SAM SANDERS, HOST:
Hey, y'all. Sam Sanders here. IT'S BEEN A MINUTE. So every Tuesday on the show, we bring you a deep dive - a conversation with one person or on one topic. And today, we're going to talk about unruly women. That's the subject of a new book by BuzzFeed culture writer Anne Helen Petersen.
Anne's one of my favorite writers. And this strong undercurrent in all of her work is that you can't really understand the serious stuff in the big news and current events without understanding and talking about popular culture, too. So that's kind of the lens through which we talk about her book, which is called - and fast forward here parents if you're listening with kids - book's called, "Too Fat, Too Slutty, Too Loud: The Rise And Reign Of The Unruly Woman." This
book is 10 chapters and each one examines a different woman who could be called, in her own way, unruly. There's a chapter on Lena Dunham called Too Naked, a chapter on Serena Williams called Too Strong, a chapter on Hillary Clinton that's called Too Shrill. And all these chapters talk about how the culture treats women who have this kind of power and agency.
I know it sounds very academic, very heady, but I promise it's a really fun conversation and a really fun book. So here we go - me talking to Anne Helen Petersen a couple of weeks ago. She was in New York. I was here in D.C. And just a note for parents, we do refer to the title of this book a few more times in the conversation. OK, enjoy.
(SOUNDBITE OF FLEVANS' "FLICKER")
SANDERS: So is it out today?
ANNE HELEN PETERSEN: It was out yesterday.
SANDERS: Yesterday - congratulations.
PETERSEN: Thank you.
SANDERS: How does that feel?
PETERSEN: I - you know, this morning I did, like, rolling interviews with 20 different, like, drive-time radio stations.
PETERSEN: So they were like, "Too Fat, Too Slutty, Too Loud."
SANDERS: (Laughter) Airhorn.
PETERSEN: (Laughter) Yes. And it was great. Like, it was a trip. So this is going to be a little different, I think.
SANDERS: Yeah, definitely. So when you do that many in a, row is it just exhausting?
PETERSEN: Yeah, but I also - you know, at drive-time radio, that's someone who's not necessarily on Twitter and in my immediate, you know, sphere of influence as like a feminist white woman. So there's people who are going to hear about the book through those venues that wouldn't necessarily hear about it otherwise. So it's gratifying.
SANDERS: Definitely, definitely. I was thinking today about, like - so one, I've been a fan of yours for a while.
PETERSEN: Oh, thanks.
SANDERS: And I love your work. And I really love the way that you always make the case in your work that you really can't understand the culture without understanding celebrity. And I remember I was - this was towards the end of the election season. I was covering the election for NPR. And I remember waiting to walk into a Hillary Clinton rally in, I think, North Carolina because I wanted to finish - in the car - reading your piece about Tom Hanks...
SANDERS: ...Which makes this brilliant argument about, like, the reason we love Tom Hanks is because he's the right kind of white dad.
PETERSEN: Yeah. And also why, in some ways, he's fading in prominence is because he's the right kind of white dad but, like, a white dad is no longer the avatar...
PETERSEN: ...Of Americanness (ph) that it quite was.
SANDERS: Also, if the whole argument of all of your work is that you can't understand the culture without celebrity, we have an environment now where the biggest celebrity in the world who came from reality TV...
SANDERS: ...Is the president.
PETERSEN: Right. Well, and the way that I always think about - you know how it's just so frustrating to try to analyze or understand what Trump does?
PETERSEN: But if you think of him not as a politician but as a celebrity who's making...
SANDERS: Then it makes sense.
PETERSEN: ...Very calculated moves to, like, up his ratings, then it makes a lot more sense.
SANDERS: If you've watched all of "The Apprentice," none of this is a surprise.
PETERSEN: No, not all of it.
SANDERS: None of it.
PETERSEN: Not at all.
SANDERS: Like when he had that whole rollout about, like, I will announce my Supreme Court pick on this day, at this time...
SANDERS: ...In the Rose Garden. That was an "Apprentice" move, you know?
PETERSEN: Yeah. He knows how to build anticipation. He wants people - he wants to confuse people so that they stay tuned, you know.
SANDERS: Yeah, it's the same thing.
SANDERS: Anyway, let's talk about this book. The title is an eye-catcher. Where'd that come from?
PETERSEN: So the title, "Too Fat, Too Slutty, Too Loud," a lot of women have been like, oh, you wrote my biography.
PETERSEN: You know, I was thinking of all of these women that I wanted to write about - Nicki Minaj, Hillary Clinton, Lena Dunham, like, OK, what's the throughline of these women that I think were the most compelling and remain - a lot of them - the most compelling celebrities of the last, you know, five, seven years? And it was different modes of unruliness. They're all too much of something.
SANDERS: So the women that you profile here - Serena Williams, Melissa McCarthy, Abbi Jacobson and Ilana Glazer from "Broad City," Nicki Minaj, Madonna, Kim Kardashian, Hillary Clinton, Caitlyn Jenner, Jennifer Weiner, Lena Dunham - which was your favorite to do - which profile?
PETERSEN: Oh, that's such a good question. Well, I actually think the Kim Kardashian one was my favorite just because - her chapter is about too pregnant...
