Trainwreck: The Women We Love to Hate, Mock, and Fear . . . and Why, by Sady Doyle

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Five stars, read in January 2018.

This book was like an electric jolt to me. I was genuinely frustrated every minute that I couldn’t be listening to it on Overdrive, and I wish it could’ve been twice as long.

I don’t follow much pop culture, so although I’d heard of most of these stories in some way, I didn’t know details. I was surprised to find myself unbelievably drawn to them. Doyle alternates between modern trainwrecks—Britney Spears, Anna Nicole Smith, Miley Cyrus, Whitney Houston—and historical ones, demonstrating how far back this phenomenon goes—to Charlotte Bronte, Mary Wollstonecraft, and the women of La Salpêtrière. I couldn’t stop marking important passages, and it seemed like every one or two pages there would be another brilliant one. (Really, since I can’t include them all here: I bookmarked pages 9, 11, 13, 17, 19, 21, 24, 26, 32, 36, 38, 43, 82, 100, 102, 110, and 122 of the e-book I used to keep track while I listened.)

As long as there has been a public sphere, there have been women attempting to enter the public sphere, and usually being punished for it. The one thing that all trainwrecks have in common is the temerity to be heard. Where we now exhibit “celebrity meltdowns” on TMZ, we used to exhibit “hysterics” on public viewing days at mental institutions . . . Where we now have conservative blogs ranting about Clinton’s lesbian affairs and/or murder sprees, we used to have poems run in conservative newspapers about how Mary Wollstonecraft—yes, her, the Vindication of the Rights of Woman lady—was a suicidal hooker with a shame-baby.

You’ll notice that pretty much all trainwrecks are women. It can happen to men too, sometimes, but as Doyle points out, they have to work much harder to earn our hatred (look at Chris Brown and Mel Gibson, for example; “conversely, just try asking people why they ‘hate’ Katherine Heigl, or Kristen Stewart, or Anne Hathaway”), and men’s transgressions—which are actual transgressions, I might mention, unlike those of the women—are likely to be “forgiven” pretty much instantly.

While I could try to find examples of famous men who have redeemed their reputations from wild behavior, promiscuous sex, and irresponsible drug use, research reveals that the answer is, roughly, all of them. In fact “redemption” seems like the wrong word for what happens to some of these guys: Keith Richards’s drug career has included accidentally snorting strychnine, setting himself on fire on multiple occasions because he was so wasted he passed out while smoking a cigarette, and taking to the media in 2013 to defend heroin as essentially useful to the creative process. Hunter S. Thompson was best known for getting wasted on the job and living in a “fortified compound” stocked with dynamite and heavy firearms. Henry Miller wrote a modernist epic about how much fun it was to have sex with prostitutes. Members of Led Zeppelin once encouraged a woman to put a dead fish up her vagina. For all this, these guys became heroes: hard-living, boundary-pushing rock-and-roll badasses. Courtney Love and Lindsay Lohan, though? Those bitches are crazy.

Most staggering to me was the connection—painfully blatant in retrospect—between Hillary Clinton, Monica Lewinsky, and Britney Spears. You can see how it happened just from remembering how Hillary and Monica were viewed at the time.

They were the Betty and Veronica of sexism: The icy blonde and the overheated brunette, the prude and the slut, the shrewish wife and the trashy mistress, the sexless middle-aged woman and the trampy young one, the frigid, man-hating intellectual and the needy, man-hungry ditz. But neither woman was acceptable . . . No matter which side of the coin you found your own face on . . . there was no way to win the game; no “good” woman left to be.

Well: There was, potentially, one good woman. But finding her would be nearly impossible. She would have to be young, to avoid the stigma of ’70s feminism and middle-aged unfuckability that had tarred Hillary. But she couldn’t be “young” in the way that Monica was, which had involved adventure and experimentation; her youth would have to be clear of youthful folly. She’d have to be hot, and comfortable with getting men hot . . . but she couldn’t actually have sex . . . The ideal woman would have to be innocent, in both the sexual and the legal sense of the word . . . To save herself from the hatred that defined the public lives of Hillary Clinton and Monica Lewinsky, the ideal woman would have to steer between them . . . Virgin and pin-up, wide-eyed innocent and worldly temptress, icon of cool and conservative Christian role model, she would always have to be both and neither, everything and nothing.

One month after Monica’s interview with Barbara Walters, we got the first magazine cover featuring Britney. Given that all three of these women are still involved in public life, this examination of their history is fascinating and entirely relevant.

