If you read feminist journalism, you’ve probably come across culture writer Anne Helen Petersen’s work at BuzzFeed. With a PhD in media studies focused on celebrity gossip, she has written longreads like “Jennifer Lawrence and the History of Cool Girls” and “That’s What Happened Between Me and Clark: Revising Old Hollywood’s Greatest Scandal.” Petersen has also become one of the best analysts of the Trump women. During and after the election, her writing on Ivanka and Melania Trump were must-reads.
Her latest book, Too Fat, Too Slutty, Too Loud: The Rise and Reign of the Unruly Woman, is a fascinating analysis of the many kinds of women that society has deemed “unruly.” Taking a close look at the lives and careers of eleven women in popular culture, Petersen declares each of them unruly in their own way. They’re all too something: too strong (Serena Williams), too fat (Melissa McCarthy), too gross (Abbi Jacobson and Ilana Glazer), too slutty (Nicki Minaj), too old (Madonna), too pregnant (Kim Kardashian), too shrill (Hillary Clinton), too queer (Caitlyn Jenner), too loud (Jennifer Weiner), and too naked (Lena Dunham).
While all of these women fall outside the norm in some way, she nevertheless chose them as case studies because “they’ve also all made themselves amenable to popular consumption;” in other words, they’ve “made concessions in order to have their work approved and disseminated by the mainstream media.”1
What struck me in this book was the prominence of two commonalities among these women. Clearly, to become as successful as they are, they were good at business, whatever that business may be. Serena Williams is maybe the greatest American athlete of all time. Hillary Clinton reached higher than any other female politician in United States history. Abbi Jacobsen and Ilana Glazer took Broad City from web series to Comedy Central show in just a few short years.
But also underlying most of these women’s business was an unruly body. We all remember the many, many, many times Lena Dunham has been criticized for the way she films her body on her HBO show Girls. Kim Kardashian was treated like a monster for having a difficult pregnancy that didn’t fit within the celebrity baby-bump culture that drives tabloids. Madonna is now in her fourth decade of performing and ridiculed for trying to keep up with the younger pop stars. It’s probably unsurprising to a regular Nursing Clio reader to know that women who find success in the public arena have to be better than anyone else. And it’s also probably unsurprising to hear that the bodies of public women are policed so strenuously.
These themes come up over and over. In just one example, Melissa McCarthy has to toe the line between her public persona as a modest, kind woman and the wild characters she plays on screen. She describes her experience while filming scenes in movies like Bridesmaids or Tammy as a “fugue state.” She has been able to channel this unruliness to become a massive box office draw in films like Ghostbusters or Spy.
At the same time, she’s constantly asked in media appearances about her weight. This unruliness — in both her acting and her body – is nevertheless what draws the viewer. As Petersen writes, “McCarthy onscreen is the unruly woman at her most magnetic–and the very best argument that good behavior, in body or bearing, is for suckers.”2
I can’t talk here about every one of the eleven women who were featured in this book, but I’m going to touch on two of the case studies that I found most interesting. I am not a big reality show fan — I don’t think I’ve ever seen an episode of Keeping Up with the Kardashians in their 13 seasons on the air. Yet I found Petersen’s chapter on the “too pregnant” Kim hard to put down. Celebrity bodies are constantly on display, and Kim Kardashian has built a celebrity empire out of being a rich, “hot” young woman. But that body became “unruly” when Kardashian became pregnant with her first child. Petersen frames it as “Kardashian’s pregnancy [refusing] to make itself marketable.”3
In a culture that worships celebrities with a “cute” baby bump, Kardashian gained weight despite diet and exercise. Her feet swelled, and she was eventually diagnosed with preeclampsia. Tabloid photos compared her body to a whale and ridiculed her feet. At the same time, Kardashian ignored the rules of the celebrity pregnancy. Despite her changing body, she continued to wear the tight dresses and sky-high heels that are her trademark. And she was unfortunate enough to be pregnant at the same time as Kate Middleton, the Duchess of Cambridge, whose intense morning sickness prevented the kind of weight gain Kardashian experienced, and who dressed her growing body in conservative, yet stylish, clothing. While many of the women in this book are “unruly” by choice, Kim Kardashian’s body became unruly without her permission. Perhaps that’s why I find this story so fascinating — what happens when the body itself rebels?
Jennifer Weiner’s story was the other I found most compelling. An author of middle-brow novels mainly read by women, Weiner is “too loud” in Petersen’s telling, because she has led the charge to get women’s novels the same consideration as men’s. Perhaps most well-known for her very public feud with fellow writer Jonathan Franzen, Weiner has been critical of how the literary world talks about the work of men and women. Novels focusing on relationships and families written by men are often viewed as literary fiction, while similar stories told by women are slapped with the usually derogatory label “chick lit.”
This isn’t just a semantic distinction, when the big literary publications and reviewers are more likely to review (and thus publicize) the work of “serious” male authors. Weiner’s criticisms started with the treatment of her and other women novelists’ work, but it then extended to broader gender divides. Petersen writes, “her argument began to point toward a general problem within culture at large–one in which the thoughts of men, either in the books they write or the articles they write about other ideas or books, take precedence over the ideas of women.”4
This is familiar to any woman who works in an intellectual or cultural field; in history, we’ve seen women and people of color passed over in favor of white dudes who better “look the part” of a historian. But Weiner’s outspoken advocacy for women’s writing has made a difference. People have begun to pay attention to statistics of the gender breakdown for books reviewed in the big literary publications, as well as the gender of the writers doing the reviewing. In 2013, the New York Times Book Review hired a female editor-in-chief and began better covering commercial writers, both women and men.
This book would be an excellent summer read for anyone interested in popular culture and issues of gender. As feminism becomes increasingly more commodified, it’s vital to examine the ways that individual women have navigated the tricky terrain of celebrity feminism. Perfection is impossible, and reading about how various women have embraced unruliness to find success can perhaps help us see our own unruliness in a new light.
- Anne Helen Petersen, Too Fat, Too Slutty, Too Loud: The Rise and Reign of the Unruly Woman (New York: Plume, 2017), xix, xx. Return to text.
- Ibid., 49. Return to text.
- Ibid., 120. Return to text.
- Ibid., 202. Return to text.