The second book by Anne Helen Petersen, culture reporter at Buzzfeed and literal doctor of celebrity gossip, opens with the election of President Donald Trump. This moment that few had prepared for and many had considered impossible came true and tainted what millions had hoped would be a turning point for women everywhere. Instead, a new wave of backlash against women in the 21st century was legitimized afresh. The majority, including white women, decided that the unruliest of our gender needed to be put in place. That tangerine shadow looms over the rest of Too Fat, Too Slutty, Too Loud: The Rise and Reign of the Unruly Woman, wherein Petersen takes a look at an array of public women who defy cultural stereotypes and push boundaries of what it means to be a woman in a world that hates them.
Through the gaze of nine women, Petersen dissects the manner with which some of the most famous and culturally potent women of the past 25 years have bucked the trend on palatable femininity: Serena Williams’ domination of the sport of tennis and the racially fueled attacks launched against her body, attitude and ideas; Madonna’s decades of outspokenness and boundary pushing diminished by ageism; the Broad City duo’s distinctly female take on gross-out humour that clashes with ideas of acceptable feminine behaviour; Melissa McCarthy’s weight and the ownership of her body demanded by the press and public.
Each chapter offers a distinct analysis of a prominent woman through the lens of a particular quality they embody, but these qualities also intersect, and Petersen is sharp to note the ways in which many of these women, unruly as they are, still represent the most socially acceptable form of that rebellion: Vocal white women are “brash”, where vocal black women are “angry”. The book’s accessible style allows for a concise take on this double standard, clearly laying out how Lena Dunham can act publicly in a way Nicki Minaj can’t.
As with the best of her writing, Petersen’s skill lies in the details, and the evidence she provides to show the wider context that creates unruly women. It’s not enough to just talk about the way Kim Kardashian’s pregnant body was talked about; you need to bring in everything from perceived public ownership of pregnancy bumps to the sheen of perfect beauty Kardashian made her brand from. In her work at Buzzfeed, as well as her first book, Scandals of Classic Hollywood, Petersen excels in providing a deeper understanding of issues along the lines of celebrity, feminism, and pop culture. Anyone familiar with her series on golden age Hollywood gossip and scandals from The Hairpin will find much to appreciate in this decidedly modern focus. Like great gossip, the world’s opinions on women like Hillary Clinton and Madonna shouldn’t be taken at face value, and the author lays out the tools and context necessary to fully interrogate how such people are consumed by the general public. When you cackle at Madonna’s age, what does that say about your views on older women in the media and their contributions to the world? Why does Nicki Minaj taking pride in her sexuality cause such anger in the media? If so many people were more willing to vote for a horse over Serena Williams in a competition for sportsperson of the year, what the hell does that say about the rest of us? The women chosen as the unruly examples are mostly white, which Petersen is quick to note as a sign that mainstream society’s standards remain hypocritical and limiting.
The problem with the book, as thorough and carefully thought out as it is, is that it cannot help but be dated almost immediately. I first read an ARC of this at the beginning of the year, and already there is so much more that could be added to strengthen and oppose the arguments made for each woman: Caitlyn Jenner’s status as the most famous trans woman in America and her adoption of ideas of hyper femininity is made all the more striking now with her public feud against her former family and growing pariah status in the trans community after voting for Donald Trump. Keeping up with Lena Dunham’s public life and controversies could be an eternally updated thesis unto itself. That can’t be helped with Too Fat, Too Slutty, Too Loud - it’s only one book, after all - but what is here is a strongly argued and accessible piece of modern pop culture feminist criticism that can proudly share shelf space with Lindy West and Jessica Valenti. It’s a book that certainly cries out for a sequel in this seemingly eternal Trump age.
Too Fat, Too Slutty, Too Loud: The Rise and Reign of the Unruly Woman is published by Plume Books & is available to buy on June 20th.