What We Mean When We Say 'Trainwreck': A New Book Speculates About the Human Propensity for Trash Talk
There’s a well-known truism you’ve probably heard which reminds us regular folk that celebrity has its price. Still, it doesn’t take more than a few minutes of digging to reveal that the price varies depending on gender. Predictably, disparities abound. Take the recent split between Amber Heard and Johnny Depp. Despite Heard’s allegation of domestic abuse, most media outlets found a different focal point for their marital dissolution stories: Heard’s bisexuality. From there, media outlets ranging from TMZ to People Magazine to the Guardian raised a collective eyebrow and expressed shock that the May-to-December romance had lasted at all. In short order, Heard was dubbed a gold-digging careerist while Depp sauntered off, secure in his fame and fortune. Meanwhile, the purported abuse got scant mention. In the months since the divorce was finalized, gossip hounds have raced to the scene each time Heard has fraternized with another women and have written, spoken, tweeted and photographed her every encounter for our entertainment.
Ah, yes, gossip.
Blogger and essayist Sady Doyle’s first book, Trainwreck: The Women We Love to Hate, Mock, and Fear… and Why (Melville House), speculates about the human propensity for trash talk and exposes the sexist double standard as it applies to celebrities. And while the book never determines why we pay attention to the meltdowns and breakups of people we don’t know, it offers a compelling look at how numerous women have been diminished by derogatory portrayals. Her reach is broad and includes 18th-century feminist Mary Wollstonecraft; singers Miley Cyrus, Billie Holiday, Whitney Houston, Courtney Love, Britney Spears, and Amy Winehouse; writers Harriet Jacobs, Sylvia Plath and Valerie Solanis; and actors Jennifer Aniston and Tara Reid. All, Doyle writes, have been dubbed trainwrecks: Dissolute, ranting, wacky, or in the worst-case scenarios, dead thanks to drugs, drink and depression.
“All of this matters,” she explains, “for reasons beyond the enduring grossness of gossip blogs… As long as there has been a public sphere, there have been women attempting to enter the public sphere, and usually being punished for it… Women who have succeeded too well at becoming visible have always been penalized vigilantly and forcibly, and turned into spectacles. This is a none-too-veiled attempt to push women back into the places we’ve designated as ‘theirs.’”
Okay, maybe. But in a world where paparazzi hover outside celebrity doors, follow the rich-and-famous to the drycleaners and seemingly scrutinize their every move, I wonder if something else is also operative. At the risk of blaming the victim, if you know that every utterance, engagement and article of clothing will be photographed and recorded, why not exercise discretion and protect your privacy? Plenty of high-profile women are fodder for media, but not scandal—Helen Mirren, Lupita Nyong’o, Maggie Smith, Meryl Streep, and Toni Morrison leap to mind—so it seems like an oversimplification simply to blame sexism for the downward spiral some experience.
This is not to say sexism isn’t a factor in how we evaluate and judge celebrity missteps and foibles—whether they involve volatile breakups, drunken brawls or the development of terrifying eating disorders. Of course sexism is a factor. Just ask Hillary Clinton. Worse, sexist appraisals have been a virtual constant for centuries. In fact, one of Trainwreck's most interesting chapters delves into the life of Mary Wollstonecraft (1759-1797), best known for penning Vindication of the Rights of Women, a bold plea for gender equality first published in 1792. After Wollstonecraft died from childbirth complications, her grief-ravaged husband, William Godwin, decided to honor her memory by publishing every word she’d ever written, including letters to former beau Gilbert Imlay with whom she’d had an out-of-wedlock child. Response was swift. Virtually overnight, Wollstonecraft was badly tarred in the court of public opinion and dubbed a “whore, a madwoman, an idiot, a joke.” Women—including many who called themselves feminists—jumped on the anti-Wollstonecraft bandwagon and declared that “feminism was for women who behaved correctly and had their shit together. As for Mary: Mary was over. She was wrecked,” Doyle concludes.
Likewise Billie Holiday. Born in 1915 and raped at age 10, Lady Day sang about life’s brutality and refused to shy away from sordid topics like lynching and racism. Sadly, her musical themes were not the only reason for her notoriety. Her alcoholism and heroin addiction helped create a potent archetype: The tormented female singer who exorcises personal demons through performance. Although Doyle writes nothing about Holiday’s persecution by the Federal Bureau of Narcotics—an odd omission since government efforts aided and abetted Holiday’s precipitous decline—she concludes that Holiday’s life and death have proved to be a valuable cautionary example. As Doyle sees it, women like Holiday “offend us by succeeding despite the countless social structures and conventions that try to prevent women like them from even existing.”
Stir envy with resentment and a backlash brews. There is, alas, a grain of absolute truth in this assessment. At the same time, countless performers from troubled backgrounds—comedians, singers, actors, monologists—don’t abuse drugs or drink to excess, and instead develop edgy, provocative, witty, and vital material for audiences to enjoy. Turns out, personality and community—the support one is able to muster when grappling with torment, grief and angst—are a huge part of our ability to cope and even thrive.
Let’s now turn to our role as consumers. Since most of us don’t actually have any idea what a particular celebrity is up against—say a history of abuse, a chronic physical illness or an anxiety disorder—when we read a headline, watch a YouTube video or see something posted on Facebook or Instagram about their improprieties, it’s easy to condemn them, especially if they’re female. Tsk, tsk. We wag our tongues as well as our fingers and the denunciations fly.
Britney Spears is a case in point. As Spears grew up and shed her wide-eyed innocence, Doyle writes, she transformed into “the corruption of purity. She was the pretty, good little girl who became ugly and bad when she grew up, the Queen of Teen who was used up and over-the-hill by age twenty-five.” After several of her meltdowns became headline news, Spears lost the right to live autonomously and was placed under her father’s conservatorship. Doyle reports that she is now “under a form of legal control that is normally reserved for late-stage Alzheimer’s patients and people with severe developmental disabilities; she is no longer legally allowed to decide whether she gets married, or where she lives, or who her doctors will be, or how to spend her money. She can no longer legally sign a contract. She is not allowed to use her cell phone unless her father approves.” It’s horrid and sad and likely reflects the excessive overreach of a protective and possibly guilt-ridden family.
Still, the tragedy of Britney Spears’ flame-out—in a context that includes the premature death of performers including Billie Holiday, Whitney Houston, Janis Joplin, and Amy Winehouse—raises important questions about the public’s interest, whether manufactured or real, in celebrity life. It pushes us to consider whether it’s fair to hold famous women to a higher standard than their non-famous peers. Do they deserve compassion when they fumble, or should they be written off as heinous human beings? Even if we believe they should have known better, should their worst moments resurface time and again online, on TV and in print? What’s more, should we even use terms like trainwreck to describe their descent?
Doyle’s conclusion on these questions is spot-on. Trainwrecks, she writes, don’t actually exist. “Even the woman who seems Good or Bad at first glance tend to fragment into something more complicated and ambiguous if you look at them long enough. Women are not symbols of superhuman virtue. Women are not symbols of all that is disgusting and corrupt. Women, it turns out, are not symbols of anything, other than themselves.”
So there you have it. Until women’s messups and successes—regardless of whether they’re movie stars or sales clerks—are greeted with the same interest or disinterest as men’s, we’re going to need to stay in feminist battle mode. We’ll know we’ve won when the media treats our activism as more newsworthy that the escapades of this week’s most comely star. When gossip blogs have fewer readers than independent news sites, we’ll know we’ve created a world where there’s no such thing as a human trainwreck. It’s time, no?