In her debut book, Trainwreck, journalist Sady Doyle unravels the misogyny that underpins the policing of public women for their sexuality and emotions. From Mary Wollstonecraft and Harriet Jacobs to Hillary Clinton and Britney Spears, Doyle focuses her gaze onto the context surrounding these women and their so-called downfalls. She exposes how we—the audience, consumers, society at large—project familiar morality dramas onto the lives of public people to turn them into our personal scapegoats. And we do it with particular gusto when these public people happen to be women, even though the primary audience for celebrity blogs, tabloids, and reality TV isn't straight men—it's other women.
"We have to stop believing that when a woman does something we don't like, we are qualified and entitled to punish her, violate her, or ruin her life," Doyle tells me. It should come as no surprise that her in-depth, thoughtful, and compassionate take on society's punitive impulse and impossible standards of femininity really resonates with me. Over the past decade, I've quite literally been policed—put on trial, imprisoned, and publicly shamed—for other people's perceptions of my sexuality, emotionality, and femininity.
To invent the character of Foxy Knoxy, my normal sexuality was presented as deviant and slutty, and that invented deviancy was absurdly used to justify a psychopathic propensity for homicide. As it turns out, the line between titillation and conviction can be very thin. For many people, my "angel face" only confirmed that it masked the soul of a devil. And because I didn't perform my gender to satisfy the standards of the people around me, I was "off," and therefore, guilty. I cuddled and kissed my boyfriend in plain sight instead of mourning chastely. I cried—or didn't cry—at all the wrong times.
The same habit of mind that seeks to punish derailed celebrities and project evil onto political opponents and public figures also leads to wrongful convictions like mine. It encourages judgment by projection and popularity, and it obstructs our ability to evaluate context and objective evidence.
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"Every wreck is a potential role that women need or want to reject," Doyle explains. "The magnitude of our hatred for them is determined by how powerfully we fear what they represent."
What happens when we reduce women to symbols of vice and virtue? Is there crossover in the way we treat women accused of crimes? To celebrate the reissue of Trainwreck, I spoke with Sady Doyle over Skype to hash out an answer.
Broadly: Hi Sady, it's a pleasure to talk to you. Trainwreck was published a year ago. Has much changed between then and now?
Sady Doyle: It feels like, in our current climate, the book could be seen as more frivolous. You wake up looking at the possibility of nuclear war and you're like, "Who cares who's mean to you online?" I still care. Especially when it seems like that raw, patriarchal need to humiliate and destroy people, especially female people, is much more powerful now. You can look at how Linda Sarsour is routinely demonized. You can look at the fact that we elected a man to office who has gone onstage and described women accusing him of sexual assault as "too ugly to rape." I wrote the book believing that we were on the verge of banishing these forces from public life forever. I don't think we are necessarily going to get past it now. Two years ago, you read about Gamergate and thought, " Weirdos at their computers," but now it's the alt-right in the White House.
You postulate a number of theories for why we ravenously consume trainwreck stories, but your favorite theory is, "We wreck people because they are women." You give examples of the double-standard: how female celebrities are policed to a far greater extent and degree than male celebrities.
We might resent Leonardo DiCaprio for owning his own island and dating models half his age, but we don't hate him for it. When George Clooney refused to get married for ever and ever, the story was not, "Why will no woman marry George Clooney?" And we haven't given up on R. Kelly, who was recently in the news again for having sex with women much younger than him. But we've given up on Lindsay Lohan. And we had fun doing it. It was funny with Whitney Houston and the Diane Sawyer interview and "Crack is whack!" And she died.
Women always fall into this hysteria trope—the sexually and emotionally overabundant woman. You were made out to be a sexual vampire when you were 20 years old. Why draw your sexuality into it if not to underline the point that sexual women are evil? It might seem frivolous to connect what you went through to our need to believe that Jennifer Aniston is unloved at all times, but it's all part of a loose-knit network of how we create and reinforce female stereotypes, and insist that they control female life and self-presentation.
Something I often hear from well-meaning people is, "Celebrities wanted to be famous. You didn't want to be famous. You weren't asking for it like they are."
That's a really cruel way to self-justify. I just watched the documentary about your experience, and there's a moment when the journalist says, "It's not as if I can fact check!" And you think, "That's exactly what you're supposed to do!" We don't have to follow Britney Spears around 24 hours a day documenting her every move. You don't have to mock someone for having a mental illness or disability. You don't have to look at someone who is dying and comment on how gross their body is. Every sexist joke you make, every invasive or untrue piece of coverage you print, you made the choice to do that, whether you're a journalist or just a person on Twitter commenting on these things as they happen. The fact that someone is an easy target does not mean you are licensed to abuse them.
