I went to see Caitlin Moran speak at London Book Fair this week. I’m not sure I like her.
I wanted to, and kind of assumed I would. I enjoyed her book How To Be A Woman at the time as a light introduction to feminism. It came at a time when my feminism was just starting to take wispy form. At a point where I was still uncomfortable with the word feminist, but knew it described the feelings I’d had all my life – the constant questioning eye on mainstream pop culture, the extreme discomfort with pornography’s effect on my intimate relationships and a sick feeling in my stomach when faced with lapdancing clubs. None of which I’d pieced together as feminism, but rather saw as me being strange or immature. Whoopsy. Being encouraged to shout ‘I’m a feminist!’ in the street and get my boyfriend to join in (and he did – with gusto!) was form of liberation for the chrysalis stage of my feminism.
The book gave me a sense of belonging. It was like the things I raised with people, only to be dismissed or verbally bashed into submission, the things that had been repressed and internalised as my ‘weirdness’, were actually acceptable – normal even. That’s always a nice moment. The ‘it’s not me, it’s them’ revelation. But the book really left me thirsting for more, because it’s so light on the details. It doesn’t fully explore the issues it raises. It was criticised for being contradictory in its treatment of issues such as body hair – Moran stating that sometimes she feels it can be appropriately feminist to shave, other times she doesn’t. Moran defends herself against these criticisms by pointing out she never intended to write a consistent political manifesto; this is part rant, part memoir and therefore, like any human response, fallible. At the time, however, I was largely happy with the book. It gave me a feminist kickstart, and made me realise I could create my own brand of feminism – there’s no prescribed formula. I have since become feminist extraordinaire (ahem), attending between 1 and 3 ‘feminist’ events a week. Last night, I was at the House of Commons for a talk about women in politics, for instance. This gives me a different lens to look at How To Be A Woman with.
Don’t get me wrong, I am thoroughly grateful to Caitlin for introducing fourth wave feminism to a wider audience and for mainstreaming the discussion of feminism. It feels like you’re much more likely to see a discussion of feminism in the press now than you were a year ago. Feminism is gradually picking up pace, new groups springing up everywhere – with every age group represented, from the The Camden School For Girls’ Feminist Group to OAPs. UK Feminista recently put a call out for teenage feminists as they’d been contacted by the press for personal stories from a young woman’s perspective. There’s interest mounting and we can expect to see more of the same in 2012. Let’s not underestimate the commercial success of Caitlin’s book in that interest.
However, arriving early for her scheduled interview with colleague and friend Sophie Heawood, and spending 20 minutes wildly over-gesticulating in a manner of self-importance, Caitlin Moran’s body language was alarmingly offputting for a person who wanted to like her. Her very mannerisms overdid themselves. Sometimes first impressions do count. But I’m not one to judge a book by its cover or a feminist by her appearance. She spoke well, and had many an amusing anecdote, which did make me smile – or at times, raise my maternal ‘time-to-be-concerned’ eyebrow – particularly the story about her daughter refashioning Barbie as if she were a real woman and giving her arm hair, because some (allegedly) hairy Venezuelan girls at her school shave their arms. Caitlin’s daughter is 8 years old. 8 years old and aware of the unacceptability of arm hair. But despite her articulate wittiness, Caitlin is one of those people who don’t quite answer the questions posed. When asked about party politics, she veered off into a discussion of why Slutwalks were right to use the word slut so polemically and back into the safe territory of a pre-formulated argument she had already written an article about. It was all a bit indulgent and wishy washy – lots of words, no substance. Lots of, ‘quick, an opportune time for this quip I prepared earlier!’ A lot of it seemed like an excuse to talk about ‘me, me, me’, with no feeling of needing to answer to anyone, or address the bigger picture of how it is if you’re not Caitlin Moran. And I think that’s the feeling I left with. Nothing is as interesting to Caitlin Moran as Caitlin Moran and her own unwieldy self-importance.
My main issue is the lack of substance to her arguments and her insistence on being humorous and light. She happily admits she’s no expert on feminism and hadn’t researched it to death first, despite feeling underqualified. I want to be an advocate for survivors of sexual violence. There’s nothing humorous about that for me. Rape is horrific and its causes extremely depressing. Caitlin Moran could not have known her book would be as successful as it was, and she certainly did not set out to write the mainstream feminist hit of 2011. But she now knows she has significant interest surrounding her. Her next steps are key. She could write something great, keeping her trademark comic ranting, but delving into serious topics a little more. You know, do something substantial. She did mention her next book, which is a collection of her Times articles, is coming out this year and will be called Moranthology. Maybe I should cut her a break – she hasn’t had time to write How To Be A Woman part two, and did encourage others to respond to her ideas with their own books, suggesting, partly tongue in cheek, partly self-indulgently, ‘No, This is How To Be A Woman’ as a title. But, a mish mash of her Times articles seems like a poor follow-up to such a successful first book.
Anna Van Heeswijk of Object, interviewed recently in The Observer, speaks about Caitlin’s misinterpretation of an Object-organised meeting which she gives prominence to in How To Be A Woman. Caitlin seems to think there can be some kind of happy, harmless porn and that Object want to ban all porn forever, starting now… and go! Anna details how much more complicated their approach is than that, how serious an issue pornography is and that it is largely a negative thing for everyone – men, women and children alike. I do believe that porn is predominantly shit for all parties, although many (including feminists) don’t. Even if you don’t believe porn has harmful effects, with a slapdash attitude to research and backing up your opinions like Caitlin Moran, I do feel victims of sexual violence come off worst. She propagates the ladette attitude of being okay with porn and lapdancing clubs, both of which have been disguised in the shroud of female ‘empowerment’ by the sex industry purely on the basis of profit. Women in lapdancing clubs struggle to pay back the club fees they have to pay to ‘dance’. They often rely on alcohol and drugs to get them through their performances. And because they’re in direct competition with the other dancers, they have to do more and more extreme things to get the punters to choose them over the plethora of girls around them. So ‘look but don’t touch’ goes out the window. Women who signed up to dance end up prostituting themselves. (And yes, selling any sexual act, no matter how small, does count as prostitution.) Anna from Object cites that 68% of women – pornstars, prostitutes etc. – who ‘undergo unwanted sex in exchange for money’ have post-traumatic stress disorder. I doubt lap dancers have much better statistics going for them. So, Caitlin – why not do a little bit more reading next time? It could go a long way.