We’ve all had our hot mess moments. Hurdling off the tracks of life is just part of navigating your existential railway system. We’ve all felt lost, emotionally stranded, and buried our heads in bar bathroom toilets after a night of overzealous imbibing. We’ve all had moments of introspection where the truth has revealed itself to us. Gazing at your eyeliner-smeared aspect, you admit through maniacal laughter— “I’m a trainwreck.”
So there’s no surprise that the TV and film postergirl of the zeitgeist mimics these themes in our pop cultural collective unconscious. Welcome to the 21st century: the age of the trainwreck. Television and movies are currently ruled by this character trope for young women. In film, we’ve see her in Party Girl, Bridget Jones’ Diary, Breakfast at Tiffany’s, Young Adult, Bridesmaids, and Obvious Child. In contemporary television, we have the characters of Girls, The New Girl, The Mindy Project, Awkward, Inside Amy Schumer, and Broad City.
As an incorrigible but loveable bundle of bad decisions and self-aware quips, she’s different than the sitcom matriarchs or Helen of Troy. Unlike a Republican Mother who tackles the chore of taking care of her family with verve, this girl can’t even figure out how to make frozen pizza without setting the toaster oven on fire. The hot mess is no “perfect woman,” born with Vaseline on her lens. She’s a free bitch who eschews moderation and is the OED definition of “relatable.” She embraces her life as a work in progress with a sense of humor. Her talent for doing the wrong thing at the wrong time is unparalleled—whether it’s a wildly inappropriate joke in a promising interview or a failed pick-up attempt of a dude at the bar. But in spite of all the self-sabotage, she’s entertaining and identifiable. The trainwreck knows that society has applied this term to her, embraces it, and doesn’t give a fuck—either that, or just is too lazy to change. We’ve been there. And we know how disorienting the whole “growing up” thing is, and we’re laughing with her rather than at her.
At least we think.
In reality, the ideological sword of the “trainwreck” cuts two ways. It perpetuates the idea that women can’t take care of themselves. Sure, these characters are often just “figuring it out,” but there is a palpable note of infantilization inherent in this motif. While the trainwreck may be a self-acceptance champion, she’s very much a riff on the “damsel in distress.” As a comedic figure, her comedy is derived from the fact that she is the antithesis of a patriarchal society’s ideal female. Her chronic lack of pragmatism and direction, her status as romantically challenged, her absence of self-control—they all give her away as a girl, not yet a woman.
After all, the trainwreck is fixated in childhood. She doesn’t have a clue where their life is going, because she’s still a kid trapped in a woman’s body. Bridesmaids’ Annie loses her bakery and finds herself working retail in her thirties. Hannah Horvath as a 24-year-old unpaid intern, subsisting on a parental allowance. Mary in Party Girl is unemployed, and throws blowout parties every night of the week that drive her into destitution. The heroine of Young Adult lives on advances from a YA novel that allows her to re-live her high school golden years into eternity. (Even if they have careers, they still live in the world of Peter Pan.) Even as a successful doctor, Mindy Lahiri is introduced to us in The Mindy Project pilot as a grown woman who takes advice from a Barbie doll.
Often, she is pushed to the brink of a breakdown because of a breakup. Heartbroken and alone while her friends are all pairing off, she hits her first ostensible “bottom.” Think of Jenny Slate’s character in Obvious Child, who gets dumped on Valentine’s Day, which leads her into the arms of her fateful one-night-stand baby daddy. New Girl’s Jess walks in on her boyfriend cheating on her. Both Bridesmaids and Young Adult follow divorcee heroines. Beyond the emotional trauma of being lovelorn, this event represents our trainwreck’s first fundamental failure as a lady. Sure, the guy is often a philandering jerk who is just plain wrong for her, but she’s missing one of the primary accessories of an adult woman—a partner. Within the diegesis of the story, this is often the first domino to fall that leads to a series of events that illustrate her wreck status.
With the dude out of the picture, we get to observe the delightful, horrifying, sad, hilarious, zany, acting-out of the girl that we signed up watch. She’ll drink her way through New York, rack up the bad dates and one-night stands, and eat as many bathroom cupcakes as she damn well pleases. Think twice before you hand her a microphone at any social function, especially a wedding. A cringe-worthy speech illustrating her chronic spinsterhood is imminent. Think of Bridget Jones stumbling inarticulately through a simple introduction with Salman Rushdie and Geoffrey Archer as her audience. Rather than diarrhea, our girl’s got verbal colitis. We see it in Bridesmaids and The Mindy Project, too.
In order to salvage her reputation as a female, she may throw a dinner party. By slapping on an apron and managing not to poison her friends with her cooking, we know she’s getting it together. We all know though that this endeavor is destined for failure. Whether she dyes the soup blue or unintentionally starts a fight between two of her friends, we know that the gathering will end in disaster. Our trainwreck heroine just doesn’t have the control over herself or her environment to be a Martha Stewart.
Through the failed dinner parties, one-night stands, career impasses and all, we’re waiting for a fractured Sir Galahad to come and rescue her from an eternity of horrible dates and pizza seasoned with late night tears of loneliness. Paul Varjak, Marc Darcy, Adam, Nick, Danny—they all come along to give our girls the care they so desperately need. These guys may have issues themselves, but taking in the train wreck as their ward makes them “better men.” This guy likes our girl “just as she is”: zany, funky, herself and totally unable to cope. With the exception of more episodic or sketch shows like Broad City or Inside Amy Schumer, the trainwreck’s defining characteristics need to be neutralized by a dude in order for her character to develop. It’s not enough for the hot mess to love herself, a guy needs to love her. Without that, our girl can verge on pathetic.
And this is where the trainwreck archetype diverges from her real-life counterparts, who–more quickly than television or movies can quite keep up with–have often accepted the hangovers and botched dinner parties and decided to organize their lives under a different definition of “getting your shit together.” The TV trainwreck, just like the TV matriarch and perfect woman, is still defined by her relationships (or, more likely, her relationship, usually to one man). The old gender politics are disguised by a new realism. But in the interest of realism, we might remember: the actual trainwreck—you, me, her—is free to like herself just as she is, existentially disheveled, belting Celine Dion on her couch in peace.
Arielle Dachille is a journalist and aspiring comedy writer living in New York City. Her work has been featured on Bustle, Hello Giggles, Crushable, and Brokelyn. She spends her free time pushing the limits of social grace to secure as many free samples of food. Follow her on twitter @arielledachille.