What We Talk About When We Talk About ‘Unruly’ Women

A new book offers nuanced appreciations of celebrities, from Serena to Madonna to Hillary to Caitlyn, who refused to know their place.

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When Jeremy Bentham created the Panopticon, his prison of constant surveillance, in the late 18th century, he envisioned his design to be a building: circular in shape, layered like an especially unsavory cake, a structure that ensured that, at any moment, inmates could be observed—and could be, as well, observers. Bentham named his design after Panoptes, the Greek giant who had 100 eyes.

He might as well, though, it seems clear in retrospect, have named the thing after Twitter. Or Facebook. Or, for that matter, Keeping Up With the Kardashians. Americans, at least, in this omni-mediated age, have achieved the kind of self-surveillance that Bentham could only have imagined. With the help of our communications technologies, we are constantly aware of each other, and, as a perhaps inevitable result, constantly policing each other: the words we use. The tone we adopt when using them. The clothes we wear. And then, also, the decisions we make about our careers, about the way we spend our leisure time, about our diets, about our children. “She did what?” “She’s really let herself go.” “She works too hard.” “She doesn’t even work.” “I saw her feed that poor kid a Cheeto.”

She because, often, it’s women who bear the brunt of all this policing—women who are most readily judged for their decisions, or belittled for their appearances, or interrupted when they try to make a point. Feminism has come to a somewhat awkward place, in a culture that claims to celebrate women but often, politically and culturally, puts them in a bind: We denizens of the early 21st century are living, as Anne Helen Petersen puts it in her new book Too Fat, Too Slutty, Too Loud: The Rise and Reign of the Unruly Woman, in “a climate that publicly embraces equality but does little to effect change.”

The book, Petersen’s second, is a collection of essays—10 in all, glossed at the outset with a brief introductory section—about women who are, variously yet unanimously, unruly. (Unruly, adj.: “disorderly, ill-disciplined; not amenable to control or discipline.”) Petersen gives each woman she selects a lengthy, and considered, treatment. There’s Serena Williams. There’s Lena Dunham. There’s Nicki Minaj. There’s Madonna. There’s Caitlyn Jenner. There’s Hillary Clinton.

Each is worth celebrating, Petersen argues—and, more to the point, each is worth exploring and analyzing and arguing about—because she rejects some core cultural assumption, some foundational notion of how one should go about the job of being a woman. Minaj, in a culture that polices women’s sexuality, is deemed “too slutty.” Madonna, in a culture that fetishizes women’s youth, is deemed “too old.” Melissa McCarthy, in a culture that prefers women’s bodies to be disciplined and contained and to take up as little space as possible, is deemed “too fat.”

And yet: None of the freight of the culture that bears them up and threatens to keep them down prevents these women, in the end, from doing what they do and being who they are. Petersen’s subtitle may be “The Rise and Reign of the Unruly Woman;” it could just as easily, however, have been “Nevertheless, She Persisted.”

A series of lengthy essays about celebrity women, united by their shared womanhood and their shared disregard for the often regressive standards of femininity: It is not, all in all, a terribly exciting premise for a book. And the end result of such an endeavor—women who are in various ways too much, lauded for their very too-ness—could have been preachy, trite, blandly repetitive. It could have amounted to the kind of book, feminism colliding with consumerism colliding with easy political activism, that would be at home less in the Women’s Studies section of a library and more on the impulse-buy table at your nearest Urban Outfitters.

But Petersen, fortunately, is supremely thoughtful, both about celebrity culture and about her own work on that subject, and she manages to make the book’s essays snappy and compelling. While each woman is singular, each is included in Petersen’s collection because she also works as a metaphor: Each woman represents a set of regressive expectations, ignored.

Which is also to say that the essays are continuations of the journalism Petersen is best known for, as a culture writer at BuzzFeed: writings that explore celebrity as its own ideology, and that respect the fame industrial complex as a mirror into American culture’s deepest fantasies and crudest assumptions. Celebrities, as Petersen puts it, double as vehicles for examining “the way we pinpoint and police representations of everything from blackness to queerness, from femininity to pregnancy.” They highlight the paradoxical expectations American culture places on women, in particular, the mixed messages it sends: the “you can do anything,” rubbing awkwardly against the “you can’t do everything.” On the one hand: Hillary Clinton. On the other, though: Hillary Clinton.

And so: McCarthy embodies the conflicting messages American culture sends to fat people—and fat women, in particular: You’re contributing to a nationwide health epidemic, but also love yourself! Because you’re beautiful just as you are. Williams embodies not only the many double binds that black women, especially, must navigate in American culture, but also, as Petersen puts it, “the policing of the female athlete, who faces the daunting task of maintaining a body strong enough to excel at the sport of her choice, but contained enough so as not to incite fear about transcending her given place in the world.” Abbi Jacobsen and Ilana Galzer, the creators and stars of Broad City, reject notions of feminine “propriety” to script shows about periods and poop.

Petersen has a Ph.D. in what is sometimes shorthanded as “celebrity studies” (officially, her degree is in Media Studies), and her essays are both enlivened and weighted with critical theory: bell hooks, Brittney C. Cooper, Kathleen Rowe (author of the seminal book The Unruly Woman, whose insights infuse Petersen’s writing). Petersen also brings to her tellings the observant eye of someone who values celebrity not as an end in itself, but as a useful theoretical lens: Here, in the form of the people we choose to adulate, are our desires laid bare. Here are the values of our Panopticon exposed by the people we most explicitly choose to surveil.

While the tone of the appreciations is celebratory—these women are some of the heroines, Petersen suggests, of this moment of contradiction and flux—it is not elegiac. Rather, it is hopeful. Progress, after all, tends to come from the iconoclasts. “It’s no wonder we have such mixed feelings about these women,” Petersen writes: “They’re constant reminders of the chasm between what we think we believe and how we actually behave.” And progress, too, celebrity being what it is, comes from the people who allow themselves to be influenced by those who are restless and indignant and, perhaps above all, impatient. As to the unruly women she writes about, Petersen notes, “the best way to show their gravity and power and influence is to refuse to shut up about why they do.”