Buzzfeed's Anne Helen Petersen on the Rise of the Unruly Woman
Too Fat, Too Slutty, Too Loud author comes to BookPeople
By Rachel Rascoe,
8:00AM, Tue. Jul. 18, 2017
The westward migration from NYC to Missoula, Mont., may sound like a strange choice for a celebrity gossip writer, but makes more sense when taking into account Anne Helen Petersen’s penchant for nationally conscious storytelling that weaves the cultural into the political. Also, today’s celebrities mostly exist on the internet.
Petersen’s big move to the mountains closely follows the release of her second book, Too Fat, Too Slutty, Too Loud: The Rise & Reign of the Unruly Woman. Chapter by chapter, it examines modern female celebrities by their “unruliness,” defined by Petersen as women who “question, interrogate, or otherwise challenge the status quo.” They are women who are too much of something – namely fat, slutty, or loud.
The author’s academic past shines through in the thoroughness of her analysis, taking readers back to the rise of her chosen celebrities while referencing timely tabloid commentary and tweets. Petersen earned her Ph.D. in media studies from the University of Texas, specializing in the industrial history of the gossip industry.
Enlightening today’s drama with historical context and quick-witted commentary is nothing new for Petersen, who first came to prominence while still living in Austin with her blog “Celebrity Gossip, Academic Style.” Her column on past silver screen happenings for The Hairpin prompted her first book, Scandals of Classic Hollywood: Sex, Deviance, & Drama From the Golden Age of American Cinema.
Petersen now writes for Buzzfeed News on politics, culture, and, of course, celebrities. Both online and in Too Fat, Too Slutty, Too Loud, her focus on the American public’s revealing reactions to the stars feels all the more relevant with our current Celebrity Apprentice president.
The gossip guru is set to speak at Austin’s BookPeople Wed., July 19, at 7pm. She spoke with the Chronicle – on her second day as a resident of Missoula – about how both feminist and nonfeminist-identifying celebrities fit into the model of unruliness. This interview has been edited for brevity.
Austin Chronicle: How did you first start formulating the idea for the book?
Anne Helen Petersen: About two years ago, I was thinking to myself, “Who am I really interested in right now?” I just wrote down the celebrities who I thought were fascinating, and then I said, “What unites them? What’s the theme here?”
It really seemed to me to be unruliness, and it was easy to connect the dots in a lot of ways. Even someone like Kim Kardashian – who might not be unruly in her everyday life as a celebrity, but something like her pregnancy, at the time, was still very much a topic of conversation.
It just kind of coalesced into this idea of working on unruliness, and I think that that concept is a really useful tool to unpack each of these celebrities with. Some of them have been unpacked that way before, but not all of them.
AC: I thought that the more unexpected subjects like Melissa McCarthy and Kim Kardashian were really interesting because they aren’t necessarily considered “feminist icons” by most people. For you, how do the descriptors of unruly and feminist interact and differ?
AHP: I’m very much against the idea that if a woman does something, it’s feminist, or if a woman says something is feminist, then it’s feminist. I think that’s a really flimsy and empty understanding of feminism. But I don’t think that someone who doesn’t consider themselves a feminist, and in a lot of their actions is not feminist, cannot do something that is feminist.
I think Nicki Minaj is really fascinating here because she purposely rejects the label of feminism with good reason because she has seen how that label can be constrictive of women. Instead, she just does things that are feminist.
You know, Kim Kardashian, she has forcefully rejected feminism. She’s like, “I’m not a feminist because I’m not a free-the-nipple type girl,” which is especially hilarious because she totally is a free-the-nipple type girl. It also just conflates freeing the nipple as feminism.
I think that what happened with [Kardashian’s] pregnancy and her endurance and resistance of the narrative of what a cute pregnancy should be is ultimately a feminist act – the way that she has tried to underline the fact that pregnancy is different for everyone. Including with this third pregnancy that she’s going to have it through a surrogate, which is expanding the understanding of what pregnancy can look like or be.
[You can read Petersen’s entire excerpt on Kim Kardashian from Too Fat, Too Slutty, Too Loud here.]
AC: Also talking about the people who are more explicitly “feminist icons” – I feel like a big example would be the show Girls – I thought you presented very balanced criticisms and admiration of their work. Why do you think those women are often brutally criticized by women who identify as feminists once they go into that territory of feminine themes?
AHP: I think that Lena Dunham would never say, “Oh, I’m so mad that there’s so much criticism.” She understands that feminism is always a work in progress and always a provocation. I think the reason we should praise Lena Dunham is that she is always generating conversation. Her art isn’t necessarily the thing that’s pushing us forward; it’s more the conversations that we have around it.
