Book Review: ‘Trainwreck: The Women We Love to Hate, Mock, and Fear…and Why’ by Sady Doyle

Trainwreck“Trainwrecks are myths, yes. They are our monsters: cultural monsters, who embody the tensions of our moment or our expectations of women, and deeply personal monsters, who embody the parts of ourselves we are most afraid of. But there is another thing to note about all this: we are all, each and every one of us, our own worst monsters. And we all yearn, despite this fact, to be loved.

I really, really enjoyed reading this book. Trainwreck takes a look at how our society and culture spends an outrageous amount of time calling women “crazy” or “unhinged” just for expressing human emotions, even at the expense of their own popularity or, worse, their careers. The author creates a compelling feminist argument throughout the entire book that stands up no matter where she draws your attention: famous men can be violent alcoholics, abuse their loved ones, or suffer from multitudes of mental illness and the impact of their work can still draws more focus than their personal life, but women who experience even the slightest of personal struggles are publicly remembered better for being a trainwreck than for being a gifted singer, actress, artist, etc. Thus, the double standard. Society has spent most of history demonizing and mocking women in ways men will rarely experience. Sady Doyle also does an excellent job of literally proving that the trainwreck phenomenon has been around for as long as women have existed, and traces and relates historical female figures like Mary Wollstonecraft, Charlotte Bronte, and Billie Holiday to “problematic” female stars better known in our contemporary conscious, such as Britney Spears, Amy Winehouse, Whitney Houston, Paris Hilton, and Miley Cyrus. Doyle also shows that, for as long as women have existed, they have been pushing the boundaries of what it means to behave, and it’s amusing that quite literally nothing has changed in our current popular culture.

I thought Trainwreck was a really interesting reading experience not only because I’m interested in feminist issues and how history has treated women, but also because it presents a relatable and relevant topic question in relation to our current society and culture: why are there women that we “love to hate” and not men? Why do we hate that girl’s music without even listening to it? Why do we hate that girl just based on how she acts in interviews? What I take from Trainwreck is that the answer to all of these questions is quite simple: misogyny. Even the most liberal and feminist of people have famous female figures that they dislike and that’s valid, but on a deeper level, they dislike them for reasons that a misogynist society and culture instills in them. You hate Miley Cyrus because she has acted like a prostitute in public, says outrageously stupid things in interviews for attention, and invented an inappropriate dance move that has become quite endearing in the pop culture of today. And all of that is valid, to a certain extent. On a deeper level, what did you expect her to do? From the time she was a child (or underage teenager, in other words), the media has harassed her about showing her sexuality and basically instilled that it was the most interesting thing about her, so the only logical solution, it would seem, would be to give them what they want and be what they say she is. “For every theft of naked photos, she gets aggressively more naked; for every complaint about her bad behavior, she gets more ill-behaved […] [It’s] not so much an attempt to ‘provoke’ our outrage, but the only logical response to the outrage that has always surrounded her […] 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 trainwrecks are made.” If the only options in the misogynistic media are incredibly limiting, what is one to do?

On the topic of media, Doyle also makes the important case for the fact that trainwrecks are a business, specifically an entertainment business, that profits on how many mouse-clicks we can get in the span of a minute, and these narratives are made and created for a consumer culture that can not only love you one minute and hate you the next, but are written in a way for them to get people to connect with them by any means necessary. So if that means compromising a women’s integrity for the sake of making her look insane just to sell a trashy tabloid magazine, then so be it. That also means playing to an angle of angering up the dark undercurrents of our society and culture and the secret but real fears hidden within. The best example Doyle uses is Britney Spears, whom she references countless times, and even confesses that she herself hated her when she first arrived on the music scene, because her image was the embodiment of everything she hated in other girls (e.g. qualities she didn’t have), and therefore this plays into a system of having girls tearing down other girls because they get to be pretty and have attention, when everyday girls don’t have that and are even swayed away from wanting that, because it might get them raped. The media plays to everyday women’s fears that are in fact against them and riddled with misogyny. “It’s easy to look at these women and see what they did wrong, tally up their sins and errors: insensitive, provocative, promiscuous, off-the-wagon, crazy. It’s easy to tell yourself, this is not my story. But I’d wager good, hard money that, if you got the chance to speak to any of these women, they’d tell you that these are not their stories, either.” The trainwreck narrative gets even more messy and intrusive when things like addiction or mental illness are involved, and that only reinforces the misogynistic angle that the media plays to just based on the deeply instilled values in our society and culture. Take Courtney Love or Amy Winehouse, both talented women who were torn apart because they struggled with mental illness. Kurt Cobain is remembered best for being loved for his struggles because that somehow gave him an edge or made him cooler, but his wife became a horror story and a punchline for having similar struggles, including her husband’s suicide. Amy Winehouse was a punchline too, and is remembered more for how she conducted herself in public while struggling with addiction and an eating disorder than she is for her immense talent. I know this sounds very “that’s what they want you to think, you’re just another victim of the system,” but it’s true. The following passage, to me, confirms Doyle’s entire thesis throughout Trainwreck:

