I’ll confess it: I’m a recovering hot mess.
In the years after college, I was often self-deprecating and unconfident, minimizing my achievements and playing demure as a means to connect—especially with men. I struggled to get concrete about what I wanted in work and in love.
I see these kinds of adorably flustered young female characters everywhere in pop culture. We don’t even call ourselves women. We’re still GIRLS, as Lena Dunham and HBO remind us, who are “almost kind of getting it together.”
From Alison Brie’s character in Community to the leading ladies of 2 Broke Girls, young women who struggle with assertiveness in work and love are omnipresent—and portrayed as cute for being so flustered. Zooey Deschanel’s character in New Girl is frank about how awkward so-called “emerging adulthood” can be, as she is constantly caught in work and love conundrums. What she wants is unclear, and what she’s asking for is even less so.
Woven throughout these characters is a common—but troubling—storyline about not quite knowing what you want, and therefore not quite going for it.
So what’s the big deal?
While sure, some of this can be chalked up to art mimicking life, life mimics art in return. When these girlish characters are put on display on the small screen, they set norms for what is expected of us women and reinforces what is socially rewarded.
Perhaps this is why I was taken aback when I started dating a man who thought my demanding job was sexy. After a few months of getting to know each other (during which time I played down my role at work), I finally openly reveled in sealing a big deal for one of my clients.
His response? “That’s hot.” Instead of feeling flattered, I was confused. I asked him to elaborate. He said it was sexy to meet a woman who’s got her life together.
Then I started thinking that maybe it was my behavior—not his—that should have been more surprising. Why had I been dating him for months and only barely mentioned how I was crushing it in the workplace?
I have a BA from an Ivy League school and did a fellowship at Harvard. I helped pass President Obama’s healthcare reform as the nation’s youngest state director of Organizing For America. And yet months after meeting this guy I still downplayed these achievements, making a joke when he stumbled across a photo on Facebook of me and the President and asked, “Is this real?”
I began to realize that my attempts at embodying humility were missing the mark. By nearly denying my achievements altogether, I wasn’t just playing demure, I was acting under the assumption that women who boss up at work are somehow less attractive. What I thought was a charmingly discombobulated version of myself wasn’t doing me (or anyone) any favors.
Messages that tell us it’s charming to be that confused girl in our 20’s can hamstring us for life. Dr. Meg Jay, whose TED talk Why 30 Is Not The New 20 went viral recently, argues that your 20’s are no “throwaway decade.” Just as the first decade of a career has a huge impact on how much money a person earns over his or her lifetime, love is the same way: Half of Americans are with their future partner by the age of 30.
This is where pop culture can help. I want to see more young women on TV rocking it in the workplace—and deemed attractive because of it. It wouldn’t hurt to see a young woman who’s satisfied with her love life, too.
If we’re ever going to be able to “make your partner a real partner,” like Sheryl Sandberg advocates in Lean In, we’ve got to believe that men who love women who love their careers exist—and know that we can attract them by not glossing over our achievements when we’re dating.
Mindy Kaling’s character on The Mindy Project (though in her 30’s) is a great start. Though still regularly caught in misadventures in love, she never shies away from her achievements as a doctor and regularly makes better-than-terrible choices “because I’m an adult,” as she says. She claims her womanhood unapologetically.
Other women in comedy and music in particular are showing us there’s an alternative way. Beyonce. Janelle Monae. Nicki Minaj. Tina Fey. Amy Poehler. All of these women take their business seriously, are unapologetic for their success, and show that while we all struggle to balance love and a rewarding career, we don’t need to play down our accomplishments to date. I just wish there were more 20-something’s to list here.
Let’s go, pop culture curators. I’m sick of “hot mess” chic, and ready for a modern-day Xena Warrior Princess or Wonder Woman heroine who’s taking charge in the workplace instead of the battlefield—and deemed all the sexier for it.
Emilie Ariesis a digital strategist and organizer in the midst of launching Bossed Up, a women’s empowerment startup focused on providing hands-on training for women entering the workforce with a holistic approach centered on health, happiness, and assertive communication. Connect with her on Twitter: @emiliearies and at emiliearies.com.