October 11, 2016
Introducing: The Trainwreck Files
by Sady Doyle
Today, we’re happy to introduce a new series, The Trainwreck Files, in which Sady Doyle, acclaimed columnist and blogger, and author of the brand-new Trainwreck: the Women we Love to Hate, Mock, and Fear… And Why, will look at a figure appearing the headlines and answer the question: are they a trainwreck?
Today’s file: Alicia Machado
When Alicia Machado won the Miss Universe pageant, the one thing she looked forward to most was being able to eat normally again.
“When I was preparing for Miss Universe, it was an obsession for me to not gain weight,” she told the Washington Post in 1997. “By the time I won, I was actually recovering. But the year leading to it, I didn’t eat at all.”
In that profile, Machado, whose interviewer had arranged to meet her at a trendy Los Angeles restaurant, reportedly refused to order any food. She sat there, at the table, drinking plain water.
By that time, her weight—and what right she had, as a woman in the public eye, to choose her own food or exercise any control over her own body—was a national spectacle. She’d left her diet, gone back to her normal weight (she says she gained about twelve to eighteen pounds), and had been publicly and privately humiliated for it. Donald Trump (the owner of the pageant) called her “Miss Piggy.” He arranged to force her onto a new diet as a condition for keeping her title—this was well-publicized; outlets like CNN were covering her weight with jokes about the “expanding universe,” and rumors about her being replaced by a skinnier runner-up were rampant—and called in a fleet of photographers to watch her exercise.
The treatment was evidently bad enough to trigger an eating disorder. And, since she’s come forward with the story, her reputation has, if anything, gotten worse. Right-wing radio shows call her a “porn star” (she posed for Playboy, and was once caught having sex by a hidden camera on a reality-TV show). Trump has advised the world to “check out her sex tape.” Here’s a sample YouTube comment, on the reality-show clip: “She not a model citizen. She was involved with a narco, she threatened a judge and was an accessory to murder, she’s a slut and lives [sic] the attention… She’s a nutcase.”
In other words: For the crime of telling her story, of being a human with a story to tell instead of a beautiful body shaped to our specifications, Alicia Machado has been framed as a trainwreck. We’ve attempted to discredit her story by arguing that she doesn’t have the right to tell it, or can’t tell it correctly: That she’s sexually overabundant, emotionally overabundant, crazy, and therefore not worth hearing. This isn’t new; lawyers call it the “nuts and sluts” defense, and it’s a common feature of sexual harassment and assault trials. If you can’t argue that a woman was not hurt, you have to argue that she was somehow deserving of the pain.
Yet the framing of Machado as a trainwreck doesn’t entirely stick, in this case. Trainwrecks are objects, not subjects; the women we tell stories about, not the people who tell the stories. Granted, both the support and the attacks Machado is currently getting are, to some extent, conditional on other factors—whether you like her may depend on how you’re voting; the Hillary Clinton campaign is working with her, and the Trump campaign is, inevitably, working against her—but there’s also been a wide public recoil from an attempt to argue that having a sex life means she deserved to be tormented into a traumatic illness. When Trump tweeted about her “sex life,” the scandal and revulsion largely redounded on him.
Which is to say, there is something in Machado owning her story—even the most humiliating or messy parts of it; even mental illness, pain, and shame—that has given her agency in the matter. That reclamation of her narrative might not work outside of a Presidential campaign, but it is a kind of wonder that it’s worked at all.
Verdict: Wrecked, but not a trainwreck.
Sady Doyle founded the blog Tiger Beatdown in 2008. Her work has appeared in In These Times, The Guardian, Elle.com, The Atlantic, Slate, Buzzfeed, Rookie, and lots of other places around the Internet. Her first book, Trainwreck: The Women We Love to Hate, Mock, and Fear... And Why is out now from Melville House.