Sady Doyle on the Women We Love to Hate, Mock, and Fear…and Why

“That’s what I see her doing, leaning into the trainwreck so as not to be swallowed alive by it.”

Sady Doyle is a Brooklyn-based writer and speaker whose work has appeared in The Guardian, The Atlantic, The Awl, Buzzfeed, and more. Her most recent book, Trainwreck: The Women We Love to Hate, Mock, and Fear…and Why, considers cultural expectations for femininity and explores how women past and present have subverted these norms. She recently joined Heleo’s Editorial Director, Panio Gianopoulos, for a conversation on public breakdowns, Miley Cyrus’s career swings, and what robot sex could mean for our relationships.

Panio: Could you define the term “trainwreck?”

Sady: Well, it’s a complicated definition. The easy way to say it is that a trainwreck is a woman who has her narrative stolen. She becomes a public spectacle and a sort of culture villain, either for being sexually too much or emotionally too much, often both.

Panio: You make the distinction that it’s a woman. Why aren’t men trainwrecks?

Sady: I think that men have more leeway. We are more interested in policing women’s bodies and sexuality and inner lives. It’s not that there are no men that are culture villains, but they have to do a lot more, and it has to be a lot more violent. They’d have to be somebody like Chris Brown, for example, who got caught assaulting a girlfriend, or somebody like Mel Gibson, who got caught saying extremely racist and anti-Semitic things. Even then, that might not be enough.

Panio: I feel like even with what happened, Mel is still doing okay.

Sady: Right! He’s having a comeback tour. He’s on Stephen Colbert: “Oh, my silly foibles as a younger man.” They weren’t silly foibles. He was violent, you know? We have a lot more patience and tolerance for men than we do for women. With women, all they need to be is mildly abrasive, or self-destructive. Women don’t have to hurt anyone else.

Panio: You’ve speculated about the reasons behind this. There’s envy, there’s schadenfreude, there’s the just-world hypothesis (if we see something bad happen, we assume a person deserved it, because we can’t handle this idea that the world has no reason to it)… but ultimately, it seems to come down to misogyny.

Sady: Yes. I think that as long as women have been in public, there have been people very invested in policing the way they’re allowed to engage with the world. Being too outspoken, being too emotionally bare and therefore betraying that you have an inner life—you don’t just think about what the people around you feel, you feel things yourself—anything along those lines can be used against you, and to reduce you to a caricature.

Panio: Your take on Miley Cyrus was intriguing. You argue that she isn’t acting to provoke outrage—I think your phrase is “Her behavior is the only logical response to the outrage that’s always surrounded her.”

miley
“There’s now nothing Miley Cyrus has to hide from us. There’s nothing more we can take from her. We can’t steal images of her naked body, because she’s giving them away. That’s what I see her doing, leaning into the trainwreck so as not to be swallowed alive by it.”

Sady: I don’t want to say that Miley Cyrus has never done anything wrong. I think the charges of cultural appropriation and racism she’s faced are worthwhile, and especially as a white woman, I want to take that very seriously. But if it’s just about whether or not she has a right to sing about sex or do dirty dancing moves or wear a bikini, we have to consider that this woman—she’s not a woman, actually, she’s genderqueer—this person’s body was commodified from a very young age. Often really invasively. When she was 14 years old, a hacker leaked wet t-shirt pictures. She was the subject of an up-skirt when she was underage. She has always had predatory sexual attention focused on her, so for her to just be loud and out of control and naked is pretty much just giving the people what they want.

There’s now nothing Miley Cyrus has to hide from us. There’s nothing more we can take from her. We can’t steal images of her naked body, because she’s giving them away. That’s what I see her doing, leaning into the trainwreck so as not to be swallowed alive by it.

Panio: I do wonder how her experience, going from this Disney star with a squeaky clean, virginal, pure image—I think she even had a purity ring at some point?

Sady: Yes, she did.

Panio: And then transitioning into a sexually active adult, it’s almost like what every woman has to go through, but she does it in this giant, explosive, very public way.

