The first few people I told I had plans to re-start my blog asked, ‘what’s your niche?’ or ‘what’s your brand?’. I consistently replied, ‘I don’t know. That’s why it’s taking me so long’, and launched into a spiralling meltdown (which my first post gives a nice, convoluted, half-resolved overview of). Said people would then try to help with suggestions, many of which were, ‘it’s going to be all about sex, no?’, with others recommending a continuation of my Instagram presence, ‘just carry on talking about your life, keep it painfully honest, try to be funny in a weird, chaotic, we-feel-a-bit-sorry-for-you, way’
One of my best friends from school frankly said, ‘It’s clear what your brand is. Your brand is being a mess. And it works’. I found this soothing and thought, ‘okay, seem to have got the vibe across loud and clear, good start’. Hence a bit more jotting and the conclusion I came to of being an ‘anti-blogger’: I will, unlike most people on the internet, present my life exactly as it is and, if anything, highlight what’s going wrong. I’ve told myself this is a valuable asset to the market because there’s a need for more honesty, imperfection, and realness, online.
My conscience does not seem too happy w this
Here is where I run into an issue, though. Am I the right person to be doing this? When I consider my social stance, privileges, security, and identity, all I can ever think about is this tweet:
"Liz Lemon-ing" 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 fucking state I am sometimes I eat cheese after 10pm what am I like!?" for relateability.— Jäsón‽ (@yaesohn) January 27, 2020
Let’s be real, he’s got a point. You can see why 25.5K people deemed it like-worthy. How comforting really is it to watch people who, on the whole, have it together, unjustifiably claim catastrophe? I can keep saying, ‘look how badly everything has gone, everybody’, but how wrong can things really go, for me? As someone with multiple privileges, there will always be limits to just how much of a ‘mess’ my life can become; I will always have a cushion, a glass floor, a safety net, of sorts – I will always be insulated from true disaster. Is it, therefore, just annoying for those who are actually having a far rougher, more genuinely unstable time to see me laugh about comparatively minor mishaps and rubbing socially-insensitive salt in the wound if I brand it along any lines of ‘failure’ or ‘mess’?
I’ve heard this complaint elsewhere. From FRIENDS opening with, ‘your job’s a joke, you’re broke, your love life’s DOA’, before exploring the antics of 6 white people with rent security in central Manhattan to Dolly Alderton’s memoir discussing a wild and crazy post post-graduate London lifestyle (whilst she landed a job writing for television nbd), examples of privileged 20-somethings claiming (or feigning?) a ‘messiness’ that doesn’t quite match up with how good they’ve got it seem to abound in popular culture. And reality…
In my own life, a guy I was seeing in 2019 replied to one of my Instagram stories: ‘come on, Claire, you’re on a *insert academic grade* at St Andrews, things aren’t exactly falling to pieces, are they?’. He went on to say that he heard a lot of people at his university – also an elite institution – unjustly claim their lives were ‘messes’ and that it was un-self-aware to joke so. I did some research into this (instead of writing an essay that would’ve kept me on *said grade*, don’t you just love irony?) and uprooted two articles in a similar vein: ‘The “hot mess” humblebrag: Successful white women still love to pretend their lives are in shambles‘ by Eileen G’Sell and ‘Why High-Achieving Women Pretend Their Lives Are a Mess’ by Kelli Maria Korducki. Korducki’s main argument is that high-achieving, privileged women pretend to be more ‘inept’ or ‘messy’ to be more ‘likeable’ and non-threatening, whilst G’Sell sees the messiness claim as a subtle way to brag about having a demanding and busy life. The women appearing in both discussions included: Amy Schumer (Trainwreck), Tina Fey, and Anna Kendrick, and reminded me of some chats I’ve had about a) Phoebe Waller-Bridge (Fleabag) and b) myself.
-‘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”).’
–‘What it essentially means is, “I have such a complicated, demanding life that I proudly admit to be overwhelmed.” […] What it essentially communicates is that— in all significant ways—“my life is markedly tidier than it is for the vast majority of womankind.”‘
In defence of self-proclaimed ‘messes’, I’m not sure they’re all pretending
I’m not sure I’m on board with a blanket accusation of ‘pretence’ – I think a lot of these women genuinely feel like they are are all over the place. I don’t think the goal is always to present a false image as a ‘mess’ to be likeable/impressive, my guess is that a lot of these women really do perceive themselves as messes from the perspective of within their own lives.