SANDERS: Which I found interesting because I was telling Brent (ph) today, I was like, she could have written any number of too X chapters about Kim Kardashian...
SANDERS: ...Too black, too famous, too sexual, too whatever. But you chose too pregnant...
PETERSEN: Too superficial.
SANDERS: Exactly. So why too pregnant and not any of the other things that she's unruly in?
PETERSEN: You know, I think it's something - it was the thing that really challenged what her image was to that date was what happened to her...
PETERSEN: ...While she was pregnant. And it also was so out of her control. Like, she wanted to have a cute basketball pregnancy.
SANDERS: Yeah, yeah.
PETERSEN: Most women, because of the images that we're fed, like, they think that's, like, the best possible way to have a pregnancy is like, oh, I just have a little basketball and then it goes away...
PETERSEN: ..And I feel great the entire time.
SANDERS: And she's like, no, this stuff hurt.
PETERSEN: Yeah. And she acted that out in a way - you know, the fact that it wasn't just - I couldn't - it was more than just me studying, OK, here's how she was photographed, here's how she was compared to Shamu the killer whale. It was also that I could watch the TV show, like, the season where she's grappling with that in real-time. So that was really fascinating - and also just the history of performing pregnancy in public. I had no idea that, like, until the 1960s, you know, you couldn't teach if you were past your second trimester...
PETERSEN: ...Because there was this idea that your obscene body would create obscene thoughts in the minds of your students.
SANDERS: That's something else.
PETERSEN: Right. Like, it had to go to the Supreme Court in order for that rule to be changed.
SANDERS: Wow, wow. What I found really captivating throughout the entire book is that at least half of each chapter is outlining, you know, how powerful and successful all these figures are. They're powerful women who have agency and, like, are in control. You come away from this book realizing all of them know what they're doing. All of them are their own manager. All of them have agency. Yet at the same time, they are all hobbled by these structures and these constraints that cripple all women. You know, like, Kim Kardashian, who is so rich and who is so in control of her own body still has to grapple with the way that we treat pregnant women.
PETERSEN: Yeah. You know, a lot of this stuff didn't become completely clear to me until I was done with all the chapters. And I was like, oh, interesting. In each chapter I have a paragraph about how, like, each of them is a workaholic and a perfectionist and, you know, completely in the driver's seat of their own...
SANDERS: Well, like Nicki Minaj, like, she approves everything.
SANDERS: She's like, everything goes through me.
PETERSEN: Yes, right, which also challenges this idea that somehow she's, like, a tool of patriarchy, that, like, she somehow is, like, becoming an object of the gaze. It's more she's experimenting. She's trying on different identities. Like, she has always played with identity. And she purposefully did not make herself into a sex object for the first part of her career. And so I think it's just to understand that these women are mindful of what they're doing. I think it's empowering to think through, like, how difficult it is for even such powerful and such mindful women to deal with this.
SANDERS: And, like, that idea - the idea that, like, in some ways each of these women are making exception for themselves as unique forces. You talk about this idea that they all kind of seem to ascribe to this notion of post-feminist thought, where you're a feminist in the way that gives you freedom to just be you, less than being feminist in a way that gives the whole group agency.
PETERSEN: Right. I mean, there are some - I think there some of the women in the book who...
SANDERS: Do both.
PETERSEN: ...Who are much more mindful and, like, are much more about solidarity and...
SANDERS: I think - I mean, like for sure Serena. She's very much saying, I'm doing this for black women...
SANDERS: ...All of us.
PETERSEN: Like, I think for all of her faults and inconsistencies, like, Lena Dunham - honestly, I think she actually is trying to be....
SANDERS: She's really trying.
PETERSEN: She's trying (laughter).
SANDERS: Like - listen. She has done some stuff where I'm just like - but I always feel like she wants to get better.
PETERSEN: Right. And that's why - you know, Amy Schumer used to be a chapter in the book. And I cut that...
SANDERS: Oh, really?
PETERSEN: And I cut the chapter because I don't think she's always trying to be better.
PETERSEN: You know, her subtitle was too honest. And what I gradually came to understand is that her show...
PETERSEN: ...Was telling some real truths about rape culture and, you know, all sorts of things, like, in a really clear and resonating way. But her off-screen persona just was so incoherent and couldn't, you know, back that up. And part of that is just being, you know - part of the stand-up community's, like, you - there's just this understanding, like, you never apologize for a joke. You never apologize for anything.
PETERSEN: And that's just this kind of, like, masculine hardballness (ph). But I just - I couldn't make the chapter work. And what I realized - it was because she didn't work as a coherent unruly woman. And there are - yes, there are people like Caitlyn who are totally incoherent in the way that - in their unruliness. But I thought that, you know, I have a lot of other white women in the book.
PETERSEN: I would rather have someone like Serena in the book and think about her unruliness than have Amy Schumer.
SANDERS: Yeah. Well, and also what's interesting to me, it's like I would assume that both Amy Schumer and Lena have audiences that are full of, like, white women who consider themselves to be woke.
SANDERS: And I feel like the process of being a woke white person or a woke white woman is one of constant growth, like, saying to yourself, I'm probably never going to be woke enough...
PETERSEN: Yeah, totally.
