It doesn't matter if a male character is a globe-trotting super-spy, a hyperintelligent genius, or a Millionaire Playboy — according to this trope, any male who's responsible for maintaining a home, apartment, or regeneration pod will inevitably fail in the most spectacular way possible.
When the domicile is actually shown, expect to see unwashed laundry stuck to the ceiling, mold-covered unspeakables in the refrigerator, pornographic magazines under the mattress (or out in the open), and empty beer cans and pizza boxes everywhere. If and when an impressionable person (usually his mother, boss, or love interest) comes by, there will be a sudden flurry of activity as the hopeless male shoves everything into a closet in an attempt to instantly clean the place. A variation of this trope appears if the male character is living at home with his parents; in this case, expect his room to be an island of grunge while the rest of the house is immaculately well-kept. Trash of the Titans may be invoked if the mess is of epic proportions.
A supertrope to A Day in Her Apron, but while that trope contrasts the skills of a couple, this one focuses solely on the inability of men (married or single) to keep house. Might be subverted with a case of Just Fine Without You. The reason why Mess Of Woe is chiefly a Male trope.
To an extent it's not inaccurate. Young single men living alone or with other male roommates may not have the time nor the inclination to keep house well, especially when their abode is mostly use for sleeping. On the other hand, it stretches credibility when a married man or a father plays this straight and the men mentioned earlier put less emphasis on housework rather than its absence.
Contrary to popular belief, this trope was around well before modern feminism. In fact, Betty Friedan pointed out the Unfortunate Implications for women as well as men in The Feminine Mystique in 1963: not only is it rather insulting toward men, but if men simply can't be expected to keep house decently, it follows that housekeeping must be the woman's responsibility, even if she'd rather pursue a career and split the domestic duties. Today this is almost, but not quite, a Dead Horse Trope, especially in Comedies. In many works, excessive cleanliness and thoughtful decoration in a man's home is sometimes seen as a sign of homosexuality (feeding an equally-pervasive stereotype that all gay men are awesome housekeepers) or just plain bonkers; a slovenly bachelor is therefore a shorthand for heterosexuality. In other works, however, it is a shorthand for bratty, self-obsessed immaturity, and so a bad bet that way.
Contrast House Husband and Real Men Wear Pink; compare and contrast with Feminine Women Can Cook. Also see Guys are Slobs, Lazy Husband and The Pig Pen.
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Pretty common in advertisements for cleaning products: pretty much all the time it's the woman who is doing the cleaning, and it's also pretty common for the husband to be the one who made the mess in the first place.
Subverted by Minamoto from Zettai Karen Children, who's basically a gender-flipped Action Mom. Skilled shooter, genius scientist, tactical mastermind, all-round badass — and on top of that, he keeps the house spic-and-span, cooks, does the laundry, and make sure the kids get their baths. It's such an in-grown part of his character that even when he's kidnapped by a hostile esper, he instantly takes over the housekeeping, does her laundry, and reminds her to eat her vegetables!
Also subverted in Sailor Moon, Mamoru's (Tuxedo Mask) apartment is spotless and it's implied that he's a bit of neat freak.
Hiko and Kenshin in Rurouni Kenshin both avert this. Hiko's hut was really organized until Kenshin went rifling through it for some medicine he was given once upon a time. Kenshin voluntarily does the laundry.
Played straight with Motoki Furuhata (Andrew in the dub). His apartment is terrible.
Surprisingly averted in Chobits, Hideki keeps his apartment remarkably clean for a bachelor.
Except at first; for the first few chapters there were porn magazines everywhere, and when his teacher came to stay with him briefly he was scrambling to put them away.
Discussed in ...Junai No Seinen as the reason why Kaoru and Daigo always meet at the hotel rather than their apartments.
While most of Shigure's house is fairly neat in Fruits Basket, Tohru describes the kitchen as 'The Sea of Corruption' when she first sees it.
In the manga, the entire house, and especially the kitchen, is described as a "sea of decay" until Tohru comes and cleans it; even once the rest of it is cleaned, Shigure's room remains a mess.
Kyo is actually shown as being more competent with the housework (or at least knows how to cook, putting him above Yuki in that regard). He just never shows any inclination to help out, since he doesn't even want to live there. Funnily enough, he learned what he did about housekeeping because his own adopted dad had his own issues with keeping house (again, primarily cooking).
Averted by Syaoran in the manga version Cardcaptor Sakura: he lives alone, but his apartment is absolutely immaculate. Even when a chapter becomes a Sick Episode for him. (In the anime, he has The Jeeves to take care of him and his apartment, though Syaoran is shown to be good at domestic work such as cooking and sewing.)
