Much of my favourite feminist nonfiction makes its way into the top of my list not because of its “stunning originality,” or a “wealth of new evidence,” or lots of other praising labels we often give to nonfiction. Most of the time, this kind of book amazes me in the normality and regularity of what it examines, and the way its author has of putting words on concepts we’re all thoroughly familiar with but unable to speak about with much depth. Often these topics are ingrained in our lives but their true origins and effects are obscured by the patriarchy. Sady Doyle’s Trainwreck took this to a new level for me in her examination of famous women lots of us are sick to death of seeing headlines about, women whose lives we all know disturbingly personal details about, written about with a clarity that’s never been seen in the public discussion around them.
Using case studies she labels “Anatomy of a Trainwreck,” Doyle traces our reactions to women who defy rules around “womanhood” throughout history, from Marie Antoinette and Mary Wollstonecraft on up to Hilary Clinton and Monica Lewinsky. In a thesis that will sound familiar to anybody who has studied trends in science fiction and horror literature, Doyle suggests that famous trainwrecks have always represented our worst fears about women’s behaviour. “She’s a signpost pointing to what ‘wrong’ is, which boundaries we’re currently placing on femininity, which stories we’ll allow women to have.” Wollstonecraft was demonised for premarital sex, whereas now we slam women for having visible mental illness or ever being inebriated, all the while our male celebrities are off on artistic benders or pensive depressive spells. Women earn disgust and pity where men are seen as geniuses.
Doyle’s trainwrecks are not only signals of our gendered boundaries, but a warning to the rest of us: step out of line and you’ll be laughed at, labelled a psycho, or dead. The knock-on effect of this on the average woman is A) a fear of breaking the rules and being anything other than pretty, respectable and quiet and B) an unconscious desire to punish any other woman who dares to be more than the above. If we’re all being so careful to be what patriarchy needs us to be, it’s perhaps only natural to lash out on anybody messing with the rules. We prodded Amy Winehouse in her suffering up until she died, and a few issues after trashing her as a junkie mess, magazines were now offering up solemn tributes to her musical talent. Doyle shows how death is our ultimate wish for the extreme trainwreck, removing the difficult woman from the spotlight and passing control over her narrative back to us.
In a time when Hilary Clinton’s natural-look makeup drives the press wild, and a visibly ill Shelly Duvall is the most talked-about chat show guest going, Trainwreck is essential reading. It’s a satisfying 250 pages of sharp, well-researched and entertaining observations that you can’t fail to learn something new from. Get a taster for the book with Doyle’s Trainwreck Files, a series of blogs hosted by Melville House in which Doyle applies her theory to women in today’s headlines.
Trainwreck is published 7 October by Melville House
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Post by Heather