Why do we fear a woman behaving badly? Why does it become such tabloid fodder to mock and demean those “crazy” women who rebel and color outside the lines, or even make mistakes? Have we even stopped to examine why we are so obsessed as a culture with vilifying women in a way we do not with men?
Sure, we’ve seen the likes of Charlie Sheen raked through the coals during a difficult time in his life and career, but multiple that ten-fold (or more!) and you start to get a glimpse into just how deep the sexist societal expectations thrust upon women are, and have been throughout history.
This is what author Sady Doyle explores in her book ‘Trainwreck: The Women We Love to Hate, Mock, and Fear… And Why?’. There are certain celebrity names that easily come to mind when you think “trainwreck”: Britney, Miley, Paris, Lindsay. But Sady’s book goes way back to women like Charlotte Bronte and Mary Wollstonecraft, examining how these high profile public women were put on a pedestal in a way that became their very downfall the minute they abhorred the cultural norms.
“By zeroing in on the messiest and most badly behaved women, and rejecting them we make a statement about what makes a woman good,” she writes in the book.
The “trainwreck” is essentially “the girl who breaks the rules of the game and gets punished, which means that she’s actually the best indication of which game we’re playing and what the rules are.”
Sady talks about how the ideal woman is a social construct which is altogether very limiting as the definition is very narrow and leaves plenty of room for the “rebel” or “trainwreck’ to appear. We have also been socially conditioned, as men and women, to point fingers at the trainwreck and make sure she feels shame around the identity she occupies outside the norms. Added to this is the collective mockery that becomes entertainment or easy fodder for bystanders.
“It’s an easy shorthand for a woman whose suffering becomes a form of entertainment,” writes Sady.
In an interview with Vogue.com, Sady recalls how she first became fascinated with the phenomenon of the celebrity trainwreck around the time Britney Spears was having her public meltdowns. The dichotomy of her entering the public world as the perfect “good girl” virginal teen gave way to an adult who possessed entirely normal flaws, but those were exacerbated by the 24/7 media focus on her, and this was even before social media was around.
“It was fashionable to make fun of her for eating Cheetos, because she didn’t always wear makeup when she left the house, because she gained weight after having two children, which is a pretty normal time to gain weight. It was so interesting to me to see this ideal person get cast as utterly unlovable and villainous just for being flawed. We were sort of litigating womanhood itself, whether girls were allowed to grow up, were allowed to have flaws, through this woman who previously had been an almost unattainable ideal,” she tells Julia Felsenthal.
Through the evolving trainwreck narrative and phenomenon comes this horrible decoupling between a woman and her humanity, which then makes her an easy target who doesn’t have to weigh on our conscience too much.
“When we are bashing women for being too sexual, we’re not setting out to empower them. We’re reminding them that their sexuality primarily exists as something that should be on call for someone else, preferably a straight dude. When we bash women for being needy, or for being in pain, we’re not saying: be a strong, empowered woman. By litigating women’s ability to feel things like anger or sorrow, or simply the desire to be respected or loved by someone else, we’re reminding them again that their emotions are not useful and are not valid unless they’re the emotions someone else would like them to have,” explained Sady.
It also makes us as the onlookers conscious as to how we “should” be looking at this spectacle, as dictated by the norms around what constitutes a “trainwreck”.
“When a contemporary narrative takes over, it dehumanizes someone, makes it almost a social faux pas to see him or her through an empathetic lens,” she said.
Reaching back through history and writing about women like Mary Wollstonecraft became a clever tool for comparison in Sady’s book, because it dismantles the myth of iconic and historical women not being “as bad” as some of the more contemporary examples. When you compare the life of Mary to someone like Paris Hilton, as is in the book, all of a sudden we start to see they face similar pressures such as sexism, which then allows the reader to focus on the problem of the social pressure, instead of looking at the woman as the inherent problem.