Goes double for Sakura's dad, a widower who nevertheless takes excellent care of his house and children while working as a university professor.
In Happy Yarou Wedding, when Yuuhi first starts working as a housekeeper for Akira he describes the state of his home as "the tragedy of a single man". Subverted by Yuuhi himself, however.
Sha Gojyo in Saiyuki is the poster boy for this trope: until Hakkai moves in with him, his place features random dirty socks, scattered porn mags, and beer cans - lots of beer cans - crammed with cigarette butts. And even after Hakkai's civilizing influence takes effect he never can remember when trash day is.
Tiger & Bunny's Kotetsu has evidently never heard of a trash can, given the state of his house. Barnaby seems to have gone to the other extreme; not only does he have absolutely no litter in his apartment — he barely even has any furniture.
Inverted in Toradora!; there it's Ryuuji who ends up doing all the housework for Taiga, who is incapable of cooking and too lazy to clean up after herself.
In Kamen no Maid Guy, it's the two siblings who cannot keep house - the house is literally overflowing with garbage, they can't use their own beds, and they have an infestation of rats, crows and snakes.
Averted in Batman comics, where Alfred Pennyworth keeps not only Wayne Manor in pristine condition but also the Batcave, despite it most likely suffering from a severe Bat-infestation that probably produces quite a large quantity of droppings over the course of a day.
Played straight in a storyline where Alfred gets sick, from something in all that guano. While the sidekicks get the job of sterilizing the cave, it falls to Bruce to try to take care of his adoptive father - "try" being the important word. The Batman can't seem to make chicken soup even with a recipe to follow (and ends up having to order take-out). He's pretty good at the reading of bedtime stories, though.
Films — Animated
Sid Phillips in Toy Story demonstrates the kid-at-home variation of this trope, with his junk-strewn dimly-lit bedroom.
In Toy Story 2, Al's lovely penthouse apartment is marred by his slovenly lifestyle, which includes junk food all over the floor.
In Blade Runner, Deckard's apartment has stuff littering every surface. When Rachael visits, he has to clear stuff out of a chair so that he can sit down. She remains standing. Deckard offers Rachael a drink, and has to clean a glass from the sink because there are no clean glasses available.
In Designing Woman, a fashion designer (Lauren Bacall) marries a sportswriter (Gregory Peck) and describes his apartment as looking like the cigar box full of junk her brother had.
Withnail and I contains the gay and straight versions of the trope. Unemployed actors Withnail and Marwood share a squalid flat in London with a particularly vile kitchen. They go for a holiday in gay Uncle Monty's country cottage, which they find to be a barely habitable hovel. Then Monty turns up and takes charge, and quickly makes it warm and homely.
The first time we see Holmes' apartment in Sherlock Holmes, it is a darkened disheveled mess, complete with bullet holes in the walls. This trope is indirectly discussed when Mrs. Hudson enters and Holmes teases her for not making her rounds more frequently.
Lord Of Illusions: Private detective Harry D'Amour's New York apartment is a mess, with his employer noting that the place needs a woman's touch. D'Amour bitterly notes that he tried marriage before.
This has been implied as the norm in the Discworld City Watch, even after the introduction of female recruits. Mrs. Palm was noticably Squicked by the canteen in Feet of Clay, and Sam Vimes was clearly distressed in Thud!! when his wife Sybil actually washed the tea urn.
On the other hand, Lord Downey was noticeably squicked by the Watch canteen as well, and the neatest character in the books is Stanley. It's probably just the Watch that can't keep house.
Dave Barry mentions sharing an apartment with a fellow young male. It lacked furniture, but this allowed them to play Indoor Ricochet Death Frisbee. Another one is when a reader tells him he has boxed up a ton of old junk and arranged the boxes into ugly brown furniture. His girlfriend fails to see the simple genius of this arrangement, obvious to any male.
Keisha refers to this in Owlsight, when she thinks back to when the village women cleaned up Justyn's old cottage. She concedes that he kept the treatment areas clean, but the living areas .... Later, when she first sees Darian's home in the new Vale, she can't believe at first that a single male lives there because it's so clean. (Darian does not score any aversion points, since the hertasi clean the place for him.)
Charlotte Perkins Gilman built a story around this trope: a young widow, who's determined never to keep house for a man again, warms up to a patient suitor when she sees how neat he keeps his home without needing a woman to pick up after him.
An attempt at an inversion occurred with Watson early on. Being a military man, he initially tried to clean up just a little bit, but going up against Sherlock, he never had a chance, and seems to have given up trying.
