two years ago, i read rebecca solnit’s men explain things to me (haymarket, 2014), and, the whole time i was reading it, i thought, omg, this is a book that everyone should read.
i thought the same as i read sady doyle’s trainwreck (melville house, 2016). the subtitle for the book reads, “the women we love to hate, mock, and fear … and why,” and it’s an exploration of the narrative society forces upon women and the glee with which we watch them implode as they fall from grace. in each chapter, doyle gives us an “anatomy of a trainwreck,” examples of women throughout history who went against the norms, women like mary wollstonecraft, charlotte brontë, and billie holiday amongst others, and i appreciated that doyle doesn’t try to deify women or mount a biased defense — her writing is smart and fair and easy to read, her observations astute and well-researched, and her analyses thought-provoking and oftentimes disturbing in the ways that reality is disturbing.
this is a post comprised entirely of quotes. part of the reason for this is that i think what doyle is saying in trainwreck is so crucial. another part is that i have another post in mind but didn’t want to clog that up with so many quotes, so until then ...!
women who have succeeded too well at becoming visible have always been penalized vigilantly and forcefully, and turn into spectacles. and this, i would argue, is a none-too-veiled attempt to push women back into the places we’ve designed as “theirs.” if you stay at home, get married right away, never get a job, never display any unwelcome emotions, and stay away from the public eye to such an extent that you actually never make any sort of impression whatsoever, you can’t become a trainwreck. (xviii)
THE TRAINWRECK: HER CRIME
similarly, heterosexuality — the grand structure underpinning all these freak-outs — is the “norm.” it’s assumed, until it isn’t. but when a woman is presumed to be heterosexual, it normally takes exposed skin to trigger public freak-outs, invasions of privacy, and media handwringing. when a woman is rumored to be queer — a rumor that tends to arise whenever the press has trouble placing a famous woman with an equally famous man — all it takes is for her to go outside in the company of another woman. (15)
a woman who’s “out of control” sexually isn’t just a person making decisions, most of which will never affect you. she’s a defector from the ongoing sexual warfare; her influence stands to tera the whole system down. (16)
in an ideal patriarchal world, men pursue relationships, create relationships, and end relationships; women simply sit there and get related to, answering male desire and affection rather than feeling their own. “crazy” women, again, are women who operate as subjects rather than objects, women who want things rather than passively accept the fact of being wanted; they’re seen as unnatural and grotesque because their desire exists on its own terms, rather than in answer to male needs. (48)
when we live in a climate of distrusting women’s voices, of viewing women as primarily obliged to service the relationship demands of men, their pain — pain that goes beyond hurt feelings or loneliness, pain that comes from actual abuse — is always suspect. we can blame them for not being good, not making their male partners happy. we can say, not that abuse has made them act angrily or strangely, but that they were abused because they were angry or strange. and this is true even when the abuse in question is incontrovertible and well documented. (59-60)
simply because we’ve been taught to value men’s voices over and above women’s, our natural response to a woman’s claims of violence is to see her as delusional (she can’t perceive the real story) or unstable (she can’t handle the real story) or just plain frightening (she knows the real story, but she’s out to get him). which means that a tremendous number of female stories — perhaps the most urgent and enlightening ones, the stories we most need to hear — have been shut down or silenced. or it means that women have silenced themselves, believing that if they ever truly admitted what they were going through, they would sound crazy. (63)
for men, the point of this [the rules of femininity] is obvious: it keeps them distrustful of women, ready and eager to laugh at or dislike women, and quietly, constantly assured that they don’t really have to take women all that seriously. which, since most of the culture is aimed at conveying that message anyway, is not surprising. but in truth, men are not the primary beneficiary of all this rule-defining.
the degrading, the degraded female images are really aimed at you: yes, you, the nice, normal girl trying to figure out how to behave in public. we give you a constant stream of images and a whole lot of very good reasons to play by the rules and never, ever let the act slip because you aren’t a nice girl who spends one night a year playing dress-up as a monster. you’re a monster who spends 364 nights a year playing dress-up as a nice girl. (78-9)
mental illness and addiction ruin women — make them sideshows, dirty jokes, bogeymen, objects of moral panic — but they seem to add to a man’s mystique. […] we all understand that genius and madness are connected. at least, we do when the genius is male. (86)
put forth death as the ideal condition for troubled women — as something that makes them beautiful, forgivable, important — and plenty of troubled women will die. not because these women are more gullible or foolish than anyone else, but because, in sufficiently dire straits (at the bottom of addiction, or depression, or simple loneliness) death already looks like an easier and better solution than continued pain and helplessness. suicide-prevention experts know this. it’s why they plead with journalists, over and over again, not to make death look more appealing or glamorous than recovery. (115)
THE TRAINWRECK: HER OPTIONS
05. SHUT UP
the more reasonable explanation is that the historical lack of support for women as artists or public figures — the dismissal and condescension they face, the pressure to do the “reasonable” thing and put marriage and family first, the lack of cultural context that would make support and promoting them a political act — has resulted, not only in women avoiding the arts or being shamed out of them (i confess, i do think) but in a landscape where even relatively famous and ambitious women were so unimportant that they could disappear without a trace.
