Stephen Lee Naish reviews Sady Doyle’s book on the public hatred of the likes of Lindsay Lohan, reflecting on Black Mirror and what it means to be a trainwreck.
Sady Doyle, Trainwreck: The Women We Love to Hate, Mock, and Fear . . . and Why (Melville House, 2016) 288pp.
I want to be remembered for the work that I’ve done, rather than the car accidents that I’ve gotten into, the men that I’ve not dated – or the man that I have.
In ‘Nosedive’, the first episode of season three of futuristic noir, Black Mirror, the whole of society works on a ranking system in which everyday interactions are ‘liked’ and each citizen’s score out of a possible five is available and monitored by a kind of Google Glass optical implant everyone has installed. Sweet natured Lacie Pound (Bryce Dallas Howard) seems to be doing everything right. She hovers at a respectable low four ranking and her interactions are mostly positive, which means her score and status is on the rise. When Lacie is invited to be maid of honour at one of her oldest friend’s wedding, she leaps at the opportunity to see her social standing skyrocket by performing an emotional and engaging speech to a prestigious audience of high fours. However, her journey to the wedding becomes a kind of descent into a personal hell. Lacie is stripped by one point off her ranking when she has a public outburst at the airport after learning that her flight has been cancelled, her electric rental car loses power and an adapter for the charger can’t be found, she again publically loses her cool. She then hitches a ride with a low ranking trucker who informs Lacie that losing and not caring about the ranking system was the most liberating experience. The trucker drops her off close to the wedding venue, and leaves Lacie with a bottle of liquor. When she finally arrives at the wedding she is drunk, her dress is torn and dirty, her mascara smeared across her eyes and cheeks, she is consumed by emotion and desperation to regain her ranking. During her rambling speech the police arrive and escort her away. In the space of only a few hours Lacie has become an outcast of society, a trainwreck.
It was with some coincidence that as I screened this episode I was also just finishing Sady Doyle’s enlightening polemic Trainwreck: The Women We Love to Hate, Mock, and Fear . . . and Why (Melville House). Before reading this I might have witnessed ‘Nosedive’ as a simple modern fable of how technology and social media have distorted our view of each other’s worth. Of course this still holds true, but Lacie’s story is now more powerful, and in fact, the outcome of her trials more positive now that the trainwreck narrative had been analysed effectively. By the end of the episode, Lacie has her optical implants removed and is placed in a holding cell across from a male inmate whom she trades insults with. Both of them laugh as they take turns hurling the worst kind of verbal abuse at one another, knowing that it no longer matters. Lacie’s imprisonment is in some way her liberation; she’s hit rock bottom with nothing left to lose; she’s achieved freedom from society’s constraints.
The trainwreck feels like a very modern phenomenon. The advent of the tabloid media, the internet, gossip websites, trolling and comment feeds, 24 hour news cycles desperate for any content, and the cult of celebrity have all fueled this, and raises the question that their rise has led to the creation of the trainwreck; a kind of vicious circle. Before all this, it could be thought that the trainwreck likely didn’t exist, or was left to rant and rave in relative obscurity, known only to the locals as the loose cannon. However Doyle breaks this perception by studying a number of women from before our cultural obsession with celebrity engulfed us fully, but it is important to start with a modern definition in order to fully comprehended how very little things have changed:
Say the words “celebrity trainwreck” and the image immediately appears: young, pretty, most likely blond, and in some degree of high gloss disarray., pinned between the club and the door of her limousine by a wall of flashing cameras. She’s drunk, or she’s high, or she’s naked, or she’s crying – or she will be, anyway, by the end of the night.
The modern line-up of female celebrities who fit this trainwreck narrative is endless and encompasses a global array of images. Even the most conservative of countries has its equivalents of predominantly female outcasts who have somehow shamed themselves or their society. Consider as an extreme example North Korea’s supreme leader, Kim Jong–un’s alleged execution of his former lover, Hyon Song-Wol, for appearing in a pornographic film. Her apparent shameful act could not tarnish the prestige of the supreme leader.
Doyle makes connections between modern female celebrity overexposure and, via case studies, historical examples of female trainwrecks. The first case study, and in some respects the most significant, concerns woman’s rights activist and philosopher, Mary Wollstonecraft (1759 – 1797), author of The Vindication of the Rights of Women, a stable text of feminist philosophy. Doyle demonstrates that Wollstonecraft was a prime example of the trainwreck of her era. Like so many of today’s female celebrities who have had their most intimate and private moments broadcast and leaked for anyone to access, usually by vengeful boyfriends or opportunist hackers, Wollstonecraft’s letters and journals were published in a biography by her husband William Godwin six months after her untimely death. These writings contained many scandalous entries such as suicide notes, revelations of illegitimate children, and reflections of sexual encounters with former lovers. Godwin was obviously consumed by grief and, according to Doyle, his actions had noble intentions, that being the preservation of Wollstonecraft’s life and work, but it had almost the opposite result. The writers and thinkers of the day slammed Wollstonecraft and as Doyle states her newly revealed trainwreck status “functionally derailed the feminist movement for one hundred years.” Nobody at the time could separate the scandalous life and the call of female equality within the text of Vindication.
