In defence of Caitlin Moran and populist feminism

Some educated women seem to want to keep feminism for themselves and cloak it in esoteric theory.

Feminism has a lot to answer for. In precise terms, it is called upon to answer for 3.3 billion very different individuals, united (mostly) by an additional X chromosome and a vagina - and sometimes not even that. This means that issues of race, class, religion, sexuality, politics and privilege often end up fracturing feminist dialogue, most regularly causing disagreements between those armed with an MA in Gender Studies and a large vocabulary to match, and those without. Recent weeks have seen a backlash against the populist feminism of writers such as Caitlin Moran, whose bestselling book How To Be a Woman has been somewhat snobbishly referred to by academic feminists as "an intro to feminism." It was suggested that because Moran had written a book with such an encompassing title, that she owed it to her audience to attempt to represent every facet of female experience. As the most popular figurehead of modern feminism today, there was an overriding consensus amongst certain groups that she should be campaigning for as many sections of female society as possible.

In How To Be a Woman, however, Moran had depicted a very specific tale of femininity: white, working class womanhood in Wolverhampton. This is not unusual, considering that her book is essentially an autobiography. The fact that it has become an international bestseller is no small achievement: an "intro" to feminism, perhaps, but one that is, unusually, completely free of pomposity. The fact that a feminist book has managed not only to have mass appeal but also to be funny with it is something to be celebrated. The fact that it deals with the experience of someone who grew up on benefits makes the two of us (and our single mums) want to dance around our bedrooms with joy. This woman has removed the dust and the stuffiness from a movement which at its most academic is almost incomprehensible, instead expressing its ideals in a way that thousands of women understand and identify with. It is a massive achievement.

And therein lies the nub of the problem: feminism is, and to an extent always has been, a white, middle class movement. Watching Loose Women the other day, we were struck by how the question put to the panel seemed to woefully underestimate the inequalities still rife in our society. "Does feminism still have a place in this world?" they asked, as we banged our heads against our desks. But then Paul O’Grady said something about how his auntie in rollers, with her Woodbine sticking out of her gob, was completely a feminist, just wouldn’t necessarily have used the term, and we started thinking that perhaps many of the women watching and those in the audience would have answered the question with a resounding "no. Feminism doesn’t have a place. Not in our world, anyway."

And to an extent, why should it? If class or race, and not merely gender, is what is preventing you from becoming Director General of the BBC, or Prime Minister, or the editor of the Telegraph, then equal rights for women in isolation of these factors are going to make sod-all difference. You’ll still be left with hungry mouths to feed, or a violent partner, or a shit school. Winning places for women on the boards of FTSE 100 companies is not a priority when your benefits have just been cut and your ex-partner keeps moving house to avoid the CSA. Going into certain state comps and discussing the nuances of intersectionality isn’t going to have much dice if some of the teenage girls in the audience are pregnant, or hungry, or at risk of abuse (what are they going to do? Protect or feed themselves with theory? Women cannot dine on Greer alone.) "This woman does not represent me", they will think of their well-meaning lecturer, because how can she, with her private education and her alienating terminology and her privilege, how can she know how poverty gnaws away at your insides and suppresses your voice? How would she know how that feels?

What feminism needs is more voices - a whole chorus of them. By all means, we can criticise those already at the top, but we should be combining that with a real desire to listen to women from all walks of life and their experiences: to actively seek them out, rather than waiting for the lucky few to claw their way into our ranks. Giving them jobs on newspapers so that they can write movingly and persuasively about the inequalities they suffer. Because working class women are rarer than hen’s teeth in almost all sections of the media, and just as unexpected. From the newspapers we read a study in, to the PR consultants who compiled it, to the advertising agencies who placed the pictures, the working class are demonstrably underrepresented. Only last month, London ad agency Iris was berated online for producing a pamphlet called Iris on Benefits: a guide on the benefits of working for the company (private healthcare, extended holiday, etcetera) that illustrated itself tastelessly with pictures of "chav" clichés. The joke was that it was a play on the word ‘benefits’, which these Burberry-hatted, Nike-trainered, Jeremy-Kyle-watching stereotypes were assumedly claiming. One of Iris’s lines of defence was that the pamphlet was "only meant to be seen internally", as if it went without saying that none of their own internal employees would be working class, past recipients of benefits, or indeed merely offended by such depictions. Fuck that.

The fact that these assumptions prevail is disappointing but not surprising. And in the case of feminism, real campaigning can often only be done with the time and money afforded to privileged people: students with the privilege of time, middle class people with the privilege of money, or squatting activists playing at being poor with the privilege of knowing they have a moneyed parental safety net behind them. This is not to say that those who campaign are not doing positive things for women everywhere. But when we seek out an actual, tangible voice to the campaigns that are supposed to be equalising the playing field for women everywhere, all too often it’s the same voice that we hear. And it doesn’t have a Geordie accent. 

