Thursday, June 19, 2014


A Character Study of the Trainwreck

I'm readayyyy to partayyyyy with the best of themWe’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 BustleHello GigglesCrushable, 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.

17 Comments / Post A Comment

up cubed

Bachelorette, anyone? It seemed like it was going to dark, down-the-women's relationship rabbit-hole. Then it turns into the train-wreck stereotype.

Rookie (not the magazine) (not that there's anything wrong with that)

One thing I'd like to explore more is that this type of character is seen pretty often in men as well, like in Frat Pack or Judd Apatow movies, and it could maybe be argued that the emergence of the female trainwreck as a character is a response to Vince Vaughn et al. Also, obviously, due to the mostly new voices in comedy who are playing and writing these characters and who happen to be female. I feel like there's so much more about this to discuss - any chance we can get a sequel to this piece?


@Rookie (not the magazine) (not that there's anything wrong with that) Totally agreed. It's like a dude where's my car counterpoint: ladies, not born responsible beings who love to pick up other peoples socks, but perhaps also disorganized pothead/boozers. It's not glowingly positive, but hell I definitely had a hot mess patch and it's fun to see that portrayed as not the very end of the world. There's also a bit of escapism, too. Like man, I haven't gotten wasted and crashed a wedding (or any other event) but it's a tiny bit tempting to imagine being that unrestrained and irresponsible. Kristen Wiig. Living the life (so that we don't have to).


@Rookie (not the magazine) (not that there's anything wrong with that)

That's the main reason I actually like the female trainwreck archetype. I feel like there's a lot more cultural endorsement of grown men acting like adolescents and a lot more expectation for women to be grown-up and get it together. Obviously there are problems with the trope, but I think it's nice to see women in TV/movies who aren't high-powered lawyers or whatever because that's not the reality for a lot of us in our 20s and 30s.


@Rookie (not the magazine) (not that there's anything wrong with that)

I agree with this, and have been annoyed for eons that men acting like children is both celebrated and glossed over in the end with a happy moral ending where the character "grew" by learning to apologize once or something. However, I also think the resulting "train wreck women" to be just as disingenuous, or more to the point, just lazy in the way of character development/going for the easy laugh.

It's not to say I can't sit and enjoy Bridesmaids or (to a much lesser extent) New Girl, but they're like cotton candy - mostly air and ultimately empty. I agree with what the author is saying, or at least how I'm interpreting, that this wave of zany women in comedy is the same ol' schtick in new clothing, and not for nothing, infantilizing. I give Girls a bit of a pass (just a bit) because of the age, because it's post-college, and all the "trying to figure it all out" ness of the era, but when you flash forward to 30 - 40 year old films and shows, they're in the same place they were at 23 and "haven't figure it out," why? Because they haven't found that man to save them. Barf. Even if I, a 30 year old single woman, still don't feel like I've figured out all my shit, I don't see these characters as representative of me or my female friends, even the friends who desperately want a relationship.

As a counter (and it's not a perfect example, and exactly the "high powered lawyer" situation @mauritia is lamenting, THOUGH she's might as well be a 25 year old since she's re-entering the workforce, i digress....), I think of something like the Good Wife (or to take it back a few years, the Closer). These are working women who are intelligent, thoughtful, and GUESS WHAT! Not perfect. Their lives have their own messes, but sometimes you have to be an adult and take care of your professional life rather than jolt off to have a confrontation with the boy you been crushin'. I even think of that moment with Alicia and Will, where he's finally calling to tell her how much he loves her and she cuts him off, tells him she doesn't need his romance, she needs a plan. I don't identify with Alicia much at all (I'm more of a Diane), but I love this show and am invested in her because she isn't a little girl in the body of a woman, but she's also complicated and confused about her options and always in flux.

In film, think Julie Delpy. That woman can be so zany and outspoken and off her rocker if she feels like it, but she is also, again, a woman, not a girl. It's so satisfying to watch her in pretty much anything because of this, especially when she's co-written it (2 days in Paris, Before Sunset/Midnight), because it's also her own strong, feminist voice, which allows for contradiction, questions without answers, moments of immaturity or rudeness, and overall agency.

To bring it all together, one of my favorite films to talk about in regards to male/female comedy like this is The Break Up with Vince Vaughn (written by him and Jon Favreau) and Jennifer Anniston. It's like a social experiment, where all the variables are accounted for - they both have jobs, so neither is dependent; they don't have children; they're not married, and they're not discussing it/it's a non-issue in the film. While I won't try to pretend that they aren't both at fault, there is a dichotomy set up from the beginning that he's an over-grown child and she's a grown-ass woman, and even if she's happy with some traditional gender roles to a certain extent, she doesn't want to be his mom or his male buddy - she wants a partner. They both act like children during the breakup, but ultimately it's over, and when Vince Vaughn comes around it's too little, too late. And they don't end up together! Nor do they end up with other people! And in fact, it was a man that was making her miserable, and she is (hypothetically) able to move forward in her life by ditching the dead weight that was Vince Vaughn's manchild. People seem to hate this movie for all of these reasons, and I just don't get it, other than men wanting the woman to see all the effort he put into growing up and accept him for who he is, and women wanting that fairy tale ending, but I love that it tells this arrested development trope to go jump in the lake.


I get where on Broad City, they are in the train wreck archetype, but somehow I never considered them as such. I don't know - maybe it's because that show seems to differ so much from all of the other examples.


@pajamaralls I get what you mean. Maybe because they are self-assured? Or so supportive of each other? Like you know they're gonna be just fine, and "fine" will be defined however they want it to be, thankyouverymuch.

Sarah Botsch-McGuinn@facebook

@pajamaralls I think it's because they don't turn to a man to save them. In the end, they save each other. I'm thinking of the epic moment where Abbi stabs herself with the epi pen and Hulk carries Illana out of the restaurant and the end up cuddling on the hospital bed.

Broad City is probably my favorite new show. It's just top to bottom great.



Words to live by. It's my new fave, too.


@adriana @Sarah Botsch-McGuinn@facebook

Y'all are 100% right. They are SO refreshingly self-assured. I guess Abbi who would more of the typical train wreck if only because she seems to worry more, but she's still so different than all the other examples.

And even though Lincoln is there, nothing about Illana is dependent on Lincoln saving here. Even when he has to fix her tooth.

And them cuddling in the hospital bed was just about the best. Broad City, man.

Penny White@facebook

You lost me with the classist comment about the train wreck nature of "working retail" in one's "thirties". Lots of all too grown-up "can't afford to be a train wreck" single moms work in retail - or fast food - to support their children. Perhaps the train wreck serves to help over-burdened working class women to feel less defeated. We may be carrying the world on our shoulders (working jobs that privileged people roll their eyes and sneer at) but at least we aren't dropping the ones we carry.


@Penny White@facebook
I agree, the "working retail" comment is out of line, putting down to many talented, hardworking people, with or without children, however inadvertently. I don't need added shame from this writer about being in my 30s and working retail.


Pretty sure the trainwreck character exists solely to exacerbate every fear(for lack of a better word) I have about being 30 and single and not as emotionally/financially/physically stable as I maybe should be... The amount of times people in my circle compared me to Kristen Wigg's character in Bridesmaids (as a compliment???) is slightly disturbing....


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While I agree with many of the author's point, I can't get past the inaccuracies regarding Obvious Child. Not only is the plot description wrong (Jenny Slate's Donna doesn't get dumped on Valentine's day, that's the day of her abortion, among others), but I would say that by lumping it in as a 'character trainwreck' you doing the movie a disservice.

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