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“A weeping woman is a monster,” writes Takoma Park-based author Rachel Vorona Cote in the first line of her new book Too Much: How Victorian Constraints Still Bind Women Today. “So too is a fat woman, a horny woman, a woman shrieking with laughter.” These women are “too much,” in the language of the book. By her own admission, Vorona Cote is one of them, and she is tired of being told she’s too much: too loud, too talkative, too crazy. Too Much, her response, is an impassioned defense of “too muchness” (her terminology) in women, blending literary analysis from the Victorian era with meditations on pop culture from the last century. But in 2020, the book feels like an anachronism, and it offers few new insights into how misogyny circumscribes women’s presentation and emotional lives.
Vorona Cote weaves into her work the classics of 2010s feminist writing on “muchness,” like Leslie Jamison’s The Empathy Exams, Jess Zimmerman’s essay “Hunger Makes Me,” and Anne Helen Petersen’s Too Fat, Too Slutty, Too Loud: The Rise and Reign of the Unruly Woman, which Too Much deeply resembles. Their writing paved new ground for what feminism could be outside of the academic sphere, and much of it remains deeply relevant and affecting—obviously, the problems of entrenched sexism have not been banished by their naming. But as Vorona Cote acknowledges her debts, it forces the reader to wonder what Too Much is attempting to add to that canon in 2020. A singular focus on the Victorians would be distinguishing, but instead it covers a wide range of pop culture, touching on Britney Spears, Moonlight, Demi Lovato, and Beezus and Ramona. Because Too Much fails to decide which tonal register—academic or pop-feminist—it would like to live in, it neither works as a showcase of Vorona Cote’s scholarship or of her emotional, personal work. The unfortunate fact is that the book comes a few years too late. What would have been a sharp work in 2016 is blunted by the fact that, by now, women have been asserting their claim to unruliness for years.
The book also doesn’t push past the genre’s traditional focus on white womanhood, though it tries. Vorona Cote often mentions how race and class complicate how women are percieved, but sometimes her attempts at a broader worldview fall flat. In her chapter on fatness, the ultimate “too muchness” of the body, she mentions how black women are punished socially and professionally for wearing their hair naturally. These are not unrelated issues, of course, and decades of feminist scholarship encourage us to consider their intersections, but comparing the experience of a fat white woman and a thin black woman facing racism is not as easy as Vorona Cote would like readers to assume. While white supremacy has a hand in discriminating against fat bodies, discrimination against fat people can’t be swapped out for antiblackness. Likewise, Vorona Cote spends much of her penultimate chapter, “Loud,” discussing sexist double standards for women in the workplace; to help broaden her gaze, she circulated a questionnaire to a diverse group of cis and trans women and nonbinary people. Because of that, the chapter constantly gestures at “women and femmes,” attempting to add some gender expansiveness into the book. But because she doesn’t interrogate the category of “woman” as it’s been constructed anywhere else and rarely makes overtures toward the differing experiences of transgender people, the sudden inclusion feels wedged in at the end.
Too Much’s biggest problem is treating individual transgression as a substitute for collective liberation. A side effect of the feminist thought Vorona Cote is drawing on has been the growth of the idea that, because women are so often prevented and discouraged from doing things coded as masculine, a woman doing those things is by definition good, and doing so is automatically a feminist act. In “Cheat,” a chapter detailing female promiscuity, sexuality, and Vorona Cote’s own infidelity, she tries to tell an unabashed tale of leaving an unhappy marriage without defending her bad choices. Unfortunately, she is too often seduced by what writer Jia Tolentino has called “the cult of the difficult woman.”
It’s a legitimately brave chapter that attempts some ambitious work. Vorona Cote understands that she’s portraying herself in a negative light; in the spirit of the book’s project, she says, she doesn’t care. “I expect some others might protest that for me to take such a defiant tone in this chapter is both insolent and unremorseful. If I am not confessing my sins, what here is worth telling? And why should I, then, the perpetrator, be the one to tell it? … I say that a woman’s volatility is her prerogative, and that her happiness is not for others to adjudicate,” she declares. Though she makes the unhappiness of her first marriage obvious, she declines to linger on her ex-husband’s character or faults to justify her actions. This resolve is admirable: Vorona Cote is uninterested in making herself palatable or attractive to the reader. But because she declines to meditate on her first husband, she also declines to reckon with the pain she certainly caused him. Similarly, she refuses to engage with the tossed-off revelation that her sister refused to talk to her for a year after her cheating. Sometimes, behavior is censured not because of Victorian mores or institutionalized misogyny, but because we owe consideration to our loved ones and our society at large. On some level, Vorona Cote is aware of this: “Making space for too muchness does not mean we can fully disregard the needs of others, but it does demand more flexibility than we are currently afforded,” she writes. Had this intelligent statement been the thesis Too Much’s analysis actually built toward, it would be a much more useful book.
A 2017 essay by Bridget Read for VICE on Petersen’s Too Fat, Too Slutty, Too Loud is instructive here. Read criticizes Petersen’s intense focus on the “unacceptable” behaviors performed by some of the wealthiest, most powerful women in the world, including Hillary Clinton and Kim Kardashian. How does their aesthetic unruliness create systemic change? It doesn’t, Read argues. “We have a pantheon of rowdy, truth-telling, brash, sexy women who we can claim as our WCWs, but our love for them has failed us politically. If the pinnacle of unruliness is ultimately the consolidation of ‘power, stature, and attention,’ it cannot—logically, philosophically, syntactically—also be an ideology through which we achieve equality,” she writes. The comparison is apt considering how closely Too Much resembles Too Fat in style and substance (it even got a blurb from Petersen). Both books argue that individually bucking the curtailed expectations for women is an act of liberation. But true liberation means dismantling the limitations in the first place, not fetishizing transgression, which is unavailable to those who can’t afford the very real costs of breaking the rules.
Too Much works on many levels. It’s written with passion for the subject and sustained attention, full of compelling prose and observations that will surely resonate with any woman familiar with straining against the edges of the shape she’s expected to fit in. But its failure to go further means it treads old ground. It is simply not enough.
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