Laura Barcella | Longreads | August 2019 | 14 minutes (3,597 words)
In her acclaimed 2016 debut, Trainwreck: The Women We Love to Hate, Mock, and Fear … and Why, feminist author and cultural critic Sady Doyle dissected the ubiquitous American pastime of simultaneously idolizing and vilifying female celebrity. Her new book, Dead Blondes and Bad Mothers: Monstrosity, Patriarchy, and the Fear of Female Power, also looks at how the morass of misogyny poisons everything — including our psyches, our popular culture and our everyday lives. But this book focuses more intently on … horror.
Not the horror genre — though plenty of those examples are included — but about the horror of living as a woman in a violent patriarchal society that fears you, despises you; even wants you dead. Pulling from a broad range of cultural references, from Freud to Aristotle to the second-wave feminist theories of Dorothy Dinnerstein to obscure slasher films like The Mutilator, Doyle examines the myriad ways that the world is monstrous to women — and how the world has made monsters of us. “Women have always been monsters, too, in the minds of great men; in philosophy, medicine, and psychology, the inherest freakishness of women has always been a baseline assumption,” Doyle writes in the introduction. “A monster does not merely inspire anger, or disgust. A monster, by definition, inspires fear.”
The fantastically smart book that follows is broken into sections covering the monstrousness associated with the entire socially-prescribed female life cycle, from the spark of adolescence; to marriage and motherhood (with their attendant domestic indignities); to the solitude of old age.
In the Puberty section, Doyle examines the pain of growing up in a cis-male-centered society that doesn’t see women as actual people — we’re monsters, remember? — and how this dehumanization can escalate into horrific acts of violence. (The recent murder of 17-year-old Bianca Devins is a good real-life example; the ones Doyle uses in the book pull from horror films and ghoulish real-life stories, like the 1892 vampire case of Mercy Brown, “one of America’s most bizarre girl-monsters,” per Doyle.)
“In a culture where we’re trained to protect children and loathe women, the border zone [of puberty] is the subject of intense superstition and terror,” Doyle writes in a passage about The Exorcist. “Every woman is a girl who fell from grace, a monster who once was human. Puberty marks the point where girls stop being people and start being women.”
Doyle is angry, and does not mince words. Using examples from films, books, mythology, history, and true crime, she passionately probes the myth of the female monster, and the ways American culture fears not just women’s bodies, but our rage. She argues that men attempt to hold women down not simply because they despise us, but because the idea of women owning their sexual agency and inherent power is, well, Mutilator-level scary: “Beneath all the contempt men have poured on women … all the condemnation of our Otherness, there is an unwitting acknowledgment of our power — a power great enough, in their own estimation, to end the world.”
I spoke with Doyle via phone about her new book, as well as our mutual love of horror films, crime stories, and more.
Laura Barcella: How did the idea for Dead Blondes first come to you?
Sady Doyle: I’ve always been fascinated with darker stories and stories about violence. Where the book first started for me was specifically in body horror, because I’d stopped using birth control right before Trainwreck came out. By the time this book sold, I was about eight months pregnant. I wanted to talk about reproductive horrors, and the horror of being in a body so heavily controlled, penalized, and stigmatized.
To do that, I had to zoom out and talk about a much wider context of sexual violence. Somehow, when you’re talking about bodies that are marked as acceptable targets for violence — bodies that are marked as freakish, or strange, or lesser, or other — monsters come up. It’s only by looking at the monster that we can figure out exactly how human we, ourselves, are.
How does Dead Blondes and Bad Mothers differ from or expand on the themes of your first book, Trainwreck?
Trainwreck is [mainly] about historical figures. Dead Blondes has a lot of historical figures in it, too, people who were at one point alive. But there’s a weight in dealing with someone’s biography. If you screw up something on Valerie Solanas, you’ve taken a marginalized person’s life and cut it into a [false] narrative.
But I’ve also always been someone who writes about how fictional narratives shape us. We had headed out of the more optimistic Obama years, where there was a big boom of feminist blogging and writing. Feminism had become this trend, an aspirational thing.
