Transgressive and Unruly Women: Talking with Anne Helen Petersen


Anne Helen Petersen’s debut BuzzFeed article, “Jennifer Lawrence and the History Of Cool Girls,” was revelatory not merely because of the nimble treatment of a fascinating topic, but because Petersen, a PhD in Media Studies, was doing something few academics were: writing in compelling prose about her intellectual interests for smart readers everywhere—not just within the perimeter of academia.

Three and a half years have passed since her now-iconic Cool Girl history, and in that time Petersen has become one of the foremost voices in contemporary media criticism. As a senior culture writer at BuzzFeed, she has written extensively on topics ranging from Donald Trump’s relationship to the gossip industry to a history of male shirtlessness to a celebration of Difficult Woman Betty Draper. In September 2014, her debut, Scandals of Classic Hollywood, was published. Based on her popular column at The Hairpin, the book is a lovingly composed but incisive series of celebrity histories that demonstrate how America’s fascination with Hollywood scandals belie our own anxieties, ideals, and prejudices. During the 2016 presidential campaign she waded deep into the depths of Trump country, seeking to understand the ideologies and motivations behind his supporters. And this June, her sophomore book project, Too Fat, Too Slutty, Too Loud: The Rise and Reign of the Unruly Woman, was released, a meditation on the unruly woman undertaken through a series of celebrity case studies.

A senior culture writer for BuzzFeed news, Petersen has relocated to Missoula, Montana, where she continues her work in feminist media culture while also covering Western US politics. I spoke to Petersen about unruly women, academia, and writing her book in two months.


The Rumpus: So you’ve got two books under your belt now, in relatively quick succession, which is awesome. And, as somebody who is starting to write her first book and has no idea what the fuck she’s doing, does the process of writing the second feel distinctly different from writing the first?

Anne Helen Petersen: No. And part of that is having written a dissertation before that. The way that I think of writing, and I think this is helpful and also sometimes depressing, but I just think of writing as a task. So, every day I wake up, and I’m either researching or I’m writing. And this has been my life since essentially like 2005, when I started grad school.

So, whether the work I’m researching/writing for is a 1600-word shorter piece on BuzzFeed, or it is a chapter in my book, I don’t treat them very differently. And so I don’t have a lot of accumulated nervousness or anxiety around the writing process.

I’m a very Type A person, very organized. I will read everything, I will organize everything, and then I will write everything. I use Scrivener to write, and the way that I wrote any of those chapters is not dissimilar to the way that I write any of my longer form pieces on contemporary female stars. So, the only difference really was that I was on book leave, and so I had to use each day to its fullest. I worked through the weekends. I wrote the first draft of Too Fat, Too Slutty, Too Loud in two and a half months.

Rumpus: Oh my God!

Petersen: Like researched it, then wrote it. And I had a very strict schedule that I put together when I started. It was like, okay, these many days of researching Broad City and these many days of writing, these many days of revising. And I had to keep with it, otherwise I wouldn’t have finished before the book leave, which would’ve been horrible because already I had to do my revisions on the weekends, while I was also doing my day job at BuzzFeed.

Rumpus: So, one of the things that I thought was really fascinating, thinking about both of your books together, was that you’re zeroing in specifically on the figure of the unruly woman in Too Fat, Too Slutty, Too Loud via the use of case studies. But in Scandals of Classic Hollywood, you’re engaging with that subject, too, in the context of gossip and how narrative can be used to contain or conceal unruliness.

It seems to me like there was an interesting intellectual progression from the first book to the second in terms of parsing this category or this concept. So I wanted you to talk a little bit about your interest in this idea of unruliness as you conceive it, and specifically the unruly woman, and how that’s been developing as you’ve written both these books, and written around it.

Petersen: I think that I’ve always been interested in transgression and how it is treated, how it is framed, how it is recuperated.

