What Do We Really Mean When We Call A Woman A "Trainwreck"?

We all know what it means to call someone a trainwreck. It refers to a person who has gone off the rails — a hot mess who always seems to be in the headlines (or your newsfeed) for the wrong reasons. A pop star who shaves her head in the midst of an emotional breakdown, a child actress who gets arrested for a DUI. One thing these trainwrecks almost always seem to have in common? They're women.

But where did that word come from — and what does the word's usage really mean about the way women are viewed in our culture at large? Those are just a few questions at the center of a new book by Sady Doyle titled Trainwreck: The Women We Love to Hate, Mock, and Fear... And Why?

Doyle's position, in part, is that the word trainwreck is just a repackaging of how women have been cut down to size since pretty much the dawn of time: Today's trainwreck is yesteryear's hysterical female. We talked to Doyle about "crazy" women, the words we use to control them, and why stories about crazy dudes seem to disappear into the ether. (Funny how that works, isn't it?) Read our interview in full, below.
So here's the big question: Is it actually getting better for women in the world, or is that just something we have to tell ourselves?
"There are a cultural shifts going on— I talk about it a little bit in the book. For example, sex tapes, revenge porn — it used to be you'd go into a feminist sex store and they would have [Paris Hilton's sex tape] 1 Night in Paris. They sold it at Babeland, and the question of whether the release of that tape was consensual — which it wasn’t — never came up. Now we’re a lot more sensitive to that, to how hacking someone, stealing nude images, stealing their sex tape or publishing it without permission, how all of that is a form of sexual assault. I think that we are not exactly more sensitive about people’s mental health issues: You’ll still read things about how you know Taylor Swift is a psychopath or Jennifer Aniston is a sad old woman. She’s married, but I still feel like we get those because she doesn’t have a baby."

"Yeah, how dare you [laughs]. I think we are certainly not as carnivorous in regards to celebrities as we were before Whitney Houston and Amy Winehouse passed away: I think those two were kind of watershed moments where people started to reconsider. But the other problem is that now we do this to each other. We have way more social media trainwrecks than we used to. We’ve downgraded trainwrecks to the point that we’re no longer as voracious and as ferocious toward celebrities. But only because we have a bunch of way easier targets to hit — and our control over them and our ability to hurt them is much greater.”

Was there a pop culture tipping point when you just thought: Okay, that's enough, I need to write a book about this now?

"I don’t know that it was just one tipping point — this started as sort of a genesis of an idea when I was reading Mary Wollstonecraft’s letters to Gilbert Imlay. Gilbert Imlay is a man that Mary Wollstonecraft had a live-in relationship with, who basically abandoned her but didn’t say that was what he was doing. I was fascinated by this, because these letters, when you read them, are urgent and human and come from a place of such obvious agony. Mary Wollstonecraft had always been presented to me as,‘Well she’s a feminist. She’s a strong feminist women and she had good solid ideas, like ladies being able to vote and go to school.’

"I was in Texas, and Fiona Apple was performing down the block, [and I got to thinking about] her having spent pretty much her entire career being called crazy every time she was sad in public or having a bad day. It struck me that this vulnerability had been sort of excised out of our accounts of women we had decided to revere — but [at the same time], vulnerability had been used as an excuse to ignore the accomplishments or the humanity of women today. I started trying to create sort of like a weird conspiracy theory chart. Like, ‘Well, what about Emily Dickinson? What role does she play in this? What about that Alanis Morissette song? Everybody made fun of her for that.’ My weird conspiracy chart [was] ready to roll [in] 2014, when somebody asked me to write a book and I was like, ‘Yes! Women who are called crazy, now the chart springs into action.'"
Photo: Illustrated by Abby Winters.
Author Sady Doyle.
How did the word "trainwreck" fit into all this?
"Trainwreck as a concept was so compelling — it was such an easy short hand for these women. I really started with an idea of exploring the archetype. We have always stereotyped women as crazy — you can find women you know talking about, ‘Well I’m just upset, I’m not crazy.’ But women who actually are 'crazy,' women who actually do go through really painful illnesses or painful times in their lives; they have historically always been used as spectacles to scare the rest of us back into line and to keep us in mind of what we look like."

