REVIEW: TOO FAT, TOO SLUTTY, TOO LOUD
THE RISE AND REIGN OF THE UNRULY WOMAN BY ANNE HELEN PETERSEN
Thriving as Buzzfeed’s Senior Culture Writer has never looked as effortless as it did on Anne Helen Petersen. With a PhD in Media Studies, Petersen has become one of the leading voices of contemporary media criticism; unpacking the complexities of celebrity, culture and feminism into crisp and accessible prose. Her second book to reach print, Too Fat, Too Slutty, Too Loud: The Rise and Reign of Unruly Women is an ode to the non-conforming women of our day, their ‘unruliness’ lauded and their very existence vindicated. With a warmth that compliments Petersen’s crisp wit, this social critique effortlessly celebrates the power of womanhood and femininity that exists beyond the boundaries of expectation.
Divided into ten chapters, each dedicated to a condition culturally attached to womanhood and a female subject who embodies that condition in excess. To go into immense detail about each chapter is to not only undermine the value and intellectual property of Petersen but it would also rob you, my dear reader, of the emotional kaleidoscope offered by such a sharp social critique. Nevertheless, to give you a taste of the spiciness that season Petersen's multitude of hot takes, I will touch on some of my favourite chapters and points (of which there are many) throughout this review.
Defining unruliness comes easily if one takes on the perspective of the oppressor; in the context of Too Fat, Too Slutty, Too Loud, each case study’s ‘affliction’ – that being, the quality they are deemed too much of – is dictated by governing structures, public consciousness and the mainstream media. All of which inform each other, and all of which are directed, largely, by men.
“Of course, there have been unruly women for as long as there have been boundaries of what constitutes acceptable “feminine” behaviour: women who, in some way, step outside the boundaries of good womanhood, who end up being labelled too fat, too loud, too slutty, too whatever characteristic women are supposed to keep under control.”
The continuous rejection of these qualities in women by men reeks of fragile patriarchal fears, stemming from the unwavering knowledge that the mere act of being unruly complicates the once rigid narratives which uphold oppressive systems. By loudly and directly calling traditional notions of women into question, the subjects of this book threaten the very foundations of patriarchal culture. The public nature of their celebrity places them in a unique position; one of rebellion, one of victimhood, one of heroism, a position expertly explored by Petersen. By no means are all of these women ideals, at least not from a personal viewpoint, but what Petersen achieves in each chapter is the thread of relatability between them and us. Instilling a sense of the collective,
It is not my place to dictate whether the degree of intersectionality in this book is substantial yet I suspect that all those who have lived in the shadow of exclusively white feminism would argue that, although Petersen addresses the complexities of race and the privileges afforded by white supremacy frequently, two chapters dedicated to women of colour is simply not enough. Despite this less-than-adequate ratio of representation, the Serena Williams chapter (Too Strong) is a poignant introduction to the idea of female unruliness. Petersen’s tracing of the tennis star’s rise to the top reveals, in warm undertones, the author’s resolute admiration of Serena's resilience in the face of all the b*llsh*t flung her way for being a successful, competitive, strong black woman existing (read: dominating) in these historically elite, white spaces.
What Serena represents in her physicality, her fortitude, her dedication is culturally potent; she embodies a highly visible disregard for the tradition and etiquette dictated by the bourgeois culture that plagues a previously white-dominated sport. A young, black woman who, alongside her sister, forced their way into a sport that openly recoiled from them, embraced adversity and came to reign over the crowds. The Williams sisters made space for not only themselves, but for those who came after. Whether intentionally or otherwise, Serena symbolises a bold and abrupt refusal to conform to standards of femininity set by white men and yet rarely interacts with these gatekeepers directly, instead allowing her skill and her drive (and her 23 Grand Slam titles) to do the silencing.
Much of Petersen’s findings surrounding the culturally-enforced limitations on women, specifically the kinds of characteristics and the extent of them, concern themselves with the body. The ‘uncurbed’ qualities that define these case studies are largely tied to how each woman exists physically in corporeal spaces; whether in terms of size (Too Fat), shape (Too Strong), sexuality (Too Queer), age (Too Old), condition (Too Pregnant) or volume (Too Shrill) as well as frequent interrogations into the intersection of race with other facets of physicality. Perhaps because these women are not only existing but materially taking up space in arenas that were once exclusively male, the need to represent them as physically abject became paramount. Yet, although these inflicted descriptors may have spilled, chiefly, from the lips of men, it is often women who are the diligent enforcers of prescribed feminine codes.
This is no more apparent than in Petersen's seventh chapter, detailing the ever-fluctuating public perception of Hillary Clinton. Considered ‘Too Shrill’ for the presidency, even too loud as FLOTUS, Clinton could never truly win over the American public in large part due to the covert sexism that saturates the states, so ingrained that some can refute their own prejudice while explicitly and publicly performing it. Petersen's analysis looks beyond the dirty plays of political warfare that immediately and resolutely taint the discourse surrounding the 2016 Presidential Race. Where she has little commentary on Clinton's moral and political fundamentals, Petersen makes up for in spades with her exploration into the nexus of femininity, sexism and the political and cultural landscape that characterizes Clinton's image. In every aspect of her political career, she was criticised. In every aspect of her private life, she was judged. In every aspect of her presidential campaign, she was attacked. Every mark on her perceived image was laced with gendered biases and socio-political contradictions.
These inconsistencies, especially those from women, remain in tension to the book’s conclusion, testifying to “the sheer tenacity of the ideologies of femininity that shame, alienate, and expel those who refuse them.” Too Fat, Too Slutty, Too Loud deserves your engagement, for yourself, for all of us. It may reveal your own subtle inconsistencies or, more than anything else, it will instil in you the idea that unruliness, in all its provocation, potency and radical potential, is a collective attitude; by womxn and for womxn.
Buy Too Fat, Too Slutty, Too Loud here (£8.99)
Written by Emily Dudley