For those tuned into the pop culture zeitgeist, the past few years have been confusing ones in regards to women and their place in society. On one hand, strong women are speaking out like never before, sexism is being rejected by many and Hillary Clinton’s historic presidential campaign put women closer than ever to the most powerful office in the country. At the same time, state and federal governments are moving to restrict access to reproductive care, sexism remains prevalent and Donald Trump is president. It’s disorienting, to say the least. BuzzFeed culture writer Anne Helen Petersen doesn’t necessarily solve this paradox in her new book, Too Fat, Too Slutty, Too Loud: The Rise and Reign of the Unruly Woman, but she does offer context for the current dichotomy between women’s increased visibility and the continued sexist pushback.
Structured as essays about women who embody a particular manifestation of “unruliness,” Petersen’s book examines what it means for women to push against—and in many instances destroy—boundaries imposed on them by society. Petersen defines “unruliness” as any facet of a woman’s life that can be perceived as “too much,” and an unruly woman doesn’t shy away from her unwillingness to conform. This includes Serena Williams (too strong), Caitlyn Jenner (too queer), Kim Kardashian (too pregnant), Hillary Clinton (too shrill), Nicki Minaj (too slutty) and others. Each woman intersects with other “too” categories; for example, Minaj is both outspoken and sexual, while Kim Kardashian’s difficult pregnancy and her highly public persona combined to make her too much of, well, everything society finds distasteful in mothers.
Petersen has compiled exhaustive notes on each of the women she profiles, pulling from interviews, tabloids, cable news and the Internet. Each essay delivers a tight weave of smart criticism, cultural history and biography, held together by Petersen’s own critical analysis. Each piece stands alone, but when taken together, they form a fascinating—and infuriating—look at the public gaze’s double standards and unreasonable demands on women’s bodies and personalities.
Some essays prove stronger than others. The chapter on Hillary Clinton is particularly powerful, and it shines among the otherwise lackluster takes on the 2016 election that fail to take into account the long-simmering hatreds and gendered biases that have worked against Clinton since her earliest days in public life. Kardashian and Williams are similarly engaging figures. Kardashian, so often discredited on the basis of her “reality” empire, is described as “the most influential person in the room” even when married to Kanye West. And Williams’ strength both on and off the tennis court shines as a master class in the rejection of racist, sexist and classist norms. Figures like Nicki Minaj and Lena Dunham have spoken often enough in public that Petersen molds their own statements into the narratives built around them, creating a dialogue between multiple sources to great effect.
But not every essay shines as brightly, and Petersen’s analysis of Melissa McCarthy—“too fat”—is less effective than others due in part to McCarthy’s own public persona, which is largely non-confrontational even as she pushes back against shallow criticism. Petersen positions McCarthy as performing “unruly drag” in films like Bridesmaids, referencing McCarthy’s own discussion of a “fugue state” she enters when she becomes the vulgar version of herself that has made her famous. It’s one of the few moments when an argument isn’t strong enough to stand beside the rest of the book’s compelling and engaging analyses.
Too Fat, Too Slutty, Too Loud is nonetheless a thorough examination of unruly women who exist in the public eye. By taking pop culture seriously, Petersen illuminates individuals who work incredibly hard to create and sustain their public images, often in the face of extreme backlash. Intersectional and self-aware (Petersen takes pains to note that she is a white, cis-gender woman with a PhD), the book is wide-ranging in its compassion.
It’s a book that, like the women it considers, refuses to back down.
Bridey Heing is a freelance writer based in Washington, DC. More of her work can be found here.