There is a popular quotation that I can't source. Allegedly by Virginia Woolf, it reads, "A feminist is any woman who tells the truth about her life." To try and figure out where it came from is to descend into a never-ending tunnel of retweets, Tumblr reblogs, and Pinterest pins in curly fonts and pastel hues. I first saw it on a pale pink graphic tweeted by Sophia Amoruso's Girlboss Foundation, and I'd read enough of Woolf's non-fiction for the attribution to jar. She notoriously wrote this about the word feminist in Three Guineas:
That word, according to the dictionary, means "one who champions the rights of women." Since the only right, the right to earn a living, has been won, the word no longer has a meaning. And a word without a meaning is a dead word, a corrupt word.
Strange, then, to credit Woolf with such an imprecise, expansive interpretation, antithetical to the above. (In Three Guineas, Woolf goes on to suggest that someone write "feminist" on a piece of paper, set it on fire, then "bray the ashes in a mortar with a goose-feather pen.") But you can see why it appeals in 2017, when every product and lifestyle choice is an opportunity for personal branding, and the trendy brand is feminism. Someone likely made up the platitude and simply slapped "Virginia Woolf" on it, like an "Authentic Feminist Saying" label.
The idea that "a feminist is any woman who tells the truth about her life" sets a ludicrously low bar to join a social movement, though the slogan is suited to the era of extreme self-regard we're currently in: It requires that a feminist only speak for herself to get her membership card. In addition to companies like Girlboss and corporations like "Ellevest," which focuses on investing for women, celebrities have caught on to how easily one can use feminist trappings to slip into the social justice realm simply by talking about themselves.
This "And you get a car!" vision of radicalism is one supported by Anne Helen Petersen's latest book, Too Fat, Too Slutty, Too Loud: The Rise and Reign of the Unruly Woman. A collection of ten essays about "unruly" women in film, music, television, sports, and politics, the book focuses on figures who "step outside the boundaries of good womanhood, who end up being labeled…too whatever the characteristic women are supposed to keep under control," but who have achieved great success nonetheless. Serena Williams is too black and too strong; Melissa McCarthy is too fat; Lena Dunham is too naked; Nicki Minaj is too slutty; among others. Though it's undeniable that each subject has made great gains in her field, Petersen's dedication to overstating the transgressive behaviors of female celebrities in service of the notion of subjectivity as empowerment rings hollow. Her line of inquiry reveals the collective progress lost—or at least plateaued—by mainstreamed claims to feminism, which are couched in a rhetoric of "unruliness" that is really anything but.
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The essays in Too Fat include in-depth, thoroughly researched histories of each woman's career, as well as longer histories of the societal norms that Petersen demonstrates each woman bends, but does not break. Though these case studies can verge on tedious—with etymological breakdowns like "the word 'charisma' comes from," and "the word 'naked' comes from"—they are a reflection of Petersen's Media Studies background, her desire to make theoretical concepts like abjection, intersectionality, and transnormativity easy to understand in the context of her pop-culture subjects.
She is careful to plot the ways her subjects are differently able to be "unruly," to be loud or gross or sexual or "nasty" or "messy," and to argue that it is "riskier to do those same things in a body that is not white; not straight; not slender, not young, or not American." The privilege enjoyed by figures like Caitlyn Jenner and Melissa McCarthy, who might be unruly but are also white, is underscored by sections on the two black women in the book, Serena Williams and Nicki Minaj. Petersen quotes from one of several succinct lines in Claudia Rankine's 2015 profile of Williams in the New York Times Magazine: "The notable difference between black excellence and white excellence is white excellence is achieved without having to battle racism." I can't think of anyone who would not benefit from reading such a sentence again. But it's Petersen's attempts to cohere these stories with the others into a vision of collective self-determination—towards something "satisfying, nourishing, expansive, and radically inclusive"—that expose how weak unruliness is as a paradigm of social change. It includes nearly every woman who adopts its most superficial behaviors, as well as those who profit immensely and incongruously from it.
It's no wonder that we have a pantheon of rowdy, truth-telling, brash, sexy women who we can claim as our WCWs, but our love for them has failed us politically.
Petersen sees a crescendo of the unruly feminist movement in the defeat of Hillary Clinton—who is her central unruly subject—in the 2016 presidential election. Waking up to the result on November 9, which should have been "a victory for unruly women everywhere," was proof of "the beginning of a backlash that has been brewing for years, as unruly women of various forms have come to dominate the cultural landscape."
