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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Is Labour really as doomed as it seems? The polls have got it wrong before

Pollsters often overrate Labour's performance. But in two elections, the opposite happened. 

Few moments in the Labour Party’s history can have felt as gloomy as this one. Going into a general election that almost no-one expects them to win, their overall opinion polling is appalling. Labour seems becalmed in the mid-20s; the Conservative Party has rocketed into the mid- to high-40s, and has even touched 50 per cent in one survey.

The numbers underlying those voting intention figures seem, if anything, worse. The Conservatives have huge leads on leadership and economic competence – often even more reliable indicators of election results than the headline numbers. High turnout groups such as the over-65s have turned against Labour in unprecedented numbers. Working-class Brits have swung towards the Conservative, placing once-safe Labour seats in danger. There are limited, but highly suggestive, hints among the data that the swing against Labour is higher in its own marginal seats – a potentially toxic development for any party seeking to hang on to MPs, as Conservatives defending apparently impregnable majorities under John Major in 1997 would attest.

All the while, Labour seems confused about what it is really for. Try as he might, Keir Starmer’s term as Labour’s shadow Brexit secretary has been marred by a fatal confusion and indecision about the extent of the UK’s future engagement with the European Union’s single market. Labour seems neither the party of Brexit nor of Remain, but one determined to irritate as many voters as possible. A similar situation reigns in Scotland, where nationalists under Nicola Sturgeon face Conservative Unionists led by Ruth Davidson, and Labour struggles even to gain a hearing.

Many Labour policy offers – free primary school meals for all, the promise of free university tuition, nationalising the railways, upholding the triple lock of pensions, opposing National Insurance rises for the self-employed – are pleasingly universal, while in isolation appealing to different electoral groups. But together, they represent a massive shift of resources to higher-income Brits that would take huge tax rises to offset. Labour is dangerously close to offering a regressive package under the guise of left-wing radicalism. This is pretty much as far from the British people’s electoral sweet spot as it is possible to imagine.

It is therefore little wonder that Labour lags so far behind Theresa May’s Conservatives. Even some Labour strongholds appear likely to fall - regional polls from London and Wales suggest that many Labour seats will be lost in the party’s remaining citadels. Brutal stories are already coming in from the campaign trail. Rumours fly of truly epochal losses - though it is important to note that other anecdotes seem much less dramatic.

Still, there are other indicators – all too easily missed in the heat of the moment – that point in the other direction. Labour’s performance in local by-elections has been dire for the main opposition party, but the swing towards the Conservatives has been running at "only" just over 2 per cent. The party has certainly suffered some big swings against it, and it has lost wards to the Conservatives in local authorities as varied as Hertfordshire, Harrow and Middlesborough. But there is no evidence that its vote has collapsed on the scale that some of the polling suggests.

Relatively recent history should also give us pause before we write Labour off altogether. Consider the last two general elections in which Labour had near-death experiences, in both 1983 and 2010. Britain’s third party - first the Liberal-SDP Alliance, and then the Liberal Democrats - seemed about to overtake Labour in the popular vote, and steal scores of seats from the bigger progressive party. On both occasions, Labour was able to draw on hitherto unguessed-at wells of cultural identity and strength to pull away right at the campaign’s end. These are in fact the only elections in recent times when the polls have underrated, rather than overestimated, Labour’s likely score. It might be that the same phenomenon emerges this time.

The Conservatives’ huge lead right now has not resulted from a sudden collapse in Labour support, but rather from the United Kingdom Independence Party’s well-publicised implosion. If anything, after about a year of steady decline, the last week or two has seen Labour’s twelve months of slow deflation grind to a halt. Labour’s numbers have even ticked up a point or two as some voters appear to rally around "their" flag. It might be that, as you squeeze the Labour vote down, it becomes more resilient to further shrinkage.

As the Conservatives try to push into Labour’s heartlands, they might find it harder and harder to persuade voters across, from Ukip as well as from Labour. The Conservatives’ image is still far from good in such communities, whatever the underanalysed and separate appeal of PM May as a strong, considered leader in need of a negotiator’s mandate in Europe. Voters might be attracted to May, and repelled by Corbyn - that does not necessarily mean that they will actually vote Conservative. There is little evidence, so far, of any realignment in how voters see themselves – whether they "are" Labour or Conservative, rather than the more ephemeral question of whether they will simply vote for those parties.

Humans always look for patterns. Experts are no exception, while journalists and commentators can always jump to rapid – but wrong – conclusions in the overexcited heat of an election campaign. So it is with the threat of a Labour catastrophe on 8 June. The danger of just such a result is definitely there. But some of the data points we already have, and two recent elections at which Labour walked close to an abyss, cast a little bit of doubt on the inevitability of such an outcome. There are still just over six weeks to go. A Conservative landslide is still quite likely. But it is not certain. We should keep an eye out for the many hints that May’s gamble might end in a rather less crushing victory than we have been led to expect.

Glen O’Hara is Professor of Modern and Contemporary History at Oxford Brookes University. He blogs, in a personal capacity, at Public Policy and the Past. He is the author of a series of books about modern Britain, including The Politics of Water in Post-War Britain (Palgrave Macmillan: forthcoming, May 2017).

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