New Statesman | A woman’s body is not a disgrace


Boys grow up by getting bigger, stronger, louder. The things that a male child is encouraged to be good at are, by and large, things esteemed in the male adolescent too. But for girls, adolescence is a time of loss. Becoming a woman means giving things up, explains Deborah Cameron in The Myth of Mars and Venus, and taking up new and feminine occupations: “In particular, [girls] abandon physical play: instead of using their bodies to do things, they start to focus on adorning them.” Somewhere in the passage between being a child and becoming a grown-up, girls learn that our bodies are not ourselves, but a portable property that we must cultivate, display, and trade for the best bargain we can make.

Read the full post at the New Statesman


How to be a fangirl

“I’ve been thinking a lot about normal,” said Caitlin Moran during her Bath Book Festival talk to promote Moranthology. “About how it’s assumed to be white, male and straight, and it shouldn’t be.” She didn’t directly address the criticism that she’s received over the last few days for what’s been interpreted as a failure to think outside her own comfortable identity as a white woman, but there it was: she’s been thinking about the assumptions around default humanity, and she doesn’t accept them.

What came next is the really important thing about Moran, the reason why her writing (personal writing in a personal column, the genre most likely to collapse into mewling solipsism and self-justification) includes some of the most powerful, inspiring, moving political journalism we have at the moment: her explanation for rejecting that version of the normal human is funny, pragmatic and bound up in her own experience as a working class girl. “It’s a waste,” she said. “If you’re only listening to one kind of person, you’re missing out on the brainpower of everyone else… and one of them, somewhere, could probably solve the financial crisis. That’s why I believe in equality.”

This was the jumping off point for a speech about the welfare state, and what the welfare state meant to her family, that beat the whole of the Labour Party conference and left it rolling in the dirt. It was mighty. It was moving. It was gracious: “If you pay tax, thank you for the clothes, the food, the libraries… Thank you, and I have paid you back.” Moran standing on a stage being funny and clever and wildly gorgeous is a better argument for redistribution than any number of wonkish disquisitions on the wonders of Sweden. She’s the poster product and the greatest proponent of a system designed to let people rise up rather than be crushed down.

And the audience applauded, loudly and for a long time, for the right of a disabled father, his wife and their eight children to be supported by the state. It was a beautiful moment. The thing is, Moran has charisma. She has shit tons of charisma, and by some glorious fluke of humanity, that charisma sits alongside a sense of justice and generosity. (We’re lucky: some generations end up with their greatest depository of charisma sharing person-space with a taste for fascism, or war, or generally fucking other people over.) She said she’s into revolution, and the most revolutionary thing she’s doing right now is using her own charm to make us look on other people as people.

This sounds like gushing fangirl talk, because it is gushing fangirl talk: there were a lot of gushing fangirls in that audience, including some near me who’d baked Moran a cake in tribute. She’s powerful and politically important because she inspires this kind of affection, and can direct it not just at herself, but at all the people whose lives you’ve barely thought to imagine. (Her column Unlike Most Of The Coalition, I Was Raised On Benefits is a magnificent example of this, and it’s included in Moranthology.) There’s been a lot of chatter this week about whether Moran is ideologically sound. I think she’s better than sound: she’s downright good, able to listen to criticism and able to charm people who profoundly disagree with her into listening. Against cold, cynical, cutting cruelty, Moran’s warmth is the best kind of opposition we have.

Girl-on-Girls crime: Moran and Dunham vs feminism

I wonder why Caitlin Moran didn’t ask Lena Dunham about the absence of black characters in Dunham’s HBO sitcom Girls when the journalist interviewed the showrunner for The Times. It’s been a much-picked over omission in Girls’ version of New York, and Moran’s been getting a kicking for the oversight since publication. On the other hand, I don’t wonder very much because I think the answer is there in the interview: Moran loves Girls and sees Dunham as a success story, and the story she tells is one of feminist victory rather than hapless racist failure.

