Who Is This Fabulous British Feminist You Never Heard Of?

What women really think about news, politics, and culture.
July 15 2012 10:11 PM

They Don’t Make Feminists This Outrageous Anymore

The drunken, furious, delightful life of Caitlin Moran. Her U.K. best-seller, How To Be a Woman, comes to the U.S.

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Regardless of how many people demanded her attention, Moran’s good humor never flagged. At one point, a friend and colleague from the London Times turned to me remarking, “You have to remember Caitlin is someone who had no friends until she was 16. No friends. Can you imagine that? I think she still can’t believe people like her. The way she grew up … she always says she made it through because she is ebullient. That’s the word she uses. Ebullient.”

Moran talks about her childhood almost as if she were part of a cult. She was the eldest of eight; her mother loved having babies but, once they were toddlers, much of their care fell to Caitlin. Her father had some early success as a drummer in a psychedelic rock band. He believed—the entire family believed—it was only a matter of time until he hit it big again. “We’d watch Live Aid,” Moran recalled, “and think, ‘Once Dad makes it we’ll be friends with Bob Geldof’s kids.’ I’d think, ‘This time next year …’

Meanwhile, the family lived in subsidized housing in the grim, industrial town of Wolverhampton, subsisting on public assistance. There were few clothes—Caitlin wore her mother’s patched skirts or her father’s cast-off thermal underwear. Occasionally, they had no food; the rest of the time, they binged. As a result the Moran siblings were obese. They were allowed little contact with the outside world: no friends, no birthday parties. And no classrooms. Moran’s description of herself as “homeschooled” is a bit misleading: Her parents yanked her from formal education at age 11 because she was bullied. That also gave her more time to help out at home.

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Through it all, Moran was an insatiable reader and avid diarist. Before our evening at the Groucho, she read me excerpts that she’d transcribed onto her computer. “Here’s a typical one from when I’m 11,” she said. “ ‘Woke up. Jam sandwich for breakfast. Went to supermarket with Dad then doctor with Mum. Ate some candy and coleslaw for lunch. I’m making pasta bolognaise for tea. Thoroughly tidied. Washed walls. Hoovered floors. Disposed of cobwebs in Eddie’s room. Washed the landing and Eddie’s room’s windows and frames. Put up a curtain rods and curtains. Finished my Agatha Christie book. Made new place to put shoes—a cardboard box under the sink! Mom says I’m very good. The dog’s missing.’ ”

She glanced at me over the screen. “To have been raised like that and then to have gotten out of it … I sometimes get dizzy with it. The odds were just not good.”

By 13, Moran realized the family’s fortunes would never change. Plagued by the fear that they’d lose their meager government allowance, she decided to rescue them in proper Jo March fashion: by writing a novel. It wasn’t very good, she admits now, but it did get published and the gimmick of her back story — along with genuine talent and a drive forged of massive anxiety — launched her career. She began writing for a music magazine at 16. By 17, she was hosting a pop music show on national TV. Suddenly, the teenager who had rarely spoken to anyone beyond her immediate family was interviewing the likes of Bjork and the band Oasis.

This was the early 1990s, when the grunge-infused Riot Grrl movement was on the rise. “Riot Grrrl was absolutely the university I went to,” Moran recalledOvertly feminist, blisteringly angry, and utterly subversive, the movement rejected market-driven images of femininity: It was the word “slut” scrawled across the belly of a fleshy, shaven-headed young woman in a miniskirt and combat boots who was passing out hand-printed copies of her ’zine about incest. And it was the perfect fit for a girl who didn’t fit in. “When Courtney Love came along I was 15, and fat, and talked too much, and drank too much,” Moran recalled. “And what I really needed—and what I am eternally grateful to her for being—was a woman who just didn’t give a shit.” A year later Moran cheered when Donita Sparks, the lead singer of the all-female grunge band L7, tossed her used tampon into the crowd at the Reading Music Festival. “By comparison,” she observed now, “writing a chapter about wanking is small-fry.”

The Riot Grrrls eventually disintegrated, replaced by the more palatable—and profitable—Spice Girls. “I say it jokingly, but I really think it’s true,” Moran said, “it all went wrong with the Spice Girls: Obviously, the appropriating of the phrase, ‘girl power’ which to them meant nothing apart from being friends with your girlfriends. Aren’t you supposed to be friends with your friends?”

Caitlin Moran, meanwhile, turned 18, became a newspaper columnist, and eventually, to her relief, joined the middle class. Yet, even today, with a husband, two children, a house, and a flourishing career, she can’t relax, can’t trust that her success is real. She is prone to panic attacks, which are only relieved by either “lying very still in bed with my husband watching really shit television while he strokes my head” or writing.

“Writing saved me,” Moran told me. “Writing still saves me.” She ran a hand across the edge of her laptop. “This is where I live. Twitter means all my friends are in my computer. All my ideas are in my computer. I can do whatever I want in there, I’m kind of…bionic.”

* * *

Moran talks faster than most mortals can listen, her references ranging—seemingly in one long spume—from the benefits of dry shampoo, to the work of Alain de Botton, to the original meaning of “Jubilee,” to the site of the world’s first public television broadcast, which is visible from the living room of her North London home.

She greeted me there one day, dressed in jeans, sneakers and a T-shirt that read, “My feminist Marxist dialectic brings all the boys to the yard.” Walking past rooms lined floor-to-ceiling with books and vinyl albums, she paused at the kitchen doorway to point out a Post-it note that had been slipped to her by a 15-year-old fan in Holland. It read, “too bad you’re not a lesbian,” punctuated with a smiley face.