Column: Unruly women were having a moment. Then Trump happened


The descriptions for bold women change over time — unnatural, dangerous, uppity — but such women soldier on. They’re the women who step way out of lines that society draws for them, who defy the parameters of “nice” and even “decent” — and change all women’s lives when they do. Anne Helen Petersen’s new book, “Too Fat, Too Slutty, Too Loud: The Rise and Reign of the Unruly Woman,” uses the careers of celebrities like Melissa McCarthy and Nicki Minaj as the filters through which to process how society — men, and women too — will “pinpoint and police” how women should behave. To Petersen, a senior culture writer at BuzzFeed, the 2016 presidential campaign looked like the “reign” was rising; now “unruly” is feeling the recoil — and shoving right back.

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How would you define an unruly woman?

I think it’s anything that’s too — like t-o-o, so, like the title of the book, too fat, too loud. But it’s also anyone who’s too much, in some ways. The best way that I have used to describe it is the type of women who, once you’ve seen her on-screen or in a personal interaction, you’re like, uuugh, that was too much for me.

Historically, those women have been punished, sometimes punished to death. And now you write about the reign of unruly women. Do they really reign now?

Well, that’s a good question. Always, there’s a moment where they reign. This happened with Roseanne [Barr] as well. She was arguably the most popular star of her moment in the early ‘90s — she dominated television. But there’s the reign, and then there’s the recoil or the rejection.

When I started writing this, we were at this apex of the rule of this more contemporary generation of unruly women. Since then, there has been this pushback, and part of it was developing as I was writing the book last year. And it didn’t become entirely clear or as visible to me until the election. Now I think we have a general pushback against these unruly women.

You organize the book by the characters, the public women you scrutinize, and the first of them is Serena Williams. What is it that makes her unruly?

Her subtitle is “too strong,” but there’s overlapping and compounding modes of unruliness for each of them. Serena Williams can also be too black, especially for what had to that point been an almost entirely white sport, and also a very bourgeois sport.

The way she changed the game was not only through the way that she appeared on the tennis court, the way that her hair was on the tennis court. It’s hard for us to remember: In the late ’90s, there were all these complaints about the clack of the beads in [the Williams sisters’] braids, that it was somehow disruptive. What are you actually talking about when you’re talking about that?

There’s just no examples or precedent for having a woman speak loudly, powerfully, assertively in public spaces.

And some of these things just don’t die. Like John McEnroe the other day: If Serena had played in the men’s tournament, she’d be ranked [700]. What’s going on with John McEnroe that he feels the need to contest the idea that Serena Williams is one of the best — not just women tennis players of all time but the best tennis players of all time?

It seems that for a lot of the women in your book, if they’re big successes, then they’re in a position to break the rules.

Yes, I think you need to accumulate some sort of privilege, fame or capital in order to push those boundaries more.

You mention Rosanne, who certainly qualifies in a lot of the title of your book — loud, fat, also a groundbreaker. What ground did she break? And her unrepentance, I think, was as important as anything she did to repent of.

Being in control of her own show on network television was huge. Also one thing that a lot of people talk about is that she fought to have a working-class family represented on TV: having a living room that was cluttered, and having a relationship with her husband and her kids that wasn’t always cute. I think that that was groundbreaking. And it also made people uncomfortable. We’re so used to seeing everyone on TV as middle class.

And her stuff that she did offscreen always was pushing boundaries. It’s hard again to recall just how anxious and upset people were after she sang the national anthem off-key. It seems like such a blip now, but wow, just immediate backlash.

You also track the changes in the way rapper Nicki Minaj has chosen to present herself.

I try to be really mindful that I’ve had control over the ways that I can represent my body, historically for a much longer time, than women of color, whose sexuality has been commodified for them, who have been physically owned by other people.

And so I think oftentimes that what comes through with Nicki Minaj is, how would a black woman think of owning her sexuality differently than a white woman would?

You write that she “conceives of her image not as a frivolity but as a business and oversees it accordingly.” So in a way is she commodifying herself and the fact that she controls herself as the dominant characteristic, not the sexuality?

She very forcefully rejected a sexual image at the beginning of her career. This is when she was wearing all the wigs and doing a lot of voice-play. I know that she has said that she didn’t want anyone to think she was only popular because she was hot, or because she had a good body, or because she objectified herself.

She wanted to reject that image, which so many other female rappers had been limited by in a lot of ways. So she went through that period of her career and obtained incredible success. And then she decided, Oh, I want to play around with this sexy side, but also in a really funny and playful way. If you’ve seen the video for [the song] “Anaconda,” it’s a very absurdist take on sexuality in a lot of ways.

The thing that I have learned again and again with these women, in particular when they say something about what they’re doing, we should listen to them more.

You and I know, as writers with a public profile, that no matter what it is we write about, some percentage of the criticism we get is not going to be about the content. It’s going to be sexual; it’s going to use sexual insults; it’s going to use sexual references. Is that just the way it will be for women?

I think that the biggest insult that a lot of men think they can wield at women is to suggest that no one wants to have sex with them. That suggestion is seen as this blunt force that somehow will devastate a woman.

But as long as, as women, we can reject this understanding that our primary value is how much a guy wants to have sex with us, then that insult loses its weight and loses its power.

One of the saddest chapters for me to read was about Madonna, because you write about a woman who reaches 60, is still performing as a sexual person, is criticized for it, but in order to show that she’s still a sexual person, she has to work to make herself act and, to the extent possible, look like someone who’s 30, rather than just being 60.

I really set out to write this chapter that was going to be, oh Madonna‘s breaking all these barriers, right? Showing that you can be sexual over the age of 50. And what I discovered is that I don’t actually think Madonna thinks that older women can be sexy. I think that she thinks that older women who look like her can be sexy. And that’s a really impossible line to tread. She works out for hours and hours a day. That’s not —

And has one glass of wine a week. I feel sorry for her!