SANDERS: ...But I'll keep trying. And Lena does that very well.
SANDERS: Like, every six months she messes up, and then she says - I will try again.
PETERSEN: Yeah. Well, and I - you know, the other thing white women are learning gradually about wokeness (ph) is a lot of it is being quiet.
SANDERS: (Laughter) Talk about that.
PETERSEN: You know, like, you just need to like - sometimes you don't need to speak. And that's really hard because white women have this particular mix of privilege and powerlessness, right? You have the privilege of your whiteness and you have the powerlessness of your gender. And so somehow - you can feel like a victim to patriarchy a lot, but you need to still acknowledge that other privilege. So working through that is a difficult process for a lot of white women - to be told like listen. You know, and it's not a contest. We're not having a contest to see who's most oppressed.
SANDERS: Yeah, nobody wins that.
PETERSEN: You know, because if it were, it's not white women.
PETERSEN: But at the same time, I think that that's an instructive on how moving forward and trying to, like, figure out what feminism means in the future, a lot of it is white women being quieter.
SANDERS: No, it's so funny, like, hearing you say that. I think of, like, my experience as a black face in a space like NPR, which is still relatively mostly white.
SANDERS: No shade on my employer. To my editors listening, it is what it is. But like, there's so many times where I'll walk into a meeting or a room or a booth or a studio and be like, y'all need to listen to me. I'm the only black one here. Listen to me. Listen to me.
SANDERS: And then I realize that I end up mansplaining or talking over a woman...
SANDERS: ...Or doing these things that...
SANDERS: ...I would hate if I saw, like, the white guy do.
SANDERS: And so you have to just, like, understand that, like, you can be more than one thing at once. And yeah, you've got to shut up sometimes.
PETERSEN: Well, and it's - like the mindfulness - not to sound like a Buddhist - but, like, just that mindful...
SANDERS: (Laughter) I love mindfulness.
PETERSEN: ...That mindfulness that - like, that's what all of us need to do more of is - and I think about this whenever I talk about celebrity. There's nothing wrong with reading a gossip magazine. I love reading a gossip magazine.
SANDERS: Yeah, yeah.
PETERSEN: I love thinking about celebrities. What I try to do is interrogate why I react the way that I react. Like, I'm so bugged by Anne Hathaway. But so thinking through, OK, why does she...
SANDERS: You and everybody else, but I love her.
PETERSEN: (Laughter) See?
SANDERS: I honestly love her.
PETERSEN: Yeah. And so to think through also, OK, why is it that I love her?
SANDERS: Because she's not afraid to admit that she's great.
SANDERS: She says, I worked for this. I'm very good. I deserved that Oscar. This was my dream forever, and now I got it.
PETERSEN: (Laughter) Yeah.
SANDERS: Whereas you compare her to someone like Jennifer Lawrence, who is like, I'm just a cool girl. And I'm klutzy - whoa, how'd I get here? Like, it's a night and day.
PETERSEN: (Laughter) Yeah, well, and one's, like, performing klutzy authenticity.
SANDERS: Oh, totally.
PETERSEN: They're both performing.
PETERSEN: They're both performing.
PETERSEN: This is the thing. Like, no celebrity is not...
SANDERS: Not performing. Yeah, they're performing. I mean, like...
PETERSEN: They're just doing - in different registers.
SANDERS: Yeah, yeah.
All right, time for a quick break. We will have more with Anne Helen Petersen once we come back, talking about Melissa McCarthy and Kim Kardashian and later Hillary Clinton. All right, B-R-B.
(SOUNDBITE OF FLEVANS' "FLICKER")
SANDERS: I mean, this is probably too simplistic of a question, but in finding out the way that each of these women deal with their struggles as women, how much of what they do is helpful or informative to the way that less powerful women experience the same things? Or should these women kind of be viewed apart because they're so different in terms of the power and money that they have?
PETERSEN: You know, it's not - I don't think, like, there's a blueprint...
PETERSEN: ...That any these women set out. I think what the book does and what I hoped for it to do is it shows just how contradictory the message is that all women - that we're all receiving. It's like you're too fat but you're also too skinny, you know. Like, apparently Karlie Kloss the other day - she was saying that, like, she'd got turned down for a modeling job because she was too fat. And then the next day, she was turned down because she was too skinny.
SANDERS: Oh, my God.
PETERSEN: You know - and, like, so if she has such, like, a fine line of what's acceptable...
SANDERS: Yeah, yeah.
PETERSEN: ...Think about what other women are dealing with in terms of contradictory messages of, like, you're perfect the way you are, you know, this self-love rhetoric that then...
PETERSEN: ...You look around you and you're like, actually, there's really only one way to be.
SANDERS: Yeah. And like, you really go there in the chapter about Melissa McCarthy. And you talk about how, one, she's criticized for being too big but then when she loses weight, she gets critiqued for that.
PETERSEN: And she just doesn't - like, she thinks that her weight is the least interesting part about her. And I would agree. But all of these magazines are just obsessed with making it the most interesting thing about her.
SANDERS: Yeah, yeah.
PETERSEN: You know, and she - unlike a lot of male comedians, she doesn't use her weight as a punch line. You know, if you think about her humor and the way that she works in her starring roles in movies, it's always that she's just occupying space as a man would. Like, she is flamboyant and arrogant like a man would be.