Sady: Absolutely. Because Disney stars are so closely watched for any signs of sexuality, because they are policed more than many—they have a special school that young Disney stars go to to learn how to comport themselves in public—there’s a lot of stress placed on their private lives, especially for the young women. That’s what took down Vanessa Hudgens, who was a huge star. Somebody stole and posted her private nude photos, and she went into the oubliette for several years. She’s come back, and I’ve been happy to see her start to rebuild a career. For a while, it looked like that would be the end of her.

As for Miley, it was weird. There was so much attention on whether she was being inappropriately sexual that people interpreted everything she did as sexual. Once she gave a performance where she was wheeled across the stage on an ice cream cart, and she held onto the pole so she didn’t fall off, and that was seen as “Miley Cyrus pole dances.”

Panio: That’s crazy.

Sady: We were so invested in this very young, underage performer’s sexuality under the guise of “No, she shouldn’t be sexual, and we shouldn’t be able to talk about it.” It was hypocritical and creepy.

Panio: It’s like perverted helicopter parenting as a nation.

Sady: Yes, yes.

Panio: I’ve read some interviews with Miley. She strikes me as intelligent and quite strategic about what she’s doing.

Sady: Right! She seems relatively grounded for having been raised in the zoo the way she was. I’m glad she’s found herself recently.

“It’s easy for the language of liberation to be appropriated and turned into just another way to tell women what they’re doing wrong, or what standard of moral purity they’ve fallen short of this week.”

Panio: You make the argument that it’s not just conservative finger-wagging. Sometimes this trainwreck commentary comes in a veil of pro-women, pro-girl righteousness.

Sady: In many cases, I think it’s a little opportunistic. When the Daily Mail calls Rihanna a whore, they’re not actually concerned about exploited sex workers or girls, they just want an excuse to call a black woman names for being sexual and for being visible. It is strange to me that sometimes, the way you’ll hear some feminists talk about Beyoncé and whether she’s “too sexy to be a feminist.” That is indistinguishable from men who really want to objectify Beyoncé and see her as just a body. It’s easy for the language of liberation to be appropriated and turned into just another way to tell women what they’re doing wrong, or what standard of moral purity they’ve fallen short of this week.

That doesn’t mean that we don’t need that language, and that doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t have high standards for our feminism. It does mean that we should be careful for the Trojan horse arguments, for the argument that comes in as a feminist argument and then very quickly turns into just another way to tear a woman down.

Panio: One of the nuances I’ve recently come across is that there are many different kinds of feminist viewpoints. There’s not just one unified, “This is what feminists think.”

Sady: That’s what I love about feminism. It is a big messy movement with a lot of different theories and viewpoints, and a lot of different arguments going on inside of it. I wouldn’t trust any movement that demanded absolute ideological conformity. Maybe I was just traumatized by going to youth group and singing the songs with everybody else. I really don’t like any movement that says, “Well, we do it this way, and this is the only way to do it, and you can’t ask questions.” I like that you can talk to five feminists, and they’ll have five wildly divergent opinions about a certain woman or a certain issue.

Panio: In your research, you go back to the 18th and 19th centuries, to these very early trainwrecks I’d never known about—for example, Mary Wollstonecraft, whose husband published her letters after her death and it became a scandal, and a lot of people thought it invalidated her argument [in A Vindication of the Rights of Women]. I was amazed at all these stories that you found beyond the ones I knew, like Sylvia Plath.

“Wollstonecraft, in particular, was a sexual radical. She didn’t believe in marriage. She was faced with these questions about female autonomy and sexuality and motherhood that women are still figuring out today.”

Sady: That was what I enjoyed most about the book: diving into these women’s lives. The story of Charlotte Brontë and Constantin Heger was one of the motivating factors for me to write Trainwreck. I found out about it in a book of 19th century literary criticism called The Madwoman in the Attic. It obliquely referenced that Charlotte Brontë had a relationship that went really terribly with a guy named Heger, and quoted one of the letters. I immediately wanted to find out everything I could about it.

