I N T R O D U C T I O N
On November 8, 2016, I woke up early and said, to no one in particular, “I’m so excited to vote for our first female president!” I wasn’t alone in this sentiment: the entire city of New York seemed to vibrate with anticipation that day. Walking back from my polling place, I saw a mom with her three young daughters, all dressed in Hillary Clinton pantsuits. At the corner of Clinton and President Streets in Brooklyn, dozens of people were taking selfies. On the subway, a stranger saw my voting sticker and said, “Thank you for doing your civic duty!” Some sites predicted as small as a 1 percent chance of Trump winning. The day’s outcome seemed assured.
Fast-forward twelve hours. I’m sitting at the BuzzFeed office in Manhattan, where the tone has taken an abrupt turn from excitement to panic. During the month leading up to the election, I had spoken to hundreds of women at Trump rallies—many of whom overflowed with hatred for Clinton. They joined the shouts to “lock her up” that echoed through the rallies; they wore shirts emblazoned with “Monica Sucks, Hillary Swallows.” Statistically, these women were a minority. But they had tapped into a larger reservoir of dislike, distrust, and repulsion that, as the election results flowing into the office were gradually making clear, had mobilized against Clinton.
I cease my frantic refreshing of Twitter and stare blankly ahead. A plastic cup of white wine grows warm beside me. Donald Trump’s win becomes probable, then certain. My phone lights up.
“I’m so sorry to do this,” my editor says, “but we need you to write something.”
I had expected a relaxing, joyful rest of the week. I was exhausted from weeks reporting on the road. I could have cried. But instead, I opened up a new document, writing: This Is How Much America Hates Women.
Not all women, of course. Just women like Fox anchor Megyn Kelly, who’d questioned Trump about his history with women during the primary debates. Women like former Miss Universe Alicia Machado, who’d dared to gain weight. Women like Elizabeth Warren, who simply won’t shut up, or Rosie O’Donnell, with whom Trump had feuded for years. Women like the dozen who’ve accused him of sexual impropriety and/or assault, and Clinton herself, whom he’d referred to as a “nasty woman.”
In other words, unruly women—the type who incite Trump’s ire, and whom millions of voters have decided they can degrade and dismiss, simply because they question, interrogate, or otherwise challenge the status quo. Of course, there have been unruly women for as long as there have been boundaries of what constitutes acceptable “feminine” behavior: women who, in some way, step outside the boundaries of good womanhood, who end up being labeled too fat, too loud, too slutty, too whatever characteristic women are supposed to keep under control. The hatred directed toward the unruly women of the 2016 campaign is simply an extension of the anxiety that’s accumulated around this type of woman for centuries.
Which is why Trump’s defeat would’ve felt like such a victory for unruly women everywhere: a mandate that this type of demeaning, dehumanizing behavior toward women is simply not acceptable, particularly from the president of the United States. Instead, Trump’s victory signals the beginning of a backlash that has been quietly brewing for years, as unruly women of various forms have come to dominate the cultural landscape.
And while the unruly woman is under threat, she isn’t going anywhere: Clinton, after all, won the popular vote by more than two million votes, and the election has mobilized untold numbers of women to protect their rights and those of others. Trump’s America feels unsafe for so many; the future of the nation seems uncertain. But unruliness—in its many manifestations, small and large, in action, in representation, in language—feels more important, more necessary, than ever.
Unruly women surround us in our everyday lives, yet such figures become most powerful in celebrity form, where they become even more layered and fraught with contradiction. The next ten chapters thus examine female celebrities, from Serena Williams to Lena Dunham, who have been conceived of as unruly in some capacity. And while each chapter is named for the celebrity’s dominant mode of unruliness—too slutty, too gross, too queer— each of these women is unruly in multiple, compounding ways: Serena Williams is too strong, but she’s also too masculine, too rude, too fashionable, too black; Lena Dunham is too naked, but she’s also too loud, too aggressive, too powerful, too revealing, too much.
I’ve filled the book with women who occupy all different corners of the mainstream, from the literary world to Hollywood, from HBO to the tennis court. It includes several women of color, but the prevalence of straight white women serves to highlight an ugly truth: that the difference between cute, acceptable unruliness and unruliness that results in ire is often as simple as the color of a woman’s skin, whom she prefers to sleep with, and her proximity to traditional femininity. When a black woman talks too loud or too honestly, she becomes “troubling” or “angry” or “out of control”; a queer woman who talks about sex suddenly becomes proof that all gay people are intrinsically promiscuous. It’s one thing to be a young, cherub-faced, straight woman doing and saying things that make people uncomfortable. It’s quite another—and far riskier—to do those same things in a body that is not white, not straight, not slender, not young, or not American.
