Caitlin Moran, the controversial U.K. feminist, defends Lena Dunham and takes Hanna Rosin to task
I first fell for Times of London columnist Caitlin Moran when I read her memoir-cum-feminist-treatise “How to Be a Woman” — laughing out loud as she evoked the experience of growing up working-class in England. I felt an instant kinship with her since my working-class parents had fled with me in tow to the United States to escape a system that kept them bound to their class status. Reading her book gave me a sense of what my life might have been like had we stayed. But I was also taken with her raw candor, a feminist who just told it like she saw it, in a world so determined to shut women up.
So I was eager to interview her about feminism, with her new book publishing here on Nov. 6 (it’s already out in the U.K.): “Moranthology,” a collection of essays from her columns at the Times, where she has been writing since 1992. Our conversation had been commissioned by Bitch magazine. And then, in a strange turn of events, Bitch’s editor-in-chief Kjerstin Johnson killed it when Moran tweeted, on Oct. 5, something that would bring opprobrium — from all corners — down on the writer’s head. Moran is no stranger to controversy — she has more than a few detractors, namely Katie Roiphe and Heather Wilhelm, who’ve both derided her interpretation of feminism as being crazy, jaded, embarrassing and mortifying — but still, I was astonished that a feminist magazine would censor another feminist. Another woman, period.
Moran’s offending tweet concerned her upcoming interview in the Times with Lena Dunham, whose “Girls” has come under attack from being oblivious to racial issues. A respondent, identified as “lizzie c,” asked, “@caitlinmoran did you address the complete and utter lack of people of colour in girls in your interview? i sure hope so!” Moran responded, “Nope. I literally couldn’t give a shit about it.” The tweeter quipped: “what a surprise @caitlinmoran loves lena dunham. white feminists who ignore the experiences of WOCs have got to stick together guys!!!” When Moran tweeted back “@lizziecoan THANKS FOR YOUR INPUT,” a storm was unleashed in the English press, both in the Guardian and the New Statesman. Her responses gave Bitch serious pause, and when Moran had not walked back her comments, the magazine no longer felt comfortable promoting her work.
The end. The magazine hadn’t asked me to follow up with Moran to get the full story. I was pissed that a tweet was being used to justify the kind of feminist self-censorship that gives our detractors more cudgels with which to beat us. Isn’t there supposed to be room in feminism for a wide variety of viewpoints? I decided I’d pursue the answer myself, and reach out to Moran. She responded quickly, via email. “I shouldn’t have been as brusque,” wrote Moran.
“I broke my own first rule: Be Polite. But I was frankly offended that this woman thought me and Lena Dunham were somehow conspiring in some undefined racist plot, simply by telling our stories about slightly overweight spotty girls just trying to get on in the world, and tell a few jokes about our thighs. I’m not going to wank on about the ethnic mix of my friends and, indeed, family, but I found that first tweet presumptuous, rude, and about the worst thing you could accuse anyone of. I’m bemused by the notion that there should be rules in story-telling that mean you should have to tell everyone’s story, all the time. Clearly that’s not the case. No one’s ever done it, and no one ever will. I wrote ‘How to Be A Woman,’ not ‘How to Be ALL Women.’ I would never presume to speak for 3.3 billion women. There is no ‘one voice of feminism.’ There is no ‘one voice’ of anything. We need whole gangs of girls, hundreds of them, thousands of them, all speaking for themselves about their experiences and their truths and their missions. If a woman of color was allowed to make show as funny and honest and daring as Dunham’s — wandering around slightly overweight, naked, spreckled with acne, and talking about abortion, I’d be pitching a fucking massive feature on that to the Times, too. And I wouldn’t ask that writer why there were no white characters in it, just like I didn’t ask Dunham why there were no people of color in ‘Girls.’ I think it’s as dumb as asking ABBA, ‘Why aren’t one of you black?’”
Moran’s “I literally don’t give a shit,” was not a broader commentary on race and feminism — it specifically referred to “Girls.” But as a longtime admirer of Bitch, I felt they, too, deserved an opportunity to explain what motivated them to kill the piece. The editor-in-chief told me, “Moran’s tweets topped off some uncomfortable asides I found in ‘How to Be a Woman,’ jokes about devastating wars in non-Western countries, flippant use of the word ‘tranny,’ burlesque is cool/burqas are bad — and confirmed a nonintersectional feminism I don’t want to support. Moran’s lack of public accountability didn’t help.”
