Katie Roiphe interview: "There is a lot of unexamined feminist outrage against other women"

Helen Lewis talks to Katie Roiphe, columnist and author, most recently of <em>In Praise of Messy Lives</em>.

Katie Roiphe likes to provoke. The American essayist describes herself in her latest collection as an “uncomfortablist”. Considering her career began with a book suggesting that date rape statistics were overblown and asserting, “Rape is a natural trump card for feminism,” that is a small understatement.

In person, though, Roiphe has a demeanour that is quiet and watchful, although her defiant halo of tight curls and the loud print of her minidress suggest she is less of a wallflower than she might at first seem. “It’s the goal to get people to think about things in a new way and if that’s what you’re doing, you can’t then complain about people attacking you,” she tells me. “You know, we say that women writers have a harder time on the internet with the angry comments – but a lot of those angry comments come from women. There is a lot of unexamined feminist outrage against other women.”

Roiphe’s recent book In Praise of Messy Lives begins with an appropriately uncomfortable description of her divorce. Her unhappily married friends, she notices, are desperate to believe that she is miserable, desperate to think that her children are suffering; her happily married friends do not judge.

It is tempting to dismiss Roiphe as just another confessional columnist and some do. Hamilton Nolan of Gawker seems to write an angry blog every time she publishes an essay, blog with titles such as “Shut up, Katie Roiphe” and “Your rape fantasy is boring, Katie Roiphe”. (She responded with a piece about the site’s “autopilot Schadenfreude” entitled “Gawker is big immature baby”.)

Despite her personal focus and her tendency to enrage, Roiphe is more than a starspangled Liz Jones. For a start, her range is impressive. She has a PhD in English from Princeton and teaches at New York University and she seems as happy writing about why so many mothers are keen to replace their Facebook profile pictures with photos of their babies – “The choice seems to constitute a retreat to an older form of identity, to a time when women were called Mrs John Smith” – as she is close-reading a forgotten female author.

She is brave, too. In her essay “The Naked and the Conflicted”, she casually picks a fight with a generation of male American writers, describing Dave Eggers, Benjamin Kunkel and David Foster Wallace as boringly guilt-ridden and emasculated, particularly in comparison to the “onanistic exuberance” of Philip Roth and John Updike’s ability to “do poetry and whorehouse”. (To compound the offence, she blames feminist critics for inflicting all this snuggling on us by being so hard on Roth’s and Updike’s bawdiness in the first place.)

Despite the negative reaction, Roiphe is unrepentant. “I am saying something that I think is common sense but other people think is really crazy.” She pauses. “That’s a position I often find myself in.”

The writer Katie Roiphe. Photograph: Anna Schori / Camera Press

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 22 July 2013 issue of the New Statesman, How to make a saint

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BHS is Theresa May’s big chance to reform capitalism – she’d better take it

Almost everyone is disgusted by the tale of BHS. 

Back in 2013, Theresa May gave a speech that might yet prove significant. In it, she declared: “Believing in free markets doesn’t mean we believe that anything goes.”

Capitalism wasn’t perfect, she continued: 

“Where it’s manifestly failing, where it’s losing public support, where it’s not helping to provide opportunity for all, we have to reform it.”

Three years on and just days into her premiership, May has the chance to be a reformist, thanks to one hell of an example of failing capitalism – BHS. 

The report from the Work and Pensions select committee was damning. Philip Green, the business tycoon, bought BHS and took more out than he put in. In a difficult environment, and without new investment, it began to bleed money. Green’s prize became a liability, and by 2014 he was desperate to get rid of it. He found a willing buyer, Paul Sutton, but the buyer had previously been convicted of fraud. So he sold it to Sutton’s former driver instead, for a quid. Yes, you read that right. He sold it to a crook’s driver for a quid.

This might all sound like a ludicrous but entertaining deal, if it wasn’t for the thousands of hapless BHS workers involved. One year later, the business collapsed, along with their job prospects. Not only that, but Green’s lack of attention to the pension fund meant their dreams of a comfortable retirement were now in jeopardy. 

The report called BHS “the unacceptable face of capitalism”. It concluded: 

"The truth is that a large proportion of those who have got rich or richer off the back of BHS are to blame. Sir Philip Green, Dominic Chappell and their respective directors, advisers and hangers-on are all culpable. 

“The tragedy is that those who have lost out are the ordinary employees and pensioners.”

May appears to agree. Her spokeswoman told journalists the PM would “look carefully” at policies to tackle “corporate irresponsibility”. 

She should take the opportunity.

Attempts to reshape capitalism are almost always blunted in practice. Corporations can make threats of their own. Think of Google’s sweetheart tax deals, banks’ excessive pay. Each time politicians tried to clamp down, there were threats of moving overseas. If the economy weakens in response to Brexit, the power to call the shots should tip more towards these companies. 

But this time, there will be few defenders of the BHS approach.

Firstly, the report's revelations about corporate governance damage many well-known brands, which are tarnished by association. Financial services firms will be just as keen as the public to avoid another BHS. Simon Walker, director general of the Institute of Directors, said that the circumstances of the collapse of BHS were “a blight on the reputation of British business”.

Secondly, the pensions issue will not go away. Neglected by Green until it was too late, the £571m hole in the BHS pension finances is extreme. But Tom McPhail from pensions firm Hargreaves Lansdown has warned there are thousands of other defined benefit schemes struggling with deficits. In the light of BHS, May has an opportunity to take an otherwise dusty issue – protections for workplace pensions - and place it top of the agenda. 

Thirdly, the BHS scandal is wreathed in the kind of opaque company structures loathed by voters on the left and right alike. The report found the Green family used private, offshore companies to direct the flow of money away from BHS, which made it in turn hard to investigate. The report stated: “These arrangements were designed to reduce tax bills. They have also had the effect of reducing levels of corporate transparency.”

BHS may have failed as a company, but its demise has succeeded in uniting the left and right. Trade unionists want more protection for workers; City boys are worried about their reputation; patriots mourn the death of a proud British company. May has a mandate to clean up capitalism - she should seize it.