30 May 2017

The rise of the unruly woman

From Jesse Mulligan, 1–4pm, 3:08 pm on 30 May 2017

Men are bold, women are loud. Men are confident, women are bossy. It's an enduring double standard and it's time to look closer at it, the author of a soon-to-be released book says.

Left to right: Kim Kardashian, Anne Helen Petersen and Lena Dunham

Left to right: Kim Kardashian, Anne Helen Petersen and Lena Dunham Photo: AFP / Supplied

Buzzfeed culture writer Anne Helen Petersen's Too Fat, Too Slutty, Too Loud: The Rise and Reign of the Unruly Woman analyses how high-profile women including Hillary Clinton, Serena Williams and Lena Dunham are changing traditional stereotypes about femininity.

Petersen tells Afternoons with Jesse Mulligan these "unruly" women are powerful and provocative.

"I always think of it as just the phrase too much," she says. "In America we use this phrase 'this person's too much for me' and that can mean so many things.

"Like the title of my book says, 'too fat, too slutty, too loud', but also too much of anything that a woman is not 'supposed' to be."

Girls creator and star Lena Dunham, for example, has stared down criticism for being "too naked", she says.

"The discomfort that people feel from Lena Dunham stems from her tendency to not think of her body as something that first and foremost should be pleasing to men."

Appearances and behaviours considered proper for women tend to be rigid but change decade to decade, though not always in the same direction. Men also face stereotypes but these are often less contradictory, she says.

"The contradiction is what really gets to me, so the idea that like Kim Kardashian ... when she was pregnant it was like 'oh she's too sexual in her pregnancy',” Petersen says.

"But if she didn't go out in public and wear the same sort of clothes that she's always worn it would be like 'oh she's not sexy anymore’, so she can't win."

Petersen contrasts the media reaction to Kardashian's pregnancy with that of the Duchess of Cambridge.

"If you remember the way that that people covered Kate Middleton's pregnancy, I remember headlines like 'cutest pregnancy ever'.

"And Kim Kardashian's body by contrast - you know it was like she was 'doing pregnancy wrong'."

A lot of things considered out of bounds for women are often considered a source of humour, like being overweight in a movie, she says.

"I mean Melissa McCarthy - one of the biggest movie stars today - she's very rarely a love interest, or if she does get a love interest it's a source of humour like 'oh isn't it ridiculous that a fat person has sexual desire'."

American tennis player Serena Williams and her sister, Venus, have been targeted for their sheer success in their field, with Serena known for her power serve and "very aggressive game".

"There was tennis before the Williams sisters and now there's an entirely different paradigm of what tennis looks like afterwards.

"They caught a lot of flak for that, and a lot of it too was in coded language about their race and about the way that they dressed and that sort of thing."

The same principle can be applied to Hillary Clinton and her loss in the US presidential election.

"The thing around Hillary that made her difficult to elect, a lot of it had to do with the fact that she was a woman," she says.

"This criticism that she was too shrill, the idea of charisma, you know the idea of charisma is very much affixed to people who are masculine."

A woman, meanwhile, is somehow "beguiling you ... somehow getting the best of you".

"And I think that often times a man who is tricky is called wily or, you know, effective.

"They're more positive words that are used to describe them - they're 'good dealmakers'. Donald Trump is a tricky guy. It's not part of this 'sneakiness' in the same way necessarily."

Assertiveness is also a difficult quality for women to hold in society's eyes, she says.

"Instead of saying 'I am no question the best person for the job', saying something like 'I think I could do that job'. Having this posture of doubt or timidity.

"And Hillary Clinton has always refused that.

"She was like 'I am good at this stuff, I deserve to be in the White House' and people really rejected that idea."

Get the new RNZ app

for easy access to all your favourite programmes

Subscribe to Jesse Mulligan, 1–4pm

Podcast (MP3) Oggcast (Vorbis)