From now on, whenever anyone asks me to explain my affection for Nicki Minaj, Hillary Clinton, or Serena Williams, I’m going to force them to read Anne Helen Petersen’s new book, Too Fat, Too Slutty, Too Loud: The Rise and Reign of the Unruly Woman. While reading it, I was overcome by a near-constant urge to get the word “unruly” tattooed on my actual skin, because Petersen has encapsulated something so profound, so elemental, so obvious that I almost felt like I’d known it intrinsically, but had heretofore lacked the language and theoretical context to truly articulate it.
She’s done this through 10 case studies of perfectionist workaholic women—also including Lena Dunham, Madonna, Caitlyn Jenner, and Broad City’s Abbi Jacobson and Ilana Glazer—whose careers have been marked in some way by unruliness, and whose importance to history isn’t tempered by the abjection they inspire in others. Too Fat, Too Slutty, Too Loud more than supports its thesis that the future belongs to women who claim space as subjects in their own lives, rather than objects in the lives of men.
Petersen’s examples of this are stark and powerful: She thoughtfully deconstructs Williams’ refusal to apologize for her body, her Blackness, or her strength; Minaj’s insistence on her place in the upper echelon of hip-hop and her willingness to adopt personae that are ugly or angry, trading likeability in order to be the boss; and Clinton’s unkillable ambition in a political arena that’s tried to destroy her time and again. After reading through them, here’s what I can say about these women: Like the hero in Wonder Woman, the world of men kind of doesn’t deserve them. But for women who have been told they’re too opinionated, too political, too sensitive, too intimidating, or really, well, too much of anything, here, at long last, are our patron saints.
Petersen’s angle is academic, not worshipful. Though she now writes cultural criticism for Buzzfeed, she’s an academia escapee, and so brings a pleasing critical rigor to her work. Feminist-informed nonfiction is having a moment right now, but much of it is light in its gloss of critical theory, unnuanced in its discussion of public policy, and more of a review session for those of us who grew up steeped in the stuff than anything groundbreaking. I’m not interested in denigrating these books, but nor do I want to read them. But I really wanted to read Petersen’s book, and when I started, I couldn’t stop. Here is a book whose delight in its own wonkiness is infectious, and whose deep empathy for its subjects is also matched with fair-minded critique. While our hot-take internet news cycle often doesn’t foster nuance, Petersen does, in spades, whether she’s discussing the abuse leveled at Kim Kardashian during her first pregnancy; the sexist, racist treatment of Serena Williams vis-à-vis someone like Roger Federer; Melissa McCarthy’s comedic fugue states; or novelist Jennifer Weiner’s “effort to destabilize the hierarchies of the publishing world” as embodied by Jonathan Franzen and literature’s longstanding boys’ club, which welcomes women as consumers but not authors.
I’ve written often about how painful Clinton’s loss was for me and many of my fellow workaholic perfectionist women friends. And it’s particularly poignant to read Petersen’s discussion of Clinton’s unruliness in 2017, to be reminded that some of the things I’ve always admired most about Clinton are considered weaknesses because she happens to be a woman. Of claims that Clinton is untrustworthy, Petersen writes, “At the heart of all of this perceived duplicitousness, after all, is Clinton’s unrepentant ambition. It’s Clinton’s defining character trait: her understanding of her worth is so strong that she’s refused, at every point in her life and career, to let men define her.” What a shame that so many are so afraid of a quality we should wish for every little girl to have. If there was ever any question of how hated unruly women are, there can’t be now.
But all is not lost, and throughout Petersen’s book, there is a charging, gracefully defiant sense of informed resilience underlying her discussion of the backlash we find ourselves in, a refrain that “the misogynist rhetoric of supporters of Donald Trump and the move to curtail women’s control over their reproductive rights” is an inevitable response to progress—and a surmountable one.
Importantly, writes Petersen, the backlash “doesn’t mean that Clinton’s loss is a step back. She punched the glass ceiling so hard that the task of shattering it has become far less formidable. There will certainly be backlash; it will again expose the ugliest, most enduringly misogynist aspects of our society. But such are the wages of change—the wreckage before the rebuilding.”
We know what the wreckage looks like, but Petersen provides a fresh glimpse at how we might imagine our nation’s rebuilding. In the margin at the end of the Clinton chapter, I wrote the name of another unruly woman: KAMALA 2020.