It almost seems as though some educated women want to keep feminism for themselves, cloak it in esoteric theory and hide it under their mattresses, safe and warm beneath the duck down duvet. As long as that happens, though, the lives of many women and men in this country will remain the same. Feminism should not be a discipline far removed from the lives of ordinary people, but part of a larger social justice movement that strives to achieve a better life for everyone. Caitlin Moran may not be perfect, but she has come closest thus far. In the last few weeks some have been bandying about the oft-quoted phrase "my feminism will be intersectional or it will be bullshit." We would suggest that anyone with an interest in genuine equality for all adapt that phrase to "my feminism will be comprehensible or it will be bullshit." Achieving "intersectionality" is impossible unless you can communicate clearly, with everyone.  Moran at least speaks a language that we all understand. And how many other feminists can you credit with that?

Caitlin Moran attends the Attitude Magazine Awards at One Mayfair on October 16, 2012. Photograph: Getty Images.

Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett and Holly Baxter are co-founders and editors of online magazine, The Vagenda.

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Despite his “strong female leads”, Joss Whedon's feminism was never about real women

Many men in TV and film praised for their powerful women are still writing with the male gaze.

Kai Cole, the ex-wife of Joss Whedon, has written an essay alleging that the director isn’t quite the feminist he appears to be. Colour me unsurprised. There’s only so much good-guy posturing a feminist can take before she starts to become a little suspicious.

It’s not that I’ve any particular beef with Buffy the Vampire Slayer, nor that I think men shouldn’t speak out against sexism wherever possible. But I’ve long harboured a mistrust of male directors – Whedon, Woody Allen, Pedro Almodóvar – who gain a reputation of being “good at doing women”. Who are they, these magic woman-whisperers, who see through woman’s childlike, primitive exterior and coax out the inner complexity? How do they manage to present women, these blank, mysterious objects, as actual human beings?

True, these men are working against a backdrop of extreme sexism, in which film dialogue is dominated by males, while females become increasingly silent as they age. Perhaps one should be grateful to anyone who allows a female character to have some glimmer of an inner life, let alone exist beyond the age of 30.

All the same, I can’t help feeling this isn’t enough. We all know the joke about the male feminist who walks into a bar because it’s set so low. It’s all too easy to be “good at doing women” when all it takes is granting female characters the same desires and contradictions we’d grant to any other human being.

Women are not a specific type of puzzle for mankind to solve. The idea that it should take some noble, generous leap of imagination to empathise with us is an excuse men have been using to mistreat us for millennia. When responding to us as though we’re actual human beings – or at least, as though an interesting Real Woman subset of us are – becomes a USP, we should all be worried.

Whedon did go a little way to addressing this in his 2006 acceptance speech for an Equality Now award, in which he mocked the way in which he was constantly asked: “Why do you always write these strong women characters?”:

“Why aren't you asking a hundred other guys why they don't write strong women characters? I believe that what I'm doing should not be remarked upon, let alone honoured.”

If this sounds a little like a humblebrag, it can probably be excused. What’s harder to excuse is this idea that a man who boasts of surrounding himself with women like his mother – “an extraordinary, inspirational, tough, cool, sexy, funny woman” – is doing womankind a favour.

I’m glad you appreciate your mum, Joss, and that you apparently don’t feel threatened by other women like her. There’s a fine line, though, between valuing women and presenting them with a whole new list of impossible standards to live up to. This is why I could never quite buy into the liberatory potential of Buffy. There’s nothing impressive about a man failing to be intimidated by his own strong girl fantasy.

In E T A Hoffmann’s 1816 short story The Sandman, the hero Nathanael falls in love with Olimpia, a doll whom he believes to be a real woman. Once the truth is exposed, the men around him become concerned that they, too, may have unwittingly fallen for automata:

“Many lovers, to be quite convinced that they were not enamoured of wooden dolls, would request their mistresses to sing and dance a little out of time, to embroider and knit, and play with their lapdogs, while listening to reading, etc., and, above all, not merely to listen, but also sometimes to talk, in such a manner as presupposed actual thought and feeling.”

There’s something about the director who’s “good at doing women” that reminds me of this. There’s a recipe for dropping in just the right number of quirks, inconsistencies and imperfections to create a Real Woman Character, without making her so unsexy as to be instantly distinguishable from your Hollywood doll. It’s not that her actual thoughts and feelings matter; it’s all about where she’s positioned in relation to you.

As Sophia McDougall noted in her excellent essay on Strong Female Characters, male characters have complex personalities as a matter of course; female characters, meanwhile, are occasionally permitted to be strong, hence anomalous. The more nuance we see, the better. Even so, I’m tired of the veneration of men who fetishise Real Womanhood just as much as others fetishise the plastic variety.

According to Whedon’s ex-wife, the director’s declared feminist ideals never filtered through into real life. Whether this is true or not, this would be understandable. Real Women are not the same as real women. Equality isn’t a matter of men feeling “engaged and even attracted” to a more diverse range of females. It isn’t about the male gaze at all.

Whedon’s final response to the “why do you always write these strong women characters?” question – “because you’re still asking me that question” – has been seen by many as an explicitly feminist statement. But perhaps all it really meant was “because there’s still a gap in the market”. Because men will always find ways to benefit from other men’s sexism. If Real Women didn’t exist, some man out there would have to invent them. 

Glosswitch is a feminist mother of three who works in publishing.