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Lena Dunham, Caitlin Moran and the problem of unexamined privilege

There are many ways “to be a woman”, and we should try to show more of them, says Laurie Penny.

Lena Dunham. Photo: Getty

Caitlin Moran “literally could not give a shit” about the representation of people of colour in Lena Dunham’s show Girls. She said as much on Twitter on Friday, when queried over her interview with the up-and-coming American director and screenwriter. One can’t help but suspect that the subsequent avalanche of righteous rage and hurt feelings wouldn’t have been so thunderous had we not spent six months being told, as we so often are, that the stories of privileged white, middle-class women writers like Moran and Dunham are not only important in their own right - but they are the definitive stories, the only necessary stories for a generation of young women struggling to articulate a politics of liberation that starts with honest storytelling.

Let’s start with the basics. I have a great deal of respect for Caitlin Moran, and I’ll have more when she owns her mistake. White middle-class women who manage to grab attention for what they have to say have a responsibility to lady up and take the criticism when they slip up and forget that they represent only a small section of women's experience. Moran fucked up this time. It’s easy to fuck up, especially when you live in a world that tells you, repeatedly and often, that as a white, straight middle-class woman, yours is the only story about women worth articulating. I know this - I live in that world too, and when I write about women's issues I'm constantly checking my privilege in the manner of an anxious homemaker constantly checking that the gas is off, and I still fuck up. As my friend Roz Kaveney says, “It's no fun taking a kicking from angry sisters you've snubbed by being momentarily clueless, but sometimes it goes with the territory of sisterhood.”

That said, the chief problem with the oeuvres of both Moran and Dunham to date is a problem not just of representation, but of presentation itself. Both Girls and Moran’s autobiographical feminist tome How To Be A Woman are extremely subjective, touchingly honest stories, sweet and silly and provocative, and that should be enough, it should be more than enough, without both of them being plugged as the last word in feminist writing.

As I wrote in my rather gushing Guardian review of How To Be A Woman, Moran’s book isn’t the barnstorming summary of the feminist zeitgeist that it's been sold as - and that’s great, because if it were, it’d detract from what the book is actually trying to do. Which is to tell a simple, joyful, inspirational personal story from a feminist perspective, with a lot of knob gags and racy bits and laugh-out-loud cracks about wanking that throw the serious discussion of reproductive rights into sharp relief . It’s an aspirational book, an alternative to the sterile, deodorised sparkly-fairytale stories of Kate Middleton and Katie Price, the story of a working-class girl from Wolverhampton who fought her way to a brilliant, glamorous career by sheer dint of wit and talent, who met and married the love of her life, and who, along the way, took all the painful bits of the female experience - childbirth, abortion, weight worries, fear of aging - in her power-booted stride. It is, one suspects, the book that Lena Dunham might write in ten years' time, when she's progressed from the anxious territory of being a writing prodigy in her mid-twenties to the status of grande dame of clever comedy.

Just like Girls, there’s not a great deal in How to Be a Woman about the experience of poor women, or women of colour, or, indeed, of any woman who doesn’t happen to be a professional writer in a major Western metropolis, but that’s probably an accurate representation of Dunham and Moran’s respective lives. Of course Moran loves Lena Dunham - she’s probably the closest thing out there to Moran’s younger self, prodigous and talented and feminist and celebrated. And that’s good. The world needs more ambitious, egotistical creative women who don’t apologise for being who they are. Nobody should ask Dunham and Moran to apologise for being who they are. It only becomes problematic - and profoundly so - when they are expected to represent everybody else as well.

No, it's not fair. Male writers and directors are usually permitted not to “give a shit” about representation and diversity without the entire internet jumping all over their output. Moran is absolutely right that no man would be castigated for not including characters of colour in his life story, if part of the story of that life was that there weren’t actually many people of colour involved. He would, however, be criticised- and rightly so - if he chose to call that life story ‘Boys’ or ‘How to Be a Man’. There is a metric fuckload of unexamined privilege at play in Moran’s Twitter diatribe, the obvious retort to which is: if you don’t want to be criticised for not speaking for all women, don’t write a book claiming to do just that.

If our notional male writer allowed the story he was telling to be framed and celebrated as some sort of universal answer to the problem of masculinity in the modern age then, yes, there would be a slight issue with the utter invisibility of people of colour therein. Not that it’d actually come up, of course, because men are rarely asked to speak on behalf of all other men - their gender experience is assumed to be the default, women’s the abnormality. Women are so rarely invited to tell the truth of our gendered experience, with all the messy bits hanging loose, that when we do it’s mistaken for the last word in creative empowerment.

Women of colour have written personal histories in the past, too, but so far none of them has presumed to extrapolate from her own narrative any sort of universal female truth. If she did, she'd be laughed out of the publishers’ office.

The problem is presentation. Both Dunham and Moran are writers with a knack for finding the universal, the emotive, the intimately political in their own stories and turning it outwards. Between them they have done much to inspire a generation of women writers to tell their own stories and tell them boldly. If Moran’s book had been called My Life As A Womble (read it, you’ll understand), if Dunham’s show had been called Broke in Brooklyn, there wouldn’t have been so much of an issue.

Of course, if they’d been called that, not as many people would have paid attention, and not just because I’m absolutely the shittest person in the world at titles, but because there really is a hunger for stories that touch on universal truths about womanhood today. People want to know what it’s like to be a girl, because being a girl is confusing. People want to know how to be a woman, because being a woman is bewildering and traumatic.

In a climate like this, no woman writer can tell her own story without immediately being expected also to tell everyone else’s - and that’s part of the way women writers are dismissed today, by the publishing industry, by the television industry, by everyone with a stake in packaging the truth of women's lives so it fits into neat little saleable boxes. We are expected to collapse the political into the personal rather than allowing the personal, if that’s what we choose to focus on, to speak for itself. It's almost as if we still live in a world where real subjectivity is considered the exclusive territory of men, and all women are more or less interchangeable.

The real travesty isn't just one writer fucking up on Twitter - that, after all, happens every day of the week. The real travesty is that the few overwhelmingly white and middle-class women like Lena Dunham and Caitlin Moran who are permitted to tell their stories truthfully today are expected to speak for everyone, and the rest of us are informed the that that is what they are, in fact, doing. It is disappointing to those of us who admire both Dunham and Moran but, more than that, it abnegates the existence of a spectrum of female creativity and a multiplicity of female experience which is - more than anything else - what it means to be a woman.