Our trainwrecks, ourselves: Why women hate on hot messes and other toxic female tropes

Sady Doyle’s anatomy of the "trainwreck" phenomenon points to the larger cultural forces behind celebrity gossip

Published September 24, 2016 7:30PM (EDT)

Tara Reid; Marie Antoinette; Amy Winehouse   (Reuters/Mario Anzuoni/Wikimedia/AP/Matt Dunham)
Tara Reid; Marie Antoinette; Amy Winehouse (Reuters/Mario Anzuoni/Wikimedia/AP/Matt Dunham)

Trainwrecks don’t make themselves. In fact, you could say that trainwrecks are projections of our worst selves—steeped in our own internalized misogyny—scapegoated onto women in the public eye, whose then very-publicized rise and fall is lapped up by media and audiences alike.

The anatomy of the trainwreck is the subject of Sady Doyle’s debut book, “Trainwreck: The Women We Love to Hate, Mock, and Fear . . . and Why, published this past Tuesday (read Salon’s interview with Doyle). “Trainwreck” is a dazzling compendium of iconic feminist figures, from Mary Wollstonecraft to Valerie Solanas, Jane Austen to Sylvia Plath. Doyle situates these women as historical anchors in order to reveal a larger historical trend about cultural misogyny and the damnation of transgressive women. They are deemed transgressive, of course, because they dared to be human, have feelings, emotions, needs and desires. The “trainwreck” is simply a woman living in the world, Doyle said in our interview (which was conducted first by phone, and after a technical malfunction, repeated over email), as “a subject, rather than anyone else’s object.”

“The trainwreck is someone who needs things, and feels things, and doesn’t pause to think about what the people around her need or want first,” said Doyle. That she does not remain mute, silent, passive, or submissive renders her “unlikable,” another defining social attribute evident in the trainwreck narrative that Doyle charts through the centuries.

The book’s genealogy of the trainwreck is one Doyle calls an “anatomy.” The use of the word is an intentional nod to Robert Burton’s Renaissance tome published nearly 400 years ago, “The Anatomy of Melancholy,” Doyle said in our interview, and that in order “to write about trainwrecks (who are, themselves, very melancholy) [she] has to sort of address every other angle of misogyny to get there.”

The use of the "anatomy" structure was also, she added, “about that quest of shifting the narrative away from individual women, and toward an examination of the pressures and stereotypes at hand.” This is why the book is a cultural history rather than a feminist hagiography. With rise of digital culture,  it is no longer only public women who are scrutinized; every woman who dares to enter any digital space faces the risk of being deemed a trainwreck.

In Doyle’s cultural history, she shows how the trainwreck is a manifestation of misogyny, and, more disturbingly, a mirror image of women’s internalized misogyny. The trainwreck, she contends, is “a signpost pointing to what ‘wrong’ is, which boundaries we’re currently placing on femininity, which stories we’ll allow women to have.” Doyle elaborates in her book:

She’s the girl who breaks the rules of the game and gets punished, which means that she’s actually the best indication of which game we’re playing, and what the rules are. And, in her consistent violation of the accepted social codes — her ability to shock, to horrify, to upset, to draw down loud and powerful condemnation — she is a tremendously powerful force of cultural subversion. And at the end of the day, despite all our praise of strong women and selfless activists and lean-inners, the trainwreck might turn out to be the most potent and perennial feminist icon of them all.

The trainwreck is a weathervane and moral compass, a public spectacle and sexist scarecrow, that instructs women on how to behave properly. “The trainwreck is the inverse of what a woman ought to be: She is demanding, sexually voracious, where women are meant to be merely sexy, and receptive to outside desire,” Doyle writes in the book. The hubris of these women is simply that of asserting selfhood, of claiming humanity and a voice, and of expressing their individuality — especially their sexuality. The ideal woman of history and literature is the silent one, the one who is obedient to a fault. The trainwreck is the inverse of this ideal; her public execution in the media — facilitated by the viral sport of the digital age — is her punishment.

Doyle’s identification of the trainwreck aligns with and finds its precedent in misogynistic female archetypes like the harpy and the hysteric, the slut and the whore. It is in many ways the same genealogy about women by a different name. The narrative remains the same: “First,” Doyle outlined in our interview, “we build someone up to this superhuman standard of perfection, and shame other women for not being like her. Then, we take that very standard and use it as a weapon against her, and reduce her to rubble. It was a way of letting women know none of us would get off the hook. That if we were human at all, we were wrecks.”

Technology has significantly exacerbated the trainwreck’s narrative and her plight: the public criticism of Wollstonecraft for being an educated feminist and unwed mother differs only in scope and medium from that of the virulent online dragging of today’s female stars like Britney Spears, who Doyle considers the “Great Trainwreck,” given the parallel rise of viral digital culture with that of Britney’s tragic rise-and-fall media narrative.

