Trainwreck was published on my birthday, so it was kind of like Sady Doyle was giving me a birthday gift. Not really, at all, in any way. But still, a great coincidence. I’ve enjoyed reading their writing on various sites for years now, so when I heard they had an honest-to-goodness actual book coming out, I was elated. Fortunately, Trainwreck: The Women We Love to Hate, Mock, and Fear … and Why does not disappoint. It appoints. It appoints very much. Doyle’s criticism of media and the consumer habits that support the way media recycle the same narratives about women over and over is nuanced, fascinating, well-researched, and on point (can I still say “on fleek”? It’s too late to say “on fleek”, right?)
This is a big subject for Doyle to tackle in an organized fashion. I wouldn’t even know where to start. Doyle starts with sex, linking the packaging of sex for consumption with the pressure women in the spotlight face to sexualize themselves. The irony (spoiler alert) is that it turns out women who volunteer their sexuality are seen as sluts, while chaste-appearing women whose sexuality is displayed without their consent are shamed even as they are ogled:
A victim turns into a perpetrator; a naked body that people were willing to commit theft to see becomes unsightly and shameful the moment it’s exposed consensually. Sexually pure or sexual predator, uncorrupted virgin or corrupting whore, godly or Godzilla: These are the options. Thus are trainwrecks made.
Doyle presents us with examples of trainwrecks from as far back as the French Revolution. They emphasize that, indeed, these historical trainwrecks are not all that different from the celebrity trainwrecks of today, despite the differences in technology. In all these cases, it boils down to the patriarchal need to control women’s sexuality, and to punish women who deviate or resist that control by labelling them immoral, mad, and then continuing to punish them until they die, at which point they can possibly earn redemption (or not).
Wow, when I put it that way, it sounds really depressing. Indeed, this feeling predominates throughout the book, and I had to keep reminding myself that it isn’t Doyle who is depressing me so much as the society they describe. There’s just so much wrong with the way our society treats women, and in particular the way our media vilify some women while putting others on a pedestal—and then the next day, or week, those women’s positions get switched.
We have to be careful, though. We can’t fall into the trap of just saying “the media” like it’s a single monster (if it were, it would be a hydra, I’m sure). There is no oligarchy pulling the strings of this puppet to make it dance to a sexist tune. We pull the strings. Media platforms respond to us and what we choose to consume. We are part of the problem, we who come to gawk and rubberneck at the trainwrecks.
This is the theme Doyle advances in the latter third of the book. After covering the ways in which we shame trainwrecks, and the ways in which trainwrecks can respond (silence or embrace, essentially), Doyle looks at why we have trainwrecks at all (emphasis original):
Somehow, in the midst of the French Revolution, we, as humans, managaed to stumble onto one more crucial insight. The media could advance any political agenda it wanted, and whip up people’s emotions in any direction they felt necessary, and they didn’t even have to tell the truth to do it, as long as the other side was projected onto the body of an unlikable woman. There and then, in Theroigne and Marie, in war and blood and turmoil, the contemporary trainwreck was forged.
Oooohhh. That line, like so many others in this book, makes me shudder. It’s a powerful, albeit tragic, description of how we use and abuse women to keep certain people and groups in power. Doyle grounds the issue firmly in a systemic perspective, which I like, but they do not excuse individuals from the way they act in that system. (Incidentally, this last chapter about the French Revolution has a typo on page 224 that jumped out at me—Doyle mentions “the incompetent King Louis XIV” whereas Louis XVI was king at the time of the revolution. Fast fingers make for good enemies sometimes.)
Although reading about the tragedies perpetrated upon so many women can be saddening, I like Doyle’s conclusion and call to action. Their point is that we cannot fix the current system. There is no way to be a “good girl”, to become immune to being a trainwreck. The only solution is to opt-out. To flip the script. To be revolutionary. And for those who are male or otherwise insulated from this phenomenon courtesy of our privilege, we need to step up and help women be revolutionary, support them instead of tearing them down, and check that rather than participating in trainwreck narratives we are doing all we can to fight them.
Because it is, ultimately, all about the narrative. Trainwreck is a story about the stories we tell about women. And you all know how much I love books about storytelling. More broadly, storytelling is so crucial now that social media has become both a way we get news and a way we interact with each other. This was never demonstrated so clearly as during the recent American election, where the narrative you consumed thanks to your personal bubble influenced your opinions about whether or not to go and vote (if you are American) and who you thought was going to win. The stories we tell have power over our lives.
I came to this book as someone who has gone from an awareness of injustice and inequity towards a position of wanting to fight against it while acknowledging how I participate in systems of oppression. This is the gradual progression that many people make, and it is essential if one hopes to be an intersectional feminist. So for me, Trainwreck was largely a lot of head-nodding—nothing Doyle says seems really strange or new to me, though they often express it more eloquently, or illustrates it with an example from history or pop culture that had previously been unknown to me. I don’t have the perspective required to say for sure how someone newer to feminist thought would react to this book. But I’d like to think that it is thought-provoking and edifying: I think that if you’re open to learning more about misogyny in our culture, this book will work for you.
At the beginning of my review I remarked that this book came as kind of like a birthday gift to me. I’m actually giving it as a birthday gift to the friend who lent me Spinster, Decoded, and Men Explain Things to Me. I debated doing so, simply because it is a depressing book at times, and we’re both still kind of shattered over the way Clinton was treated during the election. But I value our conversations about feminism and our differing perspectives over pop culture, and I’m interested in the conversations we will have because of this book. It’s one thing to enjoy a book by oneself and another thing entirely to enjoy a book with others.