By the time Trainwreck was out, we had moved out of that phase into a much darker place: We were dealing with the almost certain loss of Roe v. Wade. The Me Too movement started two or three months after I had begun writing Dead Blondes, and we were dealing with a lot of stories of violence and trauma in the media. It started to feel like being a woman was a much more violent thing.
I return over and over to the metaphor of war. We’re allowed to say that war is hell, but what does it mean when we lose fewer U.S. soldiers between 2000 and 2012 than women killed by their own husbands?
What was your process as far as research went? There are so many fascinating references in here.
A lot of this book rests on neglected or ignored second-wave feminist theory that I think has gotten swept under the carpet, like Dorothy Dinnerstein or Nancy Chodorow — discussions about reproduction and mothering, how women were broken and forced into raising the next generation’s children with the same values that had been used to oppress them.
[Culturally] we have moved past those second-wave theories into a feminism that is a little bit more … focused on younger women. Which I don’t want to be dismissive of, because women between 16 and 24 are more likely to experience sexual violence and relationship violence than other women.
There are a lot of stories, cases, and pop-culture references here that I’d never heard of before, which was surprising for me as both a horror fan and a true-crime aficionado!
I found things on YouTube [like] Tom Selleck fighting BDSM witches in their dungeon. It was amazing.
But four months into writing this book, I looked at Netflix’s horror section and realized I had seen every single thing on there. There’s also all these public domain slashers and terrible movies for, like, $3 on Amazon — I had watched most of them too.
But horror is a genre people take super-duper seriously. And they take it super-duper seriously within the horror community because it’s not taken seriously enough elsewhere. It’s always had that stigma of the genre, or the weird, or ‘This is just something for teenage boys to watch so they can see boobs.’
True crime is the same way. It is really heavily feminized, as if it’s just Midwestern housewives watching Lifetime movies.
They are both really detail-obsessive fandoms: communities where, if you are a true crime person, you probably have a favorite case, and you’ve probably reviewed every piece of evidence in that case a couple dozen times.
If you are a horror fan, you’re not going to be impressed when I tell you “Carrie” is about our fear of menstruation. You’ve seen “Carrie” and you’ve also read the five different books on the feminist implications of “Carrie.”
It was my job to do this book in a way where you don’t have to be a horror person to read this. I think if you are interested in sexual violence, if you’re interested in reproductive coercion, reproductive violence, you can read this and you can see that the fiction is brought in to serve the wider point.
Were you a long-time horror fan before working on this book?
Oh yeah. Like a lot of people, I got into it as a teenager; specifically Scream and The Craft. Those two came out within a year of each other and they had, like, half the same cast. Being a teenager in 1996 was all about watching Neve Campbell and Skeet Ulrich try to kill each other!
But there was a big boom in specifically teen girls watching horror at that point in time. Scream is the most financially successful slasher movie ever made, specifically because it got the same audience that Titanic a year later or Clueless a year earlier had gotten. Girls went to see it over and over.
I find that horror is almost a soothing genre, because it’s very validating. It’s often not that far [removed] from reality. It uses dream logic to tell its story, but it’s still one of the few genres that’s really upfront about how scary it is to be a woman and how much violence goes into a woman’s life.
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I’ve been a horror fan since I was a kid too. Horror does seem to help relieve some of the low-level, chronic anxiety and fear that I carry around with me as a woman in the world.
Absolutely. When I look at the horror movies I’ve loved, they always [clearly] track onto what I was going through in my life. When Tiger Beatdown, my first blog, was taking off and I was suddenly considered this public figure, a ton of anxiety and trauma came up … because I’m very shy.
It was really uncomfortable to be always in public and to have to perform. For most of the year after Black Swan came out, I would watch Black Swan, like, once a week, for months on end.
But we’re able to be a lot more overt in horror’s use of symbol and metaphor than most genres. It Follows is a classy example. You could have teens worrying about sex and about the responsibility that it brings … or you could just have a monster that’s an STD that follows them around on screen.
And Gothic novels were about getting married to someone you couldn’t trust — having to live in his home and find out that he had his ex-wife locked in the attic. They were all about the sexual politics of the day, and that’s why so many women wrote them and why so many women read them.
