by Lena Potts
“Celebrities! They’re just like us!” JK no they aren’t. But many of them spend a lot of time trying to convince us all of how similar they are to us regulars. A particular brand of celebrity, the Messy White Woman, takes a curious space in the celebrity landscape and reflects on what we desire from our icons.
The Messy White Woman is a curated image of disorder- accessible, non-threatening, and comforting. In this moment of Kesha’s comeback it’s interesting to track how and why these women are so successful in creating a popular image.
Our first Kesha, many years ago, was a Messy White Woman. When she came onto the scene with Tik Tok in 2010, her persona was built on being an absolute shitshow. The third line of the song is “before I leave, brush my teeth with a bottle of Jack”. There was a dollar sign in her name. The video is just her looking blackout drunk and covered in glitter. And this is not Lady Gaga, controlled, gay icon glitter- this is the kind of glitter that is stuck to you because you’re drenched in cheap alcohol and sweat.
Jennifer Lawrence, too, built a brand on talking about and performing “mess”- she falls at award shows, she talks about how much food she eats, and brags about how awkward she is. Even though she’s an Oscar-winning, incredibly serious actress, she’s a goof! She eats! She’s just like you! It’s the new form of cool girl- relatable but gorgeous.
Enter Amy Schumer, whose appeal is less based in her physicality and more in her gross-out, normatively masculine humor. Schumer’s calling card is mess. She made an entire movie, starring herself, called “Trainwreck”.
The Messy White Woman, whom they all embody in different ways, benefits greatly from the very popular trend of whining about how awful and impossible it is to be an actual, functional adult. We millenials (sorry, I know its a tough term to swallow) live for memes and jokes about how we love pizza, can’t make it to the shower regularly, drink too much (but in a funny way!), don’t know how to do anything useful, etc. The Messy White Woman is the pinnacle of this “hilariously flawed 20 something” trope. These women are comforting because, in the most theoretical sense, you too could have “flaws”. If Jennifer Lawrence can fall down, maybe we can all be a little freer!
Celebrities have always been a projection of what we would like to be. Celebrity women project that many of us would like the freedom to be flawed, but to still have traits that align with many of our reliable standards of femininity. Jennifer Lawrence and Kesha are classically, Caucasianally, beautiful. They’re flawed, maybe because one falls down and one drinks too much, but can always fall back on looking like “the girl next door”. And Amy Schumer, while she eschews many images of femininity, does so by playing into the “cool girl” trope, and by talking about sex as much as possible, bringing back any sex appeal she may have compromised in downplaying her femininity. These are all selected flaws, ones that will bring them closer to us normals at first glance, but don’t open them up to any real vulnerability. To really bring it home, think of Lena Dunham- her mess seems too authentic, and she’s incredibly polarizing, rather than generally comforting and/or gaining popularity.
They are all, also, unsustainable. Each of these women has faced their cycle of media “it girl” status and subsequent backlash. They became annoying or pushy, or, sometimes, just too much.
The Messy White Woman is the one of the most nuanced forms of celebrity persona, and falls right in the middle of the spectrum of mess, so much so that I’d like to believe it’s based on actual personality. After all, it plays exactly to the persona many of us throw out into the universe (read: internet) every day. But it is just really one of many paths. Contrast it with the Pristine White Woman- Nicole Kidman, Reese Withoutherspoon, etc. These ladies are so purposeful in avoiding scandals (Reese never really said anything about that DUI drama; we amazingly don’t really associate Nicole with Tom Cruise anymore) that it must take incredible skill and, realistically, a crack team. Or the Actual Shitshow (2007 Britney Spears, Lindsay Lohan anytime after Mean Girls), the Flawless Black Woman (Beyonce, Kerry Washington), and the Openly Fake (Taylor Swift). All of these women have picked a path that will hopefully allow them to navigate celebrity, support their careers, maintain a level of privacy appropriate to their desires, and be a person sometimes.
While the Actual Shitshows can either continue to be so or rebound into a Comeback Queen, and the Flawless Black Women and Pristine White Women have committed so fully to the success of the image, the Messy White Woman must have a downfall. It is too precarious a place to set yourself up- likeable because of your flaws- in a world of celebrity and scrutiny, to ever succeed long-term. Honestly, it seems too precarious a position as a famous woman at all, to play into being flawed. That does not, however, as we see with Kesha, take away from their talent or ability to contribute to their art, regaining celebrity. These women must, after their time away from the spotlight, which they will all take, rebrand themselves, sometimes into another of these categories. Kesha has, after a truly saddening time away, joined the Free White Women.
I hope she can stay there.