PETERSEN: And that - the fact that that somehow (laughter) - like that that seems so outrageous...
PETERSEN: ...That's the...
SANDERS: Well, and it's crazy. Well, and then - what I also find interesting about her - I love her and I've seen all of her movies...
SANDERS: ...But I'm really interested in the way that these film studios try to navigate around her body. Like, there's one movie she does her the whole film she's wearing a turtleneck.
SANDERS: Like the whole movie, she's wearing a turtleneck.
PETERSEN: Yeah. Which one? Oh, in "The Boss."
SANDERS: Yeah. And I'm like, I'm sure she didn't volunteer that.
PETERSEN: Well, you know, she might've, though.
PETERSEN: She loves to play with costume. And she's, like, obsessed with wigs.
SANDERS: In these draggy kind of ways, kind of.
PETERSEN: Yes. She likes to put on a costume of unruliness. And I talk about - in the book - that she describes her own performances as a fugue state...
SANDERS: Which I found really interesting. I'd never heard that before.
PETERSEN: Yeah, right? That she like - she doesn't even remember when she's improvising and what she says when she says the most...
SANDERS: Like she's black-out drunk.
SANDERS: It's crazy.
PETERSEN: And so that idea though that like, oh, my real self isn't unruly. You know, my real self is the woman who's on the cover of Good Housekeeping.
SANDERS: That allows us to be like, oh, you're OK.
PETERSEN: Yeah, totally.
SANDERS: Well, I was thinking back to the last time she hosted "SNL." It was their Mother's Day episode. And she wears this very nice prim dress.
SANDERS: She spends so much time saying, mom, I love you. Then, she gives some random mom from the audience a tour around the building. It was such this feminine...
SANDERS: ...And nice portrayal of this woman that we know for being crass, like, in movies.
PETERSEN: Right. And then she, like, becomes Sean Spicer and like...
PETERSEN: ...Throws the podium at someone.
PETERSEN: And that contrast, I think, is what has made her such a huge star is - if she was only that unruly persona off-screen as well, you know, if she was like - like dressed like that off-screen - think about how people would talk about her if she'd dress like one of her characters off-screen.
SANDERS: Oh, yeah. I also think she has this very interesting song and dance of convincing a lot of America that she's not a lesbian.
PETERSEN: Yeah, which is...
SANDERS: She has a husband who is seen with her.
PETERSEN: It's crazy that just because she is overweight and in some of her films takes on this more masculine role that, oh, automatically, because she doesn't adhere to the understanding of what an appealing - a sexually appealing woman looks like, that somehow that just excludes her from heterosexuality.
SANDERS: I forget if you make the point in her chapter or somewhere else, but there's one point in the book where you say that a lot of these women who are unruly - they are breaking some boundaries while at the same time reinforcing others.
SANDERS: What does that mean?
PETERSEN: Well, I mean, like, Kim Kardashian is a great example of this because, you know, she had this pregnancy that, again, was out of her control. Like, she wished that it would have been different. And she became an unlikely spokesperson for the idea that pregnancy is different for every woman. But then recently, she said, I didn't become a woman until I became a mom, you know.
PETERSEN: Like, she didn't - so she's reinscribing these very conservative, very traditional, very exclusionary understandings of maternity. Which - it's just fascinating.
SANDERS: It is.
PETERSEN: And she also, you know, she says things like, oh, I don't think I'm a feminist because I'm not like a free-the-nipple girl.
PETERSEN: So the...
SANDERS: Which is, like, in some ways, not at all the case.
SANDERS: We've seen her freed nipple.
PETERSEN: Right. She has freed the nipple a lot...
SANDERS: And that's fine.
PETERSEN: And so...
SANDERS: No shade, no shade to Kim. No shade to Kim...
PETERSEN: Yeah, so that - and, well, that's the thing is that I think taking these women who aren't necessarily, like, the perfect avatar of feminism, and thinking through those more complicated successes and failures. I mean, Caitlyn Jenner is a completely problematic figure, like - but why I wanted to look at her was because just by being trans, like, she wants to be - she does not want to be unruly in any way. She is obsessed with what's called trans normativity, which is she wants to be - she wants to pass...
SANDERS: As pretty as she can be, as womanly as she can be.
PETERSEN: Right. Which is, like, you know, some trans people, that is what they want to do but not all trans people.
SANDERS: Not all.
PETERSEN: And so she - but she reinscribes this understanding of, oh, to be a successful trans person, to be a happy trans person, you need to have all the surgeries. You need to want to look exactly like a woman - like, you want to pass as a woman.
SANDERS: Yeah, it's like on the one hand, the fact that she's just trans in public is revolutionary. But on the other hand, she wants to be this very conventional presentation of what it means to be a woman. And I love how, in each of the chapters, you kind of get into this dichotomy that so many of these female figures present. I mean, especially with Nicki Minaj, like, she is a woman who is clearly in charge of her own sexuality. But the big question is, is she in charge of it for herself and for women, or is she in charge of it still seeking the male gaze? Or is it like - or like, can she do both?
