If you want someone to explain exactly why you can’t stop talking about that one celebrity — and why no one else you know can either — there’s no one better qualified for the task than Anne Helen Petersen, the author of Too Fat, Too Slutty, Too Loud.
Petersen is a former academic with a PhD in media studies. Her specialty is star studies, a discipline that reads celebrity personas like texts, unpacking all of the fantasies and anxieties that audiences project onto celebrities — and that celebrities, in their turn, exploit in order to build up their fame.
Petersen built her online presence writing about the personas of classic Hollywood celebrities for the Hairpin, where she established her distinctive voice: academic and rigorous, but not jargon-y; always smart and informed, but never condescending. Most recently, she’s been a senior culture writer for BuzzFeed, where she analyzes how Angelina Jolie used semiotics to refurbish her post–Jennifer Aniston reputation, and the peculiar blankness at the heart of Melania Trump’s celebrity image. (Petersen recently announced that she would be turning her focus to covering the Mountain West.)
A great Anne Helen Petersen piece uses a celebrity as a lens for examining what we as a culture care about. Celebrities fascinate us because they embody certain cultural preoccupations — Jennifer Lawrence is cool in the way we think girls should be cool; Tom Hanks is an ideal white middle-class dad — so by taking apart the way a celebrity performs a persona, Petersen can analyze what about that persona is most compelling to us. She uses celebrity as a way of talking about what ideas we find attractive and what we find threatening.
Peterson uses 10 “unruly” female celebrities to illuminate the invisible boundaries our culture places on femininity
In Too Fat, Too Slutty, Too Loud, Petersen turns her attention to 10 women whose celebrity personas overreach the boundaries our culture has prescribed for women: Serena Williams is “too strong,” Madonna is “too old,” Hillary Clinton is “too shrill.”
These 10 “unruly” women have garnered public approbation for living public lives while overstepping one of the many invisible, brutally policed boundaries of socially acceptable femininity. How dare Madonna show her hands in public, at her age? How dare Kim Kardashian spend her pregnancy in skin-tight dresses — especially that pregnant? How dare Serena Williams grunt when she hits a tennis ball? And isn’t Hillary Clinton’s voice annoying?
By analyzing her 10 subjects, Petersen is able to make the invisible boundaries of femininity visible and legible: Hillary Clinton is considered too shrill because it makes us uncomfortable to listen to women campaign for public office. Serena Williams is considered too strong because she violates tennis’ racial and class expectations. Kim Kardashian was considered too pregnant during her first pregnancy because her body failed to conform to the polite, contained outline we demand of famous pregnant women and their petite “baby bumps.”
Petersen gives her subjects all due credit for maintaining their unruliness in the face of public pressure, but Too Fat, Too Slutty, Too Loud is not a hagiography. Petersen is a nuanced enough writer to explore, for instance, the transphobia Caitlyn Jenner (“too queer”) has faced as one of the most famous trans women in America, and to acknowledge that Jenner transitioned from a place of enormous privilege and has consistently championed policies that hurt the rest of the trans community. Petersen recognizes that all your faves are problematic, but that doesn’t stop her from analyzing what makes them your faves in the first place.
Too Fat, Too Slutty, Too Loud is the best kind of celebrity gossip book: it’s a book that shows us what celebrity gossip says about us. It demands to know why we are so obsessed with the ways in which these unruly women perform their femininity — and what it finds is not flattering to a society that likes to insist that sexism is over.