In my experience, achieving highly academically and professionally – particularly in creative fields – goes very well with not managing to present as an organised, capable individual in most other respects, and I suspect that this is more the case for women. I would argue that in order to even become anyone’s definition of a ‘high achieving’ woman, you’re going to need to make some ridiculous sacrifices and these sacrifices will make you feel like you can’t function like a regular person. It is near impossible to keep up in environments as fast-paced and ruthless as Entertainment or Academia whilst also meeting societal expectations for beauty, hygiene, fitness, healthy eating, socialising, and ~good vibes~ to name a few, so priorities have to shuffle and something will slip – probably the sort of thing that makes you seem put together (grocery shopping, laundry, room tidying, a well-planned travel route). Equally, if you are someone with creative goals, you will likely need to juggle not only all the usual self-maintenance and money-making requirements of adulthood, but a range of unpaid projects and upskilling, too; your career trajectory also won’t be as straightforward as in corporate fields and moves that feel like ‘messy’ steps backwards will be common. I wonder if these women ‘insist on presenting their lives as messes’ (G’Sell) because these are the lifestyles such levels of ‘high achievement’ demand. (There’s a lot written about this in the way of chronic lateness, for example, going hand-in-hand with chronic business.)
There’s also the issue of personal contexts and standards – what constitutes a ‘mess’ is relative. It’s that classic case of getting annoyed at the kid who cries because they only got mostly As and a B, rather than straight As, when others got consistent Fs… but to that kid, they clearly didn’t meet their personal idea of ‘achievement’. To them, this does feel like a catastrophe or ‘mess’. A lot of the examples listed in the articles seem to check this box: women with impossibly high standards for themselves who feel like failures when these aren’t met. I would guess that these dispositions are worsened if you place such individuals in elite / competitive environments, because everyone around them is then confirming these standards and a sky-high bar (especially for women) feels very real. I would therefore imagine it’s the case that what counts as ‘failure’ or ‘disaster’ in some circles / to certain people translates to ‘very accomplished’ everywhere else.
I also think a certain type of woman is socialised to see possession of bog-standard human traits as ‘out of control’. A certain type of girl is taught that some behaviours are acceptable in others, but outrageous in her. I, for example, feel I owe a lot of my conventional markers of ‘achievement’ to a relatively strict upbringing, which involved expectations that I always be well-mannered, well-behaved, and polite, and everyone around me has always confirmed this. I was quiet and got good grades in school so when I talk about casual sex or alcohol, now, I am often met with shock or outrage. I remember telling a joke about cunnilingus sometime in my early 20s and someone I went to school with shouted, appalled, ‘what happened to that sweet girl who used to bake cakes!?’. Now, there’s no contradiction between being good at wholesome tasks and valuing men with tongue piercings – this is just a classic intersection of anti-intellectualism and sexism women like me are very used to (and tired of) – but it is something that is drilled into us from birth. It stems from the same dichotomy as the virgin/whore complex: if you’ve been trained to conform to a ‘good girl’ stereotype, exhibiting any even slightly deviant behaviour or possessing even the tamest of unsavoury thoughts can make you feel like you’re a mess – particularly when this is reinforced by others’ horror. We see this with female celebrities who try to re-invent themselves away from that restrictive Type-A persona all the time. Taylor Swift’s documentary opens on this:
“Throughout my whole career, label executives would just say, ‘A nice girl doesn’t force their opinions on people. A nice girl smiles and waves and says, ‘Thank you.’
This, in combo with her words on Phoebe Waller-Bridge speaks volumes. I think seeing a woman with any flaws at all being accepted and likeable felt far-fetched from the spotless persona she believed she had to uphold:
‘Her one-woman play Fleabag was adapted into a show that turned her into everyone’s favourite self-sabotaging maker of mischief. Phoebe has a habit of creating complex female antiheroes in a way that seemed previously reserved for male characters.’
I would also add that I wonder if, even if there is an element of ‘pretence’, this isn’t in the sense that these women exaggerate what’s really going wrong, but downplay or distract from it. I wonder if ‘messiness’ is a more palatable analogue for the real problems: a more subtle, socially-acceptable, read-between-the-lines-if-you-can cry for help. It’s often easier – and deemed more appropriate – to go on about eating cheese at midnight and being late for meetings than sharing what has actually caused ineptitude, as that’s usually too dark, too heavy, too politicised, or ‘oversharing’. I can’t be the first to observe, for example, that a lot of these women will have been through systems notorious for rape culture / sexual abuse and high rates of mental illness, but to write this explicitly into a Comedy routine might drag the mood down just a bit, so maybe jokes that more vaguely indicate a ‘difficult period of life’ or a state of ‘chaos’ are a safer bet.
I think it’s worth pointing out genre and the fact that most of the women listed in these articles are comedians. I have often considered whether one of the many reasons (alongside overt prejudices, barriers, inaccessibility) we believe men to be funnier than women and see a dearth of less privileged women and women of colour, particularly, in Comedy is because it’s easier to stick to light humour if your traumas don’t run that deep, because you aren’t constantly questioning whether it would be ‘too far’ to speak honestly about what you’ve been through and risk making an audience uncomfortable. This reminds me of some similar sketches about being fetishized by white men which appear in both London Hughes’ stand-up routines and Michaela Coel’s Chewing Gum, which I personally find sad to listen to/watch as well as a portion of Taylor Tomlinson’s Netflix special where she touches on being abused as a child, and directly addresses missing the mark when she’s tried to bring this up in light conversation: ‘why did everyone get sad?’. I suspect it’s hard to toe the line of opening up about things going genuinely badly and keeping the tone entertaining / relaxing, so maybe that’s why so many ‘I’m a mess’ claims seem unqualified.