PETERSEN: Right. Well, and the other thing - I think a lot of white feminists grapple with this, like, oh, well, if you're, you know, submitting yourself to the male gaze then somehow, like, you aren't feminist. It's self-objectification. And the way that I really tried to look at it and that I try to look at all my work is through this lens of intersectionality. Which is to say - to look at, OK, so black women in particular have had this long, long history of not being in control of their sexuality, you know, like, having it literally commodified for a long time in America.
And so how would the experience of owning and directing that control, like, directing the male gaze - how would that be different for a black woman in Nicki Minaj's position? How is that different than how we would talk about Britney Spears, for example? So I - you know, and in the chapter, I try to work through a lot of stuff about relying - taking Nicki's word for it.
PETERSEN: You know what I mean?
SANDERS: Trusting that she's in charge.
PETERSEN: Yeah, trusting that what she's saying, you know, that it's not some sort of false consciousness - the way that she talks about what she's doing, the way that she talks about her career and how mindful she's been about it.
SANDERS: If anything, it's a double consciousness almost. Like, she's very aware of how she plays in different sets of eyes. And, like, I love how smartly you talked about the way she deals with some of the lesbian under or overtones in some of her lyrics. You know, she is talking about kissing girls and being with girls but also knowing that she's kind of doing that because she knows guys like it. And she's OK with that.
PETERSEN: Yeah. And she also, like, acknowledges that some of that stuff was part of this earlier section of her career before she took total control. And I think you can also - I can't articulate this with, like, total certainty but there's a breakdown between, you know, the times when she is doing her own albums, and then sometimes when she's doing a verse on someone else's song. Like, she's a little - she's more...
SANDERS: The features are more outlandish, I find.
PETERSEN: Yeah, and more playful and that sort of thing. But one of the things I did with that chapter is I - in addition to trusting the things that Nicki Minaj had said in interviews about herself, I also really, really relied on a bunch of smart black scholars.
SANDERS: Yeah. Well, you cite bell hooks a lot, which I loved. Yeah.
PETERSEN: But then also, there's people who were working in performance studies, queer studies, you know, all across the humanities who were approaching her from a really fascinating perspective. And so I tried to build on them.
SANDERS: Yes. Well, and like, I think that's a thing that I've seen with you in this book. Like, you make a clear distinction and say, I'm approaching this whole thing as a white woman of a certain kind of privilege, and I get that. So it would make sense that you would say, all right, for this chapter on these black women, I'm not going to pretend that I have all the wisdom here. And I found that that was really nice. Like, I appreciated that.
PETERSEN: Yeah. No, for sure. And like, I think that chapter and a lot of other chapters is synthesizing what other people have said - you know, bringing it together, putting it in context with these other unruly women because I think it's fascinating. You know, Nicki Minaj is chapter four, so she's wedged between the "Broad City" girls and - who's chapter five? I'm trying to think.
PETERSEN: Madonna. So how fascinating is that, right? Like, you're jumping from these - all of these different types of women that, when you take them together as a whole, there's a larger lesson there.
SANDERS: Totally. I want to talk a bit about the two women from "Broad City." I was actually watching some of that show, season three, last night because I had a really stressful day at work. And I was like, I need to unwind.
SANDERS: Ilana, take me away.
SANDERS: And I saw a few episodes where they do that lovely thing where they sing about taking a dump. What's the song? (Singing) I [expletive]. I [expletive].
PETERSEN: (Laughing) Yeah, they're just like...
SANDERS: And it's - they're just singing about [expletive].
PETERSEN: Yeah, they're just like, listen, I'm a woman and I poop.
PETERSEN: And - which is profoundly and really - and, you know, like, my - there's a surface level unruliness to them, which is that they talk about poop and smoking weed.
PETERSEN: But the chapter really goes deeper into what really makes people uncomfortable about them, and that's that they're lazy like men (laughter).
SANDERS: Exactly. Exactly. And not just lazy but, like, not even trying to cover it up, just not even trying to cover it up.
PETERSEN: Yeah, like, they don't care about the domestic sphere. They're not interested in long-term relationships, not because they're sluts but because it's just not interesting to them. They're - like, they're profoundly interested in their friendship with one another, like, that's the thing that matters most to them. They also just, like, they have these aimless adventures which, you know - that...
SANDERS: That don't need to be that hard. I was watching the one last night where one of them wants to get a new shirt to go to some art gallery show, and it becomes a saga. I'm just like, go home and get a shirt.
PETERSEN: Right. Which, you know, usually, a show like that - if they needed a new shirt, it'd be, like, a shopping montage. And then they go home and, like, get ready and spend a lot of time getting ready. And that's not this show.
SANDERS: Not at all this show, which I love, which I love.
SANDERS: You also speak really - there's a part of that chapter where you point out the fact that these two characters are extremely free in all that they do on camera. And they exhibit a kind of freedom that a certain type of upper-class or upper-class-aspiring white woman in a space like Brooklyn gets to be. And I had never thought of it that way before.
PETERSEN: Yeah. Like, I always think about it with, like, Ilana's dancing - the way that she takes up space dancing, you know, whether it's on a subway car - like, the way that she walks down the street. And it's...
SANDERS: She manspreads.