I was struck by your observation that trainwrecks are expected to disappear. After I came home from Italy, I discovered that I, too, was expected to disappear, and to want to disappear. Some people thought, "After everything you've been through, why would you ever want to be in the public eye ever again?" They suggested that I change my name, and reassured me that in a few years I'd age out of recognition and wouldn't be a "hot property" anymore. That I could only be happy and safe in anonymity. That I couldn't take back my own narrative for any positive purpose. For instance, some readers will interpret the fact that I'm interviewing you as nothing more than another cry for attention. They won't see us as two thoughtful women talking about a cultural phenomenon with implications that touch the lives of both celebrities and everyday people who find themselves caught up in the court of public opinion and the criminal justice system.
It's the idea that you exist only in so far as you can be used in someone else's narrative. You were a figure in a morality play. You were the young, wild woman who went abroad and had sex and, naturally, that lead to murder. For you to reclaim your narrative, to claim a public life—that's exactly what the patriarchy attempts to scare women away from. You're not supposed to occupy the public sphere. You're not supposed to have a voice. Otherwise, you have influence and power, and at the end of the day it's about keeping women powerless and private and contained in places determined to be ours: domestic spaces, personal relationships, family, where we can be hidden away and our experiences won't shape the world around us. So, of course you're going to be called an attention whore for daring to exist beyond those horrible years of your life, for reminding people that you're a person. That treatment of you is intended to keep other women small and quiet. For you to not be small and quiet, you're breaking the rules.
To be fair, I've gotten a mixed reaction. On the one hand, some people criticize me for existing publicly. For instance, when I recently made my Instagram public, a number of articles were published claiming I was crazy and desperate for the spotlight. On the other hand, when the Netflix documentary came out last September, many people reached out to me via social media to not only say, "I was really moved by this cogent and compassionate examination of the case," but also, "I'm sorry I treated you like entertainment and not like a human being."
Your case shows how we can take a nickname on your Myspace profile, and a stupid photo, and put those two things together and make you look like an asshole. When you realize that you've dehumanized someone that profoundly, and when you realize how very little reason there was for it, it can be horrifying. You've been good at communicating that. You've realized that this isn't just about what happened to you, but that we all have that vulnerability. I don't think we realize how vulnerable we are to becoming someone else's monster. The idea that you can be taken out of context, that your narrative can be stolen, doesn't really occur to people. But when it does hit you, that you allowed yourself to dehumanize another person, you start to realize that you really are making it easier for someone to do it to you.
There are terrible consequences when people disregard context and assume the worst.
You can get in trouble for saying, "Consider the context." When you ask people to consider intent and mitigating circumstances, that can sound like, "Well, even if they did real harm, it wasn't that big of a deal." It matters that Miley Cyrus was brought up in a dehumanizing environment where her sexuality was capitalized upon long before she even had a sexuality. That matters, but it also matters that she does racist shit. When someone has caused harm, mitigating factors and context don't take away that harm. What they do is present a story that's not about pure evil. That someone fell out of the sky and did harm and—
And now you're entitled to destroy them.
Right. And the thing is, men pretty much always have mitigating circumstances considered. I know Chris Brown had a rough childhood because that's always brought up when we talk about him being abusive and violent. Sometimes we just make up mitigating circumstances, like Rihanna gave him an STD and threw his car keys out the window. We want to find mitigating factors in the most harmful men out there. People look at Ivanka and want to believe that there's a nice guy behind the man who bragged about groping women. We dismiss Trump's words as "bluster" and "braggadocio" because we want to find the humanity in him. With women it's the opposite. We don't trust women. We dismiss any display of vulnerability and humanity as inauthentic. We want to peel women apart until we uncover the totally unjustifiable monster with no context or history or human reasons or mitigating circumstances.
When Trainwreck came out last year, who was your intended audience?
A friend of mine told me this thing. I was writing the book and thinking, "I don't know if I deserve to write this book," and my friend said, "Sady, you're not writing for posterity or for some guy you want to impress. You are writing for a girl who has had a terrible day." I feel like if someone like you can read Trainwreck and not be like, "You're wrong," then I'm happy. I don't want to force this book on people who don't want to read it, but I do wish we could have a wider conversation about this topic.
Do you know if Britney Spears has read your book?
No! But I think someone tried to get a copy to Paris Hilton once.