When women signify too much

By Jia Tolentino

BOTH Elena Ferrante and Kim Kardashian West are women of considerable, if divergent, cultural influence, and so it’s not surprising that the very different intrusions each of them experienced this past weekend have been glossed in a similar, woman-specific manner.

Ferrante, the Italian novelist who remained fiercely and coldly pseudonymous throughout her ascendance to literary superstardom, was unmasked on Sunday morning by a journalist named Claudio Gatti, who published a clumsy piece about her apparent identity in Italian, German, and French outlets simultaneously, as well as in English on the Web site of The New York Review of Books.

Kardashian West, the entrepreneur who has been building a fortress of financial and cultural capital around the practice of self-exposure, was robbed at gunpoint in a rented Paris apartment on Sunday night. Local police told Reuters that ten million dollars, mostly in jewelry, had been stolen from Kardashian West, and that she had been left tied up in the bathroom.

Neither the robbery nor the unmasking was a gender-specific privation. But both Ferrante and Kardashian West were targeted because they are famous, and the celebrity of each woman is connected to the ways in which she has navigated the predicament of womanhood. And while their methods are diametrically opposed, both have made it their life’s work to express a specifically feminine point of view.

Ferrante’s novels are about the deep, irregular flashes of resistance that a woman experiences within a society that diminishes her. Kardashian West’s empire is a shallow, relentless exploration of how a twenty-first-century American woman might take her sexuality and her family life to market at the same time.

The fact that these women have been assiduously securing these narratives for years—and the quickness and severity with which men could threaten that security—ensured that a subsequent story, connecting Ferrante and Kardashian West, would follow. On the side of their aggressors, there is an idea that both of them were, as people tend to say about women, asking for it: Gatti’s article on Ferrante argued, very poorly, that she’d “relinquished her right” to live anonymously, and that “she and her publisher seemed to have fed interest in her true identity.” People ran an article with the headline “Kim Kardashian West’s Lavish Social Media Posts Made Her a Robbery Target: Security Expert.” The Hollywood Reporter anonymously quoted other attendees at Paris Fashion Week who “seemed to believe the incident was caused, at least in part, by her own photographic frenzy.”

On the side of Ferrante and Kardashian West—a position I have seen more often, and put forward with much more force and righteousness—there have been a set of arguments that could be aggregated like this: Women, remember that no matter how successful you get, some man will always be at your door trying to take it all away. “If you are female, and you are talking, you are at risk,” Christine Friar wrote at The Awl. Ann Friedman, at The Cut, took Ferrante and Kardashian West as two examples of “how women are punished when they are perceived as revealing either too much or too little about themselves.”

This is all true, and yet something about it seems inadequate. The problem is larger, I think, and trickier, and located earlier in the formation of a woman’s ambitions. As it relates to non-celebrities, at least, the problem is not so much about what happens to women after they become established and successful. The problem is that a woman retains so many obligations to so many people that she must, almost always, strip-mine her selfhood to achieve that success and security in the first place. Ferrante made her books a pointed exploration of this mandate, and has protected herself with anonymity; Kardashian West has made herself a florid example of the phenomenon, and has protected herself with notoriety and cash. Both women have become symbolic for having first surmounted a set of gendered obstacles, and then for having embedded those obstacles into the foundation of their fame.

Last month, the feminist writer Sady Doyle published a book called “Trainwreck: The Women We Love to Hate, Mock, and Fear … and Why.” It’s a historical and cultural anatomy of a particular type of woman, the trainwreck—a category that stretches with each example as the book goes on. In the first few paragraphs, Doyle describes Amanda Bynes, Kim Kardashian, Taylor Swift, Lindsay Lohan, Amy Winehouse, Whitney Houston, and Britney Spears: a group of women in the entertainment industry who have been covered negatively by the media for reasons that are not in themselves related—dating, overdosing, having a psychotic break—but which are grouped, within this book, as actions that attract misogyny. A series of case studies follow: Mary Wollstonecraft, Marie Antoinette, Valerie Solanas, Charlotte Brontë, Sylvia Plath, Billie Holiday, Harriet Jacobs, Hillary Clinton, and Monica Lewinsky—these last two are “the Betty and Veronica of sexism,” Doyle writes.

By the end of the book, the trainwreck category includes you, if you’re a woman, and me, because I’m a woman, and also every woman who has ever made a name for herself while experiencing any sort of vivid personal problem, whether that problem was imposed by outside forces or not. Doyle writes, “The trainwreck is crazy, because we’re all crazy—because, in a sexist culture, being female is an illness for which there is no cure.” Within this framework, the primary organizing principle of being a woman is the hatred that other people direct at you, and what you must then do about it. The trainwreck “breaks the rules of the game and gets punished, which means that she’s actually the best indication of which game we’re playing, and what the rules are.”

Doyle is elaborating on an approach that’s central to the world of online feminist media, in which she was an early figure, having founded the blog Tiger Beatdown in 2008. Her cohort accomplished their work with such vigor that the writers who followed—a group in which I count myself, having worked at Jezebel from 2014 through this summer—could trust that a general consciousness of contemporary sexism had already been raised. Though I find it hard to draw a line from Harriet Jacobs publishing “Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl” while experiencing the privations of slavery to Taylor Swift releasing albums while experiencing tabloid scrutiny over her dating life, I don’t question for a minute that women are still targeted harshly for being sexual or brilliant, canny or unmaternal, uncontrolled or selfish, or anything that a woman seeking success in her particular field might be pushed to be.

What seems different now is that women are publicly celebrated and defended, often with equal or greater vigor, by other women, for the very same things. And so idolization and hatred are on the same playing field, and, increasingly, they’re on the same team. At separate points, Doyle writes both that trainwrecks are “the inverse of what a woman should be” and that they’re “the women to whom we are all meant to aspire.” The “we” of the book speaks directly to women; as in the subtitle, it also frequently speaks for the people who hate women, too. To validate her choice of celebrities—to gild them symbolically as feminist trainwrecks—Doyle must often invoke the worst possible opinions about them. She writes, with presumably intentional (though still somewhat bizarre) exaggeration, that “approximately 89% of Nicki Minaj’s press converge, outside of the feminist blogosphere, tends to focus on: Her butt,” and that, online, “the #1 trending topic is still a debate about whether Rihanna is a Bad Role Model for Women.” This rhetorical mode risks locating some large part of a woman’s cultural worth in other people’s hatred of her—or at least making those things seem inextricable. This may be true for celebrities. But I don’t know if the paradigm that surrounds famous women is as relevant to the rest of us as it’s so frequently made out to be.

Doyle barely mentions the legion of women and feminists, many of them on the younger side, who have always already idolized the trainwreck: who cried for Whitney Houston and worshiped Valerie Solanas, who loved Britney Spears as a princess and loved her as a mess.

Toward the end of “Trainwreck,” Doyle comes to a point that could serve as the premise for a very different book: “Women, it turns out, are not symbols of anything, other than themselves.” She’s right, and yet it’s clear that women still attract a certain kind of heated veneration that can’t yet be entirely separated from hate. The process of anointing an idol is dangerous to our idols, and perhaps to our own psyches, even when conducted on the best of terms. And so there may be danger, too, in making overly symbolic the mess that often attends their successes: a robbery, an unwanted investigation, a meltdown, a premature death. These incidents are most meaningful within their specific, individual contexts. An essential burden of womanhood remains that of being required, by everyone, to signify too much.

Jia Tolentino is a contributing writer for newyorker.com