which brings us to the idea that silence is not just an unlucky outcome, for a woman. it may be the natural outcome — as far as many people are concerned, the ideal outcome — of being female in a sexist world. (129)
06. SPEAK UP
no one would suggest that plath wasn’t mentally ill. suicide is never a sign of radiant health. but this is another instance of the david foster wallace conundrum: we say that david foster wallace was a genius (because he wrote infinite jest) and that he was also mentally ill (because he hanged himself). even if his experience of mental illness substantially informed his writing (infinite jest, like the bell jar, is drawn largely from the author’s experiences after a suicide attempt in college; the addiction-recovery center wallace fictionalizes was his first stop after mclean, which also happened to be the exact same hospital plath stayed in, and that she fictionalized in the bell jar), his writing isn’t a symptom of his illness, but evidence of his ability to transcend it. but for plath, even the most basic part of writing, the fact that she could sit down and concentrate long enough o compose a poem — the same skill displayed by every third-grader who has ever successfully completed a book report — is supposedly a form of madness. men have problems. women are problems. (167)
plath took her own flaws as her subject, and thereby made them the source of her authority. by detailing her own over-abundant inner life, no matter how huge and frightening it was — her sexuality, her suicidability, her broken relationships, her anger at the world or at men — she could, in some crucial way, own that part of her story, simply because she chose to tell it. and, if she could do this, other women could do it, too. (168)
THE TRAINWRECK: HER ROLE
the primary audience of celebrity blogs, tabloids, and reality TV shows is not straight men. women are the ones who buy these stories. we’re the ones who enjoy them. we’re the ones these narratives are shaped for and aimed at. we’re the reason they exist. but what is it, exactly, that we’re enjoying? (184)
we rarely love or hate public figures for who they are. we can’t; we don’t know them. at a certain point, the media narrative surrounding celebrities stops being about the specifics of their lives or personalities and enters the realm of myth. stars are only stars because they represent something larger than themselves, some archetype, or a story we enjoy telling. (189)
insisting on the needs of your individual nature, being unquiet and unhappy when those needs are not satisfied, requires that you have an individual nature to begin with. and it requires that you not be ashamed of it. (237)
because the fact is, i’ve spent a while looking at the lives of the strongest, most feminist women in history. the icons; the immortal geniuses; the women to whom we are all meant to aspire. and the thing is? there’s not a strong feminist woman among them.
charlotte brontë was a genius, whose work has resonated for centuries as an example of female intellect and expressive power. her letters to constantin huger are some of the stupidest things i’ve ever read, a masterful, two-year-long demonstration of one woman’s inability to absorb the fact that the guy she liked did not like her. mary wollstonecraft was over a century ahead of her time on women’s education, and twice as far ahead on women’s sexual freedom. she still thought she’d rather drown than not have a boyfriend. harriet jacobs was possibly one of the bravest women who ever lived. she survived unspeakable atrocity, thanks only to her own daring, ingenuity, and resilience, and published one of the most important political documents of her age. and she was afraid that “educated people” would make fun of her grammar.
she was scared, but she did it. that’s all being strong is, apparently: being scared, or flawed, or weak, or capable (under the right circumstances) of astonishing acts of stupidity. and then going out and doing it all anyway. trying, every morning, to be the woman you want to be, regardless of how often you manage to fall short of your own high expectations. (243)
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. (253)
the thing is, i’ve never seen one [a trainwreck]. not in real life. not in the wild. as far as i can tell — and i have more evidence, and more access to it, than i would have had at any other point in history — they don’t exist. even the women who seem Good or Bad at first glance tend to fragment into something more complicated and ambiguous if you look at them long enough. women are not symbols of superhuman virtue. women are not symbols of all that is disgusting and corrupt. women, it turns out, are not symbols of anything, other than themselves.
all the women we were supposed to be, all the women we feared being: they never existed. the only thing that exists is us, in aworld where there are no normal girls. (256)