Why High-Achieving Women Pretend Their Lives Are a Mess
Twitter virality is the cultural diagnostic tool of our time, the DSM for our internet-broken brains. Which is why it’s not surprising that a recent Tweet about Liz Lemon, the quirky heroine of the 2010s series 30 Rock (played by the series showrunner, Tina Fey) struck a nerve:
Jason Sim’s tweet went as viral as it did because he named something we all recognize: One doesn’t need to be a 30 Rock fan to know exactly the type he’s talking about.
Before Liz Lemoning was a meme, Fey’s character showed the world an entirely new kind of rom-com protagonist: the Hot Mess. She was a striver in the workplace, but she also binged on baked goods and watched Real Housewives. She was a singleton on the dating market who was also a raging prude. She was consistently the smartest person in the room. She also sometimes wore plastic Duane Reade shopping bags as underwear.
“From the beginning Liz Lemon was pathetic,” Emily Nussbaum wrote in The New Yorker in 2012. “That was what was enthralling, and even revolutionary, about the character.”
Liz Lemon’s messiness is what made her so relatable, and her neurosis so undeniably appealing. And the character embodied an archetype that’s now widely recognizable, reproduced again and again in women (always women!) that we see on the screen and in real life. The Hot Mess has a lot to tell us about our contradictory expectations of high-achieving women under late-capitalist patriarchy.
The Hot Mess is more of a persona than a personality. It avoids the earnestness of admitting to being a flawed human being who tries her best—and often succeeds. Instead, it’s the broadcasted shrug of “that 10th house in Capricorn was a lucky break, I guess.” Her achievements aren’t accidents, but she doesn’t want you to see how much she cares.
She probably isn’t your boss, but she might be your fast-rising co-worker — the one whose viral tweets project a chaotic energy that doesn’t quite track with the focused deliberation you observe at the office. The Hot Mess is likely attractive and successful, typically in a creative field, but she’s just bumbling enough to be “relatable” (that is, “nonthreatening”).
It’s a phenomenon the writer Eileen G’Sell identified in Salon in 2015, in a perceptive essay on Amy Schumer’s Trainwreck. G’Sell pointed out that the comedian, like the many other attractive, successful white women who project this messiness, is actually supremely competent.
And while it is, sadly, novel to think we can celebrate women who aren’t performing perfection, isn’t it alarming to think one can only celebrate herself by feigning a risible “chaos”? Make no mistake: if someone tells you she’s a “hot mess,” she is likely a highly functional white woman clawing her way up the ranks.
By and large, the Hot Mess hasn’t merely weathered the ebbs and flows of her professional lot in life; with some combination of grit, talent, vision, and luck, she has actually managed to thrive. She typically emerges from a privileged upbringing, but her successes were neither handed to her nor presumed. Sure, she may have had a leg up, but she didn’t squander it. And she was always just a little weird.
And please don’t mistake her for those other women who have all their shit together. Chrissy Teigen: Hot Mess. Gwyneth Paltrow: Not.
Indeed, pop culture loves to hate ambitious, talented women who are more Gwyneth than Chrissy. Characters like Tracy Flick (Reese Witherspoon) in the 1999 comedy Election and Rachel Berry (Lea Michele) in the 2010s musical sitcom Glee became instantaneous shorthand for an obnoxious, far-too-confident breed of attractive, Type A, spotlight-craving, usually white woman. Anne Hathaway, the catastrophically flawless actress whose meteoric rise at the turn of this century anointed her one of Hollywood’s most hated actresses, knows this first-hand.
Hathaway has often been compared unfavorably to the also very talented, also beautiful, also successful Jennifer Lawrence, whose red carpet F-bombs, tumbles, and constant reminders that she loves eating pizza have secured her a gloss of Cool Girl acceptability that seems to inure her to outrage and scorn. The Cool Girl—boyish and feckless while conventionally hot—is another reductive creation of the male gaze, separate from the Hot Mess. But the two archetypes are rooted in the same basic belief: that to be visible in the world as a high-achieving, creative woman, you’d best be a little bit of a fuck-up.
The Hot Mess’s messiness is equal parts internalized misogyny and compensatory measure. She’s smart enough to understand that a woman’s success needs to look a little bit like an accident to avoid the resentment of men and other women.
If anyone gets this, it’s likely Tina Fey. Like her 30 Rock alter ego, Fey was the head writer on an NBC sketch series, Saturday Night Live, becoming the first woman to hold the position — and pulling it off a full year before her 30th birthday. Her career since then is basically a highlights reel of acclaimed comedy hits. Glimpses into her personal life reveal, by all accounts, a stable and loving family. Sure, she’s human and therefore imperfect, but she’s an imperfect human whose affairs are in order.
Fey’s not really a mess. But it’s telling that her fictional analogue is. What we find funny—and relatable—sometimes shows us what we need to fix.
This article has been updated with a reference and link to a 2015 Salon story on “the ‘hot mess’ humblebrag.”