Each chapter starts with the thesis of a particular woman’s unruliness—Melissa McCarthy’s status as “too fat,” for example—and unravels the way this behavior has been historically framed as an affliction at odds with proper femininity. The more you analyze what makes these behaviors transgressive, the easier it is to see what they’re threatening: what it means to be a woman, of course, but also entrenched understandings of women’s passive role in society. While the book centers around highly visible women, it also reveals the expectations surrounding every woman’s behavior—and why talking too loudly, acting too promiscuously, or exposing too much skin is so incredibly threatening to the status quo.
That threat is part of why talking about any of the women in this book opens the floodgates to controversy. Whether the discussion takes place on Facebook or at happy hour, mentioning these women is the quickest way to escalate the conversation, alienate friends, offend elders, and turn off dates. Their bodies, words, and actions have become a locus for the type of inflammatory rhetoric usually reserved only for political figures. It’s as if each of these women is constantly igniting the line of acceptable behavior: you don’t know where it is until she steps over it, at which point it bursts into flames.
Celebrities are our most visible and binding embodiments of ideology at work: the way we pinpoint and police representations of everything from blackness to queerness, from femininity to pregnancy. Which is why the success of these unruly women is inextricable from the confluence of attitudes toward women in the 2010s: the public reembrace of feminism set against a backdrop of increased legislation of women’s bodies, the persistence of the income gap, the policing of how women’s bodies should look and act in public, and the election of Trump. Through this lens, unruliness can be viewed as an amplification of anger about a climate that publicly embraces equality but does little to enact change. It’s no wonder we have such mixed feelings about these women: they’re constant reminders of the chasm between what we think we believe and how we actually behave.
This is far from the first time the unruly woman has taken on such outsized importance in the American imagination. Anne Boleyn, Marie Antoinette, Simone de Beauvoir, Virginia Woolf, Mae West, Elizabeth Taylor, Eleanor Roosevelt, Jane Fonda—all were unruly in some capacity, and that unruliness is part of the reason their names live on. The most potent manifestation in recent history, however, dates to the early nineties, when Roseanne Barr became the unruly woman par excellence: her show, Roseanne, dominated the television landscape, overtaking The Cosby Show as the top-rated program on television in 1989. For the next six years, it remained in the top five Nielsen programs—an unprecedented feat for a show that not only focused on a working class family, but also introduced and interrogated queer and feminist issues.
Roseanne boldly challenged the image of middle- class respectability proffered by sitcoms like The Cosby Show, Growing Pains, Family Ties, and Family Matters. The family’s house was messy and claustrophobic; money was always tight, and Roseanne and her husband, Dan, played by John Goodman, were always exhausted from work. Their kids could be rude or obscene, and the parents often responded in turn.
In her groundbreaking work The Unruly Woman, Kathleen Rowe Karlyn points to the ways in which Barr used her stardom to highlight the vast gap between the progressive aspirations of Second Wave Feminism and the lived reality of providing for a working-class family in the wake of Reaganism.1 That Roseanne chose a working-class mother as the avatar of her rebellion is significant: the fiscal constrainst of her situation mean that her options for rebellion manifested in the volume of her voice, the expanse of her body, the clutter of her home, and the overarching refusal to make a working-class home simply be a less expensive version of a bourgeois one.
Outside of Roseanne, Barr cultivated an equally unruly celebrity image: there was her public courting of and marriage to fellow comedian Tom Arnold, and her 1990 rendition of the national anthem at a baseball game, so off-key and flippant it prompted President George H.W. Bush to decry it as “disgraceful.” She was, as my mother put it, not in “good taste”—which is part of why, as a ten-year-old girl, I wasn’t allowed to watch Roseanne even as I witnessed equally ribald humor on shows like Home Improvement.
Karlyn points to a “profound ambivalence” around Roseanne—even though she was the star of one of the most popular shows on television, even if the readers of People magazine voted her their “Top Female Star,” she was still a subject of slight disgust. Esquire manifested this split attitude when it featured her in its pages by writing two pieces: one in favor, the other against. On the cover of Vanity Fair, she was declared “Roseanne on Top”—but the accompanying image showed her pinning Arnold to the ground, her breasts overflowing, her mouth in a devious cackle. Her power was abundant, but it had to be distorted—made frightening—for public consumption. Roseanne was figured as just barely in control of herself, her body, her behavior, which made it all the easier to frame her as dangerously out of control (and a threat to America) when she dared to sing the national anthem off-key. It would take more than a decade for a woman with a similarly unruly energy to reach something close to her level of stardom again.