Johnson’s reasoning for killing the Moran interview points to the same uncomfortable truth that we keep coming back to: The media has positioned some women to be the voices of the feminist movement, and they are, for the most part, white. Bitch opted out of giving Moran an outlet for what it found to be an increasingly disturbing blind spot in Moran’s writing. But feminism is a big, noisy, not-always-peaceful tent: Moran has to be given a voice to say these things, and lizzie c, too, for her disapproval — neither of them should be told to shut up because we’ve been reduced to communicating in 140-character sound bites. That’s not the feminism I know. Here is the feminism I do know, the conversation I’d originally set out to have with Moran. About feminism.
Why do you think so many women are allergic to the word “feminist”?
I think they don’t know what it means. We stopped using it right around the time the Spice Girls came along, which is one of the reasons why they annoy me, and we just started saying “girl power.” I think we thought that the fight had been won, and instead of talking about boring old feminism with its boring old legislation and its boring old history we just started talking about girl power instead. And it just stands for girls being friends and buying Spice Girls records and we stopped using it. It wasn’t just a failure of academic feminism. It was a failure of popular culture as well, the way that we didn’t see any feminist characters in films or on TV and in pop music, and … It became this thing that you would do to famous women: You’d say, “Would you describe yourself as a feminist?” and always sort of dare them to say yes.
Every idea is like a game or a germ and you need people to spread it and we just hadn’t played that game for a while. It was because I was aware that we hadn’t, but I thought, “Someone’s got to write a book about popular, modern feminism.” I said that for three years, “When is someone going to write that book about popular, modern feminism?” After a while, as women will, I thought, “Well, I’m going to have to do it myself and bite down,” and started writing.
We have people in this country, like Rush Limbaugh, who refer to feminists as “feminazis,” and have really painted us into a corner.
The whole thing with abortion in America is absolutely nuts and you realize what the danger is. I mean, there are things that women can do to make the situation better. The thing is, one in three women in the Western world will end up having an abortion but they never talk about it. When you keep silent about that stuff, it is because you are embarrassed by the societal distaste of the topic. And it’s very easy for a man like Rush Limbaugh to just come along and go, “Well, I don’t know anyone who’s had an abortion. I never hear anyone talking about it. It just must be a couple of weird people who fucked up. It’ll be OK to revoke this law, it’s not really going to affect anybody.”
Because you know, as far as they’re concerned, many of these laws — it’s not a personal thing. On the day that they started talking about passing that legislation, if the number of women who had had an abortion had just gone on strike, then you would have seen that the fact that we live in the culture we live in, is because it is a fact that women have control of their fertility. Part of the reason why this world is so very pleasant at the moment and such a civilized place, businesses work, and families work, and things happen, is because women have gained control over their fertility in the last hundred years, and if everyone who had the right to have control over their fertility were to go on strike for a day it would be incredibly symbolic, and we would realize how prevalent and necessary it is.
It would be symbolic, too, because women’s minds grind to a halt if they’re not in control of their fertility; we’d return to a Victorian age. The thing is that it’s just making a conscious decision not to be embarrassed about this legal thing that is something that nature will do, that your body will abort babies. In your mind, it’s exactly the same thing, and just going, as a reasoning human being, “I am choosing not to be embarrassed or mortified by this thing.” I think every woman is beholden to themselves to just do that sort of thinking and working that one out.
For V-Day on Feb. 14, Eve Ensler has called for a general women’s strike, where women just simply walk off the job and to demonstrate our importance. I love your idea that if every woman who’s ever had an abortion, or in my case, had a spontaneous abortion, were to simply walk off the job and say “reproductive rights” — I mean, it is obviously about reproductive rights but for me it’s a basic civil right. How can I be considered a human if I don’t have control of my own body?
The incriminating thing to me is that you’re saying to women, “You will not have a choice about this, you must become mothers. If you make one mistake, you have one unprotected fuck and you become pregnant, you must pay for that for the rest of your life.” And the equivalent of that is if men went out gambling and lost a bit — if they went out and were playing poker in a club and got pissed [drunk] and then the next day, someone knocked on the door and presented them with a 23-year-old homeless man and said, “He’s going to live with you for the rest of your life. You made a mistake last night, and you now have to look after Alan forever,” and that would still be a more benign version of what happens to women. Because we give birth with all its attendant risks, physical and psychological risks, and then you have a new baby, you don’t even have a fully grown human. If you presented a man with that kind of thing, he would go, “What? Do you mean seriously? For one night’s drunken mistake I have to do this for the rest of my life?” He would be outraged. And yet, there’s no difference between that and trying to set women back to the time before abortion. It’s absolutely ridiculous.