That’s the foundation of horror: Domestic stuff. Sexual stuff. Body stuff. Super intimate stuff that in day-to-day conversation is seen as too ’feminine.’
If you put it up on screen and you have actual blood, if you present anything roughly as violent as a woman’s life within patriarchy, then suddenly it’s a horror movie and suddenly it’s too scary for girls. Women to this day watch more horror than men do. They are the primary audience for it.
You mentioned in the book that you listen to the podcast My Favorite Murder. Are you into other true-crime stuff?
I will occasionally get really deep in a hole about a case. It was sort of an anxiety management tactic for a lot of my life. If I was depressed, I could tell I was depressed because I would want to look up Ed Gein or something. I would want to know how bad can life get.
I also get fascinated with odd chapters of history. But true crime wasn’t something I was as literate in as I was in horror.
But we have to talk about the fact that these horror stories we tell actually shape what happens to us. If you talk about The Exorcist, which a ton of people have over the years, you are also obligated to talk about the violence of [real life] Catholic exorcisms, because many people have died in the course of exorcisms. It’s a real thing. Anneliese Michel probably died because of The Exorcist, a movie that created a huge boom in exorcism cases.
I’m constantly immersed in crime stories for my job. Do you think there is any danger or any challenges that may come with immersing ourselves in crime and horror, whether it’s real or fictional?
I find it really important and validating to know about the violence of the world in its details. We are so strictly prohibited from talking about it. We’re prohibited from acting like it’s a big deal. We’re prohibited from really reacting emotionally to the amount of violence and horror in our lives with the grief or fear or anger that it deserves.
I return over and over to the metaphor of war. We’re allowed to say that war is hell, but what does it mean when we lose fewer U.S. soldiers between 2000 and 2012 than women killed by their own husbands?
[But with true crime], it’s such a delicate balancing act, because you are talking about real people and real people’s deaths. The danger for me was always becoming desensitized to that.
There were definitely points in the book where I got spooked. The chapter “Bad Mothers” is specifically about serial killers Ed Gein and Ed Kemper, both of whose cases were really bound up with their mothers.
That chapter was the only one where I was just grossed out all the time, because of the nature of Gein’s crimes and the nature of Kemper’s crimes in particular. But I don’t ever want to use a person’s trauma for entertainment.
We love stories about bad mothers because it both helps us satiate that need to feel more powerful than the woman who, at one point, had so much more power than us.
I think that’s the delicate position that true-crime content producers (writers, podcasters, documentarians) are finding themselves in right now: the balance between informing and educating people but pulling back from sensationalizing or exploiting.
It’s the seduction of narrative. I found myself doing it in this book, and in Trainwreck too. We, as humans, have a natural need to tell stories. We need to put the world into an order. “Here’s a person that’s kind of like you, and here are their obstacles, and this led to this led to this.”
Working on Trainwreck, talking about people’s mental illness, addiction, or deep trauma, when I found myself getting sucked into a narrative where I needed to punch up the drama of something, that felt really, really dangerous to me.
We do it in true crime too. People who are passionate about Adnan Syed’s case probably have studied it more deeply than I have, but I remember Hae Min Lee’s parents being profoundly angry that their daughter’s death had become national entertainment. This was a real person they lost, and all of a sudden people were following it like it was a network TV drama.
And Jon Benet Ramsey — I talk about that case in the book as an example of the excesses and exploitative qualities of true crime fandom. This was a six-year-old girl who died horribly, and everybody was obsessed with figuring out which parent had done it. The parents had to live with the knowledge that people thought they were rapists, abusers, or hideous monsters.
DNA evidence has actually cleared her family of involvement, but the test came too late: Jon Benet’s mother was dead by the time we knew she didn’t kill her daughter. I can’t imagine what it’s like dying that way.
People love stories about moms messing up — whether it’s accidentally leaving their kids in a hot car, or women like Casey Anthony. Why do we find such glee in demonizing women like these?
Think about it. [Motherhood] is one of the vanishingly few forms of power we have accorded to women. We haven’t accorded it to them in any super-empowering way; it’s just that everybody else thinks that doing childcare is dumb and boring and gets in the way of accumulating real power in the world, so women get stuck with it.