I haven’t seen any of Girls yet (which makes me at least as qualified to gob off about its racial politics as three-quarters of the angry people on Twitter), but this is what I know about it: it’s a comedy that draws a lot of its humour at the expense of its four solipsistic 20-something female main characters, and Dunham (its producer/writer/director/star) has made a joke of her own solipsism. “I am half-Jew, half WASP, and I wrote two Jews and two WASPs,” she told NPR.

When she offers “I always want to avoid rendering an experience I can’t speak to accurately” as an explanation for the absence of black characters, I can’t decide whether she deserves ambivalent praise for recognising that her race has protected her from certain situations, or a clip round the ear for failing to take the tiny step into the imagination required to write a self-involved, well-off character with brown skin. But it’s not as if Dunham has created this bleached fiction on her own.

On the way to Girls reaching screens, there will have been tens of people more powerful than Dunham involved in the commissioning process. People who read the pitch, who went over the casting, who saw the rushes – and none of whom said, “Lena, this is looking awfully white. How about adding a black character to the main ensemble and casting someone who can co-write, if you really find writing black people such a terrifying prospect?” Dunham is not a lone gunwoman. American TV as a whole has a race problem. Actually, scratch that: the entertainment industry, in all its forms and all its localities, has a race problem.

So why make Dunham the face of telly racism? Maybe because the fact that Girls is good (not that I’ve watched it) means the audience has suddenly got a taste for raised expectations: here at last are interesting, convincing female characters, so why can’t we have interesting, convincing, non-white female characters too? I’m honestly not sure how I feel about this, because I think it’s right that we should have high standards for the things we love and criticise them when they fall down, but I also wonder whether Lena Dunham is being forced to carry the weight of the world in a very unusual way – and being punished with unusual vitriol.

Look at The Hollywood Reporter’s power list of showrunners. There are 32 names on the comedy rundown; six of those are female. (Don’t even ask how many are non-white. The answer is “not bloody many”.) Two of those female names are attached to Girls, which is the only show with a majority female cast. That’s why Moran is right to see Girls as a minor feminist win (even if she’s too easy on its flaws), and why it’s curious that Girls is the one point of the entertainment industry where the righteous have decided to rain down body blows of justice.

Successful women are still in sufficiently short supply for us all to feel we have a stake in them. Successful, politically-engaged women? They’re so scarce that the rest of us are in danger of becoming maenads, tearing our rare girl Orpheuses apart because we all want a piece. The minute a feminist woman reaches a level of recognition beyond Fawcett society fundraiser, all the complicated hypocrisies that make us functioning people are laid open to scrutiny, and if the standard we demand is inviolable political perfection, then all women will fail.

The result is ugly: it creates invective where reflection would be better, and makes the high achievers (in this case, Dunham and Moran) into scapegoats to be driven out. There’s a sweet spot between Moran’s unadulterated big-upping of Dunham, and the furious denunciations of Dunham and Moran that I’ve seen drifting across the internet over the last 24 hours, though, and that sweet spot is called “constructive criticism”. Feminism can’t be a league of the perfect, but if it could discuss flaws rather than simply judge and punish them, it could bring perfect a lot closer to hand.

My year in books 2011

When I decided I was going to write a review of my reading year, I had a bit of an anxious moment: totting up my annual literary consumption, it seemed that I hadn’t read very much at all. I was wrong, it was just that I’d blanked out the 4,576 pages of George RR Martin’s A Song Of Ice And Fire sequence that dominated my recreation hours between March and September. My original plan was to read just the first novel, then pick up the second after the second TV series, and so on. I did not do that.

Instead, I became a dragon-fevered fantasy obsessive for a season, tugged along from book to book by some downright cynical plotting – Martin breaks the story up into various POV chapters, and he exploits this constantly to withhold information and generate cliffhangers. As much as I couldn’t stop reading, I’m not sure if I’d definitely recommend to anyone else. For one thing, at least two books’ worth of plot points are invented just to be whimsically annihilated later on. For another, the story still isn’t finished, meaning there’s an outside chance that I could be cheated out of an ending even after reading all those pages. Continue reading