PETERSEN: Yes, yes. And she always talks about, like, her [expletive].
PETERSEN: She - both of them, the way that they take up space in Brooklyn, it's a place of profound safety to them, you know. And I don't think that Brooklyn is necessarily a place of profound safety for everyone. But it does underline, you know, this is a particular - it's a particular type of person that's comfortable in a particular sort of coastal area of progressive liberal feminist thought.
You know, Emily Nussbaum, right after the election, she was tweeting - she was watching some "Broad City" and she like, this show feels of a different era.
PETERSEN: And it already does. It really does because, you know, this idea - they talk about how we're working towards this time when everyone's going to be caramel-colored and queer in some way. And that did - I think the trajectory, many people were like, yeah, you know, black president, like, woman president, where are we going? And we've taken a couple steps back from that.
SANDERS: Yeah, although it seems as if, in that argument, there might be some big symbols that have changed. But, like, the numbers around this country and demographics and the diversity of a space like Brooklyn - that's not going to go away, right?
PETERSEN: No, no. And remember, you know, Hillary won the election (laughter). You know, that - in some ways, the fact that she won the election but lost the election is - it just embodies, like, this whole book, right? That, like, there is progress. Like, there are these women who are pushing these boundaries, but there's still pushback.
SANDERS: Yeah. All right, let's take one more quick break. And when we get back, we'll talk about Hillary Clinton.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
SANDERS: All right, so let's talk about Hillary Clinton for a bit. In profiling a woman like Hillary Clinton, you've got to say to yourself, well, everyone's written everything already. What new did you want to find out and did you?
PETERSEN: You know, and that - the fact that each chapter focuses pretty specifically on one aspect - so the Hillary chapter is called Too Shrill - that allowed me to narrow down a particular line of inquiry, as we'd say in academia.
SANDERS: Which was?
PETERSEN: A particular way of thinking about her, which is the sound of her voice and how people reacted to it that then shed light on these other parts of how people reacted to her broadly. And the thing that's fascinating about her is - and I, you know, I cite and talk to a bunch of vocal experts. Like, we use the word shrill to describe a woman speaking loudly in public. And we turn that into a derogatory term in order to say women shouldn't speak in public.
SANDERS: Yeah. So it's not just you sound bad, but it's just like, no, now you can't speak.
PETERSEN: Women sound bad speaking in public. And the other thing that was really interesting to come to was this idea that charisma, at least how we think of it in political terms - you know, we talk about like, Barack Obama's so charismatic, like, there's certain - Bill Clinton's so charismatic. There's certain male politicians, so charismatic. It's a male quality as we conceive of it right now.
SANDERS: Totally. I mean, like, there were some days where I would - because I followed Bernie Sanders for months, and I got to know how he works and his supporters a lot. And the whole argument behind Bernie Sanders was like, he's so charismatic, he's so charismatic, he's so charismatic.
PETERSEN: He's not charismatic.
SANDERS: But if you take him away from the podium and the crowd - and, like, I'm not trying to shade Bernie or his supporters at all, so don't at me, folks. Don't do it. But, like, we - there is a question to be raised about how we define and give and bestow the title of charismatic to who and why.
PETERSEN: Yeah, well, it's - to me, it's like, OK, so you say that Hillary's not charismatic. What you're really saying is she's not a male politician. And - or you say that she's shrill. Again, you're saying she's a woman who's speaking publicly, which if you've looked at what's happened since the election, the people - you know, the senators who have been acting out of turn or censored in some way, all of these senators and reps, they're almost entirely women.
SANDERS: Just women. Yeah. I was watching this scene last week with Kamala Harris questioning - who was she questioning? Was it Sessions?
SANDERS: She was questioning...
SANDERS: ...Sessions. And she had very pointed lines of questioning. But she was just, like, talking like you and me. And someone was like, stop yelling (laughter).
PETERSEN: Yeah, or they...
SANDERS: I'm like, she didn't yell (laughter).
PETERSEN: You know, in the commentary afterwards, they said she was hysterical.
SANDERS: Well, and also the history of that word...
SANDERS: ...Hysterical - hysterectomy. Like, it's rooted, like, in anatomy.
PETERSEN: Right. And it's the - you know, hysteria's wandering womb. It's this...
PETERSEN: ...Idea that a woman has somehow lost her femininity.
SANDERS: It's something. What - so OK, you finish writing this book. Do you feel happier or sadder about the state of the modern woman? Do you feel more positive or negative about the state of feminism or these issues facing women? Like, I feel like you could have easily finished writing this book and just been depressed.
PETERSEN: Well, so when I finished my final edits, it was two weeks before the election.
SANDERS: Oh, my.
PETERSEN: And then the election night happened, and, like, that's now the beginning scene of the book is me, like, watching the elections.
PETERSEN: Returns come in. And that - I mean, that was a really sad night for many reasons for me. But one of them was like, oh, crap, I got to redo so much of the book now. And it wasn't, you know, so much. I had to redo certain sections of the Hillary chapter and refigured my intro to some extent. But I think what dawned on me was that there had been a backlash brewing, but it hadn't...
SANDERS: To what?
PETERSEN: Backlash to unruliness. Like, I think...
SANDERS: From women specifically?