You know the one thing I always said about Scandals is that if you look at all these stories, who are the people who survived their scandals? They’re like skinny men. Skinny straight men. The people who were punished in various ways were fat, like Fatty Arbuckle, but also women. And especially women of color. Even the character of May West, who has a chapter in the book—she enjoyed this incredible moment of celebration and popularity. But then that celebration and popularity created anxiety that had to be reconciled.

I could have written a huge preamble to the book about all of these other unruly women. But when you’re not writing an academic book, you want to get straight to the meat of these contemporary women that people are thinking about. There are also other books, like Sady Doyle’s Trainwreck: The Women We Love to Hate, Mock, and Fear… and Why specifically about unruly women historically. The book that is the keystone of my book, my advisor Kathleen Rowe’s book, The Unruly Woman: Gender and the Genres of Laughter, about Roseanne, is about this as well. So I think without doing any sort of explicit trajectory at the same time I am grappling with many of the same issues that have happened historically to female stars.

When I first pitched the book and even when I was writing a lot of it, I was like, “Yeah. Celebration! Rise and reign.” And then it became abundantly clear both as I was finishing the book, and in the aftermath, that really we were in this buildup to a rejection that only really became super visible to a lot of people with the election.

Rumpus: That actually leads me to my next question, because I think women are in many ways still reeling from the election because we registered Hillary Clinton’s loss so intimately, and as indicative of prevailing sexism and misogyny. I really thought that she could win. But then your chapter on Clinton interrogates what made her ultimately an unsuccessful candidate. So that made me wonder, could we have had a successful female presidential candidate in 2016? I mean, what would she have even looked like?

Petersen: I do. I think that Hillary’s gender was one of many intersecting things. I think that the other modes of unruliness that are part of Hillary’s persona, whether that’s everything that happened with Clinton, with her husband, how she handled that, her defiance in a lot of ways. Those things sort of exacerbated the underlying unruliness of her gender. But I also think what I lay out in that chapter, building on lots of other people who have suggested this as well, is that our understanding of what charisma is, is masculine. We need to have examples of feminine charisma in order to expand that understanding. It takes more than just one.

Rumpus: Lately one of the only positive things about being in DC right now is that I’ve a lot of opportunity to attend protests. I’ve been eyeing Kamala Harris and wondering is she going to be our next icon, somebody we look to as that charismatic female politician? Because she’s a fantastic speaker. She’s sassy. She’s attractive. But I don’t know. She’s obviously got a lot of hurdles in her way, too.

Petersen: Even that sassiness. Men wouldn’t be like that in public. It’s hard because I think people like us who are like, “Of course people would root for a black woman who has all these other attributes.” But I think what’s more essential now is understanding the particularity of Barack Obama. I think it was sometimes like, “Okay we elected a black president, of course we can elect a female president.” Barack Obama was so exceptional in so many ways that I don’t think he is someone who proved anything.

Rumpus: Another question that both your books had me thinking about is, what right now is American society specifically demanding of women? Aside from the usual, are there specific things that it seems in this moment women are supposed to be?

Petersen: Well, I think it’s bifurcated, actually, in a way that obviously there’s always some standards of what a good girl should be like, and what a cool girl should be like. But at the same time I think that Ivanka is in many ways the ideal of this more conservative right in that she is beautiful, not explicitly racist or explicitly homophobic, she’s ostensibly socially progressive. But also at the same time doesn’t like to talk about politics. She very much knows her place. She doesn’t want to self-identify as a feminist because she doesn’t want to offend anyone. Also, she is very interested in girl power in the way it was demonstrated in the 1990s. Women’s advancement, but which women’s advancement? The advancement of women who look like her.

At the same time it’s a real fetishization of a certain type of slender, blonde female body. It’s a very limited understanding of who can be a good woman.

I think on the other side, what you find on a lot of college campuses is that you need to be woke. It’s still very much white. But you are alert to causes. You have a shirt that says “The future is female.” You might not know where that phrase comes from but it’s not cool to not support Planned Parenthood. I think we’ve seen that, if we think of female stars, and you might argue this was Jennifer Lawrence. Female stars both are avatars but also reinscribe this ideology.

