Caitlin Moran’s How to Be a Woman is a book about feminism, but it’s also light-hearted and reasonable and very, very funny. (Qualifiers that are evidently necessary in 2012, when only a lowly 29% percent of American women feel comfortable using the word “feminist.”)
I interviewed Caitlin to ask her about how to be a woman, but, more importantly, how to be a feminist in 2012.
When I was reading the section in your book in which you talk about how younger women are hesitant to use the word “feminist,” I thought to myself “Yikes! At least this isn’t a problem in New York City!” But then last night I talked to a (liberal! educated!) friend about this interview, and when I told her you’d written a book on feminism, she said “That scares me...” And then we got into a fight about it. How can we reclaim the word “feminism?”
My position is that every woman in the 21st century is feminist by default. This is a feminist world. We go to school with boys, we expect to be treated equally to boys, it's illegal to rape us, you can't own us, our paychecks go into our bank accounts, we are feminists, and unless you have actually handed in your vote at the White House and said "I have no need for this anymore," then you are a feminist. So then it becomes a semantic argument, why have we lost that word? I think young women, they just haven't heard the word feminism in the last 15 years or so anywhere in popular culture. I think one of the reason people got scared of it is that you don't have people going out there and saying, "I'm a feminist!" That's why I was interested in writing a sort of fun, colorful, common sense book, to get women to the point where they can support feminism publicly.
I love the litmus test you have for how to tell whether or not something is sexist: “Are men worrying about this? Would this make Jon Stewart feel insecure?”
I was thinking about it today, I was in the shower, and I was thinking about that argument that you can't be a feminist if you decide to be a stay at home mum, that that would be kind of a betrayment to the sisterhood. And I was like, ok, do I think men in any way betray anything if they stay at home and look after the kids? Well, obviously no, it's a really sexy thing to look after a child that much if that's what they want to do. So on that basis, of course it's not against feminism, and I knew that anyway, but it was a simple way to think “Would men get fucked up about this shit? Is there ever a debate when this kind of thing happens?”
I want to write a column next week for The Times about how I think we need to impose a world moratorium on having opinions on shit that women do for a month. Whenever something happens to a woman anywhere, everyone's gotta have a fucking opinion on it, like the new CEO of Yahoo!, and suddenly every feminist writer I know is being rung up by newspapers going "What's your opinion on this? Was she betraying the sisterhood by getting pregnant? What does this mean, what does this mean?” It's someone who got a job, if it was a man, we wouldn't be bothering about it. Every woman is seen as emblematic of like, two and a half million other women. It's horrible pressure, that's why women fuck up more than anything else. So maybe just for a month, unless it's a massive emergency, you know? Unless like, Diane Sawyer turns into a weird vampire, we should just not have opinions on anything women do for a month and let's just see if sales of Xanax and white wine have gone down by the end of the month.
Everyone who writes about the book mentions your anti-bikini waxing stance. You list eyebrow waxing, nipple plucking, arm shaving, etc., as aesthetic, but not pubic hair. But I know women who genuinely prefer waxing.
I’m not arguing from women being banned from Brazilians in the same way that I would try to sort of dispel totalitarianism of everybody having Brazilians at the moment. It's just the fact that that seems normal now, and I feel that anything that's normal that involves pain and costs a lot of money that boys aren't doing is something that I would really urgently want to have some kind of massive fucking inquest into.
That’s hard to put into practice though, because it is sort of the norm now, and like you say in the book, no one wants to risk being thought of as abnormal or undesirable. Sometimes girls now use pubic hair as a sort of chastity belt. Like if you want to make sure you don’t have sex with someone, you simply don’t shave or wax so you won’t be tempted, that’s how prevalent waxing is.
