What does Mary Wollstonecraft have in common with Britney Spears? Not a lot, you might think. But both women were seen by their contemporaries as simply too much: too emotional, too sexual, too ambitious, too loud, too needy. In short, too human.
It is a truism that well-behaved women seldom make history. So what about the badly behaved women who do? In Trainwreck, the American journalist Sady Doyle considers the fate of the women whom society considers so transgressive that they are portrayed as walking catastrophes. Taking case studies from high and low culture, she suggests that women will be blamed for destroying the present before they can be recognised as having changed the future.
Wollstonecraft is now recognised as a pioneer of Western feminism yet there was a time, Doyle writes, when she was merely a “usurping bitch” whose work was “scripture, archly framed, for propagating whores”. Robert Browning depicted her in a condescending poem as a victim of passion, who “toils at language” to win over a lover. A hundred years after her death, female activists were still reluctant to be associated with her: “Even if you believed in the brotherhood and equality of all mankind, you didn’t want to march into battle calling yourselves the Crazy Slut Fan Club.”
In demonstrating agency over their sexuality, Britney, Miley Cyrus and Lindsay Lohan have similarly been accused of “corrupting” other young women. Paris Hilton and Kim Kardashian (not their vengeful ex-boyfriends) were accused of poisoning society when their sex tapes were released without their consent. Amy Winehouse and Billie Holiday were addicts – not profound and romantic addicts like Kurt Cobain or Ernest Hemingway, but just pitiful female junkies.
Charlotte Brontë dared to write, and Sylvia Plath committed the even worse crime of writing while mentally ill. Years after Plath’s death, her widower, Ted Hughes, wrote, “I hope each of us owns the facts of her or his own life.” Yet, the writer Janet Malcolm notes, “As everyone knows who has ever heard a piece of gossip, we do not ‘own’ the facts of our lives at all. This ownership passes out of our hands at birth, at the moment we are first observed.” The train wreck’s first role in society is to be observed, and she loses control over her own narrative in the process.
“Women who have succeeded too well at becoming visible have always been penalised vigilantly and forcefully,” Doyle argues, locating today’s interest in the downfall of female celebrities in the visual history of “the madwoman”: “half-clothed, unhinged, somehow both sexually titillating and fundamentally abhorrent, grotesquely exposed and irresistibly available”. She makes persuasive links between erotic paintings by Tony Robert-Fleury and André Brouillet and the modern click-bait industry: “You had to pay a penny to visit Bedlam, but you can visit Perez Hilton for free.”
Train wrecks are a business, brought to you by “people who live and die by how many eyeballs and mouse clicks they (we) can collect, and who therefore learn to shape even the most gnarled and unruly of biographies into something with the clean, saleable power of a familiar story”. I prove the author’s point while reading her book, pausing to google after each especially shocking description of a tabloid photograph or excruciating televised interview. Are we buying Doyle’s book to reject sexist narratives of “misbehaving” women, or because their stories, folded into these pages as mini-biographies, are irresistible?
Yet her sharp framing of the narratives ensures that the focus always returns to how we can dismantle the systems that allow the wreck to exist. Surprisingly, she is breezily positive about this. Impossible female standards, Doyle says, are obsolete, “like the flat earth”, and if women can acknowledge that then men will follow suit. But, after all that she describes, it is hard to see how such a shift in thinking will be “as simple as opening a window”.
This article appears in the 26 Jan 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The eclipse of the West