I don’t know why I can’t seem to write a post about Trainwreck by Sady Doyle. I read it over two months ago and while I was reading it, I really enjoyed it. But for some reason I can’t find the motivation. And now, at this point, it has been so long all is fuzzy. Is it a sign that it wasn’t as good as I thought it was? I dunno.
The book is about women who dare to be public and human. The trainwreck is a public woman who seems to be on top of the world and then crashes and burns and we take delight in watching the flames. Think Britney Spears, Whitney Houston, and though she doesn’t include her, Jennifer Aniston. A good many of the women Doyle talks about are musicians or actors but she also dips into literature — Mary Wollstonecraft and Charlotte Bronte — and politics — Monica Lewinsky and Hillary Clinton. Some of the analysis is good, some not so much. The historical aspect seems a bit of a stretch since the whole trainwreck thing requires celebrity and media and back in Bronte’s time there wasn’t quite the level of public scrutiny and invasion of privacy that we have these days.
Doyle also is selective about who she chooses to write about. Britney and Whitney get brought up in chapter after chapter. She mentions Miley Cyrus once or twice but Cyrus doesn’t end up fitting into Doyle’s framework so she gets dropped. And the Kardashians are not even mentioned at all.
And while much of what creates a trainwreck is wrapped up in social policing of women — their bodies, sexuality, gender normativity, is she friendly or a bitch, an object of fantasy or does she dare to have a brain and speak her mind — Doyle’s analysis is positioned as though everything is imposed from the outside onto these women as though they have no agency whatsoever. In some ways seems like Doyle objectifies the women as much as the trainwreck phenomena does.
Women are definitely treated differently than men. Doyle uses David Foster Wallace and Sylvia Plath as an example. DFW’s mental illness is a tragedy and doesn’t cast a big shadow over the way we read his writing while Plath is crazy, her death sensationalized, and we look for clues to her instability in her poetry. Plath’s mental illness and suicide define her and her writing in a way that is does not for DFW. But I am not sure Plath actually fits Doyle’s trainwreck definition because Plath wasn’t exactly a celebrity while alive and much of the trainwreck-ness doesn’t occur until after the fact of her suicide. I think there is a bunch of different stuff going on there, similar definitely, but not the same.
But it is clear that even when they are public superstars women get the short end of the stick compared to men every time. Just think of Britney Spears and, say, Justin Bieber. Spears is run over the coals whenever she makes a misstep. Bieber, sure we make fun of him but you don’t see stories about his cellulite or his poor fashion or romantic partner choices. It’s more like, oh there goes Bieber, doing something stupid again, what a dope! And then we move on.
Thinking about it, I am not certain putting a label of trainwreck on how public women are treated is all that useful. Doyle makes it seem like a unified set of events and circumstances but really everyone’s mileage may vary. It’s more of a catch-all for a variety of things that aren’t always the same. Plus calling the women trainwrecks — because they are such a disaster you can’t look away — makes me uncomfortable because it labels women as disasters and plays into the very things that Doyle is criticizing.
That said, I did find the book interesting and full of insight into how public women are treated. Every female celebrity has to walk a fine line and I can only imagine how stressful that must be. It definitely makes me more sympathetic to some of the odd and downright weird behavior some women exhibit. Going forward, I will be more likely to stop and think about the whats and whys before jumping on the dishing dirt bandwagon.