PETERSEN: From women but also from men.
PETERSEN: And, you know, and I had seen it on the campaign trail. You know, I was following the Trump campaign. Like, I was...
PETERSEN: ...Talking to these Trump supporters about what they thought about Hillary, what they thought about the women who would accuse Trump of sexual impropriety - like, a lot of internalized misogyny there. But not only that, like, if you look at the women who are in this book - so Serena Williams is going to kind of be, you know, not doing tennis for a while because she's having a baby.
PETERSEN: Kim Kardashian's ratings on the show - tanking.
SANDERS: Oh, I didn't know that.
PETERSEN: Yeah. It's a super unsuccessful season, which is really fascinating, too.
SANDERS: Why do you think it's this season?
PETERSEN: Again, I think, like, there's just a pushback against celebrity. Also, you know, this is another theory of mine, but I think we're in this weird vacuum of celebrity. Because if celebrities reflect our ideologies - and our ideologies are so in flux right now. In white celebrity in particular, like, there's no mainstream white star that's, like, on the cover of the gossip magazines.
SANDERS: Oh, yeah.
PETERSEN: The only person right now is actually Ivanka. And Ivanka...
PETERSEN: ...Is someone that a lot of women, you know, admire and want to emulate but a lot of other women are defining themselves against that.
PETERSEN: They're like, I'm not the 54 percent of white women that voted for Donald Trump.
SANDERS: If Ivanka were to have a chapter in your book, what would that chapter be called?
PETERSEN: Ruly women. Like, a...
SANDERS: She'd be too ruly?
PETERSEN: Yeah, yeah.
SANDERS: Unpack that.
PETERSEN: Well, I mean, she's not unruly. I mean, she is the inverse of everything that I talk about. And then...
SANDERS: How do you feel about that?
PETERSEN: I mean, I write a lot about Ivanka. People can go read about what...
SANDERS: It was real good, too.
PETERSEN: ...I have to say about Ivanka (laughter).
PETERSEN: But I do think that she mirrors so many of her father's ideologies. She just dresses them in a much more appealing wardrobe. There's, like, this idea that she's somehow a social progressive, but she's not. You know, her idea of women who work and triumphing women and - you know, in the workplace, it's for a specific type of mother which is largely a white, middle-class mother.
SANDERS: Where do - so I'm hoping a lot of men read your book.
PETERSEN: I hope so, too.
SANDERS: Where do they - where do we - where do men fit into this equation?
PETERSEN: You know, the thing that men who've read the book have told me is that they just didn't understand how complicated and contradictory the ideologies and the messages that women receive are. You know, like, all men will be, like, yeah, it's harder to be a woman, right? Like, that's just an acknowledged thing...
PETERSEN: ...In society. But the idea that you should embrace, like, self-love but also feel a lot of guilt and shame about being overweight, the idea - like, even the thing about pregnancy.
PETERSEN: You know, this is like the best-kept secret in America that, like, pregnancy sucks.
PETERSEN: But you - in order to maintain this, like - you know, the cult of motherhood, you have to have...
PETERSEN: ...This narrative of beautiful pregnancy, both physically and psychologically. And yes, I know many women who loved pregnancy in some way. But since, you know, I - this chapter on Kim Kardashian was excerpted on BuzzFeed. And so - I've heard from so many women who are like, no one talks publicly enough about different ways of experiencing pregnancy. And so that - you know, I think men, too, whether or not you're a dad or someone close to you has experienced pregnancy, like just to understand, oh, like, how weird would it be in a culture that fetishizes thinness to suddenly get really, really big?
SANDERS: After being a woman that everyone looked at and thought about because of her body.
PETERSEN: Right. Like, the thing - it always - it will always stick with me. Kim Kardashian is laying in her Spanx - in her pregnancy Spanx, in her...
SANDERS: Whoa, pregnancy Spanx? Oh my.
PETERSEN: Yeah, and just the idea of pregnancy Spanx...
PETERSEN: Like, constrict your pregnancy in some way. And her brother-in-law Scott Disick comes in and is, like, you're too voluptuous in those pregnancy Spanx. And then the next sentence he's like, you look like a whale. Like, it's, like, you're too sexual, but you - you're also gross to me.
SANDERS: And he has no room to say anything because...
SANDERS: ...I'm surprised the Kardashians still keep him around.
PETERSEN: How - I - you know, I don't know.
SANDERS: Like, he's such a deadbeat.
PETERSEN: And Kim said, she was like, I miss my old body so much. She said, the first thing I want to do once I, you know, have this kid is I want to, like, get back in shape right away and have a nude photo shoot because she had this body that, you know, she worked really hard...
PETERSEN: And that - and her body is, in a lot of ways, the source of her fame and which is part of the reason why she's devalued so thoroughly as a celebrity - is because the source of her fame is...
SANDERS: Is her body.
SANDERS: Yes. Just to touch back on Hillary really briefly - there are going to be a lot of women who will read her chapter and say, how does this apply to me? A lot of women that will want to enter politics or run for office - what lessons do these women take or should take from the story of Hillary Clinton? And what challenges will they face based on what she faced?
