Women have always been punished for being in the public sphere (re: misogyny). It’s not just that people talk shit about famous women. It’s that there’s a clear double standard reflected in media and in popular thought. Think of the legacy of Kurt Cobain versus Courtney Love–they were both literally doing the same shit, but he’s cool and deep while she’s trashy and sloppy. Sady Doyle looks at figures from a while ago (Mary Wollstonecraft, Harriet Jacobs) to more recently (Sylvia Plath, Whitney Houston) to understand what it means to be in the public eye as a woman.
The best example from the book is the trio Britney Spears, Hillary Clinton, and Monica Lewinsky. Britney Spears is perhaps the most notable “trainwreck” in American history, but she started out being marketed as an all-American teenager who was both sexy and innocent–pretty much the perfect girl-woman. At that exact moment in time, all the Monica Lewinsky stuff happened too. So Lewinsky and Hilary Clinton were presented as polar opposites–one was sexual and young and desperate, the other was reserved and older and cold. Despite the range in personas, somehow none of these women are acceptable.
As a final thought, Doyle circles around to the issue of speaking up and being public or not, given the ways people very openly hate women (though they wouldn’t admit it if you frame it that way). A lot of this treatment is intended to keep women quiet. But Doyle encourages women to do their art anyway, say their thing anyway, do their thing anyway. Moving in fear about what will be said about us if we go public is lame. She’s careful to note that none of the women in the book are perfect feminists either. We’re all constantly re-inventing and re-imagining ourselves. A big part of the problem is that we don’t want to accept that other people are as complex as us individually. We don’t offer other people the same amount of nuance that we give ourselves internally all day everyday.