It would be nice if men — and I’m not knocking men — but if “certain” men would “get it.” Besides the fact that we have lawmakers here who think our vaginas and uteruses can figure out when we’re being raped and can therefore keep us from getting pregnant.
It’s amazing, isn’t it? That’s just embarrassing. And you know the old school way would be to get angry about that, but it doesn’t do any good to get angry about it. Women just have to laugh in these fuckers’ faces and say, “Seriously? You’re this ignorant? You’re basically saying that you don’t even know what a vagina is or you would not allow people to say it and yet you are still telling me what to do.” These men shame themselves with the things they say. If I had a child that was making as much of a tit of themselves as these people are with the things that they’re saying about the way that women become pregnant and sex and marriage, I would not be able to hold my head up. These people’s parents, they must be embarrassed about them when they say these things. And how do these people make new friends? How do these people move in their social circles?
They must know women who’ve had abortions. They must know women who’ve been raped. They’re socializing with these people every day and presumably these women who’ve had abortions or been raped keep quiet. Then again, men just continue to be allowed to live in their own ignorance and it’s why women need to talk about these things. If you want a serious revolution then, well, you’ve just written a book, but what action are you going to do, what legislation do you propose? You start with the cultural change so it’s acceptable for people to talk about these things, which is why as the supposedly high-profile columnist, I did the improbably career-worthy unwise thing of talking about my abortion. Theoretically that’s really quite risky, but you know, I’ll happily take one for the team. I’ve generally got low levels of embarrassment.
But someone needs to start a conversation: Why don’t we talk about this stuff? This is normal. And everything in that book is normal: menstruation, masturbation, abortion, mental illness, eating disorders, not wanting to have a child, wanting to have a child. That’s all the stuff that every woman goes through. All of the stuff in “How to Be a Woman” is stuff that you’re supposed to keep secret. So, it’s a whole book full of secrets that I’ve gone out there and told and nothing bad happened. It was fine.
There are American feminists, especially people like Hanna Rosin, who’ve insisted that feminism is over because women have won — you may not have heard this news — and everything’s right now.
I kind of figure that might have been on the news if that were the case — you know, at the point when black people got the vote, that was on the news, and when women got the vote, that was on the news — if women had actually won the sex war. Women kind of won because 1 percent of the world’s wealth lies in women’s hands. That’s a World Bank statistic. The other 99 percent of the wealth lies in the hands of men. When even the World Bank is rolling out a status as fucking scary and meaningful as that, of course we haven’t won. How many world leaders are there? You can sit them around a very small coffee table. That’s just balls.
How does class work in Britain now? Is it about money rather than which vagina you were lucky to slide out of when you were born?
At all levels of society you operate favoritism, there’s always jobs for the “boys.” In the working class, there’s a job going down at the garage and, “You’re Uncle Gary’s kid and you can have that job.” We always work with people that we know. But the difference is that the stakes the working class are playing for are just, you know, getting your dodgy MAT [car inspection] on your car, and the stakes that the upper classes are playing for are control of the country. Control over policy and control over the media. It’s an entirely human thing.
I don’t campaign for the end of the aristocracy or the upper classes; I don’t really want to destroy anything at all. I just want more plurality. You just have to make sure that everyone — because things would get fucking boring if it’s the same shit as the past 10,000 years. I mean, you genuinely can’t tell the difference between white, middle-class straight men’s faces. You could put like 50 of them in a room and unless they’ve got interesting facial scars or are wearing a distinctive hat, I could not tell you the difference among any of them. They all just look the same.
People in America are absolutely obsessed with “Downton Abbey.” I actually refuse to watch it because I feel as if my working-class background would explode if I were to watch it.
I think it’s by way of saying that if you were spanked quite viciously as a boy by a mother who wore stockings and high heels, you grow up and what you want is to be spanked by someone who will then fuck you, because you move the psychological problems that you have, you move them into the sexual arena because it’s a very easy way to deal with them and bring them to the fore and then you deal with your traumas in that way.
In that way, “Downton Abbey” is the equivalent of being spanked by Mistress Whiplash, because there are things about the suppression of the working class that are just made to look pretty along with some shagging and some lovely scenery. So I don’t think you even realize that this is the kind of working classes’ inbuilt cringe and deference toward the upper classes, and the middle classes like to watch it because it hearkens back to a simpler era and they’re glad that the middle classes were invented and they’re not in the kitchen but getting to spy on the upper classes, and the upper classes watch it like a documentary: “Yes, but of course we have 15 cooks and 19 butlers. That’s factual.”
