As someone who shuns celebrity “news,” gossip and whatever is “breaking the internet” on a given day, Anne Helen Peterson’s new book, “Too Fat, Too Slutty, Too Loud: The Rise and Reign of the Unruly Woman,” was not a natural fit for me.
But as a rich reality-TV star tweets policy from the White House, it seems warranted to consider celebrity as a lens through which to try to understand our current political moment.
By this logic, it’s worth taking stock of female archetypes in our culture through the stories of some of the most talked-about women of the last few years -- and Peterson does so in near scholarly detail.
Her selection of so-called “unruly women” is notable and engaging for its seeming randomness.
Peterson’s mix of profiles includes those who have been around so long -- Serena Williams, Madonna and Hillary Clinton -- that at first they seem unlikely to provide any new insight into the cultural moment. And then there are those, like Lena Dunham, Caitlyn Jenner and Kim Kardashian, who you may already be sick and tired of hearing about.
But dig in and you’ll be treated to myriad aspects of famous women that you may never have considered.
For instance, you might have thought that the tennis champion Williams was strictly a success story. But Peterson digs deep into the racial abuse and sexual snark that have followed Williams as she broke the mold of the traditional tennis ideal of understated, moneyed elegance that corresponds with upper-class America.
Similarly, in Peterson’s investigation of rapper Nicki Minaj, readers are shown that beyond the tabloid frenzy surrounding her overtly sexual branding we find a woman who defines herself by her business acumen. She prides herself on her hard work, has found a way to play by her own rules in a music industry dominated by men, and calls out women who tear other women down.
Describing an interview in which a female reporter, referring to an incident between some of the men in Minaj’s orbit, asked the rapper whether she thrived on drama, Peterson quotes Minaj: “That’s the typical thing that women do. ... What did you putting me down right there do for you? Women blame women for things that have nothing to do with them. ... To put down a woman for something that men do, as if they’re children and I’m responsible, has nothing to do with you asking stupid questions, but you know that’s not just a stupid question. That’s a premeditated thing you just did.”
It was a relief to see at least one strong criticism of a culture in which female journalists, editors, writers, bloggers and consumers lead the charge in the judgment about whether a female celebrity is too fat (actress Melissa McCarthy), too gross (actresses Abbi Jacobson and Ilana Glazer) or too loud (novelist Jennifer Weiner). I wish Peterson had spent at least as much time exploring the ways in which women become the primary fuelers of the body-surveillance culture and chief critics of other women’s career choices, parenting styles and sexual preferences as she does blaming the “male gaze,” “the patriarchy” and misogyny.
Still, Peterson has written an intelligent and fascinating book that prompts us to make connections and subsequently allows us to reconsider how we judge women in the public eye.
Because I tend to ignore anything Kardashian-related, I had been unaware of the direct connection between the social media-fueled images of maternity and childbirth perfection and the very real health crises that plagued Kim Kardashian’s high-risk pregnancies and caused her swollen feet to become trending stories.
Similarly, Peterson’s chapter on Jenner’s transition -- and the many ways in which it is not emblematic of an everyday person’s financial, emotional and societal struggles in being transgender -- is a mini-masterpiece of LGBTQ history and how it clashes with the American ideal of the Olympic athlete.
I truly enjoyed reading Peterson’s study of unruly women, but I do have to say that it’s too bad that no Asian-American or Hispanic women made it into her book. As a result, it feels like they were lumped together in a category marked “Too Invisible” or “Too Marginalized” and, surely, this can’t be.
From Tiger Moms (Amy Chua) to the first female Doctor Watson (Lucy Liu) and any number of controversial or beloved Hispanic celebrities (Sofia Vergara and Selena Quintanilla spring to mind), unruly women come in all races and ethnicities.