August 29, 2017
Revisiting the Trainwreck Files: Donald Trump
by Sady Doyle
Today, as we celebrate the paperback release of Sady Doyle’s Trainwreck: The Women We Love to Hate, Mock, and Fear… And Why, we’re remembering Sady’s awesome MobyLives series, The Trainwreck Files, in which she would pull a name from the headlines, and definitively tell us: are they a trainwreck, and why? In particular, the time seems ripe to revisit one episode of The Trainwreck Files whose relevance has, alas, only skyrocketed since we first published it just before Election Day: Donald John Trump.
Can men be trainwrecks?
The question comes up a lot — at least, it does where I’m concerned. At nearly every interview I’ve given for my book, the conversation has eventually come around to two things: Hey, aren’t there male trainwrecks, too? And: That Donald Trump — isn’t he kind of a trainwreck?
The answers—I’m just going to put them right up front, in the hopes no one asks me the question again—are no and no. The reasons for this are pretty simple: In order for our culture to “hate” and shame a woman, all she has to be is human. She just needs to have a sex life, or a bad day, or a bad breakup, or an illness — something we can blow up into a catastrophe and use to demonize her. But men—even the most overtly pathological men—face none of this scrutiny. Their fame is nowhere near as fragile as that of their female colleagues’. By the time we turn on a male celebrity, he needs to be a shrieking, flaming, four-alarm threat to the people around him. And sometimes we don’t drop him even then.
Consider: Michael Jackson only entered trainwreck territory after multiple allegations of child sexual abuse. Mel Gibson had been caught uttering racist rants by the time we found a tape of him threatening his girlfriend’s life. But there are also men who have done just as bad, or worse, with no public backlash whatsoever. The tales from Neverland Ranch are troubling, but Steven Tyler once adopted a sixteen-year-old girl so that he could have sex with her, and people rarely even bring it up. Mel Gibson’s rant to his girlfriend killed his career, but everyone still loves Alec Baldwin, caught on tape calling his eleven-year-old daughter a “rude, thoughtless pig.” For that matter, they also love Bill Murray, whose ex-wife has alleged that he beat her and threatened her life.
Calling Donald Trump a trainwreck may seem to fit, on some superficial level. As Rebecca Solnit has written, if Trump were a woman—bad spray tan, big hair, family money, inflammatory Twitter account—he’d be a Real Housewife already. But he’s not. In the real world, what Trump demonstrates is not the fragility of male reputation or credibility, but the fact that a sufficiently famous man’s image can be well-nigh indestructible — to our detriment.
Nothing about the Trump we see in 2016 is new. The humiliation of Alicia Machado? That was public. He gave interviews and arranged press events for it, for Christ’s sake. His propensity for verbal abuse, seen most recently in his obsession with “bimbo” Megyn Kelly? See his verbal abuse of Rosie O’Donnell, also public. Yes, his overt racism is shocking — unless you’ve ever read his Twitter account, where he’s been serving as the mouthpiece of the Birther movement for years. And yes, the sexual assault allegations he faces are horrific — and have been horrific ever since Ivana Trump reported he had raped her while pulling out fistfuls of her hair, which first became public knowledge in 1993.
Trump has always been exactly this awful, and what’s worse, he has never even tried to hide it. Over and over, we’ve found Trump accused of some horrible new thing (spying on teenage beauty contestants in the changing room!) only to find the confirmation coming from Trump himself (a radio interview about how nice it is to spy on girls in changing rooms!). He’s not a trainwreck; he’s a sign of how unwreckable white men really are, of how accountability and real consequences for their actions never come. In the absence of that accountability, someone loudly toxic and intentionally harmful can keep on scaling the ladder of success and power, until he stands an actual chance at running the country. Even today, in spite of having all this freshly uncovered, Trump walks into stadiums full of adoring fans.
That is a terrifying prospect. We had the chance to stop Trump, early on, before he did any real damage, and we didn’t. Instead, while all this was going on, we were focused on Paris Hilton’s sex tape, or Courtney Love’s drug use, or whether Taylor Swift had too many boyfriends. Lucky us, with our finely honed sense of priorities.
Verdict: Not a trainwreck, God save us.
Trainwreck: The Women We Love to Hate, Mock, and Fear… and Why is on sale now. Buy your copy here, or at your neighborhood independent bookstore.
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.