Lena Dunham. Photo: Getty
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Laurie Penny on 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.

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.

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.

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From Netflix to rented homes, why are we less interested in ownership?

Instead of owning things, we are renting experiences.

In 2008 the anthropologist Daniel Miller published a book based on an intimate study of 30 households on a single street in south London. The Comfort of Things ­explored the different kinds of relationships people have with what they own.

Miller described a retired couple’s house, cluttered with furniture, framed photographs and knick-knacks accumulated over decades. Down the road, a self-employed man called Malcolm had rented a flat. Malcolm preferred a spartan existence: he kept his belongings in storage, the better to travel at short notice, and conducted as much as possible of his life online. His home was his email address. His central material possession was his laptop.

Today, we are living more like the laptop warrior than the retired couple. Increasingly, our possessions are stored in the cloud or on a distant server. Just as we had grown accustomed to the idea of owning music in the form of data, we are now getting used to not owning it at all. In television, too, we stream instead of buy the latest drama series; when people use the term “box set” they are rarely referring to a box of discs on a shelf in the living room. Everything solid is melting into wifi.

Instead of owning things, we are renting experiences. The proliferation of mobile apps enables us to source or supply whatever we want, for short periods, more easily than ever before. The “sharing economy” is not about sharing, however. I encourage my three-year-old daughter to share her toys with her little brother; I don’t suggest that she charge him an hourly fee for doing so. A better name for it is the Paygo (pay-as-you-go) economy.

The Paygo economy combines two intertwined phenomena: the rise of renting and the decline of stuff. If you are in your twenties and unburdened by wealth you may already have accepted that you will always be in hock to a landlord. If you are in the market for a car, you will probably be thinking about leasing it, or joining a car club, or waiting until Google makes car ownership obsolete. There are even apps that allow you to rent a dog rather than take on the responsibility of owning one.

A world in which we own less and rent more is not necessarily one in which consumers are empowered. You never really own the electronic versions of a book or a film – you can’t lend them to a friend or sell them on – because the publisher retains its rights over them. Even our photos aren’t ours any longer: they are owned by corporations that scrape them for data that can be sold. In a recent article, the Financial Times journalist Izabella Kaminska argued that “ownership of nothing and the rental of everything represents . . . the return of an authoritarian and feudalistic society”.

The Paygo economy is changing our relationships with each other and with ourselves. Possessions form part of what the marketing academic Russell Belk calls “the extended self”. In Daniel Miller’s book, he describes how objects, however trivial, can embody relationships. Each household’s collection of stuff – tacky souvenirs, CDs we borrowed and never gave back – forms a constellation of personal significance. Post-materialism does not equate with spiritual enrichment. “Usually the closer our relationships with objects,” Miller writes, “the closer our relationships are with people.”

Human beings have a deep-seated tendency to imbue physical items with the ­essence of their owner. Hence the market for rock-star memorabilia: an old guitar that has been played by John Lennon is more valuable, and more revered, than a new replica that has not.

We apply this intuition even to money, the units of which are, by definition, interchangeable. Psychologists who study “essentialism” have found that people are less likely to recommend that stolen or lost cash be returned when it has subsequently been deposited in a bank account, as opposed to remaining in paper notes.

When things evaporate, so does ­meaning. A fetish for owning things connects to a yearning to retain a distinct identity in the face of change. Japan has been economically stagnant for decades and, as a result (and perhaps a cause), has preserved a set of idiosyncratic social norms, at odds with the rest of the developed world. One of these is a strong preference for owning music in a physical form: 85 per cent of the music bought in this technologically advanced society is on CD or vinyl. Japan is also the last developed country to rely on fax machines. A fax, unlike an email or the past, is something you can hold on to.

One way of framing the central arguments of British politics is that they are about the rights of owners versus renters – and not just in the sense of home ownership. Long-standing Labour members believe they own the party, and are outraged both by Momentum clicktivists and £3 voters. What appals many who voted Leave in the EU referendum is the thought that migrants can, in effect, rent a livelihood from the UK, treating the country as a giant Airbnb host. They want to know if this is still their country, or if they are now merely tenants of it.

Most younger voters chose Remain, but relatively few of them voted. That was a function of their lack of home ownership as much as age: millennials who rent are nearly half as likely to vote in elections as their peers who have managed to get on to the property ladder. This is partly a product of the mundane business of spending enough time in one place to get on the electoral roll, but it nonetheless suggests that renters form weaker bonds with the society in which they live.

For centuries, what we own has been an important way of placing ourselves in relation to those around us. The 18th-century curiosity cabinet was a collection of objects used to display the erudition and refinement of its owner. In the 20th century, houses became showcases. Your curtains, your car and your choice of decor said who you were or wanted to be. This was the era of what Thorstein Veblen called “conspicuous consumption”. In the Paygo economy, we will have fewer things of our own to ­display, as our possessions dematerialise and we rent more of what we need.

Despite all this, human nature has not changed: we are still apes with status anxiety, endlessly preoccupied by our position in any given hierarchy, eager for ways to convey our aspirations and allegiances. So we find other ways to signal. Rather than deploy what we own to say who we are, we use our photo streams and status updates to show it, even going so far as to arrange our meals and holidays with the aim of generating impressive on-brand content.

The vacuum of meaning opened up by the disappearance of stuff may even have increased the stridency of our political debate. One way I can let people know who I am is by loudly asserting my membership of a political tribe.

If I can’t show off my possessions, I will show off my beliefs.

Ian Leslie is the author of “Curious: the Desire to Know and Why Your Future Depends on It” (Quercus)

Ian Leslie is a writer, author of CURIOUS: The Desire to Know and Why Your Future Depends On It, and writer/presenter of BBC R4's Before They Were Famous.

This article first appeared in the 16 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times