When Did Being Such a ‘Hot Mess’ Become So Aspirational?
It’s no news that Fleabag is one of the best damn shows on TV (it bagged four Emmys in 2019, including best comedy series). And that’s in no small part thanks to the whip-smart writing from the show’s creator and star, Phoebe Waller-Bridge, as well as the staggering performances. (All right, the Hot Priest might have had a little something to do with the show’s success too.)
But what really drew me into the series (and I don’t think I’m alone here) was the main character’s unabashed ability to screw things up. She is a hot mess and not afraid to show it. Even the name of the show itself implies a level of disheveled self-acceptance. “That word, ‘fleabag,’ that felt right, because there’s a messy connotation to it,” Waller-Bridge revealed in Vanity Fair.
For those who haven’t seen it, Fleabag is about a woman in London who is grappling with the death of her best friend, running a business, awkward family dynamics and a series of sexual misadventures. Add to the mix that she’s impulsive, frequently crude, often inappropriate and always cynical, and well, it doesn’t sound particularly aspirational, does it?
And yet it’s impossible to watch Fleabag and not want to be her. There’s something so liberating about the way Fleabag (the only name the audience knows the character by) completely owns her flaws. In fact, the entire show feels like the culmination of badass, independent and, yes, imperfect women reclaiming the title “hot mess.”
Added to the Oxford Dictionary in 2014, hot mess is defined as “a person or thing that is spectacularly unsuccessful or disordered.” But per Merriam-Webster, the term actually dates back to the 1800s, when it referred to hot food. (It comes from the Latin missus, meaning a portion of food.) It then took a figurative turn to describe something troublesome and chaotic (“Now, ef I says the word, yo’ll be in a hot mess in about one minute!” a character declares in a 1907 issue of Pall Mall Magazine.)
Where it hibernated after that is unclear, but what we do know is that when it resurfaced in the 2000s, the meaning was evident: Being a hot mess was not a desirable trait. Its rise to popularity is frequently attributed to designer Christian Siriano on the fourth season of Project Runway (“Her dress was just a hot mess,” he exclaims). From there, it became vernacular within the dysfunctional Bluth family in Arrested Development. And a quick Google search will reveal plenty of celebrities considered to be ‘hot messes,’ particularly if they have publicly humiliated themselves in some way.
But somewhere in the past couple of years, women began to take the put-down back. And why shouldn’t they? After all, nobody’s perfect.
That’s not to say until recently all female characters portrayed on-screen were without flaws. They weren’t. But weren’t most of their flaws sort of cutesy or endearing? (Think Phoebe Buffay’s quirkiness on Friends or Jessica Day’s klutziness on New Girl.)
Suddenly, “hot messes” were no longer to be pitied or laughed at. Instead, they were free to just, well, be. Bridget Jones led the pack (she cursed, smoked and always said the wrong thing) and paved the way for Kristen Wiig’s character in 2011’s Bridesmaids, Amy Schumer’s sketch show Inside Amy Schumer (2013) and Issa Rae’s Insecure (2016). A special nod goes to Broad City, one of the best examples of a show that just let female protagonists be who they are without judgment. These women are complicated, funny, slightly unhinged, independent and—most important—real.
Is the term perfect? Well, no. It’s not as inclusive as it should be (it appears to be largely reserved for people of a certain age, gender and race). And while the women mentioned above are undeniably fierce in their disarray, other recent “hot messes” haven’t fared as well.
Take, for example, Hannah Horvath in HBO’s Girls. Heck, take any of the four protagonists from the show. These 20-somethings were highly unsympathetic characters who felt entitled to everything despite having done nothing. Does this empowered spin on being a train wreck only apply to women in comedic roles? Perhaps.
Or is it the unpredictability of these women that makes them so relatable and even likable? Or maybe it’s their refreshing disregard not just for social expectation but also for conventional storytelling? One of the standout moments of Fleabag was witnessing the breaking of the fourth wall (“Where did you just go?” asks the Hot Priest.) These women are challenging stereotypes in all sorts of ways, and it makes for highly compelling viewing.
It’s thanks to these trailblazers that, in 2020, being a “hot mess’ is being a whole, realized person—complete with faults and surprises. And Fleabag exemplifies this with humor, style and brilliance.
It’s undeniably empowering to see complex women (warts and all) unapologetically being themselves on-screen. To that end, the only real issue with Fleabag is that the show is over and we won’t be seeing any more of her.