How Pop Culture Tells Women to Shut Up

Sady Doyle’s new book, Trainwreck, explores the many ways the U.S. (and its media, and its paparazzi, and its Donald Trump) continue to demean the ladyfolk.

A woman being punished for being a "common scold," as reproduced in John Ashton's 'Chapbooks of the Eighteenth Century' (1834)
A woman being punished for being a "common scold," as reproduced in John Ashton's Chapbooks of the Eighteenth Century (1834) (Wikimedia Commons)

In the early days of the United States, colonists imported from England a set of regulations that were ostensibly meant to maintain the public peace. They were called, collectively, “common scold” laws, and they targeted women—it was almost always women—who had a habit of quarreling, too loudly, with their neighbors.

A woman who found herself on the wrong side of a scold law might be made to wear, as punishment, a scold’s bridle—an iron mask that fit over the head and depressed the tongue, to prevent her from further speech; more commonly, though, she would be dunked, ceremonially, into cold water (the better “to cool her immoderate heat”). She would be, as one 18th-century summary stipulated,

sentenced to be placed in a certain engine of correction called the trebucket, castigatory, or cucking stool, which in the Saxon language signifies the scolding stool; though now it is frequently corrupted into ducking stool, because the residue of the judgment is, that, when she is so placed therein, she shall be plunged in the water for her punishment.

It’s easy to shake our heads, today, at this relic of monstrous legalism. How awful things were back then! People were so barbaric! It’s less easy to do that, though, when you consider how common the “common scold” mentality still is, even in our current age of relative enlightenment and egalitarianism. The Puritanical discomfort with the “troublesome woman” manifests, in miasmic form, in American culture’s continued policing of women’s voices, figurative and literal: in every panicked discussion of vocal fry and up-speak, in every dismissal of Hillary Clinton’s feminine timbre as “scolding” and “shrill.” It stays with us, too, in the policing of women’s bodies, and clothing choices, and sexual practices. It’s with us every time a woman’s behavior is dismissed as “slutty,” every time her emotions are dismissed as “crazy,” every time a guy suggests that she would be so much more pleasing if she smiled. It is with us every time the man who might become the next president of the United States refers to a woman as a “pig,” or a “dog,” or, when specificity fails, a “disgusting animal.” And every time his comments are met with feverish applause.

The “common scold” of the 17th century is present, in other words, every time a woman of the 21st is punished for asserting herself in the public sphere: every time she—whether running for president or simply running her life—is dismissed for being too brash, and too ambitious, and too inconvenient, and above all too loud. As the journalist Sady Doyle argues in her fantastic debut book, Trainwreck: “A woman must be perfect, or not be anything at all, to encounter fame without being shamed or scarred.”

Doyle’s nominal focus is, as the book’s title suggests, the “trainwreck”: the woman who has a public meltdown or a similar (and similarly public) fall from grace. Think Britney Spears. Or Whitney Houston. Or Miley Cyrus. Or Amy Winehouse, or Monica Lewinsky, or Princess Diana, or Judy Garland, or Billie Holiday, or Marilyn Monroe, or Sylvia Plath. Their falls vary, in their distance and their demeanor; what they share, though, is that they function as “photo negatives of acceptable femininity.” These celebrities’ downfalls announce all the things—overly sexual, overly emotional, underly apologetic—that the culture of the contemporary moment does not want its women to be. They serve as warnings, essentially, of the dangers of feminine assertion. Hillary, repeatedly punished for her ambition? That’s just one more chapter in an extremely old story. Everything was lovely, after all, until Eve got hungry.

So while the trainwreck, as Doyle frames it, is fundamentally about breakdown, it is also about something simpler and much more, well, broad: a woman whose desires chafe against her times. Mary Wollstonecraft, the author of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman and arguably the founder of modern feminism, was in her own age considered a trainwreck: She had several sexual partners and, as a result, a child out of wedlock. So, too, was Charlotte Brontë: Jane Eyre’s author had her own version of Rochester, but one who treated her terribly—and she was devastated by the breakup.