I’d thought Brontë and Wollstonecraft were just these staid figures, but both women had intense, and sometimes intensely painful, lives. Wollstonecraft, in particular, was a sexual radical. She didn’t believe in marriage. She was faced with these questions about female autonomy and sexuality and motherhood that women are still figuring out today. I felt so thrilled when I was able to find these weird or ugly or embarrassing corners or their lives, and that these two had been shamed and taken apart, because it made them a lot more relevant to what younger women today face, where public shaming is so often used to tear women down and deprive them of their political voices.

Panio: And yet with social media, it’s very easy to think, “Oh, this is just happening right now. This is a result of technology.”

Sady: Right. There are a lot of thinkpieces and discussions that focus on harassment or public shaming as an internet problem. And yes, it makes sense to look at how the platforms work, and it is relevant that one of the reasons Twitter’s abuse problem is so bad is because they haven’t developed real safeguards for it.

But the internet is not a demonic force. The internet doesn’t possess you and force you to type death threats at some women because she works in video games. This is something we’ve been doing for a long time. We’ve just developed a lot of new technologies with which to do it over the years. If we did not have the internet to shame Zoe Quinn, we would be using a newspaper. It’s always been there. Dealing with it as a historical phenomenon allows us to see its deeper roots in gender and power, rather than just throwing up our hands and saying that the internet is terrible.

Panio: When we look at representations of addiction or mental illness in men, it’s often seen as very glamorous, especially with artists—Kurt Cobain, Vincent van Gogh, Jackson Pollack—and yet for women, there’s nothing glamorous about it, it just ruins their lives in the public image. What do you think is behind this?

kurt
“We can venerate men for being addicted or mentally ill because men are expected to be a little rough and raw and hard to deal with. A guy like Hunter S. Thompson or Kurt Cobain, who is able to break the rules, to be a volatile, unpredictable, on-the-edge person, that enhances his masculinity.”

Sady: We can venerate men for being addicted or mentally ill, in a way, because men are expected to be a little rough and raw and hard to deal with. A guy like Hunter S. Thompson or Kurt Cobain, who is able to break the rules, to be a volatile, unpredictable, on-the-edge person, that enhances his masculinity. Even being vulnerable, even having deep depression, that can make him seem deep.

For a woman who’s not meant to have any real inner life, who’s meant to have priorities that center around pleasing and taking care of others, mental illness can take away your ability to do those things. It can take away your ability to take care of others, because it takes away your ability to take care of yourself.

Addiction is the same way. For a woman to have those kinds of problems is a violation of femininity. It makes her a “bad woman.” Bad at being a woman. That’s when we really start to take her apart. If we were thinking about this from an even vaguely rational standpoint, we might conclude that she’s ill, she has a potentially deadly illness, and she does not need one more form of trauma in her life.

Panio: I’ve noticed this trend where there are a number of remarkable female comedians right now. Very smart, outspoken, and fearless. I wonder if somehow comedy gets a cultural pass. Or is it that comedy is sort of the avant garde; because you’re joking it gives you some time to get in there and shore up your position. I’m thinking about Amy Schumer or Sarah Silverman or, more recently, Samantha Bee, who are all out there just kicking ass.

Sady: I’m really happy about that. It feels like it was just a few years ago that we were still having the “are women funny?” talk. We were talking about whether women could even be comedians. Now there’s so many of them, you can pick and choose.

I think that comedy is, in some ways, a good safe space for discussions about being flawed or having sexual desire or sadness, because in comedy, that’s where we can talk about stuff that embarrasses us without necessarily feeling terrible about it. Half of the comedies in existence are about people behaving horribly. There’s one that I avoided when writing Trainwreck, but now have allowed myself to get into, called Crazy Ex-Girlfriend.

Panio: I was going to ask you about that show.

Sady: It’s a great show, and she is definitely behaving in these highly stereotypical trainwreck-y ways, but because it’s a comedy, there’s a buffer. We’re allowed to watch people behave badly in a comedy without hating them. We are allowed to watch people do things that would make us cringe. We’re even allowed to deal with pain in comedy. I think Sarah Silverman deals with pain and sex and darkness a lot. Amy Schumer’s work I’m not as familiar with, but I hear people say that she confronts a lot of that in her work.

That gives me hope. Comedy is one of those art forms that relies, especially if you’re a stand up, almost exclusively on owning your narrative, and owning your own voice. I’m really pleased that that’s opening up a place for women to deal with their crap in public.

