Outcasts No MoreAnne Helen Petersen’s New Book Celebrates Unruly Women

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Released: June 20, 2017

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This article appears in our 2017 Summer issue, Invisibility. Subscribe today!

It’s fitting that Anne Helen Petersen’s new book begins at one of the biggest, loudest flashpoints of gendered fuckery in recent memory: Election Day, 2016. In Too Fat, Too Slutty, Too Loud’s introduction, the BuzzFeed editor decribes sitting in her office, watching the morning’s jubilance become the night’s disbelief, and reckoning with the number of female Trump voters who had “tapped into a larger reservoir of dislike, distrust, and repulsion that…had mobilized against [Hillary] Clinton.” Clinton’s campaign, Petersen writes later in the book, “didn’t just illuminate the corrosive rhetoric that accrues around women in power. It amplified and invigorated it.”

Clinton (“Too Shrill”) is among the ten celebrity women Petersen considers in her exploration of how overstepping particular boundaries—of size, strength, age, ambition, and more—has marked, and defined, and circumscribed their lives. Serena Williams (“Too Strong”), in ascending to the highest echelon of athletic mastery, has been insulted, racially and sexually demeaned and objectified, even compared to a horse. Madonna (“Too Old”), in daring to attenuate her career—as her male counterparts have always done—has become more vampire than vamp, feeding on pop music’s youth in a quest to prolong her own. Caitlyn Jenner (“Too Queer”), by transitioning in public, has drawn criticism from around the cultural panopticon, whether for perpetuating media-friendly transnormativity or for failing to conform to a romance arc on her reality show.

In exploring how any ambient space around female celebrities is quickly overfilled with criticism and condemnation, Petersen primarily focuses on the unforgiving celebrity media culture, with its unyielding gaze and greed for clicks. Like Sady Doyle’s Trainwreck, Too Fat, Too Slutty, Too Loud fleshes out a paradox wherein “unruly” women—whether by talent, volume, or simply visibility—can challenge us to transcend the societal bounds of what women should do and be, and scare us away from emulating her as we see how others recoil. Linking contemporary celebrity media and feminist theory with ease, Petersen writes with equal amounts of rigor and empathy that, given some of her subjects, won’t sit well with all readers. (When was the last time you read a defense of Lena Dunham?) But as we feel the sting of feminist backlash once again, her point feels like a warning bell: Our cultural lens on celebrity women reflects back on women en masse. We don’t have to love their unruliness, but we need to change the attitudes that so narrowly define them.

This article was published in Invisibility Issue #75 | Summer 2017
by Andi Zeisler
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Andi Zeisler is the cofounder of Bitch Media and the author of We Were Feminists Once: From Riot Grrrl to CoverGirl®, the Buying and Selling of a Political Movement. You can find her on Twitter.

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