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The Unruly Woman rises and stumbles in BuzzFeed writer’s new essay collection

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Graphic: Nicole Antonuccio
Graphic: Nicole Antonuccio
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Too Fat, Too Slutty, Too Loud: The Rise And Reign Of The Unruly Woman

Author: Anne Helen Petersen
Publisher: Plume/Penguin

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Anne Helen Petersen resides in the same space as the boundary-pushing subjects of her essay collection, Too Fat, Too Slutty, Too Loud: The Rise And Reign Of The Unruly Woman. As a senior culture writer at BuzzFeed, Petersen regularly puts her doctorate in media studies and years of experience in celebrity gossip to good use, calling attention to matters and people that other publications might dismiss offhand, like the significance of Kim Kardashian’s arduous pregnancy. There’s nothing brash about Petersen’s cultural writings—which are as accessible as they are carefully researched—but they still demand attention from the lunchtime reader, who might be in the middle of scanning the site for a quiz to determine their Patronus. Her cultural writings aren’t just a highlight of that particular site; they’re among some of the most insightful works in the field, period.

Petersen’s first book dealt with classic Hollywood scandals, and though her second outing ventures into politics and sports, it remains focused on outsize reactions to women who dare—to bare, excel, age, and other “unladylike” behaviors. With its inclusion of Hillary Clinton, Unruly Woman will likely earn its own label—“timely”—in its reviews. But while Petersen admits to her disappointment over the 2016 presidential election results in the introduction, even those unfamiliar with her previous writings will see that examining and otherwise championing these figures, who refused to be categorized or silenced, has always been part of her oeuvre.

Working her way from world-class athlete Serena Williams to voice of a generation Lena Dunham, Petersen delves into how these women strain and rail against their social constraints. There’s a lot to unpack in her heavily annotated writings, but she utilizes the same accessible style that’s helped her readers take in contemporary feminist theory and 19th-century literary criticism in discussions of chick lit. Even those who believe the nation’s clock hasn’t been set back 60 years in the last 150 days will be engrossed by these women’s journeys, be it Nicki Minaj’s reign as more of a “Righteous Queen/Gangsta Boo” or Caitlyn Jenner’s push for trans visibility (as complicated as that’s become).

Although she maintains a strong focus in individual chapters, Petersen keeps an eye on the running thread, that these women, in addition to embodying some undesirable quality a little too well, also butt against other conventions. In drawing attention to her naked body, Dunham is at times too loud, while Jennifer Weiner, the official honoree of the “Too Loud” label, has been “Too Shrill” in her fight for equal representation in publishing. By not adhering to the drab tennis dress code, Williams is being “too sexy”; by exalting female friendship just as much as romantic (heteronormative) love, Broad City creators Ilana Glazer and Abbi Jacobson are being “Too Queer.”

That continuity helps in making the way from one vaunted and vilified woman to the next, but in its final quarter, Unruly Woman starts to lose some steam. The author fires an ace with her chapter on Williams, whose gorgeous, muscular body is seen as “too strong,” too competent. Petersen touches on just how fraught of a history black women’s bodies have, from being treated as something less than human to being viewed by medical science as nearly superhuman, and how modern society’s perception is almost a combination of the two. It’s the most riveting entry, and not just because of all the politics—Williams has been unrepentantly herself in the face of racism and sexism, and her black girl magic continues to shine through.

Meanwhile, the chapters on Melissa McCarthy, deemed “Too Fat” by society, as well as Glazer and Jacobson (the “Too Gross” offerings), show how each distances herself not just from misconceptions but also from the personae that prompted them. To the book’s slight detriment, Petersen doesn’t expound on this double remove, which would make for a fascinating read all its own. The decision doesn’t undermine the thesis, but it does dull their rebellious streaks a bit. Same goes for Jenner’s entry, which has to venture beyond the former Olympian and reality star to really make the case for “Too Queer.” Which isn’t to say that Jenner hasn’t faced much strife for her highly public transition; but as Petersen notes, she’s done all she can not to meet the strict, conventional image of womanhood.

Heading toward the conclusion, Petersen expands her scope for the chapters on Weiner and Dunham to discuss high and low culture (or avant-garde and mass culture), as well as the complicated relationship between the naked and the nude. And while those writings are certainly compelling, her choice of focal points can feel slightly more convenient than inspired. But let’s give the author the benefit of the doubt that, by broadening topics, she’s laying the groundwork for another collection of essays on women who wouldn’t stay in their place or hold their tongues; she’s certainly earned it.


Purchase Too Fat, Too Slutty, Too Loud here, which helps support The A.V. Club.