Anne Helen Petersen’s Too Fat, Too Slutty, Too Loud: The Rise and Reign of the Unruly Woman addresses a problem I, and many other women, have been chastised for: not being “feminine” enough. My dissertation is on British volunteer nurses and ambulance drivers from World War I rejecting the ideals of Victorian femininity imposed on them by their mothers (my focus is on upper- and middle-class women). Rejecting femininity has always been an interesting topic for me, because I grew up in a fairly conservative and traditional culture. I remember being in college and going to a Robert Fisk lecture. My parents were there too. Fisk said something pretty funny and I laughed out loud–like I do–and my dad turned around and gave me a really stern look. I laughed too loudly… that was the problem. While we’re two centuries away from Queen Victoria, those values of femininity–demure, obedient, quiet–still persist. Women must be these things along with skinny (but not too skinny), smart (but not too smart), strong (but not too strong)… you get the idea.
Petersen’s chapters are based on a woman who is “too” something: Serena Williams is too strong, Melissa McCarthy is too fat, Abbi Jacobson and Ilana Glazer (of Broad City) are too gross, Nicki Minaj is too slutty, Madonna is too old, Kim Kardashian is too pregnant, Hillary Clinton is too shrill, etc. Using each of these public figures, Petersen looks at the broad cultural meanings, particularly on the role media plays. Many of us will remember the pictures of a pregnant Kim Kardashian in a black and white dress juxtaposed to an orca with the headline “Who Wore it Better?” because Kardashian’s pregnancy wasn’t hidden and she was just too big. How dare a pregnant woman not stay small as she grows another human inside her? This example in particular made me think of Victorian values. Once a woman “began to show,” which could be a while because corsets were still a thing, then she would go in confinement. Basically, she would be hidden from the world until she popped out the baby and healed from that. Kardashian didn’t care, but Petersen does point to examples in the Kardashian show on how that affected Kim’s perspective on herself.
The chapter on Hillary Clinton made me really angry. In her introduction, Petersen writes that it was the election that sparked the idea for this book. You don’t have to be Hillary Clinton’s biggest fan, but you can’t ignore the rhetoric surrounding Clinton criticism. First, she didn’t show enough emotion; then she showed too much and it must have obviously been fake. Petersen examines Clinton’s career as a first woman to her 2016 candidacy. The time when Hillary was most respected was for a few moments during the Monica Lewinsky scandal, because she could be pitied. But then people moved on. We’re reminded that we critique women in politics differently than we critique men. Men’s behavior is critiqued when they get caught cheating on their wives or being a closeted homosexual. But women, particularly Hillary, need to constantly behave in a certain way, and that includes keeping quiet, or not speaking too loudly, especially while the men are talking. I remember wanting to throw this book across the room while reading this chapter; not because this isn’t a well-written book, but because–dammit–we’re supposed to have learned more in two centuries than we have and Hillary should currently be our president. It says a lot that the most-qualified candidate is called shrill and disrespected because she’s a woman. Instead, we have a narcissistic sex-offender in charge. It’s fine. It’s fine. It’s not fine.
When I saw how each chapter was about a single woman, I was skeptical. However, Petersen does a great job of using that single woman as an example of the larger problems women in society face. You don’t have to be a famous tennis player or a comedian to have your body mocked publicly; you don’t have to be a politician to be told to be quiet. Petersen includes women of color and a trans woman (Caitlyn Jenner–though I had problems with this chapter; Janet Mock or Laverne Cox would have been great inclusions), highlighting the fact that the problem of placing these outdated values of femininity affect all women.
The fact that Petersen has her Ph.D. in Media Studies threw me off. As someone who is within the Ivory Tower and itching to tear it down, I really enjoyed seeing and reading a book by an academic that is meant for everyone to read. This isn’t a bullshit Ivory Tower book that is difficult for anyone not getting a Ph.D. to understand (and let’s face it, academic bullshit most of the time anyway). Too Fat, Too Slutty, Too Loud was incredibly approachable and easy to read.
5/5 on Goodreads.