You no longer have to look far to find examples of women who are “too much” for our culture to handle, but brazenly DGAF. Just last week, Senator Kamala Harris grilled Attorney General Jeff Sessions on the witness stand, only to be interrupted and reprimanded by an incredulous Senator John McCain, who, at 80, is old enough to know better. In February, Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s craven rebuke of Senator Elizabeth Warren on the Senate floor—“nevertheless, she persisted”—reached cult meme status. And, of course, in November 2016, Hillary Clinton lost the presidential election, despite winning the popular vote by almost three million votes and enduring a smear campaign capable of gutting just about any politician (yes, even Bernie, a hill I’m prepared to die on).
In her new book, Too Fat, Too Slutty, Too Loud: The Rise and Reign of the Unruly Woman, Anne Helen Petersen examines how women like Clinton (“Too Shrill”) navigate near-constant policing and still manage (more or less) to embrace their supposed weaknesses. Anyone familiar with Petersen’s work as BuzzFeed’s culture writer and occasional political reporter knows she’s a sharp reader of how women are represented in media both high and low, and her current project is no exception. Her sources—including poet Claudia Rankine’s 2015 tribute to Serena Williams (“Too Strong”) in the New York Times Magazine and gossip rag treatments of Melissa McCarthy (“Too Fat”)—are as rangy as her subjects are complicated. And not a few of Petersen’s chapters—notably those on Williams and Caitlyn Jenner—are a straight-up indictment of how cruel straight, white, male media can be.
Over the phone, I chatted with Petersen about what makes a woman unruly, why unruliness is easier for some women than others, and how we can survive the current political moment, together.
Who is the unruly woman?
I like to describe unruliness as anything that makes you think, Ugh, that person is just too much. That can mean any of the adjectives I use in the book: too fat, too slutty, too loud. Sometimes we don't even have a specific category. I just remember women I grew up around, the way we casually policed them. "That person's a little too much for me." What we're really saying is that they're behaving in a way that isn't deemed appropriate for the setting. Those ideas of appropriateness are fluid, so they change by decade, by situation, by class.
The book is really built around examining the control mechanisms that keep unruly women in place. What was it like to try and trace how those mechanisms work, especially in popular culture?
The way that I do any of my celebrity research, whether that was for my first book or writing about a celebrity online, is to just go really deep into the secondary texts. The primary texts are what the celebrity stars in or produces. Those things are the foundation of the star's image, but, especially for unruliness and gossip, where you really find the interesting part of what the celebrity has come to mean is in the reception. I look at every interview. How do people phrase these interviews? How does a celebrity talk about themselves and the space that they are occupying in the world? I often find the most perfectly distilled commentary on a celebrity in the little quick pieces that fill People.com or E! Online. Because no one's thinking that carefully about the language that they're using to describe a star. Like with Melissa McCarthy. People just don't know how to talk about the fact that she lost weight, other than: "Look at her slim down, she's so happy!" It's coded in this very specific "she's losing her unruliness, let's praise her, can you believe how beautiful she looks" way, when McCarthy herself has very much resisted that narrative.
Some of my favorite moments in the book are those moments, like in the McCarthy chapter, where you show how disjointed media commentary often is from a celebrity's project. Do you actively look for those moments of disconnect?
What I really try to do is accumulate this entire swimming pool of information. I go deep into LexisNexis. I really think it's fascinating to look at the way people talked about a star or celebrity who's huge now in the very beginning. Those early interviews with Melissa McCarthy around Mike & Molly are so interesting. It's always—again and again—about her weight, but reinforcing normalness. "She just dresses like a school teacher!" That unruliness of her body, coupled with "I'm a normal woman!", became that crux of McCarthy's image. And with the Caitlyn Jenner chapter, [I wanted to show how] the press is so ill-equipped, still, to talk about transgender women. The fact that transitioning was framed as a scandal and that, in some ways, Caitlyn was participating in framing it that way—necessarily! She knew that the press was going to come after her, but by hiding it, I think, she underlines it was something that should be hidden. I'm not saying she was wrong to have done that. That's the only way that someone who had the stature of Bruce Jenner could have undergone this transformation. I think we're going to look back at the press coverage of that year, and it's going to be just appalling.
How did you choose the women you wanted to discuss in the book? Was there a figure you knew you had to write about?
I was trying to show the enduring boundaries on what acceptable female behavior looks like. But unruliness today is much more palatable when it's on a body that's white and slender and straight. So the fact that, still, so many of the women in the book are white, I think that underlines how much more difficult it is to be unruly and also be in a body that isn't white or isn't slender or isn't straight. I originally had a chapter on Amy Schumer, and I wrestled with it for a really long time, just to make it coherent. That chapter was originally titled "Too Honest," and I realized that there wasn't a coherency between what I saw in so much of Inside Amy Schumer the show; she wasn't upholding that kind of brutal honesty about patriarchy in the way that she was conducting herself outside of her show. Which isn't to say there aren't other imperfectly unruly women in the book. When I started the Madonna chapter, I thought it was going to be like, "Look at her! And how powerfully old and sexy she is!" [laughs] That you can be an aging woman and also embrace sexuality as a core tenet. As I read and watched more, it became much clearer to me that she didn't want to endorse unruliness for everyone. She only wanted it for a certain type of unruly woman, which is to say one who looks like her or one who looks like a young woman.
What is it about unruly women that makes men and other women so uncomfortable?
