by bundling all these “opposition-of-femininity” traits into one rambunctious character, it’s almost as though the trope keeps telling us that to be a progressive, successful, charming woman you have to be all these particular things. But there may well be plenty of nontraditional, interesting women out there who aren’t at all clumsy, overindulgent and would never deliver an ill planned impromptu speech at a public event. Secondly, for all her manifest “imperfections”, the hot mess’ life is still too good to be true. She is completely disorganized and yet professionally successful; she has terrible taste in men and yet she ends up with someone great (not always to everyone’s taste, but mostly); she seems to be completely off her planned “track,” yet she somehow gets everything she ever wanted in the end. So even though she is, in many ways, billed as realistic, she is still a fantasy.
One striking example of the comic hot mess who stands out in some ways from the others is Issa in Issa Rae’s Insecure. Issa has the hot mess hallmarks of being awkward and outspoken, with a chaotic love life, taking a non-traditional path and finding interesting creative success in a big city. But this heroine’s story is built a little differently because it’s not only about being female in the modern world, but also about being black. All the hot messes we’ve discussed so far, apart from Mindy, are white. The white hot mess moves through the world in a kind of raucous and riotous way, consuming people and experiences, while oscillating wildly between self-doubt and megalomania. But when your heroine is a woman and something else, this adds another, often constraining layer that may affect the way she relates to the world. Accordingly, many of Issa’s outbursts happen only in her imagination, or the privacy of a bathroom,and her indulgences and drama aren’t quite as over-the-top – perhaps because she feels she can’t be quite as performatively, dramatically messy all the time. Atlanta also explores this problem when the (usually very together) character Van has a rare, out-of-character night out, smokes weed, and finds herself subject to a random drug test at her teaching job the next morning. So her pretty limited messiness is quickly punished in her world.
The hot messes of tragicomedies, or “sadcoms”, aren’t as happy-go-lucky as their purely comedic counterparts. Their stories explore darker topics. Mae in Feel Good is addicted to cocaine and processing childhood abuse, Aine in This Way Up is coming out of a nervous breakdown, Arabella in I May Destroy You is processing a traumatic assault. Here again we see how the hot mess’ exterior is used to signal what’s going on inside her mind: her erratic behavior is supposed to reflect her psychology and internal struggles.
Where the comedic hot mess is funny seemingly without meaning to be funny, the tragicomic hot mess actively uses humor as a defense mechanism. Fleabag’s protagonist builds up a wall of jokes to protect herself from her world (and, from us), presenting as the totally comedic type of hot mess, before she gradually can’t hide that she’s in deep grief over the death of her best friend, which was partially triggered by her own sex addiction. These people are sad clowns, laughing on the outside and crying on the inside. Mae is literally a stand up comedian, while Fleabag even dresses like a mime.
The tragicomic hot mess typically isn’t as established professionally as the comedic one. Carrie Bradshaw or Bridget Jones’ good jobs are proof that they are, really, quite capable of staying afloat in life – so it’s fine for us to laugh at their personal failures and public embarrassments without feeling too worried about them. The tragicomic hot messes tend to have lackluster jobs and vague, not-yet-realized (though creative) ambitions - when we meet Fleabag she is running a cafe with as little enthusiasm as humanly possible. Maggie does, well, this, but wants to be a writer. Arabella has had some success in writing but she’s at risk of losing the bigger opportunities in front of her, due to not getting herself together. The tragicomic hot mess is actually in trouble, life goals-wise.
Fleabag: “Either everyone feels like this a little bit and no one is saying or I am completely alone.” -Fleabag
Even still, the tragicomic hot mess isn’t totally realistic or relatable, either – because, invariably, these women, while troubled and hanging by a thread, are also the most interesting, charismatic, special people in any room they enter. Most of us don’t get that consolation when we’re dealing with pain. The thing is that if you make every female protagonist onscreen mentally ill, sardonic, and miserable but in a charismatic way, this ends up glamorizing her particular set of qualities and holding up this one model as the only “cool” way to embody nontraditional femininity.
Over the two decades of her onscreen reign, the hot mess evolved. Bridget Jones was wildly insecure and trying to be the woman she thought the world wanted her to be. Carrie spent her time scrutinizing this same world, and figuring out a balance between what she was and what the world wanted of her. Mindy Lahiri barrelled through the world doing mostly exactly what she wanted, trying to fit it into her own private rom-com. And Fleabag was completely disillusioned with her world and basically going through the motions (until the, drum roll, HOT PRIEST). If we take Bridget and Fleabag, maybe the two most iconic hot messes ever, as bookends of the trope then: The hot mess starts out as an insecure klutz who has absolutely zero control of her life and, seemingly through the universe’s benevolence, ends up with a happily ever after. She ends up a dark and sardonic young woman who builds a facade of complete control, breaks down, and eventually gets a subtle, internal happy ending without its being tied to romantic fulfillment.
Yet despite this maturation and increasing nuance, the hot mess is still, at this point, an exhausted trope. So what comes next? We’re seeing less individualistic, less romance-focused characters. We’re seeing “messy” younger characters – like Rue and the other female leads of Euphoria – whose problems aren’t played as aspirational or cute, and aren’t magically resolved in rom-com happy endings. And we’re seeing more heroines that represent intersecting identities that have yet to be properly explored onscreen, like Euphoria‘s Jules, who is trans, Sex Education‘s Florence, who is asexual, and Matilda from Everything’s Gonna Be Okay, who is queer and on the autism spectrum. There’s a lot more ground to cover in the topic of young adult women figuring out who they are for Gen Z creatives. Hopefully today’s writers are up to the challenge.