Played very straight with Oscar Madison in The Odd Couple. Felix, on the other hand, keeps house just fine.
The Japanese dramedy TV series At Home Dad uses this as its premise. The main character is a high-flying advertising exec until his cavalier attitude towards clients' demands lands him on the unemployment rolls, while his wife picks up her career where she left it off to become a full-time mother. It's now up to Daddy to cook, clean, make, mend, and keep up with the high-pressure neighborhood mom clique. However, the guy next door has been doing the househusband thing since day one of his marriage — and he's got the whole thing down to a science.
Played to the max in Father Ted: When the housekeeper, Mrs. Doyle, has a night out, Ted and Dougal run around in a panic, unable to manage a simple cup of tea.
Played with in The Andy Griffith Show. Andy and Opie are at first able to clean up the house really well while Aunt Bee is gone, but then they fear she will feel they won't need them. They decide they have to mess the house up all over again.
In an episode of My Three Sons, Rob's wife Katie, the first female character to join the previously all-male cast, must go away for a while. Although before Katie came along, the men had been able to do fine for themselves, now they flounder. Apparently they have forgotten what to do. Before Katie returns, the men hire three cleaning women to restore order. When Katie sees the clean house, it upsets her. She takes it as evidence that she is not needed.
Chief O'Brien was this while his wife was on Bajor studying plants for a full season, in spite of being a military man. Colm Meaney protested the characterization, saying it was cliché humor and a bit offensive.
A mild version appears in Community with Troy and Abed. Their place is generally quite tidy, but they lack some basic skills. When Annie moves in with them, they ask her to finally show them where the water goes in the iron, what the iron is for and how to get out Kool-Aid. And they tried opposite color Kool Aid, and it doesn't work.
Peep Show: Jez (and his friend Super Hans) are consistently grubby and messy. Jez's best friend / roommate Mark, however, is something of a neat freak.
The short-lived and aptly-named sitcom Pig Sty is based on the premise that five single guys live in one apartment.
On The X-Files, Mulder goes to a guy's apartment and assumes his mother or girlfriend cleans up after him because it's so clean. The guy says it's just him. (Which is rather ironic of him to say, considering Mulder is no slouch in the housekeeping department. Besides his bedroom/storage closet (filled with boxes of dirty magazines), Mulder's apartment is pretty neat and tidy.)
Mulder: Well, bravo. You know, they say single guys are just bears who own furniture.
In the unaired pilot of Dollhouse, Agent Ballard takes Echo (programmed to believe she's a woman searching for her missing sister) back to his apartment and has to dispose of a banana peel and some tissues. She asks for a drink, and Ballard says he's got an unopened bottle of wine in the fridge.
Echo: Ex-wife leftovers?
Ballard:(suspicious) How did you know I was divorced?
Echo: Wife... (indicates picture of Ballard and a woman). Ex... (indicates mess on the table)
Jeremy's slovenly room is a regular source of comedy in Zits.
When Andy leaves the house for a week in FoxTrot, she intrusted Roger to man the house temporarily to go to a newspaper convention for four whole days (with the strong implication of having the kids go through a fire escape plan and giving Irma a key in case Roger somehow locked himself out of the house). It does just as well as one would expect: He lets Jason use Paige's dolls as makeshift rockets (although he does at least state he can only do them outdoors), leaving a note to the kids before leaving for work after they are asleep (thus carrying the strong implication that they'll end up being late for school), being forced to call pizza delivery after burning both the dinner and himself on the second day, ruining all of the clothes by shrinking them (as well as the strong implication that he might have accidentially dyed the kids' clothing pink), and finally somehowmanaging to flood the house four feet deep in water due to a dishwater mishap.
There is a fable about a husband and wife who always complain about their respective duties: farming and housekeeping. So they swap for one day. The wife does a great job farming, but comes home to find the cow hanging off the roof and the meal spoiled utterly.
Rita Rudner put it best: Men are basically bears with furniture.
In The Odd Couple, Oscar Madison's house started going to pieces the day his wife moved out. In a couple weeks, Felix manages to render it too clean for Oscar's comfort: "I don't think that two single men living alone in a big eight-room apartment should have a cleaner house than my mother."
Although he could easily be given a pass for this, having recently gone through a lot of serious trauma.
In Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots, a Running Gag is that Sunny always burns eggs she tries to fry in a pan, which Snake and Otacon are then reluctant to eat. When Snake quips that Otacon should teach Sunny to cook, Otacon protests that he knows nothing about cooking.
