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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Caitlin Moran

Photograph by Chris Floyd

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!”

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* * *

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?”

* * *

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!”

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.

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.

Next to that was a photo of Moran and her husband, a music critic and radio documentarian, taken on a windy beach shortly after they met. She was only 17 then; her face round, her smile wide and genuine. They married when Moran was 24; by the time she was 28, they had their two daughters. Such traditional choices seemed surprising for such a wild child. “It’s always seen as this binary thing with women,” Moran explained. “You’re either going to be rock ‘n’ roll or you’re going to be a housewife. It’s either cupcakes or crack. I wanted both. And I got it.” She paused. “Well, not the crack.” then added jokingly, “I quite liked crystal meth, though ...”

Moran’s oldest daughter, whom she calls Lizzie in her writing, is 11, nearly the age Moran was in the opening scene of How To Be A Woman. She clamored into the kitchen, dressed in a school uniform of a gray skirt, white blouse, and maroon sweater, searching for her copy of The Hunger Games. “I’ll tell you,” Moran said after the girl left, “the greatest luxury is to not make your kids as worried as you were. I would rather my daughters be unexceptional but happy. Though the thing is, that they are exceptional and happy.”

They are also feminists. As toddlers, Moran taught them to shout, “Thanks for that, the patriarchy!” whenever they scraped a knee. At age 8, when Lizzie questioned Barbie’s improbable curves, Moran had her draw pictures of what the doll ought to look like (“An outline that was kind of representative,” Moran said, “feet big enough to stand on and a mono-brow because Lizzie has a mono-brow. Hair on her legs. And she made one breast slightly larger than the other, so I was like, Thanks.”) For Halloween last year, the girls dressed as suffragettes.

 Figuring out how to introduce them to her beloved pop music has proved trickier. “I didn’t want them to reject pop,” Moran said. “But the best stuff that’s being made at the minute is by women who aren’t wearing many clothes.” It’s not sexiness that bothers her—rock ’n’ roll is supposed to be hot—it’s the lack of variety, the soul-numbing repetition of one, wildly unrealistic porn-inflected ideal for women. “Adele is the only woman for years whose been allowed to get to No. 1 wearing sleeves,” Moran said. For awhile her politics bumped uncomfortably up against her passions. Then she found the funny. “What I finally came down to is that we would pity Rihanna,” she said. “I told my girls, ‘Look at Rihanna: She’s one of the biggest pop stars in the world. She’s really famous, really powerful, really rich. Yet in every single video she can only wear panties. Poor Rhianna! We’ll know when she is properly powerful and successful when we see her in a lovely cardigan.’ ”

 So many waves of feminism have washed up on America’s shores. Moran’s hopes for her own impact initially come off, like her book itself, as deceptively personal, the dreams of an awkward girl turned celebrity journalist. “I just want Tina Fey to be my best friend,” she said. “And Lena Dunham. And Oprah, too. I just want those three chicks to read it and say, ‘You did good.’ Just those three.” She paused. “And Roseanne Barr. Four. I only really want to sell four copies in America. If I can sell it to those four chicks … and Hillary. OK five. And Michelle Obama. OK six. If I could get those six women to read it …”

Each of those women has publicly struggled with the complexities of “how to be a woman” and, in doing so, expanded the possibilities. And that, in the end is all—and everything—Moran wants: for women to be able to truly define themselves, to author their own fates. “I absolutely do totally want a revolution,” she said. “Because I’ve got kids, and for my own peace of mind I need the world to change before they get out there. I totally need the world to change entirely so they can be safe and happy and never get to 17 and look in the mirror and say, ‘I’m fat and inadequate and there is no place in this world for me.’

"So that’s why I have to change the world. I have six years to make it into a feminist paradise so my little girls won’t get screwed up.”

Peggy Orenstein is the author of, most recently, Cinderella Ate My Daughter and a contributing writer at the New York Times Magazine.