Her show is one of the first times that we have engaged in these at-length understandings of like, “Oh, it’s not OK just to have white people.” Whether it’s Girls or Broad City, they are provoking these more difficult questions and conversations amongst ourselves, which are important.
AC: The book’s introduction discusses Trump’s election, but I’m assuming your work predates Trump. How did his presidency impact the book?
AHP: For sure it did. I submitted the final edits, like ready to go, two weeks before the election. I’m really, really glad that I had the time after the election to go back and not only rework the Hillary [Clinton] chapter to some extent, but also the intro and the conclusion.
I think what was happening and I didn’t quite label was that these women really were at their apex right around 2014 and 2015. Since then, there’s been this slow pushback. To people like me who are feminists and lived in New York City, it didn’t become super-visible until the election just pounded it home. Even though I had been on the Trump campaign trail and I’d seen women really forcefully rejecting Hillary.
There’s always pushback whenever there’s feminist progress, but what we can control is – as women who either came to embrace or further embraced the feminist label over the course of the 2000s – think really mindfully about how we can decelerate the pushback. Oftentimes it’s women, including feminists, who contribute to this rejection of a certain type of woman who feels like "too much" for us.
AC: Do you think that rejection is strong enough that it will cause a decrease in unruly celebrities, TV shows, and movies?
AHP: No, I think that like so much in our culture right now, it’s just this polarization. You’re going to have women on the left who are increasingly inflammatory in some unruly way. Like Kamala Harris is an unruly woman. Elizabeth Warren is an unruly woman. A lot of our avatars of unruliness are politicians right now, and then on the flip side, the other most prominent celebrity is someone like Ivanka [Trump], who is not unruly in any way.
And then you’re going to have people like Melissa McCarthy who continue to soften parts of their image in order to be accepted by the mainstream. I was actually very, very surprised that Melissa McCarthy did the Sean Spicer imitation, simply because she had avoided any sort of explicit political-ness. I know that she wasn’t openly criticizing as herself or anything, but still it was very much taking a shot at the Trump administration.
AC: You wrote a piece for Buzzfeed titled “Donald Trump Is the President of Gossip,” and you have all this knowledge of gossip history. Do you feel like we’re living in the golden age of gossip right now?
AHP: Gossip and scandal are very much linked, and I think that the golden age of gossip is oftentimes also when gossip is working to either expose or have conversations about things that we would rather not talk about.
I think you can only say golden age with some distance, so for me the last golden age of gossip was around 2005 – of Britney [Spears] shaving her head and Lindsay Lohan. It was really a moment of rupture in terms of the internet was changing all the rules of how people could behave. You now had digital video and gossip blogs like Perez Hilton. When you think about it, that was a crazy time, but it was also a really sad time, especially for the female celebrities involved.
I wish that we didn’t have a president who’s using these gossip tools. But at the same time, I think that if you have an understanding of the way that Trump has positioned himself as a celebrity and has operated as essentially his own publicist, then through that prism or that paradigm, it’s so much easier to understand what he’s doing and how he’s acting.
AC: In the book, when you use these gossip-style criticisms or misogynistic quotes from gossip writers as academic references, they definitely seem more startling than they would when we just see them online. Do you think that people should be trained to look at those criticisms with a more discerning eye?
AHP: I once wrote this article for Bitch magazine called “Can Celebrity Gossip Ever Be Feminist?” – and of course it can, if you do it mindfully. The way that we react to a picture of a celebrity or a rumor about a celebrity – all of it is us either engaging or embracing ideologies we’ve been told by society that we must embrace.
Everyone is affected by ideology. There’s no shame in being someone who is affected by ideology. What I try to do and what I try to encourage other people to do is: Have your reaction and then think through, why am I having this reaction right now?
This has always been my hope in writing about celebrity gossip and the celebrity gossip industry: If you can see the mechanics of why things happen the way that they do, then you can also understand it as a piece of rhetoric that you can study like any other piece of rhetoric. You can understand like, “Oh, here’s why they’re doing this. Here’s what they’re suggesting with this.” It just requires that you be a little bit more aware of what’s going on.
Anne Hadley Petersen reads from and discusses Too Fat, Too Slutty, Too Loud: The Rise & Reign of the Unruly Woman Wed., July 19, 7pm, at BookPeople, 603 N. Lamar. For more information, visit www.bookpeople.com.