At the beginning of last year, I eagerly anticipated the rise of the “female fuckup,” a character that I predicted would spread from films like Bridesmaids and shows like Girls to all corners of mainstream culture, hopefully diversifying as she went. Rather than just being a “badass” and reflecting another recent cultural trend, 2015’s most celebrated woman could simply be bad at whatever she was trying to do.
And how wonderful the results of this trend turned out to be. As the year ended, one could almost argue that female foibles were becoming as ubiquitous in culture as they always have been in real life. In December alone, I read Emma Jane Unsworth’s brilliant novel of debauchery, Animals, a poignant chronicle of 20-something drugging and drinking. I finally watched Trainwreck (and enjoyed the first hour, before Amy tried to un-wreck her life), considered the multiple abortion plotlines on shows like Scandal and Jessica Jones, got ready for second season of Transparent that promised more Pfefferman dysfunction, and read year-end lists that praised the complex, fully realized teen girl stories in movies such as Girlhood and The Diary of a Teenage Girl. Book critics celebrated the tortured female friendships of Elena Ferrante and the underbelly of seemingly sainted wifehood in Lauren Groff’s Fates and Furies. And on social media, Star Wars’ Carrie Fisher won us over with her devil-may-care attitude about her looks.
All this pop-cultural evidence suggested that deeply fucked-up women, funny and confident in their flaws, were not only present, but widely admired, their stories consumed with fervor. Looking through this lens, we can see girls and women — trans and cis, white and black, American and international — as complicated, funky, self-sabotaging, dark, and desirous creatures worthy of love and compassion. Our flaws reveal our needs, some of which are unique, and some of which we share with people of all genders. We need abortions; we need help managing our lives; we need respect for diverse sexualities; we need room and time to grow into better people, citizens, friends, moms — no more and no less than our male counterparts.
But in a patriarchal society, what does it mean when the culture begins to more broadly accept that women make errors, stumble, don’t balance life perfectly, and have the same propensity to be foolish or impulsive that men do? Perhaps it’s wishful thinking, but this year, my question is: Can we move from an aesthetic of simply noting individual female characters and their fascinating defects to envisioning a society that allows for visions of collaboration and uplift between and among woman?
I have to wonder if the sudden influx of these nuanced depictions has coincided with an increasingly forceful cry in the media and political spheres for a renewed social safety net. Sick leave, parental leave (including for dads), and minimum wage hikes in particular are back on the national docket for the first time in many years. And the idea that asking women alone to “have it all” and “lean in” while society offers them no help is finally being treated as arcane by powerful voices. Tina Fey and Amy Poehler’s fairly weak Taylor Swift parody hinted at this — instead of a “squad” of cool chicks, they acknowledged the nannies and gynecologists and other collaborators who made their lives as successful women possible. Even if the skit ultimately fell flat, it gestured at an aesthetic of solidarity that felt like it was headed somewhere compelling.
This seems important as we enter an election year, the first with a likely female major-party nominee in American history. Whether or not you support her candidacy, it’s notable that Hillary Clinton is running very differently than she did eight years ago, using images and ideas of feminist policy that promote care for families and women — as well as projecting the kind of toughness and strength we see in heroines like Rey from Star Wars and Katniss from the Hunger Games. The image she seems to be aiming for, at least so far, is that of a badass who also has a somewhat maternal sense of compassion and wants to sweep us up in a cloak of it. And with her main challenger, Bernie Sanders, advocating an even more robust social welfare state that would lift up women and families, while the current president weeps about gun violence, the message of the Democratic Party itself has moved in a direction of empathy.
Taken together, these two feminist pop-cultural trends — the comfortable perch of “strong female characters” like Rey and Katniss who can independently muster strength, along with our acceptance of the very human imperfections women share with men — seem entirely aligned with the political moment. As Hermione Hoby wrote towards the end of 2015, expecting the strong woman to stand alone and imitate her male peers has grown tired: “beneath the feel-good female bravura of ‘badass’ is a decidedly feel-bad notion, namely that the only way a woman can exercise power is to submit herself to the drag (in both senses) of ‘behaving like a man.'”
So as the year begins, I’m anticipating, if not a wave, perhaps an opening for a new fusion of the badass aesthetic with the fuckup aesthetic. Highlights may include major pop culture moments like the all-female Ghostbusters, which will have an actually diverse “team” of women collaborating together; a Wonder Woman film that has a female director and a female star; and the return of collaborative comedy like Broad City, along with (hopefully) the premiere of Issa Rae’s Insecure.
And in the next six months, the literary world also promises to offer variations on this theme. Rebecca Traister’s All the Single Ladies will examine how marrying later — or not at all — allows women to collaborate on massive social movements and effect change. I’m looking forward to thinking about models of collaborative creativity as I read a jointly written novel from two writers I know, Laurie Alberts and Abby Frucht’s A Well-Made Bed. Even memoirs centering around issues such as abortion (Mira Ptacin’s Poor Your Soul) and eating and weight (Roxane Gay’s Hunger) seem to have broader implications. All of this puts us at the start of a year with plenty of potential for elevating women’s solidarity and power, through that old feminist standby: the political meeting the personal.