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The Evolution of the ‘Messy Woman’

How the pop culture trope changed in the time between ‘Animals’ being published in 2014 and then adapted into a film this year.

by Phoebe Hurst
09 August 2019, 3:34am

Collage by VICE staff

When I call Emma Jane Unsworth on a Monday afternoon, she starts by apologising. It was sunny this weekend and she spent much of it in a beer garden. Today, she’s dealing with the resulting hangover. “It’s very on-brand though,” she laughs.

Animals, Unsworth’s 2014 breakout novel, is about exactly this: moments of temptation that lead to headaches the next morning. It follows 32-year-old Laura, who faces a choice: continue the party lifestyle she and best mate Tyler have enjoyed since their twenties; or settle down with teetotal fiance Jim. For most of the book, she chooses Tyler. Animals’ opening scene is Laura waking up, head like a family of racoons is nesting up there, and leg knotted to the bedpost with last night’s tights. From here, it’s a rampage through karaoke bars, toilet cubicles, parties, nightclubs and grotty kitchens. “And there it was, as always, swinging my way: The Night,” Laura reflects. “With its deals, promises and gauntlets.”

This month, Animals is released as a film adaptation . While the setting has moved from Unsworth’s native Manchester to Dublin, the film stays true to the book’s central tension between the sesh and sorting your life out.

“I didn’t feel I was getting a chance to read stories about women that went against the grain,” says Unsworth. “Not only in fiction but also on screen. There was no recreational joy allowed with drugs or intoxication or in sex. Women who were having a lot of sex were always troubled. Someone in their family had to be dying or have a hole in their heart.”

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Holly Grainger and Alia Shawkat as Laura and Tyler in 'Animals'. Photo courtesy Tamara Hardman.

Told through Laura’s first-person narration, Animals the book is intimate and confessional; the moments when she finds herself cleaving away from Tyler feel as gut-wrenching as a WhatsApp from a hangxiety-suffering mate. The film attempts to reflect this intensity – one so specific to female friendships that revolve around alcohol – with big-night-out montages and poignant cutaways to urban foxes on dark streets.

Unsworth wrote the screenplay and worked closely with director Sophie Hyde to cast Holly Grainger and Arrested Development’s Alia Shawkat as Laura and Tyler respectively. “I made it new by knowing that I had to keep the same,” she says. “I had to know what the heart of it was and then we could break up everything else and rebuild it around that heart. So, the centre of it had to be the friendship and it had to be one woman’s self-liberation from these things that were oppressing her.”

Unsworth wants the film adaptation of Animals to feel new, but today’s cultural climate is very different to 2014. Back then, Caitlin Moran had just published How to Be a Woman, a ‘bad girl feminist’ memoir prototype covering her teens and early twenties that included in-depth descriptions of masturbation, drugs and vaginas. Kristen Wiig’s Bridesmaids had also just come out, upturning the chick-flick formula with a fallible protagonist and visceral gags about food poisoning and getting drunk on planes. Amy Schumer’s Trainwreck, another film with a misbehaving white woman at the helm, followed in 2015 . Suddenly, women could get pissed, talk about bodily functions and mess up relationships in the same way male characters had been doing for years. What’s more, they could be funny while doing it.

Lena Dunham’s Girls, which first aired in 2012 and ran for six seasons, perhaps best epitomised this new breed of female character. Every one of the HBO show’s central cast members is in some way deplorable, not least Dunham’s own egotistical Hannah Horvath. The ‘messy woman’ – a girl who made bad choices and probably didn’t shave her armpits – had arrived.

Does Unsworth see Animals the book as part of this wave? “Yeah. I guess, so much so, that I couldn’t watch Girls while I was writing it,” she says.

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Photo courtesy Bernard Walsh.

For Dr Elspeth Mitchell, feminist theory research associate at Loughborough University, the popularity of messy women like Hannah Horvath or Amy Schumer’s heavy-drinking character in Trainwreck was “in some sense, a push back against some other tropes that were floating around, like the ‘manic pixie dream girl’”. Indeed the other big cultural hitters of the 2010s were Mad Men and its depiction of quietly oppressed women, or supposedly edgy new comedies like Silicon Valley, which left women mostly as side characters. Jonathan Franzen and his distinctly masculine style of writing dominated the literary world, first with Freedom in 2010, then Purity in 2015.

