The cast of Girls, from left to right, Allison Williams, Jemima Kirke, Lena Dunham and Zosia Mamet.
Riddle me this: if you were a prominent feminist commentator, and had just announced you were interviewing Girls creator Lena Dunham, and someone on Twitter asked, “did you address the complete and utter lack of people of colour in girls in your interview?”, how would you respond?
If you picked “Nope. I literally couldn’t give a shit about it”, then congratulations, you are Caitlin Moran.
That was how the How To Be A Woman author responded to that very question a few weeks ago, and, unsurprisingly, the internet erupted into a debate that is still ticking over now. Moran’s response betrayed, at best, a rather unpleasant manner, and at worst, a breathtaking lack of understanding of feminist intersectionality.
Writer Lorraine Berry was to interview Moran for Bitch Magazine, only to find Bitch’s editor-in-chief Kjerstin Johnson had pulled the plug in response to Moran’s Twitter spray: “Moran’s tweets topped off some uncomfortable asides I found in ‘How to Be a Woman,’ jokes about devastating wars in non-Western countries, flippant use of the word ‘tranny,’ burlesque is cool/burqas are bad — and confirmed a nonintersectional feminism I don’t want to support. Moran’s lack of public accountability didn’t help.”
Berry’s piece then went on to ask Moran the apparently burning questions the cancelled interview would have kept from the world, like “Can we talk about the war on pubic hair?”
I admired Moran’s music and film/TV criticism for a long time, especially as - like me - she began writing about music quite young. I had a little clipping of one of her Times columns in my wallet for over a decade as a lucky charm.
As she gradually became the latest Voice Of Feminism, however, I found less to like in her work. That How To Be A Woman was positioned less as a feminist-inflected memoir, and more as some sort of manual for life, felt uncomfortable to me.
The oft-quoted excerpt from the book, “Here is the quick way of working out if you're a feminist. Put your hand in your underpants. a) Do you have a vagina? And b) Do you want to be in charge of it?", seemed so hopelessly ‘Feminism 101’ that I gave the book a wide berth.
The notion that only people with vaginas can be women/feminists seemed beamed straight from the early-’90s, and yet here we were, the whole world celebrating How To Be A Woman as a newfound bible for feminism.
It’s been a banner few months for prominent feminists acting like dropkicks: Moran’s ball-dropping on intersectionality, Germaine Greer going on about the Prime Minister’s bum, Naomi Wolf’s eye-wateringly embarrassing self-help-ish book, Vagina: A New Biography.
This, perhaps, tells us something about the danger of appointing public figureheads to a movement that is far, far more diverse than its “professional feminists” would suggest.
As Bim Adewunmi’s terrific Guardian column on the matter put it, “I liked Girls. It wasn't perfect by any means, but it was engaging and funny. No one wants to get caught up in the ‘Oppression Olympics’. But if women of colour (don't know what that is? See here) are telling you there's a problem, do not consider it to be an attack purely for the fun of it. Stop, listen, try a little intersectionality on for size. Don't belittle my valid concerns by framing it in the grander discourse of ‘fighting the patriarchy’.”
The thing is, wondering aloud why a show set in New York, one of the most diverse cities in the world, appears to be populated solely by white people (with a handful of racial stereotypes thrown in for a bit of background colour) is not unreasonable.
Berry’s Salon piece offered Moran the chance to explain herself with regards to the Girls tweet, but her response was, once again, a clanger. She told Berry: “If a woman of color was allowed to make show as funny and honest and daring as Dunham’s — wandering around slightly overweight, naked, spreckled with acne, and talking about abortion, I’d be pitching a fucking massive feature on that to the Times, too. And I wouldn’t ask that writer why there were no white characters in it, just like I didn’t ask Dunham why there were no people of color in ‘Girls.’ I think it’s as dumb as asking ABBA, ‘Why aren’t one of you black?’”
What’s rather breathtaking about this is that Moran appears - at least if we take her use of “allowed” as intentional - to be aware that the likelihood of a woman of colour ending up in the same position of power as Dunham is, by current Hollywood standards, slim to nil.
If it’s surprising and exciting for a young white woman to be an HBO showrunner, it would be almost inconceivable for a young black or Latina woman to do the same. So why be such a d**** about it?
I don’t buy explanations like Laurie Penny’s New Statesman piece, which ran, “In a climate like this, no woman writer can tell her own story without immediately being expected also to tell everyone else’s”, because I do think that as feminist writers, we have a responsibility to broaden the diversity of characters and experiences on screens. It’s just not that much to ask; after all, we can’t expect much of the existing old (white male) guard.
Additionally, limp defenses of Dunham’s work along the lines of “but she’s just writing what she knows, it’s okay not to have any black friends” betray a deeply depressing idea of how writing works. Were writers really to only “write what they know”, chances are every single film released would be about a 35-year-old white guy with a MacBook Pro.
The danger of appointing feminist figureheads is that they can’t possibly hope to speak for all women, and more often than not, end up speaking only for a very particular group of women. Discussing the Moran situation with my fellow bloggers, one, ‘V’ made a salient point: “It bums me out that feminist are still clamouring for a figure head. As if women lack a sense of personal revision and must defer to an 'other'. Isn't that the bullshit feminists are rallying against? The freedom NOT to be spoken to from an exterior authority. Whether it be old white dinosaur men, or Ivy League educated female intellectuals, we must stop being receptive to this top down mentality.”
So Moran “couldn’t give a shit” about the concerns of Women of Colour, and as she is herself aware, she will likely not have to interview the Black or Latina equivalent of Lena Dunham any time soon. As feminists - real feminists - that should be infuriating to us. If we are not fighting for the rights of all women then we might as well not fight at all.