Britney Spears became human to me in 2007. Until her very public breakdown that year, Britney had seemed like a robot built in a lab according to the exact specifications of the male gaze. She wasn’t for me. From the comfort of my feminist-populated women’s college in New England, I’d scoffed at Britney. And then, as I watched on a friend’s computer in our dorm as Britney shaved her head, clearly in crisis, I realized that “built in a lab according to the exact specifications of the male gaze” was a terrible standard to expect a human being to adhere to, and a tremendously unkind way to describe a real person.
This is the matter at hand in Sady Doyle’s new book Trainwreck: The Women We Love to Hate, Mock, and Fear... and Why, out this month from Melville House, the independent press that singlehandedly reaffirmed the importance of small publishers when it published the Senate torture report at the end of 2014. That matters, because Trainwreck is a book I don’t think would necessarily have been picked up elsewhere. While a certain brand of lightweight feminism is currently popular with major publishing houses, it’s manifested largely in memoirs like Amy Schumer’s.
Trainwreck is not that. It’s a deeply researched account of our culture’s misogynistic obsession with trainwrecks—not the benign version pushed by Schumer, but women in the throes of public mental health crises (like Britney’s), public drug use and addiction (like Whitney Houston’s), and public—or publicly perceived—neediness (like Jennifer Aniston’s). These things might “add to a man’s mystique,” writes Doyle, but for women, they result in mean-spirited media narratives, nonstop scrutiny, short-circuited careers, and even death. A convincing, compulsively readable polemic, Trainwreck hinges on the argument that normalizing hatred toward famous women sets a precedent for hating any woman: If you build it, the trolls will come.
“If you are a woman, and you make yourself visible in the world, they will always marshal the carpers, and (if you’re lucky) some hired hacks, to insult you back into silence,” Doyle writes, describing the sexist fury that motivates everything from publicly shaming Tara Reid or Janet Jackson for having nipples to what happens when most women writers I know see their Twitter mentions after expressing a potentially unlikeable opinion online (which is any opinion).
Back to Britney—because, as Doyle writes, “any book or story about trainwrecks is haunted by Britney Spears.” Spears’ newly legible humanity in 2007 was the reason her media narrative became the cruelest it had ever been. But it was also what made me—and countless women like me—empathize with her in a fierce, involuntary way, the intensity of which surprised even us. I repented. I was sorry. To this day, I only want good things for Spears, and I’ll go to bat for most unlikeable celebrities, because whether we’re complaining about Ariana Grande’s doughnut-licking (which is rude but forgivable), Kim Kardashian’s Snapchat (which is amazing), or Gwyneth Paltrow’s newsletter (which no one is making you read), our hatred for famous women and non-famous women alike has always said more about us than it does about them.
Because none of these women are robots built according to the exact specifications of the male gaze; they’re real people. And people are flawed. Doyle puts it this way: “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.”
I’ll be less charitable: Self-righteously hating a famous woman doesn’t make you edgy or cool. It makes you an asshole. Do better.