What do Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s Fleabag, Michaela Coel’s Arabella Essiedu and Billie Piper’s Suzie Pickles have in common? What do the nameless narrators from Lauren Oyler’s Fake Accounts and Ottessa Moshfegh’s My Year of Rest and Relaxation, Raven Leilani’s Edie, Candice Carty-Williams’s Queenie and Naoise Dolan’s Ava share? Not much, I would argue, apart from the fact that they are fictional characters, that they are women and relatively young. But all have been classified as somewhat the same; as all belonging to the Hot Mess Millennial, Unhinged, Sad Girl trope.
Millennial women are the leading voices in contemporary fiction and drama. Everyone seemed rather pleased about this for perhaps five minutes. But now people are becoming bored and fed up. Of late there has been a spate of critics writing about the new “millennial woman” in TV and in literature. This “trope” character has been described as a “hot mess millennial”, a “messy millennial woman”, “endearingly messy” a “sad girl” or “unlikeable”; all these characters sit at the “crowded, millennial -woman-figuring-herself out table”. There is even an “unhinged women” section in a popular southern- England bookshop.
The critics are plaintive. They are sick of the overrepresentation of these women, bored of these sad girls with their sad girl problems. Barely six years since Fleabag hit our screens, heralded as startlingly original and refreshing, critics complain the dysfunctional messy woman is “fast becoming a trope; and a tired one at that.”
The readings of these women as somehow “the same” reveals an egregious tendency to undermine the particularity of the joys and challenges these characters face. Is Fleabag really like Arabella? Is her grief comparable to the trauma of rape? Are these authors and characters really exhibiting the same kind of “problems”?
It is true that miscarriage, revenge porn, sexual violence, misogynoir, are issues principally faced by women. But historically these issues have not often been explored in literature or drama, and – despite critics’ tendency to overemphasise them – they are not the only themes in these stories, which are finely drawn and incredibly nuanced. These characters are at times joyous, conflicted, morally conflicted, alienated: they can be ambitious, generous, narcissistic, defiant, hilarious or intensely serious. In other words: they are complex. In fact, the Messy Millennial and the Unhinged Woman and the Sad Girl are just cover-up names for complexity in women, which itself is not a trope – or ought not to be one.
These kinds of critiques of female characters and writers tap into a long history of misogynistic stereotypes about women inside and outside of the historically male critical establishment. Women have always been reduced to types: madonna, whore, crazy, difficult; black women have been reduced to the “angry black woman”, the hypersexualized “Jezebel” and “resilient black woman” stereotypes.
Applying the “messy millennial” and “sad girl” trope to such a variety of female characters – despite their differences in race, class, gender, their unique stories and personalities – is the latest iteration of our need to slot women and female characters into a category that makes them one-dimensional – and easier to dismiss. It also contributes to the critical establishment’s long history of seeing complex female characters through a psychoanalytic lens. Anyone familiar with the reception of Sylvia Plath’s work will wince at the resurgence of the “unhinged” and “sad girl” stereotype and the tendency to pathologise female characters.
There is much we miss when we view art through this reductive lens; the nuance of Coel’s depiction of sexual and police violence committed against Black queer subjects, or of Dolan’s exploration of class and elitism are entirely lost. It seems obvious, but the writing about these works demands that the obvious be stated: these works are as profound as novels and dramas written by men and featuring male protagonists. But under the Messy Millennial Sad Girl umbrella, all these works become kitchen dramas, flavours of the same stuff: silly and sad, variations on “girl problems”, and not really, you know, deep, not even really literature.
When a man writes a coming-of-age story, it is treated as a Bildungsroman in the tradition of the Catcher in the Rye, Great Expectations, the Sorrows of Young Werther. When women write a coming-of-age novel, it’s another “hot mess millennial story” about girls “figuring stuff out”. From the way critics talk about these novels, they are more reminiscent of Bridget Jones than Jane Eyre. (In fact Candice Carty-Williams’ Queenie was called the “Black Bridget Jones”; Given the themes explored in the novel this comparison seems laughably reductive.) The tone is often distinctly condescending. Critics have every right to find flaws in these works. But they must treat them as literature or drama. Not a girly annex of the real thing.
We do not lump together Karl Ove Knausgaard, Michel Houellbecq and Jonathan Franzen, even though all three of them create male characters who hate their mothers and masturbate furiously.
We rarely group male characters into one genre, nor subsume their own particular agonies under a blanket label of “man problems”. We do not lump together Karl Ove Knausgaard, Michel Houellbecq and Jonathan Franzen, even though all three of them create male characters who hate their mothers and masturbate furiously. We don’t say these are books about wanking and mother-hatred, or lascivious, middle-aged men. We don’t complain that they are a tired trope. There is no “Unhinged Men” section in any bookshop. This is because we do not tropify white middle-class male characters. We judge each work and character independently of whatever other male authors of a similar age have been up to. We treat them as “deep characters”, consider that their struggles touch the quick of the human experience. Women? Women’s problems. Chick lit. Unhinged. There’s a specific section for us in bookshops.
After centuries of white men exploring every nuance of male thought, desire and sexuality in literature, critics are already tired of complex female characters, who are criticised for being too messy, angry and sad. The call for more positive upbeat novels and TV series written by women is the equivalent of a man telling a woman on the street to “give me a smile” or “cheer up, love”. I sincerely hope Gen Z will be inspired to tell more jaunty, chirpy stories. But somehow, the events of the past few years – with ever-present police violence and the recent overturning of Roe vs Wade – make me suspect that we’ve got plenty more angry, sad, defiant, nuanced and complex female characters coming our way. I can’t get enough of them. Bring it on.
Berlin by Bea Setton is available now (Doubleday, £14.99)