Panio: You write often about pop culture. I read your great piece on Westworld, about robots and sex and objectification. This is a speculative line of thinking—and maybe a little bizarre—but I’ve long worried about what human-robot sex would do to human relationships. While on the one hand, I feel like we’re moving towards a better society where there’s less objectification in relationships, at the same time, with technological advances, like the proliferation of easy access online porn, there’s talk about how it’s already changing people’s sexual experiences, because sex is becoming a la carte. You just get what you want.

You get that moment, and that’s it. There’s no entire experience around it. There’s no other person with you. Then I think about something like sex with a robot, and it takes that alienation even further. How do you have these other more complete relationships? What do we do when that becomes available? What if people just opt for the easy thing, and they’d always rather have the microwave dinner version of sex?

Sady: This is something that’s fascinated me, too. It is true that one of the first questions we ask about any new technology is, “How can I fuck it?” We get the phone, we’re going to have phone sex five seconds later. There are futurists who are all in on the concept of not just human-to-robot sex but human-to-robot love. It’s a fantasy that a lot of people have, and they’re working on, “How can we build an AI that is boyfriend-like enough that you could conceivably confuse it for a boyfriend, at least a long distance boyfriend? How can we build a physical being that’s realistic enough that you would not feel like the world’s biggest loser having sex with it?”

robo
“I think people’s fascination with human-robot sex has more to do with the desire for a partner that exists entirely to fulfill you. She exists to do what you need. She doesn’t want anything else. She is programmed to give you exactly what you want.”

People are working on that, but at the same time, everything we know about these advances tells us that human-like AI is a long way in the future. If we had it in 20 years, it would be shocking. I think people’s fascination with human-robot sex has more to do with the desire—I’m going to be a little stereotypical and say that this is mostly a straight male desire—for a partner that exists entirely to fulfill you. She exists to do what you need. She doesn’t want anything else. She is programmed to give you exactly what you want. I think that that underlying desire, to remove the complications of having another human being in your relationship, is more interesting than whether we’re going to build a robot that I can date within my lifetime.

Panio: Right, though I do think it would drastically upset everything if you could automate the entire sexual drive. For there to be enough verisimilitude to satisfy our biology, because we seem very capable of being fooled.

Sady: Oh, definitely. I just find it unlikely that with the AI we have…I tried to train a chat bot once. If you’ve ever played with one of those on the internet, you know how it is. They just regurgitate half sentences. It doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with human conversation. I find it really hard to think that we’re going to get from chat bots or that virtual boyfriend game that people were downloading a year ago to a fake person that you cannot tell is fake. I think it’s more about the desire to leave real people out of it, to not have the vulnerability that goes along with making an actual human connection. Like, wouldn’t it be great if the next time a guy breaks your heart, you could just delete him forever. You’ve let me down for the last time!

As for Westworld, I think it’s most interesting as a metaphor: “How many people do we see every day that we’ve dehumanized and reduced to just a function, and how much pain do we cause thinking it’s not real because these people aren’t as real as we are?”

Panio: So what do we do about the trainwreck phenomenon? How do we make things better, besides not clicking on the link that says some horrible clickbaity celebrity garbage?

Sady: I think that these trainwreck stereotypes and archetypes have power because for a long time, men controlled pretty much everything about how women were spoken about or seen in the world. Women did not have the power to control their own narratives or their own stories, or tell the world the truth, unless they were very wealthy, very powerful, or very famous. Even then, they might be restrained.

Nowadays, we all have an unprecedented ability to be public. Being aware of the stereotypes and the patterns give us some position from which to resist them. I also think that if we just use our public voices to challenge the idea of what a good woman is, what a bad woman is, what women are at all, then gradually, we’re not going to be able to sort every women on earth into the very small “good girl” category, or the very bad and very big “bad girl” category.

Eventually, it’s just going to be us: a bunch of human beings who are neither super-humanly virtuous, nor sub-humanly corrupt and evil. We’re all just people. That’s what I’m interested in, whether we can use our public voices to create more space for women to be themselves.

This conversation has been edited and condensed.