Is it more about awareness than pretence?
All this said, I completely agree that far more checking ourselves is needed. Even if this is how environments can make you feel, there’s a big difference between how you’re feeling and reality. There’s a very big gulf between you feeling like your life is falling to pieces because you might get a 2:1 not a 1st or you might not make it onto SNL by your 29th birthday and it actually falling to pieces. Show some sensitivity and recognise what an immensely privileged position you’re in if these are your greatest worries – these supersede even first world problems. Equally, if it’s a case of believing our relatively tame antics are outlandish, I’d say part of the solution is a reality check and a journey of self-education: time to leave the shelter a little and realise how rocky a ride life is for most people (e.g. by reading about others’ experiences beyond our own bubbles).
It’s also, of course, important to recognise what a luxury it is to be able to prioritise your own creative pursuits or professional goals, a luxury the vast majority of people – particularly women – (e.g. parents, carers, those working longer hours due to lower wages) don’t have. There are obvious reasons the arts relentlessly fail in the way of accessibility and diversity, from demanding so much unpaid labour to the necessity of networking. I can, therefore, appreciate how insulting it is to claim your life is any busier or more important than anyone else’s because you’ve been privileged enough to have the option of living that kind of life.
I would like to hope that there’s a solution to this in the sense that you can be honest and self-aware in however you’re discussing your lifestyle and identity, be that in Comedy or everyday discourse. I think the best stand-up routines have to feature self-awareness and some of the best one-liners are those acknowledging the comedian’s own short-comings or mistakes. An honest routine, from the perspective of a self-aware, privileged person, then, can surely feature feeling like a ‘mess’ but include an awareness of setting the bar too high for oneself, being sheltered, and coming from a certain background, and this could be worked in to expose your own personal standard of ‘messiness’ as unreasonable. You can talk, for example, about how ridiculously stressed you felt at an elite institution – which is valid – whilst remaining conscious that being at the institution in the first place rested on a hefty set of advantages.
Will I self-brand as a ‘mess’?
It’s a difficult one, to be honest. I recently went for a third date with a guy I haven’t seen in a couple of weeks and when he asked, ‘what’s new?’ my answer included: getting COVID, breaking my phone, losing my debit card, gaining and losing 2 jobs, nearly moving to Glasgow, fighting a pub manager for several overdue pay cheques, contracting cystitis then vomiting for 3-days straight as an allergic reaction to the anti-biotics, and now trying to combat a moth infestation in my bedroom. He just looked at me for a very long moment and said, ‘right’. Oh and then I remembered I’d said I would bring his t-shirt but didn’t because I’d been wearing it everywhere since I hadn’t done laundry and it was no longer in returnable condition. By a fair few people’s standards, my life does seem ‘messy’ – and I am frequently told so.
Now, believe it or not I don’t say all of this to sound wild and crazy, important and busy, or bumbling and relatable. Insane though this may sound, I would quite like it if my life just ran smoothly and I didn’t spend every waking hour putting out self-started fires or untangling myself from the obstacle course of spiders’ webs that seems to be god’s plan for me. Talking openly about how wrong everything insists on going is more, for me, a coping strategy – rather than resist the chaos as I have previously done (by attempting rigid routines, hyper-organisation, complete control) I’ve long surrendered to the solution that it might be easier to just embrace it and, if I can, laugh it off.
What I never mean to imply is that I think I am exceptional in plans going awry. My hope is that sharing my experiences of disorder will be comforting for others, which rests on an assumption that other people are going through this, too. I personally feel social media always presents a narrative of smooth, straightforward success: people leaping from strength to strength without a pitfall or mishap in sight. I like to believe that openly admitting my trajectory is all-over-the-place is a relieving break from this, for anyone interested in watching.
I’ve mainly accepted that, unfortunately, the scope of who I can comfort is probably limited – my version of self-exposed ‘failing’ or ‘falling apart’ is probably only reassuring to people who have similar standards to me, which will likely mean people who are somewhere similar on the privilege ladder. I like to believe there are aspects of ‘messiness’ that everyone can relate to – e.g. beyond material things, we all go through griefs/breakups, embarrassments/mistakes, disappointments/shortcomings – and I think a mark of good writing is being able to make personal and specific instances feel relevant to others.
I usually come to the conclusion that all I’m aiming for is transparency online, which means I won’t pretend to be any ‘messier’ than I genuinely am. The plan, for now, is to proceed with honesty and self-awareness (with a hope that I’ll get my life a bit more order in the long term).