But we tell women, “This is your authority. This is your power. You are going to be responsible for taking care of your children.”
We tell them that it’s their main purpose in life to assert that authority over their children. And when you are a child, you don’t have an understanding that the person taking care of you is operating within an adult context where their power and their personhood has been limited — where they are often carrying scars of pretty deep, brutal trauma themselves.
What you understand [as a child] is that there is a woman who is bigger than you who decides if you live or die. This gives us an idea of women as much more powerful than they are on some level. But it also belies what the real situation is, which is that we live within a patriarchy where men have not only most of the power in the public sphere but are presumed to have the ultimate authority in the domestic sphere as well.
But it’s really not healthy for a patriarchy to accord women authority in a way that actually resonates, or is permanent, or that translates to real power. Therefore, even though women have some authority in the domestic sphere, specifically authority over children, it is within patriarchy’s best interest always, always, always to cast those women as flawed. As screwed-up. As responsible for anything that may go wrong.
We love stories about bad mothers because it both helps us satiate that need to feel more powerful than the woman who, at one point, had so much more power than us, and because it’s the fiction that allows us to continue to blame whatever violence goes out into the world on the woman — who probably was a victim of that violence [herself].
It’s not the social order that we blame; it’s the woman who is responsible for recreating it, who is never going to be allowed to be a smart, determined, autonomous person capable of running her family. There’s always got to be a doctor or a husband or a boss telling her what to do, or she’ll run amok.
In the book there’s a lot of discussion of motherhood and pregnancy — what about women who don’t have kids?
That’s kind of the downfall of the book: It traces the shape that a woman’s life is supposed to take within patriarchy, so we can examine how screwed up all those roles are. I try not to center this book exclusively in cis-womanhood. But it does end up centering [a lot] on motherhood, because that is what women are instructed to be. They’re told they will be worthless if they’re not mothers at some point, just like they’re told they’ll be worthless if they’re not married.
At the very end of the book, I talk about witches — how the witch is often a woman who is single. She’s often very old. The implication is that maybe she’s had a husband and children and they’ve all left her or died. We are deeply, deeply distrustful of them. We view them as unnatural, scary, profoundly disruptive and threatening.
If your reproductive life is centered on your body, if you are the ultimate authority and that comes down to whether you decide to have kids by yourself or never to have kids, it scares the bejesus out of people. It is the most dangerous, threatening, horrifying outcome for patriarchy.
If we no longer exist in this simple binary, where a woman is a person with a uterus and a woman’s purpose is to get impregnated and bear the children a man will call his, the second we start to break that down and actually let people have families — or not have them — in the shapes they [decide], using the methods they want, that’s when patriarchy literally begins to dissolve.
Other than educating ourselves, what can women do to actually feel safe in the world we live in? How should we take care of ourselves right now?
I think one crucial part, paradoxically, of being safe is acknowledging that we’re not safe. We need to be as public as possible about this violence. That may or may not mean sharing our own trauma history; some people want to do that, some people don’t.
We need to come to a formal, public acknowledgement that to be a woman means to be in continual, physical, potentially lethal peril. If you brush a guy off in a way he doesn’t like, you could be killed. It doesn’t matter how good you are at being inside at night or always dressing conservatively. None of the little self-protective “walk with your keys in between your fingers” tips are going to protect you if someone genuinely wants to kill you, and someone may.
But once we know that, we can start to look out for each other a little better. Women can start to form communities. Women can start to form political action committees. Women can start to engage not only in their lives in a way that respects and protects each other’s vulnerability, but in the political world in a way that respects and protects the sheer amount of violence that we’ve experienced.
We also need to remember that a transgender woman is less safe walking down the street at night than I am. A black woman in America is vastly more likely to die in childbirth because of negligent gynecological-centric practices than I am [as a white woman].
Part of respecting each other’s vulnerability is respecting that we are not all vulnerable in the same ways, or to the same extent. Ultimately we need to have that out in the open and to treat this emergency as an emergency, because it’s only then that we can really start talking about how to have each other’s backs.
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Editor: Dana Snitzky