This idea that women need to be scared straight, so to speak, pops up a lot in the book. But the other side of that, it seems, is that there is a very real masculine fear of femaleness.
"There is a fear of women; there is a fear of who women will be if they are not obedient, if they don’t 'correctly' perform femininity in the way its laid out for them. The reason we examine women so ferociously for signs that they are physically out of control or emotionally out of control is that there is this feeling that if you took the chains off, women would just run lose — they’d cause chaos. One really easy way to keep someone from stepping into her power is to convince her that she is broken. I think that we display women who are sexually assertive or who are emotional or even who are even very opinionated as monsters, as broken people, just to keep women from really being able to step into their own lives and into their own power."

This sounds a whole lot like what has happened to Hillary Clinton over the years, which you talk about in the book.
"Oh yeah, absolutely. I think Hillary Clinton — especially on the campaign trail in 2008 and now — has been surveyed for signs that she is either on death's door or having some kind of emotional freak-out. You could go back to the infamous crying speech in New Hampshire, where if you watch the video, she seems like she’s speaking softly and her voice is a little hoarse, but it was definitely portrayed as, 'Hillary Clinton can’t stand losing, is having an emotional meltdown.'

"People have these fantasies about Hillary Clinton being somehow permanently broken, because she’s an exceptionally powerful woman. Our cultural imagination can’t contain that, unless she only exists to be this powerful so she can implode. We still operate in this space where women can be superhuman or subhuman, they can be angels or they can be demons; but being a human with off days is not something that we’re really good at allowing female people."

There's also this hunger to watch powerful women — Hillary Clinton, celebrities, women in the spotlight — fail, and to consume that failure as media.
"Hillary Clinton is a really good example of this, [the idea that] we have the right to consume someone’s internal life and their narrative and their personality, that it can balloon outward and outward until the desire for content leads us to the place where we’re reading articles about her brain damage. There’s no evidence that it exists. But the myth takes over and it’s not even connected to the woman anymore.”

Is there any connection between your book,
Trainwreck, and Amy Schumer's movie, Trainwreck, or is that all purely coincidental?
"No and no. I’m gonna glide right over that."

Okay then. One intersection I saw between the two, though, was that while we have all these trainwreck stories about women, there is a complete dearth of stories about crazy men. Where are those stories, do you think? Because obviously there are crazy men in the world.
"I think that because we have more rooms for men’s emotional lives — because men have always been more privileged to tell their own stories — when a guy is in a love story, we tend to assume that he’s the subject and the women is the object. That he is the one who thinks and feels and breathes and pines and chases and dumps... Mel Gibson was a pretty crazy boyfriend: There’s a lot of violent, terrifying stuff that he said to his former partner. You could argue that Robin Thicke and his weird meltdown around being divorced from his wife would fit the narrative of a crazy ex-boyfriend. Like: You left me and my entire next album is about how I’m going to win you back.

One really easy way to keep someone from stepping into her power is to convince her that she is broken.

Sady Doyle
"Because we have room for men’s subjectivity we can understand that, like, Lloyd Dobler [from Say Anything] is not a serial killer when he’s out there on the lawn with his boom box: He’s just sad. We don’t have that same space for women: Women are meant to be ideal objects that get related to. [A woman] should want someone exactly as much as they want you, no more no less. So if you want something that the other person doesn’t want — if you’re sad, if you’re out there on the lawn with a boom box as a lady — I hate to tell you, you are getting arrested. He will never stop telling the story about how terrifying you are."

Trainwreck: The Women We Love to Hate, Mock, and Fear... And Why?
was released on September 20, 2016.

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