"You tell people the truth and you stink." -Billie Holiday.
Sady Doyle does an amazing analysis of why women become "trainwrecks" in our culture. "Once she's found guilty, she's always guilty of more than one thing. But if you want to figure out how and why these women piss off the American public, well, there is one big, obvious starting point. "Have you seen her naked?"
Good point. Referring to Miley Cyrus's drastic image change, she says, "We told this child, throughout her teenage years, that her naked body, her drug use, and her outrageous behavior were the only interesting things about her, and that we would steal that information if it wasn't promptly forthcoming." Now, Miley is both literally and figuratively stripped down, naked and yelling about getting high on the TV.... with nothing left to hide and nothing more for us to steal. "A victim turns into a perpetrator; a naked body that people were willing to commit theft to see becomes unsightly and shameful the moment it's exposed consentually. Sexually pure or sexual predator, uncorrupted virgin or corrupting whore, godly or Godzilla: These are the options. Thus are trainwrecks made."
This book covers famous old school trainwrecks, like Mary Wollstoncraft, who was well respected until after her death, when her adoring husband William Godwin published everything of hers he could find and then wrote a biography of her-- "But for whatever reason, in his biography, William Godwin set out to expose every damaging secret Wollstonecraft ever had." Including her married ex and the guy who knocked her up and abandoned her. Charlotte Bronte got obsessed with the one teacher who ever respected her as a writer, then he cut her off and she wrote crazy letters to him, and wrote a book about him that nobody wanted.
"Imagine being a female genius, trapped in the nineteenth century, trapped in a job you hate, in a country not your own. You have some of the best books of your age inside you, and you've resigned yourself to the fact that you'll probably never get them out, never do anything better than those stories you used to make up with Anne and Emily back home. You're teaching kids, and that's the only thing you'll ever do, because even if you did write--even if you did--decent women don't publish their writing. It's unladylike, it's unfeminine, it's vulgar, it's condemned. It's a distraction from the business of a woman's life. You have no escape. And you have no hope. All you have is one man-- one short, bald, mean, angry, middle-aged, married man--who sits down with you to work on your writing. And in that moment, when he's speaking to you about books, there is no one who could not love his face.
Imagine how much you'd love that man's face, if you were Charlotte Bronte. Imagine that man's power: all the needs he would fulfill, all the desires he'd awaken, all the lives you'd suddenly realize you could be living. And imagine it well, because you're going to have to forgive Charlotte for some truly crazy ex-girlfriend behavior once she went back to England."
Of course, being a trainwreck leads to "the one form of permanent redemption that the culture freely allows to a woman who is mad, bad, and dangerous to know. After all the flame-outs, the breakdowns, jokes, the failures, the surveillance, the invasions, the dehumanization--after all the years of hating these women, and punishing them--the one happy ending that we as a culture will accept is the moment where it all falls in on her. And we all get to gather around the coffin, and sigh, and say that it's a shame." Once they're dead, everyone loves them and their shames are wiped clean. They've taught us all a lesson that women can't make it and shouldn't be encouraged to try, that they don't belong in our world, they can't act like, they have to pay for breaking the rules. "Suicide-prevention experts know this. It's why they plead with journalists, over and over, not to make death look more appealing or glamorous than recovery."
And even if they don't die, some women learn to just disappear, whether it's into addiction, poverty, housewifehood, or a day job. Regarding Virginia Woolf, the author says: "A Room of One's Own, of course, is a book entirely devoted to female silence; it sets out to answer the question of whether there were women in literature, and, if not, where they'd all gone. And, in that book, Woolf wrestled with the fact that the history of women's writing--one of the most permanent, and most obvious, ways that women have managed to make themselves heard in public--is also a history of women who have tried not to be noticed or seen as writers." Trying to make yourself big enough to be heard is at odds with "the basic female work of getting and staying small."
Doyle concludes the truth: "A woman must be perfect, or not be anything at all, to encounter fame without being shamed or scarred." So women hedge around, they use male pen names or generic pen names or write anonymously or don't publish at all. Doyle tells the story of former slave Harriet Jacobs, who felt compelled enough to respond to First Lady Julia Tyler's praise of slavery, and yet she kept saying she didn't have it in her to write, couldn't take criticism, wasn't educated, wasn't sympathetic, wasn't a real heroine. "She sounds like any other woman I've known refusing to push herself out into the world," Doyle remarks, and I agree. But "Jacobs was able to get to the other side of silence by realizing exactly what makes it insupportable: If you don't tell people who you are and what you know, other people will be able to tell the world who you are for you. And, if it pleases them, they will be able to lie. Of course, Jacobs also experienced silence's cruelest trick: Even if you do convince yourself to speak, someone else has to agree to listen to you. If they deny you, silence comes back. And it will swallow you whole." And of course...."No matter what you say, people will still be able to say whatever they like against you; the question is who people will believe. And, historically, in a clash of personal and cultural narratives, the winner is not likely to be female." Unfortunately, we always have the same issue over and over again, regardless of time and technology.