To call our current moment a "backlash" rather than a "failure" implies that the umbrella brand of unruliness was working, that it was liberating us, before it was not. This conclusion is not just Petersen's: a slew of other group studies conducted by feminist journalists interested in the unruly rubric in recent years support this claim. Among them are Sady Doyle's Trainwreck: The Women We Love to Hate, Mock, and Fear…and Why, and Rebecca Traister's All the Single Ladies: Unmarried Women and the Rise of an Independent Nation. As Petersen herself admits, "there have been unruly women for as long as there have been boundaries of what constitutes acceptable feminine behavior," so they have been around for two millennia, at least. And yet, while being "unruly" is as popular as ever, the political gains of the most radical periods in American history are being rolled back: government social programs of the 60s, Civil Rights-era voting protections, reproductive rights, public housing, healthcare. The world of Petersen's celebrities, in which women are "queens" and in charge of their bodies, safety, and futures, is, in Petersen's own words, "a constant reminder of the chasm between what we think we believe and how we actually behave."
But this chasm is where Petersen's attention remains. The overdetermined analysis with which she dissects celebrity behaviors with the utmost gravity stretches the utility of words like radical, subversive, and activist until they hold everything, and mean nothing. For example, Kim Kardashian has said many times that she is not a feminist. (So we should probably listen to her—or does this actually make her a feminist, because she's telling her truth?) But Petersen describes Kardashian's choice to showcase her difficult pregnancy on her television show—in which she showcases every aspect of her life for money—as "work to make the labor of femininity visible." "An accidental activist is an activist nonetheless," Petersen claims. But is she? Has Kim Kardashian advocated publicly for paid maternity leave or better prenatal healthcare? Will her viewers be accidentally galvanized by the depiction of her pregnancy on television? How do these signals of unruliness in culture translate to a better quality of life for the "unruly women [who] surround us in our everyday lives"? And who are they, exactly?
This is the most important question that Petersen's book asks: "The female celebrities may be popular, but does their stardom contribute to an actual sea change of 'acceptable' behaviors and bodies and ways of being for women today?" The author says the answer remains unclear. My conclusion is a resounding, deafening no. Nowhere is this more visible than when the "unruly" frame is set around the subject of Hillary Clinton. If anything, Petersen's history of Clinton's career depicts a life of deft compromise—how she changed her maiden name when polls showed it was hindering Bill Clinton's success, how she was softened by glossy profiles when she was First Lady, then how she hardened her politics when running for office herself. Petersen describes this trajectory neatly as "learning to govern—a process that slowly moved [Clinton] to a more centrist set of politics," gesturing toward conservatism. Yet Clinton somehow remains unruly in Petersen's estimation at the same time, simply by "demanding the same stature, power, and attention as a man": suddenly the delimiting elements of unruliness are crystal clear.
It's no wonder that we have a pantheon of rowdy, truth-telling, brash, sexy women who we can claim as our WCWs, but our love for them has failed us politically. If the pinnacle of unruliness is ultimately the consolidation of "power, stature, and attention," it cannot—logically, philosophically, syntactically—also be an ideology through which we achieve equality. The women in Too Fat, Too Slutty, Too Loud are too much, of many things, yes, but one thing they are not is too poor, though they might have been once. This is the hard fact that Petersen's work, like others of its kind, leaves out: how race, gender identity, sexuality, age, and size are deeply enmeshed in the capitalism we've let run amok with our futures. And though it nods to this conclusion, the book also never truly reckons with how white women especially, who have dominated the feminist movement as it has moved into the mainstream, are implicated. How else could "unruliness" include, in Petersen's estimation, figures like Megyn Kelly and Marie Antoinette? When activism can be accidental, when unruliness can run the gamut from refusing to shoulder racist epithets at a tennis match all the way to joining a secret Facebook group, we lose sight of who is truly vulnerable, and what real unruliness would look like.
It feels necessary to make the disclaimer that I recognize the impulse to try and reconcile politics with consumption, because I share it as a fellow consumer. While I wrote this piece, I listened to Katy Perry's song "Swish, Swish," which features Nicki Minaj and sounds a lot like her song "Truffle Butter." I know this because I like Nicki Minaj and listen to her, a lot. It is much easier to hang all of our subversive practices on culture—what we buy, wear, listen to, eat, and watch—than figure out what comes next after representation, what we might have to give up or love a little less in order to improve. "America feels unsafe for so many," Petersen writes. "Unruliness—in its many manifestations, small and large, in action, in representation, in language—feels more necessary than ever." This sentiment and the many conversations among mainstream feminists that share it feels like an attempt to hold onto an inadequate way of thinking about women and progress.
It seems more likely that change will come from landing our attention elsewhere, putting our resistance eggs in different baskets. Virginia Woolf disavowed the term feminist for a few reasons, some of which were self-serving, but in Three Guineas, at least, she too sees a mode of equality that is defined only one, traditionally masculine way—"the right to earn a living"—and argues that it should be left behind. Addressing the men of England, she reasons, "it seems both wrong for us rationally and impossible for us emotionally to fill up your form and join your society. For by so doing we should merge our identity in yours; follow and repeat and score still deeper the old worn ruts in which society, like a gramophone whose needle has stuck, is grinding out with intolerable unanimity." I imagine her rewriting the last phrase for the here and now: "…like an iPhone whose home button is stuck, a feed perpetually scrolling with sameness."