Why are we so fascinated by ‘trainwreck’ women?

Olivia Cooke unpacks why the media loves the downfall of influential women and why the rest of us can’t resist watching.

Intoxicated. Addicted. Exposed. These are the tell-tale signs of the modern-day female trainwreck. Both an object of sexual desire and a reviled figure under the piercing gaze of the patriarchy, the paradoxical nature of the female trainwreck is a perplexing yet deeply unsettling issue which still exerts a prevalent grip on our contemporary society. In her fascinatingly relevant feminist study Trainwreck, Sady Doyle argues that for centuries transgressive women acting beyond the boundaries of social convention have become the objects of social satire. Their character flaws are exposed to the mockery of a largely male audience, eager to distort the achievements of these women. From Mary Wollstonecraft and Sylvia Plath to Amy Winehouse and Kim Kardashian, time and time again we have seen successful women morphed into trainwrecks. They are berated pioneers within their respective careers, and frequent attempts are made to ensure each of these women receives a severe and very public character assassination.

Asif Kapadia’s stunning film Amy portrays with raw honesty the damaging consequences of the public vilification of the contemporary female trainwreck. Charting her meteoric rise to fame from the earliest stages of her career, Kapadia’s documentary exposes the corrosive effects of Amy Winehouse’s controversial media attention. Bombarded by a frenzied mob of paparazzi, Amy transforms from a jazz singer to the epitome of a trainwreck. By focusing on her troubled relationships, self-harm, bulimia and her drug and alcohol addiction, we see the media distort the successes of Winehouse’s musical talents as mere accompaniments to a damaged and flawed woman. Having watched Kapadia’s documentary recently, the film forced me to reflect upon the current issues which affect women within the media spotlight. I believe our society harbours a culture which fetishizes the ‘broken woman’. The downfall of an influential woman is both a form of public entertainment and a means of maintaining archaic and misogynistic values in society.

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I cite Hillary Clinton as a prime example of how damaging misogynistic media attention can be in perverting a woman’s public portrayal. For a woman who had upheld an illustrious career within the American legal system, in addition to being a prominent figure within American politics, she became the subject of intense public vilification and criticism during the highly fraught US election last year. Certain pockets of the media, unsettled by the idea that a woman could be elected into the most powerful, political position in the Western world, began a  smear campaign of constant sexist abuse. Headlines such as ‘Looking tired Hillary: Clinton wears no makeup on campaign trail’, coupled with Republican campaign paraphernalia bearing disgusting slogans such as ‘Hillary Sucks But Not Like Monica’, were used to undermine and discredit Clinton’s political integrity. In exploiting her husband’s sexual mores and her apparent political incompetency after a hack into her private email server, Hillary Clinton was transformed into a trainwreck.  Her outstanding political experience was overshadowed by a personal attack on her physical appearance and private life.

Another issue affecting the portrayal of the contemporary female trainwreck is the stark divide between representations of women from different racial backgrounds. Sofia Coppola’s film The Virgin Suicides had a predominantly white cast and the film’s international success saw swathes of teenage girls emulate the ‘trainwreck’ lifestyle of the ill-fated Lisbon sisters. Other white female trainwrecks such as Sylvia Plath and Mary Wollstonecraft have been similarly romanticised by their fans: Plath’s struggle with mental illness and the severe criticism which Wollstonecraft received after the publication of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman are celebrated as part of their legacies. Yet the depiction of black female trainwrecks is far from this romantic ideal. Azealia Banks’s decision to upload a video onto Instagram showing the aftermath of her sacrificing chickens led to a surge of public vitriol against the hip-hop artist. In the aftermath of either a mental or physical breakdown, so many black female trainwrecks have immediately been typecast as ‘crazy’ or a ‘danger’ to society. Regardless of race, sexual orientation or faith, all women should be viewed equally in a public light. In the case of the female trainwreck, no race should receive ‘preferential treatment’ over the other.

It seems to me that being labelled a trainwreck appears to be a death-nail for a woman’s career. It is the last preventative measure in preserving the patriarchy because it fundamentally discourages women from achieving their dreams and ambitions. It says ‘Look, if you don’t toe the line, if you don’t behave like a normal, domesticated woman, you will be put back into your place.’ Now, more than ever, I think it is time for change. We need to reclaim this term of abuse and turn it into one of empowerment. We need to celebrate our flaws, our physical imperfections, and we need to refuse to adhere to patriarchal ideals. Why should we let certain bigoted, archaic, and misogynistic sections of the press and society tell us what we should look like, how to behave, even how to think? Ultimately if we reach that tipping point, if we reach that place either mentally or physically where we are that edge, we need to be able to support one another as sisters no matter what. It is time to abolish the concept of the female trainwreck and celebrate the successes made by women across the world everyday.

Illustrations by Isabel Kilborn

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