In Dragon Quest IX, there's a woman in Coffinwell who's one of quite a few who've caught the mysterious disease, and it falls to her husband to keep house. It's not shown in the graphics, but according to her, he generally doesn't stay on top of things. He is seen sleeping standing up, however. After the disease is dealt with, talking to her reveals that he vacillates between this and outperforming her.
Inverted in The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword: Pipit's mother, Mallara, is a horrible housekeeper, who stands around idly while her house is covered with dust. She mentions that Pipit keeps it clean for her, and the player (as Link) can clean it to earn rupees and gratitude.
Averted and discussed in the Tokimeki Memorial 2 saga. The main protagonist is described as a tidy boy, and his room (which acts as the main week schedule screen) reflects this; and when girls happen to visit his home (such as, for example, Miyuki in Dancing Summer Vacation), they remark his room's tidiness and are pleasantly surprised, telling him that, since it's a boy's room, they would have thought it would be messier.
In Erfworld, the apartment Parson Gotti lived in prior to his summoning was, by his own description, a complete mess.
"This place is a hole. A condemned hole. For squatter hobbits."
In Sinfest, both Squigley and Slick are terrible housekeepers.
In General Protection Fault, Fooker's housekeeping is so horrible that the EPA is supposedly involved and another character, a slime mold named Fred, gains sentience in the mess. Luckily for Fooker, Fred does pay his share of rent and other bills. His housekeeping does improve later in the strip, when he starts dating Sharon and finds that her allergies require a cleaner environment.
In The Simpsons episode "Little Big Mom", Marge is recovering in the hospital, so the family maintains the house. The lazy males Bart and Homer turn the place into a filthy sack in minutes, much to the dismay of Lisa who is the only one trying to introduce some order and cleanliness, but with no success. She later tricks them into thinking they got leprosy from living in very dirty conditions so they would clean the house, again with no good results.
Another great example comes in "Bart After Dark" - while Marge and Lisa are away at an oil spill cleanup, Bart and Homer are making "garbage angels" in their mess on the house floors. A visitor at the door, dumbfounded: "...are you wearing a grocery bag?" Homer, self-righteously indignant: "I have misplaced my pants."
The bag still had groceries inside.
The Simpsons loves this trope - when Marge is neglecting everything because of a gambling addiction, Homer's final attempt to make breakfast is a mixture of "cloves, Tom Collins mix, frozen pie crust..."
Also, Homer's attempt to make a costume of Florida Lisa needed for a contest where the kids were supposed to dress up as a state resulted in Principal Skinner declaring her one of the two kids who "obviously" made their costumes without help from parents. The other kid was Ralph Wiggum with a piece of paper taped on his clothes with the word "Idaho" on it.
Homer obtained a similar result for Bart in another episode while attempting to build a model of Westminster Abbey.
In the episode "Marge in Chains" where Marge is sent to prison for shoplifting, the house becomes a pigsty within a span of 10 minutes. Everyone runs out of clean clothes since nobody else knows how to do laundry (including, apparently, Lisa), so the family starts wearing stuff from the attic like wedding dresses and Halloween outfits. Bart is sent to school with a sugar packet and peanut butter smeared on a playing card for lunch.
Subverted and played straight in Cramp Twins, with their mother getting a job Lucian takes over as 'mother' of the house and actually does a pretty good job. His father on the other hand has no idea where his socks are, and his brother went to school in his pajamas because his clothes were not put out for him. Lucian tries to keep authority in the house but Wayne decides that with mom gone he can do whatever he wants, and easily convinces his Man Child father to assist him in causing damage to the house by trampolining in the dining room through a hole he makes in the ceiling and roof.
Family Guy showed this in an episode where Lois went to jail. After being arrested the house pretty much goes to hell, with garbage all over the place, Stewie not getting a diaper change in god-knows-how long, and wild animals coming into the house.
On Futurama, Fry and Bender are shown multiple times to live like this.
Taz-Mania: "Boys Just Want Wanna Have Fun" is about what happens when Jean and Molly go away, leaving Hugh and the boys in charge of the house. The results are predictible.
The Captain and the Kids cartoon "Blue Monday".
Batman: The Animated Series shows this even applies to supervillains - after the Joker kicks Harley out in "Harley and Ivy", he forgets to feed the hyenas ("They snapped at me!") and can't find his socks. Or trousers, apparently.
In the Goof Troop episode "Mrs. Spoonerville", Pete and Goofy join a housekeeping contest, where this trope is played straight with Lazy Husband Pete, who is so bad at housework that he resorts to bribing his children to do it for him (which he's called out on), and averted with single parent Goofy who is shown to be highly skilled in the field of domesticity.