The Story of Our Future Humans

She’s charismatic, self-destructive, and increasingly tiresome.

There’s a scene in the opening episode of Everything I Know About Love – Dolly Alderton’s adaptation of her smash-hit 2018 memoir – in which 24-year-old protagonist Maggie is all dressed up with nowhere to go. Her flatmates are all out. Her current squeeze, a Blake Fielder-Civil lookalike she met on a train, isn’t picking up the phone – and when he eventually does, he rebuffs her. Maggie is insulted, bored and increasingly desperate. She lies on the living room floor. She has a solo pint or three in the local old-man pub. The sheer desolation of being alone on a Friday night in your mid-20s is perfectly evoked and intensely relatable.

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But Maggie (Emma Appleton) is not a bog-standard Billy no-mates. She is Messy Millennial Woman. MMW doesn’t slope home and call it a night. Instead, she bursts in on her housemate Birdy, who is in bed with her date, and pathetically suggests that the three of them hang out. When that offer is politely rejected, she literally sprints across London into the arms of the very man who had snubbed her hours before. The implications are clear: Maggie, who is loosely based on the now 33-year-old Alderton (Everything I know About Love is set in 2012, putting its protagonist firmly in generation Y), is self-destructive, irresponsible and determined to live life to the full – while drowning out any negative feelings by beckoning further emotional chaos into her life.

Maggie might believe herself to be unique, but she isn’t: Messy Millennial Woman is everywhere. Over the last few years, she has dominated TV comedy-drama, especially in Britain. She is Fleabag, Suzie in I Hate Suzie and Arabella in I May Destroy You. She is Aine in This Way Up, Jessie in Starstruck, Mae in Feel Good and Sasha in Mood, the BBC Three series about a wannabe musician who inadvertently starts working in the sex industry. The main traits of MMW are thus: she has a complicated love life and a dysfunctional relationship with her family. She is often an unreliable employee and sometimes an unreliable friend. Unhappiness, low self-esteem and a tendency to self-sabotage radiates from her – but she’s also joyful and charismatic: a good-time girl who lurches from chaos to crisis, from euphoria to despair.

In other words, she is fast becoming a trope – and a tired one at that. In fact, she must be exhausted: she powers practically every progressive, female-centric sadcom in existence.

It’s difficult to deny that Messy Millennial Woman seems like a net good. A couple of decades ago, the proudly flawed heroine was not a fixture of mainstream culture – now she rules the zeitgeist. Yet recently, MMW has started to migrate from a bracingly realistic proxy to something fast approaching a reductive stereotype, monopolising comic portrayals of the female experience. If you are a millennial woman who has never remotely identified with this personality – if you are (like me) a chronically risk-averse goody two-shoes – then Messy Millennial Woman’s domination may have felt overwhelming and alienating for some time now. Of course, many of the aforementioned shows do depict women with other personalities – in Everything I Know About Love, Birdy is hyper-organised and hyper-sensible, as is Jessie’s flatmate Kate in Starstruck – but they are never the beating heart of the show, never the ones we are invited to fall in love with. They can’t be when MMW is busy exuding so much main character energy.

It’s not that the Messy Millennial Woman hasn’t got great appeal – clearly she does – or that she isn’t rooted in reality (however little you relate to her actions, it’s hard not to identify with her at all). It is, rather, that she is ossifying into predictability, becoming the default, one-note expression of womanhood when the very point of her was to diversify the portrayal of female characters on-screen. Then again, she may not be long for this world: the youngest millennials are now 26 and you would hope that generation Z have something else up their sleeve. At the very least, they might entertain the idea that female characters are worthy of interest even when their lives aren’t quite such a whirlwind of thrilling disarray.