Not A Feminist? Caitlin Moran Asks, Why Not?
TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. If you're a woman and don't think of yourself as a feminist, Caitlin Moran wants to convince you you're wrong. And while she's convincing you, she wants to make you laugh. She says that while her memoir, "How To Be A Woman," is about all the times that she got being a woman wrong because she was uninformed, underprepared or fatally deluded, she also wants it to be like an old-fashioned feminist consciousness-raising session, with honest stories about sex, self-image, weddings, marriage, childbirth, abortion and aging.
Moran is a columnist for The Times of London. She started writing for the music weekly Melody Maker when she was 16. She and her sister Caroline co-write the BBC comedy series "Raised By Wolves," which is loosely based on their childhoods. Last month, the series became available in the U.S. on the Acorn TV streaming service.
I spoke to Caitlin Moran in 2012, and we're going to hear an excerpt of that interview.
Parents, I want to let you know some of our conversation will be in adult territory.
Caitlin Moran, welcome to FRESH AIR.
CAITLIN MORAN: Thank you very much. I must tell you an important fact before we go any further on this radio show.
MORAN: It's that my hair is very big today, and I need all of your listeners to imagine that.
GROSS: Your hair's very big. Since you brought up your hair, your hair has - it's very dark with a gray streak growing across the top. Is that a little shout-out to Susan Sontag?
MORAN: It is. Simultaneously my two biggest heroes are Susan Sontag and Morticia Addams from "The Addams Family..."
MORAN: …And between those two vectors of culture, I lie.
GROSS: (Laughter) Well, I want to start by asking you to do a short reading from your book. And there are a few things that are quoted from your book by a lot of people, including our book critic. And I've come to think of these as, like, your greatest hits. So I'm going to ask you to read one of your greatest hits.
MORAN: Yeah, I think of this one as my "Born In The USA," and I'll do it in my posh reading voice.
GROSS: (Laughter) OK, great.
MORAN: (Reading) So here is the quick way of working out if you are a feminist. A - do you have a vagina? And B - do you want to be in charge of it? If you said yes to both, then congratulations. You're a feminist, because we need to reclaim the word feminism. We need to reclaim the word feminism real bad.
When statistics come in saying that only 29 percent of American women would describe themselves as feminist, and only 42 percent of British women, I used to think, what do you think feminism is, ladies? What part of liberation for women is not for you? Is it the freedom to vote, the right not to be owned by the man that you marry, the campaign for equal pay, "Vogue" by Madonna, jeans? Did all that stuff just get on your nerves, or were you just drunk at the time of survey?
These days, however, I am much calmer, since I realize that it's actually technically impossible for a woman to argue against feminism. Without feminism, you wouldn't be allowed to have a debate on a woman's place in society. You'd be too busy giving birth on the kitchen floor, biting down on a wooden spoon so as not to disturb the men's card game, before going back to hoeing the rutabaga field.
GROSS: Thank you for reading that. That's Caitlin Moran, reading from her new book "How To Be A Woman." So why do you think so many people, so many women, don't want to be associated with the word feminism?
MORAN: I think it's simply because they don't know what it means. When - one of the reasons that I wanted to write a whole book about feminism, rather than just endlessly wanging on about it in a bar - which had previously been my technique in order to spread the word for the sisterhood - it was because I was meeting a lot of younger women. And I would kind of confidently say oh, well, you know, we're all feminists here.
And they would, with a look of horror, as if I had just banged them on the knee with a fork, go no, I'm not a feminist. And you go, what do you mean? And, you know, you kind of - you run through kind of, you know, what being a feminist means, sort of like voting and, you know, rape being illegal and not being a legal possession of your husband.
And they go, oh, yeah, yeah, yeah, no, we're into all of that. I said, well, you are a feminist then. Women are feminist by default. And you live in a feminist world. The first world is feminist. You are educated equally to boys. You're expected to go into equal employment with boys. In a marriage, you are legally equal. So, you know, you cannot deny we live in a feminist world.
GROSS: What made you realize that?
MORAN: I never didn't realize it. I was, I mean, I was brought up in a kind of, you know, very hippie, liberal family. And it was just always automatically assumed that men and women were equal and indeed superior. I mean, when you've got a mother who's given birth to eight children, you know, often without any kind of medical intervention - just she gave birth to one of my brothers sort of on the bedroom floor in front of all of us -you know, you see that women are fairly capable.
So that was why it was always weird kind of, you know, whenever we did have a television - our possession of a television was sporadic because we were quite poor, and they would often be repossessed. But whenever we did have a TV, and you'd see the women on television, you'd be like, why are these women kind of pretending to be stupid or just kind of - just being all blonde and giggly and kind of only operating as an adjunct to the male characters? You know, why aren't the women as important as the men?
GROSS: Let's talk about pregnancy. You write about pregnancy in your book. You had a very difficult childbirth with your first daughter.
GROSS: What - just briefly, what are some of the medical problems you had?
MORAN: I mean, most of it was that I just wasn't ready. I kind of - I did, you know, I hadn't attended any birth classes. I was insanely unfit. I was very, very overweight. And also at that time, I didn't know that I was hyper-mobile, sort of double-jointed, and basically kind of my pelvis sort of, kind of cracked in half and stretched in a really bad way. So I couldn't walk. So when I finally went into labor, not only was kind of the two parts of my pelvis grinding against each other, but the baby got stuck. It was the wrong way round. None of the anesthetics worked. The epidurals didn't work. I had five of those. They were fun. And eventually they had to give me an emergency C-section.