The same pattern emerges in the subsequent case studies: before she wrote Jane Eyre, Charlotte Bronte exhibited “crazy ex-girlfriend behaviour” towards her former writing mentor, Constantin Hegar; Valerie Solanas, author of the Scum Manifesto shot Andy Warhol and was perceived as “actually crazy” before she died of pneumonia; Billie Holiday, a genius singer consumed by “alcohol and heroin” and dead by age forty-four; Sylvia Plath, acclaimed writer and poet and “posthumously diagnosed with psychotic depression, bipolar disorder, overly string PMS, and at least two different personality disorders.” These historical case studies of female trainwrecks tie in with the modern example: Britney Spears shaving her head; Amy Winehouse pubically screaming out for her jailed husband; Whitney Houston slurring her way through an interview; Kesha drinking her own pee; Lindsay Lohan posing for a another mugshot; Tara Reid spilling out of the opening of the latest nightclub; the list is endless. Nothing has changed in the time between Wollstonecraft and Spears except that we now can observe all of this in real time, as Doyle states: “The pattern of forcible exposure and public shaming that governs female sexuality is very old, and has changed very, very little. We simply find new personalities and new technologies with which to recreate the drama.” And now with our new technologies the exposure is virtually limitless and the thirst is unquenchable.
This trainwreck narrative is exclusively made available to women. Despite the fact that there are countless and far more dangerous examples of male celebrity nihilism. Men seem to get a free ride (in fact a free season ticket) when they act appallingly in public. We don’t aim the same vitriol and mainstream opinion pieces at Johnny Depp, Nicholas Cage, or Sean Penn, even Chris Brown gets a second chance. Rarely do we see this in female cases. We must conclude that a misogynistic culture has intentionally played this trainwreck narrative for its own agenda. Any fault in the way a woman behaves is almost always a sign she is out of control and offending the norm. A fault in a man’s behavior is almost always ignored, somehow justified, or explained way as a devilish act of bravado. His redemption is always considered a possibility (I wrote a book on Dennis Hopper, there’s a cat with nine lives). Take a look at the 2016 Presidential campaign as a prime example. Hilary Clinton’s gender is always in discussion as a point of her fitness for office, whilst Donald Trump lambasts women continuously, is rude and obnoxious, scurries from one scandal to the next, yet is tagged as ‘Presidential’ when he stays calm for twenty minutes during a campaign debate.
Shaming, trolling, and unsolicited column inches are the response society takes in order to bring the trainwreck back in line and make us feel vindicated when she eventually takes our collective guidance. Doyle states that “[h]er implosion is a way of taking her back down a few notches, to where we live;” and this is certainly the ideal outcome for the media. Teach her a lesson about overstepping her mark, stop her thinking so highly of herself, and then move on to the next case. In my reading of this text, I myself conclude that a trainwreck is a reaction to the historical social constraints placed on women that have yet to be shaken off. As Doyle concludes, these reactions and constraints’ exist only within a sensationalist misogynistic media representation of women. They hardly apply to those living outside of this media celebrity bubble, i.e. the vast majority of females in the world…ever. As Doyle looks for the trainwreck within society, she concludes that:
As far as I can tell…they don’t exist. Even the women who seem 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 all that is disgusting and corrupt. Woman, it turns out, are not symbols of anything, other than themselves.
Although the fictional world she inhabited was not a misogynistic one (as far as I can tell), but one based on worth and rankings, Black Mirror‘s Lacie Pound found a way to unshackle herself from society’s expectations of her, and in doing so actually allowed herself to become free. This is something with which Sady Doyle’s book is also concerned. By retelling and redefining the trainwreck narrative, Doyle brings into focus a centuries long institution of falsifying the perception of women in society and painting them as wanton lunatics in need of our (male, and thus also societal) help. Trainwreck neatly connects the past with the present and shows how little has actually improved, but, the hope is that understanding the trainwreck narrative as an unproductive barrier of gender equality eventually leads to its abolishment, and at that point our help (which was never helpful anyway) may no longer be required.
Stephen Lee Naish‘s writing explores film, politics, and popular culture and the places where they converge. His essays have appeared in numerous journals and periodicals, including Gadfly, The Quietus, Empty Mirror and Scholardarity. He is the author of U.ESS.AY: Politics and Humanity in American Film (Zer0 Books) and the forthcoming Create or Die: Essays on the Artistry of Dennis Hopper (Amsterdam University Press). He lives in Kingston, Ontario with his wife Jamie and their son Hayden.
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