Why Do We Love Watching Women Self-Destruct?
An Interview with Trainwreck author Sady Doyle
Billie Holiday, Marilyn Monroe, Sylvia Plath, Whitney Houston, Britney Spears—they were all women whose personal scandals overshadowed, and sometimes swallowed entirely, their own artistry. “Women who have succeeded too well at becoming visible have always been penalized vigilantly and forcefully, and turned into spectacles,” Sady Doyle writes in her new book Trainwreck: The Women We Love to Hate, Mock, and Fear…and Why. Women in public are called crazy, or broken, or too sexual, or not sexual enough.
Doyle first rose to prominence as a blogger when she started her site Tiger Beatdown in 2008—an experience that, she told me, helped inform her interest in the misogynist weaponizing of celebrity. “Tiger Beatdown,” she said, “became very big very quickly. It wasn’t unwelcome, but it was unexpected. And I think in some ways it was awkward and a little painful to transition into being seen as a public person. It’s the feeling of exposure I got and the feeling of being watched, the feeling of having guys writing blog posts about whether I was ugly, or about whether they would do me. Because I got both, thank god, that’s the joy of being an average looking women.”
I talked to Doyle by phone about trainwrecks, misogyny, and Mary Wollstonecraft.
Noah Berlatsky: Are men ever dismissed because of scandals in their personal lives? Or does the trainwreck process only happen to women?
Sady Doyle: I think that there are men who get mired in scandal. They just have to work a lot harder for it. I think we knew that Roman Polanski had been raping an underage girl for decades while we were still talking about him as a genius. Mel Gibson is another one, where he had to be exposed as incredibly violent and incredibly bigoted many times over before we would drop him.
With a woman, there’s not so much room for error. You don’t have to be violent, you don’t have to be overtly bigoted. You don’t have to be a threat to those around you. You can simply have an alcohol problem, or you can be single for a long time, or you can have some mental health issues that result really, for a lot of the women in this book, more in self-destructive behavior than in destructive behavior. Amy Winehouse having an eating disorder wasn’t relevant to anyone but her in terms of who she was hurting, but it was incredibly relevant in terms of the amount of cruelty and judgment with which people surveyed her body and talked about it.
NB: You talk about the fact that Mary Wollstonecraft had a child out of wedlock and attempted suicide, and what a scandal that was when it was revealed after her death. Did that really derail the struggle for women’s rights?
SD: Absolutely. When you have someone who’s the most vocal and visible proponent of the cause disgraced… She provided a very convenient weapon for people who wanted to argue that changing gender roles would corrupt or destroy women. There’s that story that’s in the book about a male socialist who wanted to name his group after her, and the women threatened to resign. Women who wanted to carry women’s rights forward had to do it in a much more quiet way—you did not see as much sexual radicalism, certainly. And they had to disown her themselves, distance themselves from her in terms of her behavior to even have a shot at getting their point across.
NB: Why have we now mostly forgotten that aspect of Wollstonecraft. Is it a good thing that her scandalousness is no longer part of the mainstream historical memory of her?
SD: She sort of got reabsorbed into the canon but at the cost of becoming a very boring figure, when she was anything but.
And I think many of her ideas now are boring. I mean, one of the big controversies is that she thought women should be allowed to use botany. Which believe it or not was a hot button topic because if you teach your daughter botany, she is indirectly learning about sex, learning about plant parts, and god knows what she’ll go out and do next now that she knows about pollination. When we just teach her ideas she can seem like a very staid respectable figure.
And you see this with Charlotte Bronte too. Her biographers nowadays and the people who stump for her kind of write around it. I remember reading the introduction to Charlotte Bronte’s selected letters, which has these incredibly raw, emotional break-up letters. And the introduction said, well, some of us may find this embarrassing, but keep in mind it may have been a writing exercise.
No it wasn’t! She had a terrible break-up, she had a crush on a man who was married, who may never have liked her at all, and she wrote these crazy-sounding letters. It’s not that embarrassing. She was a human being, she had a very lonely life in some respects, and when she found a human connection, losing it was painful to her.
So people try to write around all the scandalous part of these women’s lives because they’ve become canonical, respected figures. And I think diving into the juice and the rawness and the dirt of their lives, the fact that they were human beings trying to forge some new kind of gender politics in a world that was incredibly hostile to them—that makes them more relevant to us. I would hope that you’ll read this book and maybe one of the things you’ll do is stop thinking Mary Wollstonecraft was boring. Maybe you’ll like her a little more.
NB: Is the trainwreck narrative used against women in social media as well?
SD: It’s instructive to look at someone like Britney Spears or Whitney Houston, who lived really painful parts of their lives in the 24-hours news cycle, is just the basic lesson that if you look at someone for 24 hours a day you are going to see them do something that you don’t approve of. There is no one who is perfectly well behaved and perfectly pretty and perfectly nice and perfectly virtuous every single moment of their lives. But we live in this climate where it’s not just celebrities who are expected to expose themselves to public judgment. All of us are expected to do that. It’s part of having a social life, for many of us it’s part of having a professional life. So we’re all kind of in the arena now.