But would you really not, though?? Any rule I've ever made in my life, if I had two drinks and was quite turned on, I would just — if I had written the word "tit" on my tits in a black mark pen, and by taking my top off that word would be revealed, I would still have sex, because the thing is that men just don't care. You know, as I put in the book, there are men having sex with bicycles. There's American Pie, the highly grossing film about the eternal truth that men would fuck a pie. I don't think we need to worry about doing it for the men. There used to be the idea that women have to be persuaded. The idea that we've kind of flipped this whole thing the other way around so that women feel like they've got to persuade men to have sex with them by enduring incredibly costly cosmetic things is just nuts.
You got married at 24. That seems so young. The question of when to get married, and whether to get married, and how to know it’s the right person is one that my girlfriends and I are constantly asking each other. How did you know?
I was very, very lucky. You know when you've met the right person because there's nothing really to say. I've noticed that time and time again, every time one of my girlfriends goes "I've met this guy," and it just goes on forever in the G+ circles I'm in, and there will be pages and pages filled with like five or six of us debating what he said and what he did, and you're going "Well he did this, and he did that, what does it mean?" And then suddenly that person will disappear, and they've met someone else and they'll just resurface five weeks later and you go "What's going on?" and they're like "I just found a man." And they just stop talking about it. That is generally the key, the point where you stop talking about it, because there is nothing to say when you're happy. So yes, that's basically one of the big rules that I've found out in life. If you're talking about him, it's probably not your future husband.
I loved the chapter “Why You Shouldn’t Have Children.” It’s so rare to read an argument for that — I feel like you presented an option I didn’t previously feel like I really had.
That makes me so happy, because again, boys don't have to put up with this shit. This sort of panicking feeling that girls are given, sometimes even in their teenage years, like kind of "When are you gonna have kids?! When are you gonna have kids?!" Women multi-task anyway, women will always be thinking about five things at once, but if you couple in "Oh my god, my biological clock!" a constant little ticker tape in the back of your head about when you’re going to have kids, along with "Oh god do I look fat in this, when am I gonna lose a stone?" and "These shoes hurt" and just all the things that you're constantly worrying about in the back of your mind, all the shit that we don't go around telling people, that's holding us back because we're fucking psychically knackered from dealing with all this stuff and keeping it quiet. And one of the things I've loved about the book is that it means we've all just started talking about it. It just gives everyone permission to go "Yeah! A load of disgusting weird freaky things happen to me — and every other woman on the planet!” And it's not that I'm weird and freaky and disgusting – that’s just normal!" Our entire conception of normal is being a man. The argument to reclaim what the word "normal" means is the next big thing of feminism. So it's not even like, "Oh, Hillary Clinton pioneeringly didn't wear make-up this week," so that it's just absolutely normal for a woman to not wear make-up and go and kick some ass internationally.
The why not to have children chapter was written as a love letter to my sister Caz. She's always made it very clear that she never wants to have kids. One of the first questions men or women ask you is "Have you got kids?" At the start of a conversation you shouldn't be having to say "My womb's all fucked up and I haven't got a boyfriend!"
It’s definitely a personal question but I sort of like that it’s become ok to ask each other that. I was out to dinner a few weeks ago with a group of girls that I didn’t know very well, and one of them asked “So, do you guys want to have kids?” sort of randomly. But it was great that that’s a question we’re even allowed to ask each other.
Well, YOU are exactly the people who should be having that conversation! You're absolutely allowed to, of course it would be of concern to you. YES, that conversation is appropriate because it's relevant to you, your age, and your relationships with each other. It's NOT relevant if you just fucking met someone or someone's a lot older than you or someone's a journalist talking to a female celebrity. That's inappropriate behavior, and it's one of those zero tolerance aspects. Women need to be going "That's inappropriate."
Let’s talk about words for a second. You have a section in your book where you talk about how you use the word “cunt” for your vagina. (“Cunt is a proper, old, historic, strong word.” HTBAW). You advocate the importance of reclaiming the word “feminism,” calling it our strongest weapon as women. And you’ve gotten some criticism for using the words “retard” and “tranny.” Are there some words that we should be afraid of using?