What happened to Roseanne should be instructive. It’s tempting to think of unruly women as radicals transgressing and usurping societal norms—and while they do make rebellion and disobedience imaginable or palatable, their actions can also serve to fortify dominant norms. Take the example of Dixie Chick Natalie Maines, who became the outspoken spokesperson for a feminist, liberal, progressive wing of country in the mid-2000s. By transgressing the boundaries of their genre, the Dixie Chicks endeared themselves to certain fans, but they also alienated themselves from the very root of their stardom. Today, articles about slightly transgressive country stars like Kacey Musgraves hold up the Dixie Chicks as a cautionary tale. The Dixie Chicks may have crossed the line, but they didn’t break it down; instead, the line has been built up stronger than before.
It’s a familiar narrative for the unruly woman. It happened to Mae West, the ribald comedian of the 1930s whose full figure sparked a trend against “reducing,” only to have her witty, and self-authored, brand of humor censored to the point of banality and obscurity over the course of the decade. It struck Jane Fonda amidst her activism in Vietnam; it beset Roseanne in the 1990s; it afflicted Rosie O’Donnell after the demise of her talk show in the 2000s, and it has already begun to happen to many of the women featured in this book: unruliness can spark a firestorm, but it can also scorch the very ground on which they tread.
Roseanne, Jane Fonda, and Mae West were all divisive figures, but it wasn’t as simple as two camps for and against: they could spark feelings of fascination and repulsion at the same time, a sentiment that should sound familiar to fans of many of the women in this book. There are all sorts of things that attract our curiosity but which societal norms tell us we should reject—things that trespass the unspoken yet often rigid borders of good taste. Scholars have a term for these objects, peoples, and ideas that inspire these feelings of attraction and rejection: “abject.” By strict definition, “abject” refers to things that are horrendously bad, unpleasant, or degrading—things that, as the word’s Latin roots, abijicere (to reject) and jacere (to throw), suggest, must be repudiated and cast aside.
Instead of hiding their abjection, unruly women amplify it: Madonna asserts her body as sexual past the age when it can be; Abbi Jacobson and Ilana Glazer talk openly about shit and periods; Kim Kardashian refuses to hide her pregnant body. Others do so by troubling the distinction between borders: Serena Williams’s body is muscular like a man’s and curvy like a woman’s, while Nicki Minaj and Hillary Clinton trespass into male- dominated cultural spheres. If a defining characteristic of the abject is the command to throw it out, these women refuse it—which, of course, renders them all the more compelling.
Every few decades, an unruly female celebrity inflames the popular consciousness. What distinguishes our current cultural moment, then, is how thoroughly unruly women have come to dominate the zeitgeist: Girls and Broad City have inspired more conversation over the last three years than any other thirty-minute shows. Melissa McCarthy is one of the most reliable box office draws in Hollywood today. Lena Dunham’s book, Not That Kind of Girl, reached number two on the New York Times bestseller list; her newsletter, Lenny, boasts more than half a million subscribers. Nicki Minaj’s third album, The Pinkprint, debuted at number two on the Billboard charts; the video for “Anaconda” has been viewed 620 million times. Serena Williams has won twenty-two grand slams. The 20/20 special focused on Caitlyn Jenner’s transition garnered a staggering 20.7 million viewers. Jennifer Weiner has sold more than thirteen million copies worldwide. Kim Kardashian took in more than $51 million in 2016. And Clinton, remember, won the popular vote by more than 2.8 million.
Yet for all these women’s visibility and profitability, they compete against a far more palatable—and, in many cases, more successful—form of femininity: the lifestyle supermom. Exemplified by Reese Witherspoon, Jessica Alba, Blake Lively, and Gwyneth Paltrow, these women rarely trend on Twitter, but they’ve built tremendously successful brands by embracing the “new domesticity,” defined by consumption, maternity, and a sort of twenty- first-century gentility. They have slim, disciplined bodies and adorable pregnancies; they never wear the wrong thing or speak negatively or make themselves abrasive in any way. Importantly, these celebrities are also all white—or, in the case of Jessica Alba, careful to elide any connotations of ethnicity—and straight.
By transforming themselves into brands, filling their online stores with goods and clothing and accessories, they imply that every woman can have the same sort of contentment: all they need to do is buy a dress, purchase some chemical-free baby wipes, and follow a complicated recipe for a vegan smoothie, and they can have the same bronzed glow of contentment as these celebs. You can see their influence across Pinterest and the mommy- blogosphere, where many women reproduce the rhetoric of self-care and affirmation even as they police the bodies, parenting choices, consumption habits, and lifestyle decisions of both themselves and others.