In thinking about Pussy Riot: Do you see a possibility for a resurgence of feminist political music that will challenge the status quo?
Yeah, in just the way that one band’s been able to make headlines around the world and rope in the industry to support them, definitely, that’s the best way to do feminism. Do it through pop culture. We’ve seen how far feminism simply being a matter of academia has taken us and it just kind of grinds to a halt. It’s a very limited audience. It will always be the same people turning up and saying the same things. Feminism needs to grab pop culture in exactly the way that Pussy Riot did. And I think the “Slut Walks” were like pop-rock phenomena as well. Like it’s Gay Pride or Halloween or something and parodying sexuality, you know, parties where you walk along filming the whole thing, and the creativity with the banners and the sloganeering and that. And the thing is, if you’re a young girl with a bit of a chip on your shoulder with a halfway decent sense of humor, then these are suddenly the ways that you see what feminism can do. Instead of it being, “I’m feminist because I’ve read these three books and I got a bit angry about some stuff and drunkenly kind of harangued some sociology second-year male student in a bar at 3 o’clock and make no difference at all.” Or “I can read about these things and go out in the fucking streets and make some fucking noise and have a bit of a drink and piss about and feel like I’m part of a big gang. I’m normal for the first time and second the culture is around me in that way.”
That’s what young girls, that’s what feminism has to be: engaging teenagers by them saying, “This is a thing for me, and I’m not doing it because it’s good for me or because I should but because I read in a book that it was the correct thing to do; I’m doing it because it thrills me, it’s exciting, it’s like clubbing at 2 o’clock, I feel powerful and like I’m moving in the right direction.” That’s why I love all those girls.
I was annoyed at all the old feminists who were going, “Why do they have to dress up sexy?” First of all, they’re not dressing up sexy: It’s a parody of sexuality. They’re being silly. And it’s not down to you to dictate what the next revolution is going to be like. You know you can’t just look down to the next generation and say, “Your revolution is unsuitable to me. I wouldn’t have done the revolution that way.” No, you say, “We’ve had our revolution, and ladies, good luck with yours.” You can’t sit there and convivially dictate what the next revolution’s needs are and how they’re going to mediate it.
Can we talk about the war on pubic hair?
I’ve had a couple of women come up to me and guiltily, drunkenly confess that they still wax and they like it and that works best for them and it makes sex better for them and all this stuff, and they’re expecting me to just reach into my handbag and grab a pubic hair and shove it on them going, “No, no. You must be hairy forever.” In my own most benign and lovely way possible, I don’t care what women do if it makes you happy. I being a pubicatarian, it’s all fantastic.
Again, it’s all about plurality. I just want it to be, you know, it’s gotten to the point where we see so many genitals thrust into the camera wearing a tiny bikini on MTV that are completely hairless that we think that’s what’s normal. If you ever saw one in one video with hair escaping from underneath the bikini line it would be headline-newsworthy. They’d certainly ban it. In the newsroom they would have already scandalized it. That’s obviously the way that’s the normal and that’s the natural thing; that is what they look like.
What for men that’s normal would suddenly be not normal? That’s the thing I’m annoyed about. I want it to just be an option and then obviously the money thing comes into it as well, as I put into the book. It’s obviously the idea that you pay tax to be “normal.” There’s no other instance, no parallel instance where men have to pay a regular monthly fee to feel normal about a body part. And if you could get them to do that, they would stare at you as if you are insane.
You use the word, “cunt,” and I regularly throw around the word “twat.” Do you still think there are words that feminists shouldn’t use because somehow we wind up denigrating ourselves?
The only thing I care about more than feminism is 1) being funny and making jokes, and 2) swearing a fuck of a lot. My priorities are swearing and gags first, ladies third. I just could never let go of such a brilliant word as “cunt.” Some days, for whatever reason, you’ve just got to use it — whether you’re referring to your lovely own in the middle of a massive shag or swearing at some asshat on television. It’s just too good a word. We just can’t let that one go, and we don’t need another battle to fight. I have got one and I demand the right to call other people one at the same time. Calling someone a “cunt” is, I mean, there’s almost an admiration in calling someone, “What a cunt.” There’s an evil, hard-edged thing that goes along with being a cunt. If you call someone a “penis,” they just sound really dim. You know, that’s “penis.” It actually sounds worse when you use male genitals and swears than women’s ones. Far lovelier to be called a cunt than a penis. Let me put it that way.
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