I think that with any identity, or any hierarchy, there are these unspoken rules of behavior that help keep that hierarchy in place and that make people comfortable or feel safe. And that can be a hierarchy like the patriarchy, but it's also a hierarchy like white supremacy or heteronormativity or the cult of thinness. So whenever someone challenges and unsettles that hierarchy, people get uncomfortable, whether they're men or women, straight or queer. It's like an earthquake. Sometimes that earthquake is strong enough that the actual boundaries of the hierarchy collapse, but oftentimes it's just enough to freak people out and build those walls higher. The thing that's become very clear to me in the last year, in the process of writing and doing the revisions after the election, there was this pretty profound earthquake, but there was also this backlash that is reifying those boundaries. Women are oftentimes as responsible, if not more so, for policing how women should behave in the hierarchy of femininity. Part of the work [women can do] is to actively refuse to participate in this.
I'm glad you bring this up because you interviewed so many female Trump supporters—as well as Trump protesters—during the election. What was it like to work on this book while you were reporting on politics? Were you constantly coming back to the manuscript to reevaluate?
I submitted the book at the end of August, and right after that, I was thrown into doing Trump reporting and witnessing the Hilary backlash firsthand. The thing that sticks in my head is someone who said [that] Lena Dunham coming out in support of Hillary Clinton actually made more people vote for Donald Trump than vote for Hillary Clinton. And that, to me, whether or not it's true, it feels true. And it speaks to this idea that people can be so repelled by unruliness that it forces them to vote or to endorse or to cling to a figure that they don't even necessarily like. When I was in Montana reporting on the special election over the past month, I talked to so many people who were like, "Yeah, Trump sucks, but I hated Hillary." There are many reasons Hillary hate exists, but one of them absolutely, undeniably, is because she's a woman. Right now I’m trying to think through, okay, what would it look like to have a [viable] female presidential candidate? What would a female candidate have to look like? What would she have to sound like? Where would she have to come from? It seems so impossible to even conceive of someone the country could get behind right now. If I could rewrite the book's title, I think I would subtitle it "The rise, reign, and rejection of the unruly woman."
A backlash against female power is clearly what's happening, but we also have an administration that's so plagued by other forms of scandal that the feminist backlash can get lost, unless you're paying attention to what's happening on the legislative front. What are you thinking now about a feminist backlash six months on? Is it easy to trace?
It's never as easy as we make it seem. If you look at third-wave feminism in the '80s, it's this gradual backlash that starts to take hold in the '80s and then reaches its peak in the post-feminism of the '90s, which wasn't a backlash. People weren't like, "I want to be domestic!" It was more like they were embracing the idea that you didn't need feminism and that consumerism was the path to equality. It's not this simple force and rejection. Same thing, too, with the 2000s. Around 2005 through 2008, you see this embrace of feminism again, a public embrace. No one wanted to see [a backlash] during the end of the Obama years, but it was obviously percolating during that time. I think it's also happening in things like the people who are committing mass killings in the United States are also characterized by virulent misogyny, and that's just something we're not talking about. It's absolutely a backlash at a compromise of patriarchy. These men are often mad that women have rejected them, or that women have taken jobs, that women don't have the same subservient understanding that they should do or date anyone who asks them. That, to me, that's a manifestation of that backlash. You can see it with the trolling of women on Twitter, too. Just the normalization of the language that's okay to use against women in online spaces.
Your book is a book about representation, but you also read the physical body very closely. Does a politics of the body go hand in hand with representation for you?
The theorists who helped me work through the idea of unruliness ground unruliness in the body. Kathleen Karlyn, whose book on Roseanne is kind of the mother to this book, writes a lot about the grotesque and the carnivalesque, which is all about the body. The concept of abject and abjection, which runs throughout the book... there was so much more in the first draft. My editor was like, "You have to stop talking about shit and poop!" and all the different valences of abjection, and why we're scared of it. But the female body is considered abject, and so much of that is because of the bodily fluids that emanate from it, and because men are constantly defining themselves as not that. So that roots it in the body. Susan Bordo, whose work was foundational in several chapters, is essentially a scholar of the body. It's fascinating that when we talk about femininity, it does come back to the body. When we talk about masculinity, that's so rooted in the body, as well, but oftentimes men are judged by their minds and not by their bodies. I like to think, too, about how the male body is judged and is part of a persona. Because if a male star is fat, we don't think of it as automatically unruly. It doesn't dictate what kind of star or what kind of stardom they can achieve, in the same way as with women.
Now we’re getting into the territory of your Broad City chapter.
I wrote about Broad City right away, during the first season, and it was all about that basic unruliness of being too gross. But over the course of the three seasons, I arrived, and the chapter arrived, at this deeper understanding that their unruliness is both the fact that they are lazy like men and also that they value their friendship over romance.
Two things that are terrifying to other people.
You mentioned that one way women can resist is to avoid policing one another. Can you talk a little bit more about your vision for making it through this period of backlash?
I wrote this piece for Bitch magazine a few years ago, "Can Celebrity Gossip Ever Be Feminist?" And the thing is, talking about celebrities is not unfeminist. But what I try to model is interrogating, "Why am I reacting the way that I'm reacting to this person right now?" You don't have to write a seminar paper about it, [but ask yourself], why do I hate Anne Hathaway? What is it about her that grates against me? That, to me, is more illuminating of the [behaviors] society still values. You should be a perfect woman, but you shouldn't show other people that you're trying. You have to lie at all times about that try. Anne Hathaway fails at that, and that's why she annoys me. I think the other thing is to insist that these components of the backlash are visible. There was a piece in The New York Times about the Portland killer, how he wasn't necessarily part of a white supremacist group, but he was very into Bernie before he moved over to Trump. And it doesn't talk about the fact that he had incredibly misogynistic posts all over his Facebook. How can we make sure that this is part of the conversation? Because if you don't think that misogyny is a problem, if you don't think that it leads to actual violence against women, then it's really hard to try and fix it. And it's actually women who do a lot of that work.
Too Fat, Too Slutty, Too Loud is available for purchase now.