I talked about this in the piece that I wrote about the great white celebrity vacuum. I don’t know if we have a white star who is actually the ideal of that. Like Beyoncé in some ways the avatar of it. Though I think Beyoncé’s politics are actually much more real, considered actual than some of the more inchoate politics of the ideal right now. Because it’s the social justice non-warrior, does that make sense? Like you don’t make anyone feel uncomfortable, but you have the signifiers of social justice?

I think we’re in a moment of transition; we’re in a super ideologically fraught moment. I think it’s significant that most of the women that are in my book really came to prominence not at the very beginning of the Obama presidency, which also felt like a moment of ideological transition, but several years in.

Rumpus: Performing social justice feels very connected to the new necessity of having a brand. That your brand needs to have these certain elements, you need to check off the boxes. That feels more like signifier than active action.

Petersen: Even a decade ago, absolutely, it was a radical thing to say you were a feminist if you were a female celebrity. Or if you were on a college campus. That is simply no longer the case. So I do think that having engaged discussions of what feminism looks like, what the future of feminism looks like, the sort of feminism that we want from the female celebrities that we admire.

The only real criticism I’ve had of the book, as I’ve seen on Broadly, is that I am arguing that for all of these women, whatever they’re doing is feminist because they’re women. Which, it felt like it was a misreading of the book, first of all. But also I very strongly don’t believe that. I don’t believe that Kim Kardashian is herself holistically feminist. But I do think that people can do things that are feminist without even intending to.

Rumpus: Another thing that I was curious about was what parameters of unruliness did you notice as you wrote Too Fat, Too Slutty, Too Loud? In what ways can white women be unruly that women of color or queer women can’t be unruly?

Petersen: I think that weight is a big thing. I think that a white woman like Melissa McCarthy can have the sort of success but Leslie Jones cannot. That’s a result of a lot of intersecting things about Leslie Jones. Things to do with her race, but also specifically what to do with colorism and prejudice that comes with that. Even the way that her voice sounds and her age, being over forty. So I think that weight is a big one. I think that sexuality, as well, is huge. Someone like Janet Mock, I think, has been very successful, but is absolutely not as prominent as Caitlin Jenner and also is very transnormative similarly to Caitlyn Jenner.

Rumpus: This is maybe sort of a weird question, but it’s something I’ve been thinking about [because] Trump is in our faces all the time. Some might argue that he is an “unruly” president, though that’s definitely not the first word that comes to my mind when I think about him. But I’ve heard from Trump supporters that something like unruliness is what appeals to them. Would you use that word to describe him?

Petersen: No. I mean here’s the thing. People have talked to me about, “Can men be unruly?” And I think that men who flaunt the expectations of what masculinity should be can be unruly. So whether that’s in dress, or voice, or in behavior, all sorts of things. But I think that the qualities that we think of Trump embodying, whether that’s brashness or confidence—those are things that when they’re manifested by men we call them, “leadership.” Those are qualities that are valued in men. He’s manifesting them slightly differently, but they are still valuable qualities. If a woman were to do those same things, it’s not just that she would be called unruly, she would be censored. She would be excluded from polite society.

So I think that’s an absolutely important question because otherwise you can be like, “Anything that’s different is unruly!” But I think that that being a consideration in thinking about how “bad” behavior is received differently between men and women. We’ve always known that and talked about that but it applies here as well.

Rumpus: I was wondering if you could choose a second unruly group who might be included?

Petersen: I would for sure include Beyoncé. When I first started writing this book [it was] before her more explicit politics had really coalesced. Lemonade was just released when I was halfway through the first draft of the book.

Rihanna would be in there. I wanted to get people from all sorts of different corners of the public sphere, whether it’s Elizabeth Warren or Kamala Harris. Those would be very worthwhile case studies. Leslie Jones would be good.

