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.
Not long ago, a group of prominent British journalists, all female, went out for an evening to get drunk on gin. Very drunk on gin. One of them walked headlong into a door. Another confessed to having been caught in flagrante delicto at a funeral. Eventually, they settled into one of their favorite pastimes: bemoaning—increasingly loudly—the sorry state of contemporary feminism. How had a movement that had once been so incendiary, so vibrant, and so effective become so … tedious? How had it been hijacked not only by stodgy academics but by Sex and the City divas: women who, as Caitlin Moran, a columnist at the London Times (and, as it happens, the woman who banged into the door), said, would have us believe that “if we have fabulous underwear we’ll be somehow above the terrifying statistic that only one percent of the world's wealth is owned by women.”
Was it any wonder recent polls had found that 52 percent of British women and 71 percent of American women didn’t identify as feminists? The assembled ladies banged their fists on the table. They tossed back more gin. Finally, someone—it’s unclear who—said that one of them needed to write a book: something raucous and real about why feminism still mattered. A taking-stock of womanhood in an age of unprecedented freedoms and nagging contradictions.
And Caitlin Moran responded: “OK, I’ll race you!”
* * *
Five months later Moran finished her memoir-slash-manifesto, How To Be a Woman. The book, which will be released this week in the United States, spent nearly a year on the top 10 list in England. It has been published in 18 countries (when we met it was being translated into Portuguese, leaving Moran, who spends several pages fulminating over the rise of pubic deforestation, wondering what Brazilians call a “Brazilian”). She has amassed nearly 240,000 Twitter followers (the modern metric of success) as well as a dedicated fan blog, fuckyeahcaitlinmoran, based on the viral meme popularized by Ryan Gosling enthusiasts. The photo from the book’s cover—Moran with her distinctive skunk-striped bouff of a hairdo and winged liquid eyeliner—was acquired by London’s National Portrait Gallery, tucked in among other superstars of the realm: King Henry VIII, Queen Elizabeth I, Sir Paul McCartney.
Moran typically describes How to Be a Woman as “an update of Germaine Greer’s The Female Eunuch written from a bar stool.” The books actually have little in common, but the sound byte rightly places her on a continuum of liberationist bad girls stretching from Greer in the 1970s (notorious for urging women to empower themselves by tasting their menstrual blood) to the Riot Grrrl rockers of the 1990s (“I loved Riot Grrl,” she said. “Not only was it a punk rock revolution, but it meant you could get dressed for a night out for less than two pounds!”).
But funny. Like Greer, Moran’s feminism is as much attitude as analysis. She is, in equal measure, intellectual, rebel and goofball: That’s part of her “lets all be feminists at the pub” charm and why I both enjoyed her book (for which I provided a blurb) and wanted to meet her. She is a woman who has incorrectly pronounced her first name for nearly 25 years (née Catherine, she rechristened herself Cat-lin at age 13 after a character in a racy novel whose name she’d misread). A 37-year-old who set a fire in her sink while trying to suavely light a cigarette in front of a guest. A woman who tripped while gawking at an aging pop star in a posh London club (“I can’t believe it! Kevin fucking Rowland!”) and dumped an entire tray of espresso martinis on my head.
How To Be a Woman follows its anti-heroine from her 13th birthday (182 pounds, friendless, fleeing from gravel-flinging yobs) onward, with stops along the way to praise masturbation, argue both for and against motherhood, celebrate her abortion, and more. Each self-deprecating chapter (“I Start Bleeding!” “I Become Furry!” “I Don’t Know What To Call My Breasts!”) is an occasion to explore how, from puberty through senescence, the modern female body has become a series of problems to be solved— usually at great expense to its inhabitant. There is, for instance, the upkeep of that new presumed depilation (“I can’t believe we’ve got to a point where it’s basically costing us money to have a vagina”); the tyranny of stratospheric heels (“The minimum I ask for my footwear: to be able to dance in it and that it not get me murdered”); ever-teenier underpants (“How can 52 percent of the population expect to win the war on terror if they can't even sit down without wincing?”).
Moran is all about sweating the small stuff. She justifies that choice by invoking the “Broken Windows” theory of criminology—the idea that ignoring one broken pane of glass in an empty building leads to increasing acts of vandalism. Similarly, minor slights against women—dismissing politically powerful women as “ugly” or using “you’re fat” as the ultimate trump card in an argument—make possible more brazen attacks, a takeover of rights by metaphoric squatters. Consider the male legislator in Michigan who, last month, had a female colleague banned from the House floor for using the word “vagina” during a debate over one of the most restrictive anti-abortion bills ever proposed. The bill passed 20 minutes later. First you can’t speak the word for part of a woman’s anatomy; next you lose control of it.
“If every woman in that room stood up, said ‘vagina!’ what could they do?” Moran said. “Or, for total rock 'n' roll, if every woman who'd had an abortion stood up and said, ‘I have had an abortion, and I would not be here now if this legislation had been passed back then.’ If every woman who's had an abortion took tomorrow off in protest, America would grind to a halt. And that would be symbolic: because women grind to a halt if they are not in control of their fertility.”
Like ex-Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, who based his crime policy on the broken windows theory, Moran calls for “zero tolerance” of “all the patriarchal bullshit”: a colleague’s crude “joke,” Disney princesses, botox. To all those women who recoil from the word feminist, she asks, “What part of ‘liberation for women’ is not for you? Is it freedom to vote? The right not to be owned by the man you marry? ‘Vogue’ by Madonna? Jeans? Did all that good shit GET ON YOUR NERVES? Or were you just DRUNK AT THE TIME OF THE SURVEY?”
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It was after midnight at the Groucho, a private social club in London’s Soho neighborhood, and the next round was on Caitlin Moran. “Feminism is paying for these drinks!” she shouted, waving a cigarette.
“The Grouch” as it is affectionately known, caters to those in the media and entertainment industries. Founded as an alternative to stuffier establishments, it was named for the old Groucho Marx quip that he would never join a club that would have him as a member. Moran reconciled that particular paradox by straddling it: ejected from the club twice in her youth for property destruction and public lasciviousness, she was in 2011 named its “Maverick of the Year” and awarded a free membership for life.
Sitting outside on a rooftop deck Moran presided over a revolving scrum of actors, writers, and musicians. And fans. Her admirers came up in a steady stream, spanning the gamut of age, stylishness, sex and sexual preference. It was as if she’d made feminism itself—the ultimate club that no one wanted to join—the hottest room in town. A woman with a graying topknot caught sight of Moran and genuflected; a gay man pumped his fist, shouting, “Fat! Fat! Fat!” Another man, with short-cropped hair and hipster sideburns, asked to take a photo with her. A tipsy woman in a black bubble minidress with a plunging neckline brandished a cosmo and called out, “Zizi!” The French word she favors for her own nether parts. “Drunk women love me,” Moran crowed. “I have cornered the market in wasted chicks who talk about their vag!”
Peggy Orenstein is the author of, most recently, Cinderella Ate My Daughter and a contributing writer at the New York Times Magazine.