PETERSEN: Yeah. I have this part in the book where I say, like, how could you watch what happened in the election as a young woman considering politics and still be, like, oh, yeah, this is going to be a great idea? You know, it's like - it's masochism in some ways.
PETERSEN: But what I have seen since the election doing my political reporting - I have met so many women who are over the age of 60, you know, who are Hillary's age, who maybe were never part of a political movement in their life, who have really realized, OK, I don't care what anyone thinks about me. This is my cause. I am really interested in these older, unruly women who are in many ways invisible in culture. You know, like, after a certain age, you just...
PETERSEN: ...Become invisible. But they're using that invisibility as, like, a stealth cloak. So I think, you know, it's not necessarily taking a lesson from the chapter as much as the other parts of the book where I talk about, like, how crucial it is to embrace our own unruly components and capabilities.
SANDERS: Yeah. You dedicate this book to your unruly mother.
SANDERS: Describe her. How was she unruly?
PETERSEN: You know, she - when she read that dedication, she's like, I don't know. Was I that unruly?
PETERSEN: But she - you know, we lived in Idaho growing up - in northern Idaho. And what she did for me was model a way of being smart and assertive and take no [expletive] in a place that is really hard for women to be that way. And she also, you know - I really wanted her to be a much ruly woman. Like, I wanted her to always have, like, the coiffed hair and wear dresses that, like - I don't know - business dresses or something. She's a math professor. And she wore, you know - she wore whatever she wanted to wear. So I think, you know, subconsciously I internalized a lot of that approach and that posture towards the world around you.
SANDERS: Yeah. No, it's funny. It's, like, I was reading this book and realizing how, like, my conceptualization of my mother being unruly kind of came to me later I think because growing up, my father was a stay-at-home dad just because, like, he had aged out. He was retired when I was born. My mother was his third wife, so he was just older.
SANDERS: And she worked a full-time job, was very busy. She was a middle school principal and did some other stuff, too. So, like, in many ways, she was the final decider of, like, big questions for the family just because, like, that's how their power dynamic played out. And I didn't realize how kind of unruly that was until a lot later.
PETERSEN: Yeah. When you're a kid, you're just like, well, of course my mom is in charge.
SANDERS: Yeah. That's mom.
PETERSEN: You know, the mom's almost always in charge.
SANDERS: Exactly, exactly.
PETERSEN: But there is something really fascinating about how mothers in the home - like, they are this incredibly powerful force. But then society asks them once they leave the domestic sphere...
SANDERS: To not be in control.
PETERSEN: ...To not be in control.
SANDERS: Totally. Last quick question before I let you go. You can have a lunch date with any unruly woman anywhere in the world. Who?
PETERSEN: That's such a good question. I still - like, my favorite celebrity is Angelina Jolie even though she's very much kind of off the radar right now. But she has always fascinated and beguiled me in the way that she has controlled her own destiny. And she, you know - she does all of her own publicity. Like, she runs that game. And she's also just, like, an intensely curious and self-interrogating person. So yeah, I would love to have lunch with Angelina Jolie.
SANDERS: I'll forward the message.
PETERSEN: OK, great. That's good.
SANDERS: Hey, thank you so much. I enjoyed the book. I enjoy all of your writing. Oh, last tidbit - you're going to be in the Midwest to cover the midterm elections.
PETERSEN: I'm moving to Montana.
SANDERS: Look at you. Where in Montana?
PETERSEN: Missoula. I'm going to be covering the mountain West, broadly defined.
SANDERS: Look at you; look at you.
PETERSEN: So that means, you know, it can expand over to Washington and, like, Washington and Oregon but also maybe over to North Dakota, South Dakota. But a lot of the stuff in my home turf of Montana, Idaho, Wyoming, Utah, Colorado - it's a really fascinating place that doesn't get a ton of national coverage - but also still writing about celebrities. Don't worry about that.
SANDERS: Oh, nice, nice. I'm actually - so two good friends of mine are from Missoula. And I'll be in that area for a wedding in September, and I'm going to look you up.
PETERSEN: You should. No, seriously. It's gorgeous there.
PETERSEN: You're going to love it.
SANDERS: Thank you.
PETERSEN: All right. Thanks so much. It was great.
SANDERS: Thanks so much, yeah. Take care.
PETERSEN: You, too.
(SOUNDBITE OF FLEVANS' "FLICKER")
SANDERS: Anne Helen Petersen - thank you, Anne. Good luck out there in Montana. One more time, the book is called "Too Fat, Too Slutty, Too Loud: The Rise And Reign Of The Unruly Woman." Two quick housekeeping items before we go - one, if you're enjoying this podcast - and I really hope you are - please, please, please leave us a review on iTunes. It helps other folks find the show. It helps us get good feedback. Something about an algorithm makes it - it's good for the show. Just do it. Thank you.
Also, number two, if you want to be a part of our Friday Wraps when we take some time out to call a listener and figure out what's going on in their neck of the woods, email us at email@example.com. Tell us where you live, what's been going on where you are - and bonus points if it's a thing that we are not hearing too much about nationally, OK? OK, that's it for today. We are back on Friday afternoon with our wrap on the week. I'm Sam Sanders. Thank you for listening. Talk soon.
(SOUNDBITE OF FLEVANS' "FLICKER")
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.