I specifically felt a distance from this book when I decided to read it; like I mentioned, these aren’t the kinds of “news” stories I follow, and so I thought I would read a book about these stories with the same level of personal investment as I had with, say, The Soul of an Octopus or The Wood for the Trees. That was not the case. In fact, as it turns out, this book is just as much about me as it is about the women it names. It’s about you, too. It’s about all of us, individually and collectively.

I don’t know of a single person, male or female, who has ever solved their problems by refusing to admit that they had problems. But that kind of denial is what we teach women, every day of their lives, by telling them that their unhappiness is not only inconvenient, but flat-out pathological. Exhibiting madwomen creates a world where any woman can be called “crazy,” and dismissed, if she says something you don’t want to hear. It creates a climate where women are constantly inspected for signs of out-of-control emotionalism or sexual mania. But, worse than this, it creates a world where women who are suffering are afraid to ask for the help they need to save their own lives—a world where the only alternative to being made a spectacle or a train wreck is to disappear.

And that’s when I realized that this is what I’m doing: disappearing to avoid becoming a trainwreck.

No one wants to be a public spectacle. Inconveniently, my social anxiety disorder makes me even less able to bear that possibility. So when my anxiety is spiraling out of control, it is also suffocating me inside my own head, trapping me in a pathological inability to ask for (or even identify, sometimes) the help I need.

When I see a friend acknowledge her struggles with bipolar disorder on social media, I admire her for doing her part to erase the stigma of mental illness, I feel bad that I’m not doing the same thing, and I’m happy that she’s getting the help she needs. I also feel whatever that feeling is, I either don’t know the word for it or am unconsciously avoiding it because admitting to it will make me feel ashamed of myself, but you know what I’m talking about—the one that makes struggling women into trainwrecks. The feeling of being embarrassed for someone who doesn’t know she should be embarrassed.

The longer I talk about it, the more I think I might reread this book soon. This recognition of what is happening, the realization that we are all part of it even when we think we’re actively not participating, has blown me away. It was something I needed right now.

This isn’t the “cost of fame,” some necessary price one pays for being a public figure—or, if it is, it’s only in the sense that everyone is a public figure, because it happens to “civilians,” too—people who post unflattering pictures of themselves, or irritate one too many people with their personal blogs, or say stupid things on Twitter. And it isn’t simply a matter of getting punished for wrongdoing—or, if it is, we should all be worried, because this specific wrongdoing tends to sneak up on people from behind, when they haven’t intentionally or knowingly broken any rules . . . No one takes her first drink hoping to become an alcoholic.

No one decides not to wear underwear hoping that someone will lie in wait on the ground with a camera to take a picture up her skirt, either. That’s why I’ve never been able to read celebrity gossip—but we do it to each other, too. What it comes down to, really, is our instinct to blame the victim, especially when she’s a woman. It’s a pretty shitty aspect of human nature, but the good news is that it’s a really easy one to identify and counter every time we find ourselves doing it.

This is such an excellent book. It’s one we should all read; it gives us the chance to examine ourselves as media consumers, to be aware of what is happening to these women when they self-destruct in plain view. But it’s one that women in particular should read, so we can see ourselves on the other end of it, too. In a misogynistic society, we are all trainwrecks waiting to happen.

One Comment Add yours

  1. Jan Hicks says:

    I need to read this. It’s available online via the library, so I might experiment with reading it that way. It’s something that I’m acutely aware of in myself, that willingness to gawp at public figures who are struggling in front of the media lens and forget that they’re human beings. It’s like driving past a car accident – you don’t want to look but you do want to look. I think there’s something hardwired into us as a species that makes us revel in the misfortune of others in order to feel grateful it’s not happening to us. I wonder why. Maybe a natural selection thing that has been corrupted by our alleged civilisation?

    And why is it so hard for us to ask for help? Why is it still seen as an avenue to further demonise women? I’ve seen a sea change in the UK, which is a positive one, whereby men’s mental health is being talked about more and detoxified. So a male celebrity who has addiction issues that cause his life to derail is praised for admitting he has a problem, for seeking help, and for talking about it. This is great, real progress, but why doesn’t it also apply to women? Why can’t a female celebrity having the same issue also be praised for her proactive ownership of the issue? Why is she still mocked, belittled, put in the box labelled “crazy”? I know the answer. It drives me crazy.

    Liked by 1 person

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