Perhaps, then, these women’s messiness didn’t feel quite so groundbreaking as the fact that they were well-written female characters. “I think something that makes these 2010s-and-onwards texts so interesting is that they construct characters and relationships with a lot of nuance and care,” says Mitchell. “They are then read as characters that are transgressive and subversive, but they are actually paying attention to a lot of everyday things that are significant for a lot of people.”

When you consider Animals, the book, sensitively drawn female friendship stood arm-over-shoulder with unflinching depictions of boozy nights. “For me, it wasn’t like anything that I’d ever read before,” says Joanna Dingley, an editor at Canongate, who published Animals. “In 2014, I would have been in my early to mid-twenties and it just rang so true. It wasn’t that I was living the same lives as these women, but I was seeing women struggle with a lot of the issues that they were struggling with. But also I think they both had a ‘fuck it’ attitude that I knew all the young women who I was friends had, but wasn’t reflected in anything I was reading.”

Laura and Tyler were undoubtedly unique in 2014. But fast forward five years, and we are more used to seeing women subvert gender expectations – thanks to mainstream hits like the BBC drama Fleabag, which VICE declared the “best show on British TV about being a young, horny mess” when it aired in 2016, and the writing of Sally Rooney, whose books examine women’s mental health and sexuality with disarming lucidity. Watching Animals, I enjoyed the giant jar of MDMA and the opening party scene soundtracked by Peaches’ “Boys Wanna Be Her”, but none of it felt particularly subversive. And compared to Rooney and Fleabag creator Phoebe Waller-Bridge, who eviscerate the chasm between women’s interior voice and the supposedly perfect exterior, the dialogue in Animals falls sadly flat. When Tyler confronts Laura in the wedding dress shop about whether she really wants to marry Jim, all we get is a muted “None of this changes our friendship” speech.

Dingley hasn’t seen Animals yet, but tells me that she rewatched Bridesmaids recently. “I commented to my friend that I couldn’t believe that when it came out in 2011, we were all talking about how it was a female-led comedy. That was a talking point: that women were allowed to be funny and do really stupid stuff as if that was something new and radical, but it did genuinely feel that way at the time.”

As the messy woman becomes a trope, she loses some of her potency. Of course, this could be a good thing – the less freaked out we are by women who refuse to settle down, the better. But there is also the danger that she becomes a stereotype, or begins to feel played out. Broad City, the Comedy Central show fronted by two “messy queens” that first aired in 2014, released its final season this year. Co-creator Ilana Glazer described it as “a flash-in-the-pan kind of thing, and we wanted to stay true to that.” I wonder if Animals the book could have done with the same treatment.

“The messy woman trope has already lost its usefulness in many ways because it’s become generalised,” says Mitchell. “When something becomes generalised, you can’t understand the significance of every aspect; the individual projects of who made it and the differences. That’s the issues with representations of women in general, that they get flattened out and become a monolithic voice that is supposed to speak for all women when that’s simply not the point.”

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Photo courtesy Bernard Walsh.

There is also the question of who gets to be messy – something that we weren’t asking enough back in 2014. While Dingley rightly notes that Laura is working class, unlike the characters of Girls for whom “everything is being bankrolled by their parents,” Animals is, essentially, a book about white ladies getting pissed and slacking at work, without suffering serious threats to their safety or living situation. The outcome for a woman of colour or trans woman could look very different. Of course, Unsworth is not obliged to address this in her work, but in 2019, it’s a consideration that many critics will bring to Animals.

For Unsworth, the ubiquity of the messy woman is a good thing. She is only too happy to see a proliferation of women characters with complex lives in books and on screen. “It’s a rich theme to mine. It’s not like it’s going to get exhausted.” She also points to books like Queenie by British-Jamaican author Candice Carty-Williams as exciting examples of the ‘messy’ trope evolving beyond white women.

“There are still plenty of writers and stories and people who are not being represented,” Unsworth says. “Let’s get more working class stories there, let’s get stories of people of colour in there. That’s what I want to see.”

In the end, whether viewers in 2019 will find Animals the film as revolutionary as the first time we saw Maya Rudolph shit herself wearing a wedding dress is largely irrelevant. Think about how many mediocre films there are about men making questionable choices – Seth Rogan has basically built an entire career on it. New films or books about messy women, even the imperfect ones, stretch what is deemed ‘acceptable’ behaviour a little further.

Unsworth, who holds up admirably throughout our phone call despite the hangover, puts it best. “What we want is for women’s stories to not be seen as niche and not be seen as a category that’s growing,” she says. “The female experience is not a niche, it’s half the population at least, and we need our stories represented.”

@phoebejanehurst

This article originally appeared on VICE UK.