You know another person that would be very interesting would be Shonda Rhimes, over more on the production side of things. Another person I’m interested in is Jen Hatmaker. She’s a huge, huge figure in the Christian mom scene. She is also very anti-Trump. She’s fascinating to me. She’s very much like a social justice Christian. Or there’s this other woman, Glennon Doyle, who is also huge in the Christian mom scene and who divorced her husband and who is now engaged to Abby Wombach. So what unruliness looks like within the frame of Christian womanhood is really interesting to me.

Rumpus: Where do you see your academic training most revealing itself at this point, with two “popular” books under your belt?

Petersen: I think that the theoretical tools, just the basic shit that I learned, the stuff that I didn’t really learn until grad school. I learned them very cursorily in undergrad. Like reading a ton of Louis Althusser taught me to really understand how ideology works. And that sort of stuff seems very… what’s the word I’m looking for? Sophomoric? When you’re in grad school you’re like, “Oh, basic Althusser. But has she read all of this?”

Those are the sorts of things when you’re writing for larger audiences you have to be able to distill the concept of ideology or of hegemony in very basic but concise and compelling language. So really pounding that in, in all these classes, but then also the ideas of star theory, which were so central to all of my work throughout grad school.

Organizationally, of course—this isn’t meant to be dismissive but grad school teaches you how to be a workaholic, which is an incredible and damning skill. I work all the time to try to get work-life balance. My problem isn’t never working, it’s working less.

Also, the thing I always loved the most about academia was teaching. I try to get back into the classroom whenever I can, when people invite me. But I also think whether it’s my Celebrity Gossip Academic Style Facebook page, or my Twitter, or my articles, I think of it as a conversation, and I always want to be talking with the people that I’m writing for and trying to have discussions. In grad school I had to teach a lecture class and I hated it. I turned a sixty-person lecture class into a sixty-person discussion class. I tried so hard.

Rumpus: So if you could take a tenure-track job tomorrow do you think you would?

Petersen: No way. I wouldn’t get paid as much, first of all. Even though journalism is in some ways under threat in the same ways that academic institutions are, I think that the difference is that journalism is fighting the good fight right now. Most journalistic outlets have the people who are running the companies on the same page in terms of like, “Here’s what we want to do.” I think right now in academia there’s a really huge divide between people doing the labor and the people deciding the fate of the institution.

I think there are a lot of tenured professors who are fighting for grad students and contingent labor, but there are very, very few people in administrative positions who are fighting that fight. I think that I wouldn’t want to participate. Most PhD programs now are incredibly exploitative and leave their students with debt and without an honest pathway into careers that aren’t academia. I wouldn’t want to participate in that.

There’s just so many mechanisms that need to be fixed right now, and there are people who are working hard to fix them, but not enough. And you know, I’ve got to pay off that debt. I’ve got to pay off the $100,000 I still owe. All of it is from grad school. So how do I do that? I write books that I get paid for.

Rumpus: I also feel like there needs to be so much more communication between academics and journalists. I’m wondering, are those porous boundaries? To what extent is that even possible? It feels like there should be so much more dialogue than there is.

Petersen: I think having people like you and I in these positions is helpful. But on both sides you have to have people that are receptive. Journalists need to be willing to try to get the nuance and the gradations, and not just ask questions for the one-line quote that they need. And academics need to understand that they’re not going to publish articles with ten paragraphs just summarizing their research. I think that expectations on both sides need to be managed. That can form a much more powerful and advantageous relationship.

Rachel Vorona Cote is the author of Too Much: How Victorian Constraints Still Bind Women Today, which was published in February 2020 by Grand Central Publishing. She also publishes frequently in such outlets as Longreads, The New Republic, Literary Hub, Pitchfork, Rolling Stone, and Catapult. She was previously a contributing writer at Jezebel. She lives in Takoma Park, MD, with her husband and her extremely dramatic cat. You can find her on Twitter at @RVoronaCote. More from this author →