Remember when feminism was about The Sisterhood? About women clubbing together to stick it to The Man, patriarchy or whatever they were calling the system that kept them in a state of social subjugation?
Those days are gone. Today, if Caitlin Moran's wildly successful feminist tract How To Be A Woman is anything to go by, feminism is less a universal club and more a bitchy sorority, made up of well-connected women like Moran who consider themselves better, more spiritual and more "real", than other women, than lesser women, than what the Victorians might have called "fallen women". Feminism is now about asserting the moral superiority of enlightened women over unthinking, uncouth broads.
Moran is a columnist for The Times, Britain's newspaper of record, where she is paid a fortune to titillate that paper's largely Tory readership with tales of her countercultural antics. She reports from Glastonbury (rock festival for fortysomethings), interviews pop stars, and writes about what it is like to be "rock'n'roll" in the "Sea of Bullshit" that is mainstream modern Britain. (Yes, she really uses phrases like that.)
How To Be A Woman, her first book, was published in the UK last year and is now about to hit bookstores across the U.S. Described as "Germaine Greer's The Female Eunuch as written from a bar stool", it is part memoir, part commentary on the habits and hopes of 21st-century women. It has been lapped up by British female writers, with Moran hailed as "the new face of feminism." Judging by a fawning piece in Slate, it looks set to win the approval of American feminists too.
What is striking about this treatment of Moran's book as a manifesto for the modern woman is that much of the book is… well, anti-women. It expresses supreme disappointment with the behavior, mores and grooming habits of vast swathes of womankind, especially those of a (whisper it) working-class persuasion.
Moran's book kicks off with a telling anecdote about her childhood in Wolverhampton, England. She recounts being 13 years old and 13 stone and running away from "yobs" (a British word for gruff, uneducated people) who were teasing her.
In the process of legging it from the brutes, it suddenly dawned on Moran that by dint of her youthful flirtation with radical culture she was better than these yobs, who "do not look as if they have dabbled much in either the iconography of the counterculture or the inspirational imagery of radical gender-benders". Moran says she felt like turning to her tormentors and yelling: "I have read The Well of Loneliness by famous trouser-wearing lesbian Radclyffe Hall."
This is a fitting story to start the book with, because, in essence, How To Be A Woman is one long countercultural boast, one big fat advert for the author's superior tuned-in outlook on life and culture in contrast with the outlook of "yobs". So where, for example, most men and women are obsessed with keeping themselves fit, plucked and preened, Moran says she prefers to be chilled out, to live "like it's 1969 all over again and my entire life is made of cheesecloth, sitars and hash". The book is full of such contradictorily ostentatious claims to coolness.
Moran is most keen to distance herself from those women who have, in her view, been brainwashed by mainstream culture, particularly by porno culture, and who therefore don't live "like it's 1969 all over again".
She devotes much of the book to the vagina and the question of why some women — Them — insist on shaving off their pubic hair. Apparently it is because pornography has programmed these women to turn themselves into hairless overgrown cherubs for the delectation of weird men. "Why do 21st-century women feel they have to remove their pubic hair? Because everyone does in porno", she says.
So Moran's refusal to shave — her possession of what she calls a "retro vagina" — becomes yet further proof of her immunity to the lure of porno culture and, by extension, her intellectual superiority to the drones of womankind who dutifully queue up for a Brazilian. This is why she goes on and on about her "big, hairy minge", her "lovely furry moof", the fact that it looks like there is "a marmoset sitting in my lap"—because this all speaks to her ability to do what millions of women are apparently incapable of doing: prevent the "the mores of pornography [from] getting into my pants".
Moran's chief contribution to feminist thinking is to argue that porn brainwashes women as well as men. Where 1980s feminists fretted like latter-day Victorian chaperones over the power of porn to turn men into rapacious beasts, Moran panics over its transformation of women into slavishly hair-free freaks. I guess this is progress of sorts, a more equal-opportunity form of sneering, in which both men and women are seen as automatons shaped by filthy films.
There is a powerful if unspoken class component to Moran's fear for modern womankind. She's particularly agitated by the kind of sexual language used by women from the lower orders. She hates their use of the word "pussy", which is a product of the fact that they "get all their sex education from pornography". In contrast, "I personally have a cunt", she says.
She doesn't like the word "boobs" either, because "boobs are, by and large, white and working class". She prefers to call her breasts "Simon and Garfunkel", because one is bigger than the other. She is bemused by "vajazzling", whereby a woman's pubic hair is removed and replaced with stick-on jewels, which is a popular practice in… guess where? In working-class parts of Britain, of course.
She hates lapdancing, in which largely working-class women strip for cash, but predictably she loves burlesque, in which largely middle-class women strip for cash. Burlesque is "lapdancing's older, darker, cleverer sister", she says, which is another way of saying what is implied throughout the book — that the sexual practices of Moran's social set are so much better and healthier than the sexual practices of that other social set. Moran praises Iceland for being the first country in the world to outlaw lapdancing clubs for feminist rather than religious reasons. Yeah! State authoritarianism! That's so 1960s!
Does Moran think she's being radical when she says women are driving themselves nuts keeping themselves hair-free and dolled up and when she depicts working-class women's sexuality as something peculiar, possibly even dangerous? If so, she couldn't be more wrong. Because both of those ideas are carbon copies of the sort of waffle promoted by respectable lady writers in the Victorian era.
Those long-dead snobs also fretted over women's obsession with prettification. The 1857 book Etiquette for Ladies said: "It is not too much to say that women in general, from a dread of falling into coarseness, neglect a good deal the care of their health." Today it is rad feminists like Moran who fight the "dread of falling into coarseness".
Also, just like Moran, decent Victorian ladies looked upon working-class women's sexuality as more animalistic than their own. As Elizabeth Langland put it in her book Nobody's Angels: Middle-Class Women and Domestic Ideology in Victorian Culture, in the Victorian era "women of the working class became vested with a dangerous sexuality, and middle-class women… became the guardians of spirituality". Moran, with her practiced rock-chick style and her constant railing against saucy mass culture, very clearly sees herself as a modern-day "guardian of spirituality".
Now we can see where the title How To Be A Woman comes from: Moran's book is, at root, a new etiquette manual for ladies, an instruction from on high, from far outside the Sea of Bullshit, about how women should speak, live, shave and fuck. Moran's treatise confirms the unstoppable backward march of feminism into the snobbery, sexlessness and censoriousness of the Victorian era.
Brendan O'Neill is editor of spiked in London.