“We need public hysterics because the idea of the ‘madwoman’ is intimately connected to our ideas of womanhood in general […] Women who cry, women who laugh. Women who like sex, women who don’t like sex. Drunk, old, poor, queer. Every woman has something wrong with her, if you go looking for it. And while mental illness and addiction violate every rule that a ‘nice’ woman is supposed to live by—rendering her disobedient, abrasive, emotional, ugly—they confirm everything that misogynists suspect women to be at heart.

So the answer to the question why do we love to hate famous women may seem more complicated than it is in our contemporary popular culture, where we like to think we are beyond certain misogynistic institutions, but this is not one of them. Women “we love to hate” is the result of a misogynistic media, culture, and society, and that’s just that on that. We take perfectly normal women who become famous and try to tear them down for various reasons, but the main one being to prove that she’s just another woman who’s a failure because she’s a woman, because she had a breakdown in public or experienced some sort of negative emotion during a difficult time. “Breakups, you see, lead to sadness, and also to anger. And, instead of admitting that women feel unpleasant emotions when they’re in unpleasant situations, we have a tendency to label any public display as bitter, vindictive, obsessive, pathetic, desperate, or yes, ‘crazy.’” Another interesting tidbit that Doyle brings about is how we memorialize and love women who were trainwrecks after they’ve died, calling them “underappreciated” or other adjectives of this nature. The reason for this is that once a “problematic” female figure has died, we no longer have to care about how they conduct themselves and therefore we can shed the layer of misogynistic attacking and love them for who they were (never mind the fact that how the media treated some famous women actually played a part in their deaths, like Amy Winehouse). And realistically speaking, the categorically “right” thing to do when a celebrity dies obviously wouldn’t be to continue mocking or demonizing them (that’s fine when they’re alive, but society knows it’s wrong when they’re dead), but it’s interesting how quickly the narrative flips when they do die. “Death seals the deal, for trainwrecks. It grants them their glamour. It makes them, not worthy of attention—they always have that; it’s our primary weapon against them—but worthy of love. And that love, I would submit, is half nostalgia and half relief. It’s the care we give, once we’re not being asked to care any more.” The only other solution for some trainwrecks, as Doyle points out, is to disappear and live the rest of their lives in shame and fear for the direction their careers took. Again, the options are incredibly limiting for women who are trainwrecks; women who will be mocked and demonized no matter what. To quote the madwoman in Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper,” what is one to do? What is one to do but go crazy when they’re oppressed? What is one to do but become the violent, crazy figure they’ve always said they were? Ask Taylor Swift how that’s working out for her. She made an entire album off of “becoming who they say you are” last year and sales for her current world tour are through the roof.

The recurring complaint among other reviews of Trainwreck seems to be that Doyle doesn’t really rise above the description of trainwreck women in her book, and should have spent more time describing how we should be celebrating women and perhaps listing new ways we could start doing that more in our contemporary popular culture. But Doyle does make a compelling point near the end of Trainwreck that these reviewers appear to have glossed over: despite being teared down by society, despite being branded bad role models when they really didn’t do anything wrong, despite the fact that they might be the most hated women on the planet, the trainwrecks are. They exist more than anyone else on the planet, just by standing out and being themselves. In an era where it is becoming incredibly more and more avant-garde just to be yourself, the trainwrecks become icons. Perhaps this is why oppressed or marginalized groups, like the LGBT community, identify so strongly with “problematic” female figures, because despite being branded a trainwreck, they just keep doing their shit to the best of their abilities and that, in itself, is inspiring. “The trainwreck is alive. And for a woman to be fully alive is revolutionary.” I highly recommend Trainwreck to anyone who loves pop culture or feminism, or to anyone who ponders the garbage that goes on in our modern society and culture. 5/5 stars.

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