Anne Helen Petersen’s byline on any collection of words means that I’m going to drop what I’m doing immediately to read it. I don’t read a lot of celebrity gossip and culture, but her analyses are fascinating on multiple levels. Not only are they thorough and drawn from a variety of sources, but they attempt to frame one or several layers of meaning around a celebrity’s brand or image, often locating that meaning in a complicated larger context. Because Petersen has studied the gossip industry in its past and present iterations, the context is very often, “We’ve been here before, and here’s another example.”
I was very excited to read Too Fat, Too Slutty, Too Loud – so excited that when I received the email alerting me that my turn on the hold list at the library had arrived, I got to the library branch before they’d put the book out on the hold shelves for me to pick up. (No, I promise I didn’t drive Too Fast to pick up this book. There are speed cameras everywhere and I learned my lesson long ago.)
If you like Petersen’s long form celebrity analyses, you’ll like this book. Each chapter focuses on a different person, and each is a chronological examination of how their brand or public image has shifted, and how coverage of that person personally and professional has evolved. Each chapter also spends some time identifying and then dismantling the overarching perception that follows each individual. The chapters in order are:
- Too Strong: Serena Williams
- Too Fat: Melissa McCarthy
- Too Gross: Abbi Jacobson and Ilana Glazer
- Too Slutty: Nikki Minaj
- Too Old: Madonna
- Too Pregnant: Kim Kardashian
- Too Shrill: Hillary Clinton
- Too Queer: Caitlyn Jenner
- Too Loud: Jennifer Weiner
- Too Naked: Lena Dunham
The book as a whole was a very quick read for me, and I found myself taking pictures and sharing images of particular paragraphs that resonated. I wanted to tell everyone I knew about each chapter as soon as I read it.
Unruliness is defined in the introduction as possessing of attributes that are antithetical to expectations to traditional femininity. Unruly women:
…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.
So, yeah. Here for this, 3000%.
Each example starts with one element of “unruliness,” but no criticism of women is ever singular; there are many other systems of oppression involved. The chapter on Serena Williams traced how descriptions of her body have not changed all that much over time, locating those descriptions and the attitudes toward her skill and dominance in the larger context of the overwhelming whiteness and racism of tennis as a sport and performance, with a side order of sexism and classism.
I thought the chapter was fantastic, and since my husband likes tennis (and most sports on tv, come to think of it), I passed the book to him so he could read it when I finished. He did the same thing I did: nodded at the page and kept reading. His review: “I knew all of these things already, and I read most of the articles about Serena that are cited, but I hadn’t seen them organized in that way before.”
That’s a pretty apt summary of each chapter: the organization of the story tells another story. The coverage of a celebrity – the narrative that is manufactured by them, or about them, or both – is organized and examined in a way that reveals larger themes and the often massive obstacles that person deals with. In other words, there is a story about the person being profiled, and that story, the way it is told, the words that are used, and the source of the story and who tells and repeats it, reveals a LOT.
Each “too” example is often the reason pointed to by many who criticize or dislike that celebrity or their work. Each chapter pokes at the descriptor to highlight the sexism, misogyny, racism, and prejudice working against that person. Some work steadfastly against their label, and some engage with it deliberately, consciously undermining it or highlighting it to point out how ridiculously limiting and reductive it is.
To say this book gave me brain popcorn is an understatement.
Here are some of my favorite parts, which I had to mark with sticky notes because this is a library book and I am not a total monster. From the chapter on Serena:
“Imagine, too, a woman whose dominance on the court leads to discussions of her skill, not her body. Imagine a scenario in which strength, manifest in physical and mental form, is figured as a pure testament to skill, not as a means of distracting from it. Imagine a world in which female athletes do not provoke anxiety; in which black ones are not automatically perceived as a threat; in which unruliness doesn’t need to be blunted….
A woman who responds to the cries that “she’s too strong,” then “she’s too sexy,” then again “she’s too strong” with “Well, can you choose one? But either way, I don’t care which one they choose. I’m me and I’ve never changed who I am.”
From the chapter on Hillary Clinton (which was a little painful to read):
“Shrillness” is just a word to describe what happens when a woman, with her higher-toned voice, attempts to speak loudly. A pejorative, in other words, developed specifically to shame half the population when they attempt to command attention in the same manner as men.
And in the chapter on Jennifer Weiner, which also addresses a lot of the sexism surrounding the term ‘chick lit,’ an examination I found deeply deliciously satisfying, there’s a discussion of the imbalanced hierarchy within the publishing and the marketing of books:
Women make up around 80 percent of the fiction -buying public, making them an incredibly powerful market force. They’re just not buying the right books – at least according to a pervasive and problematic cultural assumption. The right books are “difficult”: experimental, impenetrable, male. They get written up in prestigious book reviews; they win awards that place a tasteful gold stamp in their corner. Their authors don’t blog or tweet about them because they don’t blog or tweet…. They occupy the rarefied air of high art. And the majority, but certainly not all, of the authors of these books are men.
On the other end of this hierarchy, there’s the feminized, the commercially popular, the books reliant on tacky self-promotion.
I finished the chapter on Nikki Minaj wishing there had been more focus more on the ways she questions the treatment she receives as a female artist and businessperson, and while there was some, I wanted more. (Also: “When a man is assertive, he’s a boss. When a woman is assertive, she’s a bitch. No negative connotations to being a boss.”)
I appreciated that the analysis of each person didn’t assume my sympathy for the person, or my support, and I appreciated that the tone wasn’t one of, “You should support this person and here is why.” From the conclusion:
Questions of representation – who controls it, and who says where and at what point it becomes “too much” in any capacity – have served as the foundation of this book, whose premise is predicated on the small yet significant ways that women have either resisted or wrested control of the way that men have represented them.
Which isn’t to say that they always succeed: the imperative against unruliness might be largely created by men, but as these chapters have shown, it’s often enforced by women.
That was the part I found most interesting, asking myself how I contribute to the castigation of unruly women, and how I manage the accusations of the same when I receive them. I mean, it’s a site called “Smart Bitches,” so I hear opprobrium about our unruliness collectively or individually on a weekly basis. But I had to ask myself about the chapters regarding women I wasn’t as curious about, why was I harboring dislike for that person? Why do I think that way?
Which is the point of the book itself, I think: to challenge readers to measure and examine their dislike or conceptions of individual celebrities in different spheres, and to potentially nudge readers to challenging the way they absorb and examine the presented stories about other people. In other words, don’t believe everything you think. Why do you think that, anyway? How we view other women and how we view ourselves are crucial examinations, and the world of celebrity gossip and public performance make for an accessible on-ramp to the difficult questioning.
I found this book to be fascinating and very edifying, almost comforting at times. I imagine many of us have been told we were both “too much” and “not enough” through our lives. Seeing how that narrative takes shape on a larger scale helps me examine how I absorb and deploy that same contradiction. If you’re at all interested in celebrity culture and how it intersects with cultural expectations and narratives, or you want to celebrate nonconformity and being “too much,” this book will be a treat.