I know, wasn’t that so sad? And I think that sort of regimen — an incredible, self-policed understanding of how you can fit into society — is heartbreaking in a lot of ways. And I suggest that she’s not breaking ground for other women. She’s never been about — oh, these other older women are all so sexy and they’re highly individualistic.

I don’t think we’re at the point yet that, as Americans in particular, we’re ready to conceive of women over a certain age as sexual. The ease and the spread of plastic surgery and Botox and all of these things don’t actually make it easier for women to feel sexy as they get older. It means that you have to, as you get older, instead of changing the standard — that, oh yeah, the way that a 60-year-old woman looks beautiful and sexual and all of these things — it’s more like, there’s an expectation that when you’re 60 that you must try to keep your face looking 30.

I’m thinking about how things we see every day fit into some of the tropes in the book. Think of Michelle Obama and the criticism she received for wearing sleeveless dresses to official events. She had very strong, very toned arms. Now we see the First Lady, we see Ivanka Trump, showing up at official event wearing sleeveless dresses. and not a peep.

I think that Michelle Obama’s first ladyhood was incredibly overdetermined; to be the first black first lady, everything that you do is more open to criticism, more open to, Well, this is different — she looks different, they’re asking different people to the White House. I think she had seen exactly what happened with Hillary Clinton trying to be a stronger force as a first lady, and knew that if she tried the same, she would receive not just similar backlash but even stronger, because of all this unfounded anxiety over having a person of color as a first lady.

You compare it to the way people talk about Melania’s arms: Well, of course, she’s a model, why wouldn’t you see her arms? We want to see her arms. We want to see more of her. To me, there’s not a lot of thoughtfulness that goes into the way we react to women.

And then you write about Hillary Clinton: Because she was the first, she paid the price. She was either too masculine, too feminine, she could never strike the right tone. Is that because she was the first woman to do this, or was there something about her in particular that made this strike a wrong chord with some voters?

Oh, I think both. The title of that chapter is “too shrill,” which is a word we use to describe when a woman’s tone of voice becomes louder in public. There’s just no examples or precedent for having a woman speak loudly, powerfully, assertively in public spaces. And I think we’ve come up with pejoratives to describe their voice or their demeanor when they do so, as a means of warning other women from following those footsteps.

The reason that we continue to try to unpack the campaign is because there was so much that qualified her, and also so much that seemed to disqualify her. A lot of politicians, when they enter public life, they have some history that they need to overcome, or position, or deal with. Hillary had decades of public life and public animosity — and public love after Monica Lewinsky. I think it’s just impossible to untangle that knot.

A lot of the people whom I talked to on the campaign trail who hated Hillary most vehemently were women. There’s a quote that I use in the chapter; a political analyst is talking about a resentment toward the decisions Hillary made in her life. And I think it’s not necessarily that women are jealous of her. That’s the wrong word for it.

But whether it’s the rhetoric we use about women who choose not to get married or not to have children, or the women who decide to have a short maternity leave and then go back to work, and have nannies instead of staying home for longer — there are ways that women quietly try to censure women who don’t make the decisions they made. And Hillary Clinton, again and again, made decisions that most women in America have not made.

And yet, apropos of your book title about the unruly woman, you saw women’s protests across the country, and a very popular T-shirt, “Nasty Woman,” which is the phrase Donald Trump used to describe Hillary Clinton in a debate. Maybe women are claiming that turf that they’ve been afraid of before.

The most remarkable place that I’ve seen it is talking to different women who are in their 50s and 60s, or retired or close to retirement, whose kids have left the house, who have just poured themselves into activism.

And a lot of them tell me, I don’t care what anyone thinks about me. My kids are gone, I don’t care, I’m just going to work as hard as I can to change things. And that’s something: that when you reach a certain age, there’s this idea that women over the age of 45, 50 become invisible, because they’re no longer valued by society.

But then at the same time, that invisibility, it’s like a cloak — you can do all of this work; people don’t come after you. It’s an incredibly empowering thing in some ways. This is their moment to be unruly.

One point about a lot of these women who are embracing activism is that women of color have been doing this sort of activism for decades. Especially within the black community, there have been ferocious, effective, unruly leaders who have been for a very long time.

Politically, there’s more of a willingness on the left to embrace this sort of unruliness. I always think of Ivanka, who is arguably the most powerful female politician or political advisor right now in the United States, who went on the news and said, I don’t like to be involved in politics. And that’s this idea that it’s still unseemly to be involved in politics, which is really fascinating to me, that she wields this power but you need to elide any idea that you are actually super powerful because that’s what makes me uncomfortable.

Even on the left though, I think there’s still this pushback for unruliness, the misogyny from many Bernie bros — not all, but many Bernie supporters — is real. The left has to deal with that. Just because you’re a liberal doesn’t mean you don’t have internalized misogyny.

So where are we now? Are we still rising, or is the pushback working?

I think we’re in a moment of recoil. The history of feminism is two steps forward and one step back, and we’re in that step back right now. But I think that what we can do right now is, instead of following this trend toward a rejection or watering down of feminism or recoil from it, we can try to make that step back last a shorter amount of time, and not be as significant, and keep fighting it.

What’s the reaction been from readers, and from the public that hasn’t read it but just saw the title?

It’s been really interesting. A lot of women have told me that it feels like an unruly act to read it in public, because the cover is very loud — it has “too fat, too slutty, too loud” in bold print on a pink background, which is kind of purposeful, to have the femininity of pink juxtaposed with those words. And they get a lot of stares from men when they read it. That’s really fascinating — that to read the book in public is an act of unruliness in and of itself.

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