Sady also says that by writing about certain public women, it enables people to empathize and even like them, where they wouldn’t have had the space to do so in any other typical media narratives. She uses Paris Hilton as well as Hillary Clinton, two women who have endured years of vitriol, mocking, and hatred. With the recent election and the kinds of narratives flung at Hillary for her every move (or cough!) compared to the disgusting things Donald Trump was able to get away with (racism, sexual assault, xen0phobia, stoking up hatred etc) it’s easy to see the media has a lot to answer for.
One of the saddest narratives Sady talks about with Vogue is how it becomes easier to justify the gawking of the trainwreck when the subject happens to die.
“I think that the other thing about death is that it adds a nice moral to the end of the tale. We can become a lot more comfortable with these women when we know that being who they were actually was a mistake. Look! It killed them!” she said, mentioning people like Amy Winehouse, Whitney Houston and Princess Diana.
It really is a gut check to think about how we as a culture become almost laissez faire about the trainwreck, without any sort of accountability as to whether we collectively contributed to her eventual downfall.
Britney Spears then becomes an interesting example because she is still living, yet has somehow redeemed herself in our eyes (not before going through some extremely difficult times in her life which led to a judge putting her under a strict parental conservatorship). In the book, Sady explains how Britney emerged at a time when the US was playing witness to another very public “trainwreck” – then-president Bill Clinton’s affair with White House intern Monica Lewinsky. It was the scandal heard around the world and yet it was Hillary Clinton and Monica who were thrust into the harsh glare of public judgement, not Bill.
They became the epitome of the “Madonna-Whore” trope, one that public women often find themselves unwittingly being shoved into, and Britney emerged as both of these due to her conservative Christian upbringing yet sexual aesthetic.
“People did not blame Bill Clinton very much for being Bill Clinton. There was his wife who people really loathed…You would think the woman who was her opposite, a woman who was young, who was sexual, would get a lot of sympathy. And she did not…You had the prude and the slut, the uptight intellectual and the ditzy young thing, the wife and the mistress. You had these two poles and we were really hating both of them with an incredible amount of vitriol,” explained Sady.
In another interview with Refinery29, Sady expands a little on the example of Hillary Clinton, saying how such an accomplished and ambitious woman becomes a figure that is too much for us to handle.
“People have these fantasies about Hillary Clinton being somehow permanently broken, because she’s an exceptionally powerful woman. Our cultural imagination can’t contain that, unless she only exists to be this powerful so she can implode. We still operate in this space where women can be superhuman or subhuman, they can be angels or they can be demons; but being a human with off days is not something that we’re really good at allowing female people,” she said.
Similar to the way tabloid and celebrity gossip allow us to consume news about celebrities going off the rails in a way that detaches them from their humanity, the same has happened with Hillary Clinton, albeit in a different way.
“Hillary Clinton is a really good example of this, [the idea that] we have the right to consume someone’s internal life and their narrative and their personality, that it can balloon outward and outward until the desire for content leads us to the place where we’re reading articles about her brain damage. There’s no evidence that it exists. But the myth takes over and it’s not even connected to the woman anymore,” she explained.
Sady talks about the current wave of feminism and how she hopes it will help break down more of these awful trainwreck tropes the more women use their voices online and through social media to explain how nuanced, flawed, messy, strong, imperfect yet normal we all are. It’s something that we are still lacking, but which we have an opportunity to change today.
“I’m excited that this particular wave of feminism is happening at a moment when most women are encouraged to have public lives…Women write about their experiences with eating disorders, with mental health struggles, their failed relationships. That’s now seen as compatible with being a good, strong feminist,” she said.
“I want that to be a feminism that stresses women’s humanity, rather than feminism that’s just about accomplishing more, being stronger, becoming more pure, more of a good person. I don’t want feminism to become yet another impossible standard against which women judge themselves and each other,” she added.
‘Trainwreck’ sound to us like the kind of book that will be a pivotal turning point for contemporary feminism if we can continue to push for women to allowed to be nuanced and messy and mistake-ridden. The same way Charlie Sheen, Mel Gibson, and Donald Trump were allowed to be, while still retaining their sense of dignity and humanity because the social privileges afforded by misogyny ensured they were able to.
You can purchase ‘Trainwreck: The Women We love To Hate, Mock, and Fear…and Why’ on Amazon.