The transhistorical connections between women are delightful, and Doyle showcases the breadth and depth of her knowledge as she moves with ease from Tara Reid to Hillary Clinton to Britney Spears to Marie Antoinette. (Nota bene: Bonus points to Doyle for correctly identifying Antoinette as a lesbian!) However, where "Trainwreck" truly illuminates its readers is in its social and psychological reflections about origins of the narrative. “The trainwreck,” Doyle observed in our interview, “sort of waits at the boundaries of ‘acceptable woman.’ She lets us know when we’ve crossed the line, because if we act like her, or look like her, or are treated like her, we’ve almost certainly fucked up.” As the marker of acceptability and acceptable womanhood, she is a gauge for how well we who are watching her perform societal rules. She continued, “You can always look at the woman that ‘everyone’ hates, and measure yourself against her — the way I used to measure myself against Britney Spears, back in the day — and see what you’re getting right and what you’re getting wrong. Or, if you’re a man, you can look at trainwrecks and see that women themselves are a little bit suspect, always on the edge of falling apart or losing their minds.”

The psychological impulse to hate the trainwreck carries an inestimable social force, and it functions to measure an individual’s need to fit in to society. We define identities — both in terms of the self and the group—by exclusion, the process of drawing lines between “us” and “them.” Doyle made the connection to group dynamics in our interview, “in order to really belong, you need to punish the people who don’t. So crapping on or ‘hating’ the trainwreck is another ritual we can participate in to let ourselves know we’re doing okay.” To put it bluntly, a woman calling another woman a “slut” is a way of drawing a line in the sand; the “slut” is the other woman, not you. It’s a performative act of moral righteousness steeped in internalized misogyny. In this capacity, identity is more a negotiation than a dialogue — often, in our culture, it is a hostile one that marginalizes and oppresses groups of people. The process of exclusion, furthermore, is form of psychological projection of the elements of ourselves that we do not like onto others.

Not only does the social compulsion to fit in to the group and society at large promulgate the trainwreck narrative, money does, too. “Trainwrecks are a business,” Doyle asserts in her book, in response to a question she poses about why “stories of female suffering” have become “such a massively profitable and popular source of entertainment.” The media’s viral news cycle is one long groan, one big echo chamber that seemingly thrives on the reverberations of Oscar Wilde’s famous line from “The Importance of Being Earnest”: “The suspense is terrible. I hope it will last.”

The media spins for days on — and profits upon — tragic female celebrities. And nothing sells better than a dead woman. For Doyle, this is how the trainwreck narrative comes to a “very tidy end”: “Death is a powerful tool, I think, because it neutralizes these women. It defeats them,” she observed in our interview. Death is the ultimate silence. But it also enables a kind of glorified catharsis for the society that creates the trainwreck in the first place, because as soon as a trainwreck dies she is recuperated as a queen. We feel better about ourselves, now. Doyle concurred with this assessment, by way of a trio of examples: “Amy Winehouse was a monster and a villain and a hideous creature until the day she died; then, she was a genius who wrote all her own songs and was the voice of a generation,” she said in our interview. “Whitney Houston saying ‘crack is whack’ to Diane Sawyer was this huge Internet meme, a joke, until she actually overdosed and we realized that it was a statement from a dying woman. Now, Whitney is an icon and an angel. The same thing happened to Marilyn Monroe — people hated Monroe when she died, to an extent that would shock us now. Even her ex-husband, Arthur Miller, wrote a play in which she was basically portrayed as a drunk idiot monster. But she died, and she became this icon that we have now.”

Thats entertainment, you may say. But that’s not all it is. Again, there is a more insidious element at work here beyond “pure schadenfreude,” Doyle observes in her book: “we wreck people simply to validate ourselves.” The cruelty of the drag or burn is a sign of psychological projection, and, for women, internalized misogyny. “We can use [trainwrecks] as projection screens for our own fears and failings, or look to them to confirm that we’re doing our own gender correctly,” Doyle writes. “Every wreck is a potential role that women need or what to reject; the magnitude of our hatred for them is determined by how powerfully we fear what they represent.”

Can the trainwreck narrative be broken? In her book, Doyle proffers an answer by citing the redemptive qualities of the Internet, and particularly the democratizing forces of social media coupled with the belief that visibility fosters social change. I was skeptical of this answer, especially when one invokes the historical subjugation and oppression of women, until the day of our interview. For Doyle, the breaking of the trainwreck narrative will not occur in one definitive moment, rather it will be “more about a slow but inevitable shift in how we see the world.” She uses the example of the differing public responses to the release of the non-consensual Paris Hilton sex tape in 2004, which was joked about and even sold at the feminist sex store, Babeland, and that of the leaked nude photos of Jennifer Lawrence, which horrified us and was roundly condemned in the press. “What happened to Lawrence was undeniably a sex crime, just as it was in 2004 [with Hilton’s non-consensual sex tape],” Doyle said. The difference of ten years is noticeable; “we just didn’t care when Hilton was assaulted in the same way.”

The trainwreck narrative can be dismantled, too, by the power the Internet gives women to control their own narratives, instead of having their narratives being written for them. “Almost every woman you know is leaving a public record of her life now,” Doyle observed. “It’s part of being a functioning person in this decade. We can look at all that, and we can start to see that the old feminine stereotypes — Good Girl, Bad Girl — don’t apply.” She continued, “We can start to be more understanding and more considerate about how we wield scrutiny and shaming because we are all more vulnerable. It’s really in our hands. We have the tools to make more trainwrecks than ever. Or we can decide it’s too high a price to pay for being public, and we can stop. Redemption isn’t certain. But it’s certainly possible.”

By Marcie Bianco

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