The hot mess ~ or why damaged goods garner more interest
When Jane Austen wrote that she was going to create a heroine for a novel whom nobody would much like but her, she showed a surprising lack of insight into human nature. That said, she never lived to see how wildly popular her novel Emma would become or how beloved its eponymous heroine was later to be. Within the confines of the story, Emma herself is a disaster area, meddling in the affairs of others and nearly costing them (and herself) lasting happiness. In strict contrast to her imperfections, her peer Jane Fairfax is held up by all and sundry as being the pinnacle of young womanhood, but Emma herself finds Jane distinctly boring and has never sought her out as a friend, despite being the same age. It’s only later, when circumstances show that Jane has a secret that Emma feels any sort of real interest in her.
I came across the term hot mess on Twitter, I think in relation to a photograph of actor Gabriel Byrne. The term basically means someone whose appearance is far from smart and well turned out but who somehow contrives to convey heavy duty sexiness. Think bed-hair and smudged eye make up, think Johnny Depp as Jack Sparrow. But a hot mess goes far beyond mere animal sexuality and appeal; it links in with some very complex psychology.
I believe we have an inbuilt sense of proportion and beauty. The golden mean, that measure of perfection in proportions is quite deeply ingrained, though often unconscious. One house I lived in years ago had a very large living room. It seated twenty people quite comfortably. But sitting in there for any length of time made me uneasy. It took me a long time to figure out why; it was the proportions of the room. Despite it being a huge room, it had a disproportionately low ceiling that created a feeling of oppression. I ended up feeling squashed.
It’s the same with people. In physical terms we are drawn to symmetry and research has shown that the closer a face is to symmetrical the higher it rates in the beauty stakes. Yet perfection often repels. There is something god-like and untouchable about perfection. We end up confusing beauty with goodness.
Both beauty and goodness are hard to be around because they show up our imperfections. Drawn and repelled, we circulate, dipping in and out of orbit. There is no place for us to anchor ourselves alongside perfection; we cannot connect.
But the hot mess has something special. There IS beauty, and lots of it, but it’s a damaged kind of beauty. There may be room for us to stand alongside, without looking so conspicuously imperfect. There is perhaps room for us in their life, their mess. Just as we are drawn to admire perfection, we may also be drawn to try and create it. The hot mess just begs to be fixed.
I’m not merely talking about external physical appearance but also about the interior. People with problems, damaged souls, sometimes can be more compelling, singing that siren song of need. Many of us need to be needed and the more damaged a person seems to be, the more scope for us to be useful. It’s a heady mix, though, and you’re probably thinking already of relationships you’ve witnessed where this strange co-dependency has developed.
In literary terms, the hot mess is vital to a good story. Reading about someone whose life is perfect but which then unravels in spectacular fashion is enthralling; we live vicariously through their troubles. On the other end, a story where the main character starts out a mess and travels towards recovery, we find ourselves rooting for them to succeed. And yet, if they do succeed, do we lose interest? Some of the best novels I’ve read that address this are those by Susan Howatch; they take the reader on a rip-roaring journey where the main characters implode, explode, fall to pieces, and recover. But they never recover completely. There’s always a sense of there being a hiatus in the experience, of reaching a safe haven but only for the moment.
I wrote once “If life is a journey, then any short-cut is a death trap” (I was very amused and slightly humbled to find this quoted on Facebook by a stranger) and I have to stand by that. Recovery from the damage life does to us is only ever partial, and we become walking wounded. I think we become fascinated by the hot mess of literature because there is a sense of fellowship, of kinship with the characters whose lives are in ruins, internally or externally. They help us feel less alone when we are unable to show our damage to those around us for fear they will reject us as weak, imperfect and ugly.
Who is your favourite literary hot mess?