The aftermath of the 2016 election was a brutal blow for all women. Nearly a year later, it still pains me to revisit that night: The long walk to my dorm. My hopes for progress on gender equality dashed by the grim confirmation that America once again chose the side of misogyny. I was likely not the only ambitious young woman who thought, So this is the world I am graduating into. This is how that world treats women who want more for themselves.
The November 2016 election is the starting point for Anne Helen Petersen’s collection of essays, Too Fat, Too Slutty, Too Loud: The Rise and Reign of the Unruly Woman. Petersen holds a Ph. D. in media studies; you may recognize her as a senior culture writer at Buzzfeed. In the Introduction, Petersen describes about how she, like many of us, was crushed when she saw perhaps the most prominent woman in America, the toughest and most capable in her field, lose to a man who openly boasted about sexual assault. The election, and what it revealed about how severely society delimits the definition of “a good woman,” was the impetus for Petersen’s collection.
Enter seven unruly women. For the subjects of her essays, Petersen chose to examine a prominent woman in the public eye who has somehow been deemed “unruly,” improper, deviant. In this state of national uncertainty, Petersen argues that “unruliness,” in all fields and from all women, is more necessary than ever.
“Celebrities are our most visible and binding embodiments of ideology at work.”
Each chapter names the subject and the grounds for her unruliness. From there, Petersen unpacks and ultimately challenges the ways that the woman’s “unruly behavior” has historically been deemed aberrant. Too Old: Madonna discusses the pop star with regard to society’s discomfort with an aging woman’s body, and society’s eventual disgust with an aging woman who dares to reclaim her sexuality. Too Strong: Serena Williams interrogates the intersectional double-standards to which she is held as an outspoken, muscular Black woman athlete.
“The more you analyze what makes these behaviors transgressive,” Petersen writes, “the easier it is to see what they’re threatening: what it means to be a woman, of course, but also entrenched understandings of women’s passive role in society.”
Petersen’s analysis is both incisive and accessible. I’ve found that some feminist writing assumes theoretical background knowledge on the part of the reader. This is not the case for Unruly Woman. For those who did not read feminist theory in college, you will still find Petersen’s writing informative and powerful. And if you did read boatloads of Judith Butler, you’ll find the way that Petersen applies a critical feminist lens to pop culture refreshing and insightful.
With essays like Too Slutty: Nicki Minaj and Too Queer: Caitlyn Jenner, Petersen’s writings attempt to span a diversity of subjects. However, as she notes in the introduction, the consequences for unruly behavior are much harsher for queer women and/or women of color than it is for white, straight women. Their eligibility for “salable stardom,” as Petersen calls it, is scrutinized far more critically. She’s aware of the preponderance of white women in her book, and she acknowledges it as a part of her argument to great effect.
There is one essay that stands out as the most remarkable, evocative of Petersen’s essays – perhaps the emotional heart of the collection. Too Shrill: Hillary Clinton transported me back to that November night when I was sucker punched by own country.
With detailed and meticulous scrutiny, Petersen examines Clinton from the beginnings of her prominence in the public eye, as the incendiary Wellesley commencement speaker and, later, the First Lady of Arkansas, all the way until 2017.
I learned so much about Clinton and (pardon my punctuation) all the bullsh%# she’s dealt with. Those sexist slurs targeted specifically at her, the ones I overheard in the months leading up to November? They were being hurled at her since before I was born. The very same ones, often in the same usage that I heard them in 2016! That is bananas!!
At some points, Petersen paints a painful retrospective. In Too Shrill, she reflects austerely, “And that’s the core of Clinton’s unruliness: she has demanded the same stature, power, and attention as a man.” So this is the world I am graduating into.
But each chapter concludes with a reasoned, un-idealistic defense of hope. That is the thread that continually re-energizes me to read across chapters. No matter how frustrating the essay, no matter how eerily relatable or how crestfallen I feel, there is always some justification for moving forward. The ending of Too Shrill is nothing short of magnificent.
Unruly Woman incites. For its female-identifying readers, the book accesses familiar frustrations and rage. Rooted from her firm intellectual argumentation, Petersen’s work is also a (cautious, critical) rallying call. It’s calls upon women to defy the narrow margins in which society circumscribes femininity – knowing that a misogynistic backlash is inevitable, striding forward anyway.
In my opinion, this book belongs on every woman’s nightstand. Or on the nightstand of anyone who wants to raise, or support, or just be a decent person to a woman who dreams beyond what society prescribes her. It’s perfect for reading an essay a night, to wake the next morning emboldened and unrepentant, with a desire for revolution.
What’s are you reading this weekend? (For inspiration, check out my posts on The Hate U Give and the 10 Diverse Books that changed my life.) What are your favorite feminist books? Who are the unruly women in your life?