Doyle’s team of trainwrecks includes many other women whose names have been silenced, largely, by history. Theroigne de Mericourt, who tried to write women’s rights into the cause of the French revolution (and who was, for that, finally locked away in a mental institution). Harriet Jacobs, a former slave who was forced to write pseudonymously—and whose stories of what she experienced in captivity were so gruesome that readers assumed her work to be fiction. Louise Augustine Gleizes, a teenager who, in late-19th-century France, was diagnosed with “hysteria” by the then-renowned neurologist Jean-Martin Charcot. Gleizes, too, was incarcerated as a lunatic—an extremely effective means of literally shutting women up—and put on display for the Parisian masses, neatly anticipating Britney Spears’s dutifully TMZ-ed breakdown. After Charcot’s death, though, Gleizes left the sanitarium. Suddenly quite sane, she went on to befriend Marie Curie, and to assist the doctor in the lab work that would go on to win a Nobel Prize.

History, to be sure, is full of people of both genders who are forgotten and flawed and frightening to their contemporaries. The problem, though, is that our romanticized sense of passion and purpose tends, still, to rely on a gaping double standard. David Foster Wallace, Hunter Thompson, Jack Kerouac, Jackson Pollock, Vincent Van Gogh—they all struggled with challenges that, were they embodied by women, very likely would have gotten them written off as sanitarium-worthy. Imagine what we’d think of Lloyd Dobler, Say Anything’s puppy-eyed and also vaguely stalker-y hero, had he been a woman. Or recall all those “Rihanna Deserved It” t-shirts. Or Harold Bloom wondering whether Sylvia Plath’s “Lady Lazarus” is best described as a “tantrum.” Or an actual U.S. senator asking Anita Hill, in the course of her testimony against Clarence Thomas and without a hint of irony, “Are you a scorned woman?” Or all the lawyers who still rely on some version of the “nuts and sluts” defense in their trial work—and who keep doing so, of course, because the defense proves extremely effective.

Back in the ’90s, Hillary and Monica had one thing in common: Both of them were blamed for Bill’s cheating.

“Patriarchy,” for all its blunt ubiquity as a term, still retains an element of magic: At once everywhere and nowhere, it describes not just a pervasive cultural infrastructure, but also something that many people simply do not—will not—believe in. It’s a myth of the angry feminists. A hobby-horse of the social justice warriors. A scapegoat. A lie. It deserves either widened eyes or rolled ones—and which one will depend entirely on one’s perspective. Trainwreck will very likely join the feminist canon, but that is, in part, a pity: Its preachings, ideally, would have an audience far larger than the choir. The book may be framed as an exploration of the dramatic downfalls of lady celebrities; it is in scope, though, about all the ways American culture punishes women for the soft crime of self-assertion. It doubles as a kind of legalistic indictment. It is a book-length proof of patriarchy.

The book’s primary weakness, in that sense, is also the best reason it offers for hope. Doyle pulls many of her examples from the American culture of the early 2000s: Paris’s sex tape, Tara’s nip slip, Whitney’s drug-addled demise, Britney’s head-shaving episode. (As the AP—yep, the Associated Pressinformed its reporters in 2008, “Now and for the foreseeable future, virtually everything involving Britney is a big deal.”) And yet the female celebrities who are ascendant today are dominant precisely because they have studiously avoided, for the most part, the Spearsian style of public downfall. Beyoncé, Taylor, Rihanna, Angelina, Shonda—these women are, for the most part, deeply in control of their own stories and images. There may be tiny cracks in the veneer—the Met Ball elevator, Kimye, Chris Brown—and yet, overall, they serve less as icons of fallen femininity than of what may well be the new regime: one in which women set their own agendas. Britney, Doyle’s iconic embodiment of trainwreck, recently performed at the Video Music Awards that were dominated by Beyoncé and Rihanna; the paragon of early-aughts celebrity seemed out of step, out of touch, and just, in every sense, out of it. She is no longer the role model of record.

And, as we settle into the 21st century, it’s refreshingly difficult to imagine one of our current role models following the path that Spears has. The expectations of perfection on those women’s shoulders may carry their own weighty challenges; they also, however, suggest a culture in which women are celebrated for speaking, rather than punished for it. The trainwreck, Doyle writes, is suggestive of “the many ways the world convinces women to steal speech from themselves.” But there is nothing silent about Beyoncé. Kim will find a way to have the last word. And while Hillary has known every modern manifestation of the scold’s bridle, she is also, now, the Democratic nominee for the presidency of the United States. Trainwreck is a rich analysis that will, ideally, soon prove to be out of date in a world in which “patriarchy” is disbelieved not on the grounds that it has never existed, but on the grounds that it has lost its power.