The cultural role of the trainwreck
Marcie Bianco has an interesting column in Salon, which can also be viewed as memes interacting to define the cultural environment. The column begins:
Trainwrecks don’t make themselves. In fact, you could say that trainwrecks are projections of our worst selves—steeped in our own internalized misogyny—scapegoated onto women in the public eye, whose then very-publicized rise and fall is lapped up by media and audiences alike.
The anatomy of the trainwreck is the subject of Sady Doyle’s debut book, “Trainwreck: The Women We Love to Hate, Mock, and Fear . . . and Why”, published this past Tuesday (read Salon’s interview with Doyle). “Trainwreck” is a dazzling compendium of iconic feminist figures, from Mary Wollstonecraft to Valerie Solanas, Jane Austen to Sylvia Plath. Doyle situates these women as historical anchors in order to reveal a larger historical trend about cultural misogyny and the damnation of transgressive women. They are deemed transgressive, of course, because they dared to be human, have feelings, emotions, needs and desires. The “trainwreck” is simply a woman living in the world, Doyle said in our interview (which was conducted first by phone, and after a technical malfunction, repeated over email), as “a subject, rather than anyone else’s object.”
“The trainwreck is someone who needs things, and feels things, and doesn’t pause to think about what the people around her need or want first,” said Doyle. That she does not remain mute, silent, passive, or submissive renders her “unlikable,” another defining social attribute evident in the trainwreck narrative that Doyle charts through the centuries.
The book’s genealogy of the trainwreck is one Doyle calls an “anatomy.” The use of the word is an intentional nod to Robert Burton’s Renaissance tome published nearly 400 years ago, “The Anatomy of Melancholy,” Doyle said in our interview, and that in order “to write about trainwrecks (who are, themselves, very melancholy) [she] has to sort of address every other angle of misogyny to get there.”
The use of the “anatomy” structure was also, she added, “about that quest of shifting the narrative away from individual women, and toward an examination of the pressures and stereotypes at hand.” This is why the book is a cultural history rather than a feminist hagiography. With rise of digital culture, it is no longer only public women who are scrutinized; every woman who dares to enter any digital space faces the risk of being deemed a trainwreck.
In Doyle’s cultural history, she shows how the trainwreck is a manifestation of misogyny, and, more disturbingly, a mirror image of women’s internalized misogyny. The trainwreck, she contends, is “a signpost pointing to what ‘wrong’ is, which boundaries we’re currently placing on femininity, which stories we’ll allow women to have.” Doyle elaborates in her book:
She’s the girl who breaks the rules of the game and gets punished, which means that she’s actually the best indication of which game we’re playing, and what the rules are. And, in her consistent violation of the accepted social codes — her ability to shock, to horrify, to upset, to draw down loud and powerful condemnation — she is a tremendously powerful force of cultural subversion. And at the end of the day, despite all our praise of strong women and selfless activists and lean-inners, the trainwreck might turn out to be the most potent and perennial feminist icon of them all.
The trainwreck is a weathervane and moral compass, a public spectacle and sexist scarecrow, that instructs women on how to behave properly. “The trainwreck is the inverse of what a woman ought to be: She is demanding, sexually voracious, where women are meant to be merely sexy, and receptive to outside desire,” Doyle writes in the book. The hubris of these women is simply that of asserting selfhood, of claiming humanity and a voice, and of expressing their individuality — especially their sexuality. The ideal woman of history and literature is the silent one, the one who is obedient to a fault. The trainwreck is the inverse of this ideal; her public execution in the media — facilitated by the viral sport of the digital age — is her punishment.
Doyle’s identification of the trainwreck aligns with and finds its precedent in . . .