Lena Dunham. Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

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.

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

No, Matteo Renzi's referendum isn't Italy's Brexit

Today's Morning Call. 

The European Union saw off one near-death experience yesterday, as Alexander van der Bellen - a Green running under independent colours - saw off Norbert Hofer, the far-right candidate, taking 53 per cent to 47 per cent. 

"Turn of the tide: Europeans hail Austrian far-right defeat" is the Guardian's splash, while "Austria says NEIN to far-right" is the Metro's take.

It's a reminder that the relentless march of the far right is not as irresistible as the Le Pens of the world would like to think, and, for the left, a rare brightspot in a year of seemingly unbroken retreat, albeit by a margin that is too close for comfort. 

But on the other side of the Alps, things are not looking so great. Italian voters have rejected Italian PM Matteo Renzi's proposed constitutional reforms in a landslide, resulting in Renzi's resignation. (For a good primer on who Renzi is or rather was, Joji Sakurai wrote a very good one for us a while back, which you can read here)

"Europe in turmoil as Italian PM is defeated" is the Times splash. It has many worrying that Italy made be headed out of the Euro at worst and trigger another financial crisis in the Eurozone at best. Over at the Spectator, James Forsyth suggests that this will make the EU27 reluctant to put the squeeze on the City of London, which is still the Eurozone's clearing centre. Others, meanwhile, are saying it's all the latest in the populist, anti-establishment wave that is politics in 2016.

Are they right?

The reforms - which, among other things, would have ended the Italian system of "perfect bicameralism" whereby the upper house has as much power as the lower, replacing the former with a legislature drawn from the regions in a similar manner to Germany's - were something of a dog's dinner, and although the referendum was forced on Renzi as they were unable to secure a two-thirds majority among legislators, it was a grave error to turn the vote into a referendum on his government. (Bear in mind that Italy is a multi-party democracy where the left's best ever performance netted it 49.8 per cent of the vote, so he was on a hiding to nothing with that approach.)

If there is a commonality in the votes for Brexit, Trump, Hofer, it's in the revenge of the countryside and the small towns against the cities, with the proviso that in Austria, that vote was large enough to hold back the tide). This was very different. Particularly striking: young graduates, so often the losers at the ballot box and pretty much everywhere else post-financial crash, voted against the reforms yesterday.

Nor can a vote that was supported by Silvio Berlusconi, two of the three major parties, as well as Mario Monti, the technocrat appointed effectively on the demands of Italy's creditors, and the Economist be accurately described as a revolt against "the establishment" if that term is to have any meaningful use whatsoever.  

Of course, it could yet lead to a Brexit-style shock. Renzi's Democratic Party could collapse into in-fighting if his departure is permanent - though who knows, he might parlay his graceful concession speech and the likely chaos that is to follow into a triumphant second act - and although his party has a narrow lead in most polls, the Five Star Movement could win a snap election if one occurs.

That raises the nightmare prospect for Brussels of a Eurosceptic in power in a founder-member of the European Union and the single European currency. (That said, it should be noted that Five Star are opponents of the Euro, not of the European Union. The word "Eurosceptic" is perhaps making some anti-Europeans here in the UK overexcited.)

But as Open Europe noted in their very good primer on the referendum before the result that is still very much worth reading, that not only requires Five Star to win an election, but to hold and win not just a referendum on Italy's Euro membership, but to first win a referendum on changing the constitution to allow such a referendum in the first place. (And remember that support for the EU is up in the EU27 following the Brexit vote, too.)

The biggest risk is financial, not political. Renzi had acquired a quasi-mythical status in the eyes of foreign investors, meaning that his departure will make global finance nervous and could result in the rescue deal for Monte Paschi, the world's oldest bank, being mothballed. Although a economic crisis on the scale of the one Italy experienced in 2011 is unlikely, it's not impossible either. And what follows that may justify the comparisons to Trump rather more than Renzi's defeat yesterday.

THE FUTURE'S ORANGE, BUT NOT BRIGHT

Donald Trump, President-Elect of the world's largest superpower, has taken to Twitter to lambast the Chinese government, the world's second-largest superpower, and also a nation which holds both large numbers of nuclear weapons and vast amounts of American debt. 

The cause of the row? Trump became the first President or President-Elect to talk directly to Taiwan's president since 1979, which the Chinese government has taken umbrage to. (China regards Taiwan as a renegade province, not a separate nation.) 

I'LL SEE EU IN COURT

The government's appeal against the High Court's judgement that Parliament, not the Prime Minister, has the ultimate authority to trigger Article 50 begins today. The argument hinges on whether or not triggering Article 50 represents a loss of rights - if, as the High Court accepted it did, then only the legislature can vote to remove rights, rather than have it done through the royal prerogative. Gina Miller, the lead claimant in the case, tells the Guardianthat Supreme Court judges are being unfairly vilified in the right-wing press, who she blames for the death threats against her. 

TANGLED UP IN BLUE

The government is split over whether to continue paying into the European Union after Brexit to secure a decent standard of access to the single market, Oliver Wright reports in the Times. Boris Johnson used his tour of the Sunday shows to signal his opposition to the idea, which has been publicly backed by Philip Hammond, the Chancellor, and David Davis, the Brexit Secretary. Liam Fox is said to oppose any continued payments into the EU. 

PRETTY HUGE DECEPTION

Ukip's new leader, Paul Nuttall, has denied that he claimed to have a PhD from Liverpool Hope University, blaming the claim on a LinkedIn page set up by parties unknown. Andrew Marr also confronted Nuttall with past comments of him calling for the privatization of the NHS in 2011.

ON THE CASEY

Louise Casey, the government's integration tsar, has a new report out in which she says that ethnic segregation in the UK is increasing, and criticizes the government for not doing enough to tackle the problem. The big items: the condition of women in ethnic minority communities, a lack of English language lessons, and recommended an oath of allegiance for all public servants. It's the latter that has the Mail all excited: "Swear oath to live in Britain" is their splash. Anushka Asthana has the full details in the Guardian.

SPECIALIST IN FAILURE (TO PAY TAXES?)

Commons PAC chair Meg Hillier has called for football coach Jose Mourinho to be investigated over reports that he has moved millions offshore to avoid paying tax. (If 1-1 draws are tax deductible, that would explain a great deal.) 

SOUNDS UNNERVINGLY LIKE HOME

Theresa May has told the Radio Times what her Christmas is like: Midnight Mass, sleep, a church service, then lunch (goose) and Doctor Who. She has opened up on the difficulties of growing up in a vicarage (among other things, not getting to open your presents for aaages). 

AND NOW FOR SOMETHING COMPLETELY DIFFERENT

It's beginning to feel a bit like Christmas! And to help you on your way, here's Anna's top 10 recommendations for Christmassy soundtracks.

MUST READS

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie on how to respond to Trump

Labour has a horrible dilemma on Brexit, I say

Michael Chessum on why aping Ukip on Brexit is the path to Labour defeat

Jason on how politics makes us human

Get Morning Call in your inbox every morning - sign up for free here.

 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.