"The journey from silence to speech--and from powerlessness to power, from unchallenged patriarchy to gender equality, because these are just different names for the same long word--is only halfway complete. We can tell the world who we are. But the world still doesn't have to listen. As long as the trainwreck industry keeps on rolling, all this
liberating speech will tend to devolve into women trying to shout over or past their attackers.The answer isn't to shut up. And the answer isn't simply to speak up individually and separately. It's to use our speech, while we have it, to ask why we keep doing this to each other--and to change what it means, not only to be a "bad" woman, but to be a woman at all."
She also checks how Taylor Swift used to not say anything about who she dated (god, I can't even remember that), and now we know it all and she got the exact opposite of the praise she got when we didn't know. "She'd played the game exactly right, and she still hadn't won it--not completely, not without incurring penalties. Which is what happens, when games are designed so that no one can win." How could a woman win? Doyle guesses that "the ideal woman would have to steer between them, like Scylla and Charybdis, navigating the currents without being swept toward either side: 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, and she would have to be able to do all of this when she was still very, very young." Like oh, Britney? "There is no 'ideal girl." We tried to manufacture her, at one point, and she turned out to be the biggest wreck of all." Yeah... "even Britney couldn't give enough; all the trust and obedience in the world couldn't make her totally absent from her own life, or take her inner conflicts away." Sigh.
But it's hard to choose to be that bold and unapologetic. It's dangerous. "Insisting on the needs of your individual nature, being unquiet and unhappy when those needs are not satisfied, It requires that you have an individual nature to begin with. And it requires that you not be ashamed of it." What's a good girl like? She is "feminine selflessness, taken to its most literal extreme; there is no self, no there, except as a reflection of someone else's wishes. She never makes mistakes, and she never has regrets, because she never does anything unless she is asked to do it. She is so entirely cleansed of neediness, irrationality, and inner conflict that the average woman cannot imitate her even in silence: Women who go silent about their needs, it turns out, still have needs. They're silent because they're repressing what they have to say. The ideal woman has a silence that arises from never wanting to speak about anything at all. And what living thing could be that passive, that quiet? Why is it, really, that we fixate on all of those Dead Blondes and Tragic Princesses? After looking at her long enough--the good woman, the ideal woman, the woman the trainwreck isn't--you get the disturbing impression that she's not a woman at all. She is a woman's corpse." And why is the trainwreck "crazy?" "because in a sexist culture, being female is an illness for which there is no cure."
Even worse is what happens when a civilian woman hits her accidental fifteen minutes of fame. Doyle says they're even worse because they have no known history before the incident--the incident is their entire story. They're not prepared to defend themselves, they don't have "teams," all they've ever been is their worst moment. Staging a comeback when the world hates you at first sight is something she deems the single hardest task to learn fame on. You can find a trainwreck on social media instantly. "It keeps women convinced that there's something wrong with them, and afraid to step out of line. More afraid than ever before, in fact."
Basically, if anyone sees you, you will be punished. But Doyle suggests that "it is, perhaps, less painful to be punished for what you do than to punish yourself by never doing anything at all." I don't know about that. I debate this every day.
Is there hope? Well, Doyle tries to suggest some. "Our only hope of changing them, of ending the wrecks, lies not in stopping or even changing the Internet...but in
changing ourselves, and our definitions of womanhood. We have to stop believing that when a woman does something we don't like, we are qualified and entitled to punish her, violate her, or ruin her life. We have to change our ideas of what a "good" woman, or a "likable" woman, or simply a "woman who can leave her house without fearing for her life because she is a woman," can be. And we do have to do it. All of us. Each of us for our own sake. Maybe you're not worried, right now; maybe you're doing all of the right things, and none of the wrong ones. Maybe you think you could spot the danger coming, stop yourself before you made your big mistake. Maybe, right now, you feel perfectly safe. For you, there is no train coming. No sign that you might get hit."
"By the time you hear the train coming, you are always hearing it too late."
Yeah, I'm not counting on our changing to make this better in my lifetime.
Four stars. Grim, honest, true.