Well, I think the two things of equal importance, the Batman and the Joker of all civilization, is freedom of speech, for people to communicate about how they feel, to talk about the reality of their existence, for no idea to be forbidden. AND the absolutely equally to the last milligram importance of everyone being polite and not upsetting each other. And so, for instance, with the word "retard" which I had in the book, that was a quote from my diary when I was thirteen. I know that the word is offensive now. I wrote the book in such a hurry, and when it was pointed out that it was just kind of sitting there not in the context of what I'd said when I was thirteen, we immediately pulled it, issued a massive apology, and I would never use that again.
The word "tranny" was interesting because a load of people really jumped on that. Three of my friends are transvestites, and we had always used the word "tranny" to mean transvestite, not transsexual, and didn't know that that was a massive issue. Initially I was kind of equally tetchy, like, 'There's no greater friend of the gays! How dare you?” But after the misunderstanding that happened on Twitter, I researched lots and came across the word "cis" which I'd never come across before, and again it comes back to the idea of normality, so that educated me and that's fantastic, that's why it's brilliant that Twitter's there. It educated me about "cis" and "tranny" and "trans" in a way that I have educated people about feminism, so it was all very useful.
In your interview with NPR last Thursday (listen to it here! It’s great!), you mentioned that you used to think “Once I’m thinner and smooth and have perfect hair and perfect outfits, everything will fall into place!” and you said you thought that until you were twenty-eight or twenty-nine. I’m twenty-six, and I feel that way all. the time. And even if you know better, it’s hard to stop thinking that way! So, how did you?
The trick is, and there's a little bit of heartbreak, you have to just give up on the idea of being a princess. You have to give up on the idea of being fabulous. My kind of base position on existence is that you just have to admit you're a bit of a twat. You're a bit of a div, you're a kind of sweaty, stumpy, well-meaning idiot and you're trying your hardest, but it's just enough to be a sort of pleasant, polite person who's working quite hard and tries to be nice to the people they're nice to. We don't need to have any more ambitions than that! This whole sassiness thing – everything's got to be sarcastic, everything's got to be knowing, everything's got to be cynical. You've got to be on top of your shit twenty-four hours a day. THAT is exhausting. It's just far better to go, you know what? I'm just basically a monkey in a dress, and the best I can hope for every day is just to be nice, to smile as much as possible, to be gentle, try and be a bit understanding, work really hard, go and smell some flowers, have a cup of tea, ring your mum if you get on with her, just kind of dial it down a bit. There's a more sustainable idea of being a woman rather than feeling like you're in a fucking movie twenty-four hours a day.
So, we live in a time of bikini waxes and birth control and latent sexism and the ability to choose a career over marriage. Is it a good or a bad time to be a woman?
It's a time of enormous potential. The door has never been more open than it is now. We all just swarmed onto the battlefield and we did some enormous stuff and we killed some motherfucking patriarchy, and there are lots of dead patriarchs all over the floor, and that was all good. But we now need to work out which direction we're going to surge in next. And I just think being reasonable is the big thing that we need, you know, if the women are going to gather around in the 21st century and go, "Ok, we won that battle, where are we going to go next?" I think the next battle is A) overturn what normality means, what normal is, and B) just doing it in a reasonable way. I would love it if this became the era of shrugging, cardigan-wearing reasonable people.
If you could choose one subjugated woman from history to bring to 2012 in order to enjoy the freedoms that women have now, who would you choose?
Probably Mary Wollstonecraft. Because that was so ballsy, you know? That was an era where there were people around who could still remember witches being burned. So not just to give her hope and make her realize that she did start something that was incredible, but also to reward her by letting her just sit back and listen to some Beyonce, and order a really fucking amazing steak, and some underwear that wasn't made of sacking cloth, and that wasn't full of nits. I would bring Mary Wollstonecraft back and show her the 21st century. Give her some wine.
Chiara Atik is a dating writer, a Lower East Side dweller, and a feminist.