Book Review: Too Fat, Too Slutty, Too Loud by Anne Helen Peterson

In this collection of short essays, Peterson briefly dives into the world of American society’s most “unruly” women. These are women who push the envelope in terms of acceptable ways of performing femininity – everything from their bodies to their Twitter presence is scrutinized for not fitting the mold. Peterson features women like Serena Williams, Melissa McCarthy, and Madonna in her quest to showcase the unruly women of the early 2000s and 2010s.

I like this book a lot in theory. I love that it showcases women and talks about the ways their careers have pushed against patriarchal gender roles. Peterson leans into her PhD background and writes with an academic tone, which I personally really like. The book kicked up a lot of interesting thoughts and conversations with my friends and I think that’s really its greatest strength: it’s thought-provoking. I would love to read this in a book club setting.

But for all of Peterson’s talk about loving the “unruly” woman, she stills shames half the women in her book when they do conform to conventional gender roles or stereotypes. For example, in her chapter about Madonna she spends more time calling Madonna out for trying to make herself look younger than she does about the sexual revolution Madonna led. Sure, not every woman on her list got it right 100% of time and it’s interesting (and realistic) to complicate your argument by pointing this out, but it felt like she didn’t even think some of the women she chose to write about were unruly in the first place.

This contradictory approach leaves many essays without a clear argument. To be fair, Peterson warns in the introduction that not every chapter will have a clear cut thesis and that the book is more of a think-piece than a dissertation. But I didn’t love the meandering style of the arguments and often Peterson just seemed at odds with herself (which might be the whole point).

I would absolutely recommend this book to someone who is not well-versed in a lot of 21st century liberal theory because Peterson gives pretty decent high-level overviews of feminist criticism, critical race theory, and queer theory. But as someone who was an English major at a women’s college, it felt like pretty basic. I’m glad this book exists and I hope it finds the right audience, but I’m worried that only well-versed, liberal-arts-grad, womens marchers are going to pick it up only to be whelmed by it.

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