Feminism is a dirty word for many people but Caitlin Moran is on a crusade to get it back on the agenda. SINEAD GLEESON tries to get a word in edgeways with the polemical columnist and author
The prospect of interviewing Caitlin Moran (pronounced the way UK football pundits used to say Kevin Moran’s name – More-an) is a slightly daunting one. Not because of her larger than life persona, or the rapid-fire volume of puns and gags she projects on Twitter – the ones that mean you’re dealing with someone whose jaws are working almost as fast as their hair-trigger mind. Moran is also an award-winning journalist and London Times columnist, and it’s hard not to imagine her speaking in the same block capitals and exclamation marks that litter her writing. Before the first question, she launches into a story involving a pretentious parent and a door wreath. “Isn’t that the wankiest thing you’ve ever heard?!” Predictably, her laugh is big and unapologetic. And we’re off, chatting about small children and circling that same opening question about the F-word – feminism. At a time when there is little debate about its connotations or the implications of the word itself, Moran decided she wanted to tackle the subject, and found getting a publisher for How to Be a Woman was easier than she thought.
“It felt a bit like being a footballer with a shot on open goal, where you wonder, is no one going to stop me from doing this? Initially, people said that no one would publish a book on feminism, but I figured they might, because there has been such a hole in discourse for so long. “I sat down and wrote every day with a full heart, thinking, I really do want to make things better. I wanted women to remember that they’re okay as they are and to stop seeing themselves as a list of problems.” The broad inventory of shame that many women feel about their lives is critiqued and pulverized in the book: from body hair and masturbation, to having children and dealing with the kind of sexism that casually insinuates itself into women’s lives. But feminism is still a dirty word for many. “There are surveys where only a small percentage of women call themselves feminists, and yet women who say that they aren’t, still believe women should work and be entitled to equal pay.”
How to Be a Woman – a triptych of memoir, rant and feminist narrative – is unrelentingly personal, whether pouring out the vicissitudes of her lonely teen years, or speaking about sex and our bodies. Moran is often hilarious, and always direct. “I think I’m the first woman to describe menstrual blood clots and masturbation in a book – and it’s 2011. We never talk about this stuff. It’s not so much a failure in feminism, as in popular culture, which from film to sitcoms has failed to give us good female role models.” It’s that same lack of role models that Moran believes leads to teenage girls choosing not to be “active women”; using baby talk; and waiting to be “found”, or married. Instead of making their own lives, there is aspirant Wag-dom. She claims to be good at protecting her own daughters “from patriarchal, misogynist bullshit” – she has taught them to say “Damn the patriarchy” when they fall over.
“My husband [writer Pete Paphides] is a rock critic so MTV gets watched a lot. When a Rihanna video comes on and there is a lot of humping the floor, I explain to my girls why these great songs are allied with videos that deep down, would make most women sad or uncomfortable. It’s not that women can’t make interesting, sexy videos, but the ones with no clothes on are the only videos you see.” The book is occasionally polemical and very funny, whether Moran is talking about using Brussels sprouts as cabbages for Sindy, or encouraging women not to get bikini waxes and to revel in having a “tiny hair trampoline”. Spotting sexism, she says, “is like watching Meryl Streep in a new film. Sometimes you don’t recognise it straight away. You can be 20 minutes in . . . before you go, ‘Oh my God, under the wig! That’s Meryl.”
It’s a mix of personal and political, but memoir – with its narrative mirror – can bring its own difficulties. Plundering the annals of your family’s life can lead to problems, but Moran’s siblings were understanding about being co-opted into the book. “All my family are writers, performers or comedians, so there’s a risk of cannibalising your own life, but in my family we’re all doing that, so it’s okay. It’s either material or therapy – so we used it as material.”
Moran (born Catherine) was born in 1975 and grew up in a council house in Wolverhampton. The eldest of eight children, she had a “hippyish” mother and second-generation Irish father. From a young age, they were home-schooled, and watched hours of television, critiquing and satirising it. Humour and jokes were central to the experience, and Moran has a droll-like take on the pejorative “women aren’t funny” line. “On Twitter, a guy once tweeted that I was ‘a woman, but still funny’. I literally lay on the floor crying with laughter for 20 minutes when I read that. Grace Dent [ Guardian TV writer and author of How to Leave Twitter ], who is screamingly funny, calls Twitter ‘a cyber-room of one’s own’ and points out that all the funniest people on Twitter are women, because it’s our own space. “I get asked to do Have I Got News for You and QI regularly, but I always say no because it’s a boys’ game. Occasionally, they hurl a woman on to the panel like a sacrificial cat, and she’ll burn and be reduced to a lot of laughing/nodding shots. With Twitter, women can simply broadcast on their own terms. And they can do it – I often tweet while I’m making my children’s tea – around their lives.”
Her children, two girls, are one of many motivations for challenging the inequality meted out to those in possession of XX chromosomes. A loved-up chapter entitled “Why You Should Have Children” shares all the umbilical, endless love we have for our offspring. It’s also the chapter where Moran details a horrific, traumatic birth. In writing it, she wanted to encourage women to talk about the subjects they never speak of, for fear of judgment. “I was totally unprepared for labour. It’s not something you can wing on the day and I did actually think I was going to die. Women can beat themselves up massively about difficult births that weren’t their fault. I’ve talked to women who burst into tears 20 years later because they feel guilty about screwing it up.”
Anyone under the age of 20 reading How to Be a Woman may feel that many of the issues raised – unequal pay, work rights – are irrelevant to them, but Moran is very astute on that same generation’s difficulties. This is the internet generation who have never known a world without YouTube and instantly accessible porn. This, she believes, is as much a problem for young women as men. While not anti-pornography, she dislikes the objectified, fetishised versions that are neither women-friendly, nor sex-friendly. “Young women constantly say that they’re ‘sexy’, but they’re not talking about their sexuality, or masturbating. Their sexuality is still very mysterious. They’re not actually in control of it and it’s something that’s very much viewed through male eyes. Take the strip-club outfit of perspex heels, bra and long nails: in a world without men, women would never have come up with that look. That is not how women feel sexy. It’s why we don’t get married or go for job interviews wearing that kind of stuff.”
In the face of ongoing sexualisation and discrimination, Moran is hopeful about the next generation of women. In the book, she recounts a night hanging out in Berlin with Lady Gaga. “She’s fearless and amazing and has said outright that she’s a feminist. This is a really well brought up and loved girl, who happens to be a performance artist and polemicist. And it will be difficult to oppress a generation of women who have watched Gaga shooting fireworks out of her tits.” Moran laughs her throaty laugh and our time is up. Her words linger, from the profound to the profane, and for all the jokes in her casual delivery, her message is crucial, and one that should be compulsory reading for all.
This article was originally published in the Irish Times on Saturday, August 20th, 2011.
Related: Review of How to Build a Girl (2014)