Sady Doyle’s Trainwreck in the Time of Trump

Book review by Emily Simpson
Artwork by by Gordon Magnin and G. Paul Burnett

November 15th, 2016, 6:00pm

One week ago, we battened down the hatches for a last electoral squall of nerves and tequila before bidding a final fuck-you to the gnarliest campaign season in American history. It was almost over, thank god.

Hillary Rodham Clinton, for whatever establishment rhetoric she personifies, was about to fulfill her destiny as the first woman leader of the most powerful, influential country on Earth. She was going to tip the Supreme Court into more equality-bound waters for theoretical decades to come. Some polling experts even predicted the momentum could nudge half of the legislative branch in a similar direction. Generations of little girls were going to grow up with concrete knowledge of the possible where their forebears had only dreams. At the very least, any American with an ounce of common sense had to be appalled by the alt-right’s influence over the conservative ballot option, right?

The early morning hours of November 9th were a fresh hell. Instead of the expected victory, we woke sentenced to four years of an anti-progress villain whose least-embattled job is a credit as a reality television host, and whose chief skill — despite aggressive posturing as the golden answer to morally bankrupt Washington — is a Machiavellian knack for murdering facts and burying them out in the yard.

This is reality. We’ve been reading news outlet after twitter feed after Facebook rant about it obsessively, trying to pinpoint some wrong turn or way out (looking at you, Electoral College). Of course, the Clinton campaign faltered perhaps irretrievably from fiascos like the DNC’s primary impartiality, and she was twice-haunted by the specter of a private email server. Still, I can’t help but wonder how her innate being — her femaleness, really — damned her from the beginning. And I do mean far before either presidential bid. This populist election was ultimately decided on cults of personality, and hers simply couldn’t do the trick. But why?

I read Sady Doyle’s recent Melville House title Trainwreck in the weeks leading up to the election, considering it a valuable exploration of the work yet to be done to reverse the centuries of cultivation behind deep American gender divides. Since November 9th, the book has become something more: a stark reveal of the impossibly disparate characteristics we continue to expect of women both in public and private spheres, a reminder that there are infinite ways to do “femaleness” wrong in a patriarchal society.

“The patriarchal code of conduct isn’t remotely so forgiving for women, who we largely trash and hold to impossible standards when they aren’t even hurting other people.”

Trainwreck sharply examines prominent, popular women of historical significance and in modern limelight, and the lengths the public goes to destroy them after building them up. Doyle highlights the traits of a “trainwreck" in varying ways, most of which are contingent on too-muchness. Sociopolitical progress aside, even in 2016 we insist upon making spectacles of women who are too emotional, too intellectual, too sexual, too needy, too ambitious, too unabashed. They are punished dearly, publicly, and in humiliating ways for their deviations from a male-oriented idea of femininity. Lindsay, Britney, Miley. Taylor, Nicki, Monica. You know the names, and you know the Perez Hilton drill that bores holes through their daily existence.

Trainwreck’s early example of Amy Winehouse tracks how the singer’s incredible, once-in-a-generation talent was not worth enough to the public to overcome the ravage of vitriolic press that rained down when photos of her engaging in sex acts were published without her consent, or when her drug habit spiraled out of control to the extent of near-death, and finally, tragically, actual death. Gossip outlets called her a crack-whore, a waste-away, and a slew of other demeaning names during a period of her life where she most needed help. Alternately, Doyle points out, we seem to forgive abject qualities in male public figures. Take for instance Keith Richards, whose “drug career has included accidentally snorting strychnine, setting himself on fire on multiple occasions … and taking to the media in 2013 to defend heroin as essentially useful to the creative process.” Or how Steven Tyler “once adopted a sixteen-year-old girl in order to have sex with her.” Amy was a trainwreck, Keith and Steven are rock icons.

Doyle makes it a point to note that “it’s not that men can’t be wrecked. …. [But] they usually have to work a lot harder for it: Chris Brown had to beat Rihanna within an inch of her life … Mel Gibson had to terrorize his girlfriend, and also utter every ethnic and sexist slur in the books, on more than one occasion, over a period of years, before we gave him up.” The patriarchal code of conduct isn’t remotely so forgiving for women, who we largely trash and hold to impossible standards when they aren’t even hurting other people.

Perhaps the most classic and prototypical choice that Trainwreck examines: one-time princess of pop and Disney empire alum Britney Spears. When her …Baby One More Time album debuted in 1999, she was packaged to the public as an ultimate male desire - sexually appealing but chaste (she’d made vows to wait until marriage), conservative in value but unstuffy, smiley and obedient, unwaveringly trusting of authority, a vessel which her industry and the public would fill as they saw fit. Fan admiration lasted until it didn’t, and obsessive media coverage led to mental breakdowns. According to Doyle, “all the trust and obedience in the world couldn’t make her totally absent from her own life, or take her inner conflicts away.” Pretty soon, people were clamoring for up-skirt photos of Britney exiting vehicles, paparazzi were making entire year salaries on pictures of her eating Cheetos, and America watched with vigor as she spiraled into shaven-headed, umbrella-wielding disarray.

Britney’s inability to maintain the original image that made her famous landed her under her father’s conservatorship, where she remains to this day.

Improbably but inevitably, this brings us to Hillary Clinton. One of the most intelligent, driven people to ever work in American politics, she was not immune, Doyle asserts, to public condemnation unlike anything her male colleagues would ever suffer. Further, her own mental stamina and ability to remain steely in the face of Spearsian criticism of her personal life created its own enigma of judgement from which she could not escape. Arguably, Clinton holds the same political views as “Uncle Joe” Biden, whom at this point has become a millennial national treasure, yet her inability to fall into neat categories of patriarchy-defined femininity have made Clinton into one of the most polarizing figures in our government.

The apex chapter of Trainwreck focuses on the dichotomy between Hillary Clinton and Monica Lewinsky. Doyle is careful to frame both women by their literal qualities, to throw into perspective how the actual women differ from various portrayals. Rather than calling Monica a crazy, stupid slut, Doyle reminds us that Lewinsky was very bright (her very first job out of college being for the White House). She also recalls her age, a mere 21, and susceptibility to the sometimes misguided heartache of the first time falling in love. Hillary, by contrast, a force behind Bill’s presidential decisions, presented a reserved, stoic face to the public eye in light of the embarrassing allegations against her husband, for which she was labeled calculating, cold, and even accused of being a lesbian. Though they were polar opposites to the media - “the Betty and Veronica of sexism: the icy blonde and the overheated brunette, the prude and the slut, the shrewish wife and the trashy mistress, the sexless middle-aged young one, the frigid, man-hating intellectual and the needy, man-hungry ditz” - Doyle concludes that they had one thing in common: both were blamed for Bill Clinton’s cheating. Neither woman could win, with their opposing too-muchness.

By the end of Trainwreck we learn that we live in this world: a world that allows us to call David Foster Wallace a genius, but Sylvia Plath a mental patient. A place where we championed a queer kid like Lou Reed but pummeled a queer kid like Valerie Solanas. Too-muchness in men is celebrated as extraordinary, too-muchness in women is still deemed problematic.

In the era of president-elect Donald Trump, who refers to women primarily in terms of their aesthetic value in relation to himself, Sady Doyle proves it is more important than ever to be immersing ourselves in conversations about the labels we ascribe to the women who surround us, and whether or not those labels are deserved.

Smash the patriarchy. Read Trainwreck.