The women I’ve chosen for case studies in this book function as implicit and explicit alternatives to the “new domesticity.” Yet at the same time, they’ve also all made themselves amenable to popular consumption. Some, like Kardashian, generally abide by social standards, but her unruly performance of pregnancy, and the backlash against it, highlights just how readily the tide of public acceptance can turn. Others, like Kardashian’s stepparent, Caitlyn Jenner, belong to a category that’s only very recently become societally sanctioned and even legally protected—yet every step that Jenner makes is carefully calculated so as to assuage anxieties about her transformation. Melissa McCarthy calls out the assumptions people make about fat people but never gets truly mad; Hillary Clinton is incredibly mindful to modulate her voice so as to never appear angry in public.
There are hundreds of women in the public sphere who don’t exercise such careful modulation—women who are relegated to niche corners of pop culture because they’ve been figured as too big, queer, loud, smart, sexual, or otherwise abject for mainstream audiences. Women like Lea DeLaria, the first openly gay comic to appear on late-night television all the way back in 1993, who has struggled to find higher-profile roles than her supporting bit on Orange Is the New Black. Or Mo’Nique, who was outspoken about her refusal to participate in the Oscar campaign for her performance in Precious—and found herself a Hollywood outcast. Or even Kim Novak, once considered one of the most beautiful stars in Hollywood, whose plastic surgery–facilitated attempts to maintain her youthful face have rendered her an object of severe ridicule.
Women like DeLaria, Mo’Nique, and Novak might be briefly defended in think pieces, but they’re nevertheless excluded from salable stardom: they’re simply too much for the broad, middling, easily offended audience so necessary for a mainstream stardom. The rejection of these women makes it clear: there’s still a firm line of acceptable female behavior. And while it might, in this moment, be cool and profitable to toe it, to find oneself on the other side is tantamount to career suicide.
In the end, all of the unruly women in this book have made concessions in order to have their work approved and disseminated by the mainstream. By focusing on unruliness that’s made its way into the mainstream, this book considers the costs and benefits of smoothing one’s sharp edges just enough to make it onto the cover of Vanity Fair or into the pages of GQ, multiplexes across America, or the White House—and the implication that unruliness is still largely the provenance of women who are white and straight.
Someone might look at a picture of me, or read my resume, and wonder what interest I would have in unruliness: I’m white, I’m blonde, I’m not fat. I grew up middle-class in a midsize town. I got straight As. I was a cheerleader for seven years. The only time I got in trouble in high school was for skipping A.P. English to go to the premiere of Star Wars. I’m straight and cis-gender. I attended a good college and went on to pursue a PhD. I’ve received one speeding ticket. But so much of that amenability—that need to please, that lack of acting out— stemmed from a posture of fear.
My mother was a weirdo, non-makeup-wearing mathematician, so the fear certainly didn’t come from her. But I was always cripplingly terrified of what people thought of me: my classmates, the boys I liked and even the ones I didn’t, random people on the street, the teachers whose approval I craved. That fear was so overwhelming that I allowed it to temper and otherwise silence the parts of myself that gave me joy. I stopped raising my hand as much in class. I disciplined my body through various forms of over-exercise and disordered eating, not because I liked running, but because I was mortified by the thought of getting fat. I didn’t believe God would forsake me if I lost my virginity, but I kept it out of anxiety that I’d be labeled a slut. I didn’t drink because who knew what embarrassing thing I might say or do while drunk. I was happy, ostensibly, but every move was motivated by fear. Part of this fear was derived from living in a rural town where gossip and small-mindedness made other ways of being unthinkable, but part of it was entirely my own devising.
I spent the bulk of my adolescent life internalizing the fact that girls who crossed that invisible line would become pariahs: excised from their communities and families, unable to find work or companionship. I was wrong, of course, but it took finding my own group of weird, confident, too much friends for me to lean into my own difference, my own modes of unruliness. It’s taken many years for those behaviors to blossom, and many internal checks remain stubbornly difficult to slough. Just because you spend years analyzing unruliness doesn’t mean you’re not subject to the trenchant cultural imperative to shun, shame, and reject it.
Which is precisely why I wanted to write this book: these unruly women are so magnetic, but that magnetism is countered, at every point, by ideologies that train both men and women to distance themselves from those behaviors in our own lives. Put differently, it’s one thing to admire such abrasiveness and disrespect for the status quo in someone else; it’s quite another to take that risk in one’s own life.
That’s why the threat of a backlash feels so real. These 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? None of these chapters offer a clear answer, in part because that answer is less dependent on the women themselves and more on the way we, as cultural consumers, decide to talk and think about them. Not as women “acting out” and, as such, in need of censoring, but as endlessly deserving of our consideration: both critical and compassionate.
My hope is that this book unites the enthralling, infuriating, and exhilarating conversations that swirl around these women, but also incites new and more expansive ones. Because these women and their unruliness matter—and the best way to show their gravity and power and influence is to refuse to shut up about why they do.