It's a role inhabited by and projected onto women with complicated and troubling consequences, says our columnist.
And so television serves us the latest incarnation of that familiar female role: the "hot mess". Yes, Jessica from Love Is Blind, the Netflix reality show, is so often filmed reaching for a refill of red (afterwards, panda-eyed and slurring her intimate pieces to camera), that even fellow contestants refer to her as "Messica". For the uninitiated, Love Is Blind is the No 1 trending show in the US, and its format is a deranged mashup of Blind Date, Love Island and Arranged, in which participants are stripped of access to the outside world (reality), sit in "pods" (cells), flirt through a wall and decide to marry each other "sight unseen". It's Pyramus and Thisbe set in an asylum.
But one can only imagine the clasped hands of delight when the producers encountered Jessica in the casting process: a swishy, hair-flicky blonde who, in her own words, needs to ease up on the booze. "Something I need to do better at knowing when to cut myself off," she said. (No doubt prompting cries across the British Isles of "Same!")
Initially the focus was on the mouth-full-of-helium voice she used to talk to men and an arresting habit of allowing her labrador to lap from her wine glass before returning it to her lips. But was it sinister that, in scene after alcohol-soaked scene, the bottle of champagne/wine/whisky/vodka slid into accessible reach? Or that she was interrogated at points when she had lips blue and pallor grey? The entire show is built around her hot-messy humiliation.
And what about the constant reminders that Jessica — at 34 — is the oldest of the group, with the strong implication that anyone unmarried at 34 must be either a commitment-phobe or defective, and that there is a 10-year age gap with her partner, Mark? And what about the number of close-ups to remind us of that? I wasn't surprised to read that Jessica thought, having watched the final edit, that she had been deliberately portrayed as "one-dimensional".
Like her sisters the "cool girl" and the "manic pixie dream girl", the hot mess is a staple of romcom writers and thirsty tabloid editors. To them she can only complete her narrative arc if saved by a man. Yet in life she has a more complex (and often tragic) history — Marilyn Monroe, Liz Taylor, Lindsay Lohan, Caroline Flack. They are eagerly consumed by observers, but often in genuine pain. And God knows there is a rich seam of literary hot messes, not least Elizabeth Wurtzel, author of Prozac Nation, and then there's the fictional hot messes reclaimed and created by women — Bridget Jones, Hannah in Girls, Amy Schumer in Trainwreck, Fleabag.
The problem with focusing on Jessica's messiness is that it overshadows the fact that she is by far the most successful woman on the show. She is a regional manager, reportedly for a tech firm, who works 70 hours a week, earns six figures and owns her own house (while Mark can't put a saucepan under a running hot tap and lives with a flatmate whose girlfriend does his laundry). Her job requires copious travel. At one point she says: "I feel like I've come a really long way in my career and I'm really secure in where I'm at, but being on the road can be really lonely" — echoing, surely, a timeworn male complaint.
And who else on the show asks the big questions? While Amber (arguably just as messy as Jessica, but with no job and a ton of debt) says she "just" wants to be a stay-at-home mum, Jessica asks: "What are your thoughts around gender roles and how they play into managing finances?" She asks about shared parenting, where they will live and how that will combine with Mark's plan to look after his parents in old age. She suggests a prenup and feels uncomfortable wearing a ring.
Mark, who remains blind despite removal of walls, goldfishes the word "mom" a lot, telling Jessica how similar she is to his mother, his "rock", "my woman". "I don't want to be your mom," Jessica replies, in perhaps the most salient sentence of the series.
The reductive hot mess genre has many mutations — one is "Liz Lemoning", named after Tina Fey's 30 Rock character. (The show recently returned to our screens with the launch of Sky Comedy.) Lemon is often charged with being the embodiment of the faux hot mess: the high-achiever who doesn't want to be hated and so dabbles in messiness to appear hashtag relatable. As a viral tweet put it recently: " 'Liz Lemoning' is when high-achievers, often with postgrad educations, mortgages, savings and secure jobs at the top of their field, run around shouting, "Look what a f****** state I am, sometimes I eat cheese after 10pm, what am I like!?' for relatability."
Filmed from a different angle, Jessica might easily be accused of Liz Lemoning. And reality shows are, of course, all construct. It's no surprise to see the creator of Love Is Blind is a man.
Written by: Charlotte Edwardes
© The Times of London