But I would never have written about a bad birth - because I think women do like to sit around and scare each other with bad birth tales - unless I'd had a really good one for my second birth. And I wanted to contrast it between if you go into your first birth unprepared, it could go wrong for you.
If you prepare for a birth, which I did with the second one - I was fit, I went to all the classes. And the main thing that I learned is that if you are lying down to give birth, gravity is not helping you. You know, you stand up and, you know, a baby will basically kind of fall out of you, if you keep walking 'round. But as soon as they have you, which is the medicalized birth, on your back with your feet in stirrups, you're kind of pushing a baby out sideways, and it really will feel like that. (Laughter) So you kind of want to be standing up and having it falling out.
GROSS: So I'm almost surprised that you were willing to have a second child considering the agony of the first birth, though. You know, what a lot of people say is that if women really remembered what birth was like, they wouldn't have more children.
MORAN: Oh, yeah. You're still addled. Like for the two years after you've had a kid, you are so addled with hormones. You're like, yeah, bring all the babies, I'll have all the babies. And sort of - yeah, no, sure enough, sort of like once two and a half years had passed, suddenly all the hormones left. And I was like, yeah, no, I'm OK with two.
GROSS: Well, not only were you OK with two, you actually got pregnant again…
GROSS: ...After your second child. And you decided to have an abortion. And it was not an anguished decision for you. You write that you knew immediately that you wanted an abortion. You write, not even for a second do I think I should have this baby. This isn't who I'm going to be again.
After wanting children so badly, having a very difficult first birth, going ahead with the second, and that was an easy birth - you really wanted to be a mother. You had two children. Why were you so sure that you did not want to have the third child?
MORAN: I just knew I didn't want to be a mother again. You know, I'm not a gambler. You know, I'm a calculator. I'm a planner. And I knew what the odds were of me being able to do as good a job on having a third child as I had with the last two to the standards that I wanted to, to be totally there for them. And I just knew I couldn't do it again.
And I think it's a really important thing for women to be able to just put their hands up and go, I can't actually do any more. The sort of the template of being a mother is that you're endlessly giving to the point of exhaustion. You know, that's amazing if you can do that, but for that to be seen as the norm of motherhood, that women are always supposed to give until they're exhausted, you know, to always take on all these burdens - and it's why I'm so, you know, in favor of protecting all of the abortion legislation we've got, to give women the right to go, I can't do that. I can't do it. I'm too tired.
GROSS: Well, you had no second thoughts about having an abortion and didn't experience guilt or remorse after having the abortion. And I'm wondering, are you comfortable expressing that certainty? Because a lot of people think even if you're, you know, pro-choice that you should have remorse after an abortion.
MORAN: Yes, well, this was something that I thought you were supposed to have. I mean, this is why I wanted to talk about it really honestly, you know, kind of, you know, as a writer with this fairly high profile, you know, in Britain, you know, I didn't need to write about this. I could have kept it secret.
But I just wanted women out there - you know, I wrote this book kind of, you know - I was a very confused and lonely teenage girl. And the thing that I had in my voice - in my head while I was writing this book all the time was just try and write this book with as an open heart as possible, writing it to someone who could be going through one of the big crises you had in your life. And you're just there as a friend, putting your hand on their shoulder and going, dude, I've been there.
And one of the reasons why I wanted to write about it was to go, it is actually an option not to feel bad about it. I'm not saying you should not feel bad about it, and I'm not saying that there are some women out there who won't feel bad about it, but just proportionately, statistically, one in three women are going to have an abortion. They're not all going to feel guilty.
You know, you walk into that - you know, so often, you know, you walk into that going, no, I know that I have to do this kind of, you know, I'm glad that I have the option to do this. I had such an overview of all of, you know, of all of mankind's history when, you know, I went to have my abortion, just thinking of all the women who just couldn't have made this choice. They just had to go and do this. They had to face the fear and the pain and the worry and the heartache and the exhaustion and the, you know, the loss of self that you have where you just disappear into another person, as you should.
But it should always be your choice to disappear and give yourself over to someone. You know, but to say that you have to carry to term and look after a child for the rest of your life is to say I force you, legally, to love someone. It's like saying, you know, you have to go and love another - you have to go - you know, you have to go marry someone. It's like an arranged marriage.
You know, you have to give that love willingly. You have to walk into it with your eyes open.
GROSS: You have a chapter about not having children. And you want to express your approval to any woman who decides that that is her preference. And, you know, it wasn't always something that women could decide. I mean they didn't have the birth control to effectively make that decision even if they wanted to. And society would certainly not have approved of it. You know, any woman not having children would've seen as - been seen as, you know, tragic, sad, pathetic.
MORAN: Well, the word barren tells you everything you need to know...
MORAN: ...And the same with the word spinster tells you everything that you need to know about our attitude of women who choose not to marry, yes.
GROSS: Well, do you still think that that chapter is needed, that women who decide not to have children need that kind of reassurance and that there will be some kind of societal disapproval of them?
MORAN: Oh, God, I mean it totally still needs - I mean just this week on the cover of Grazia, kind of like the biggest selling women's magazine in the U.K., was yet another picture of Jennifer Aniston with, you know, Jennifer's baby fear. And you know, we've spent 15 years discussing whether this woman is going to have a baby or not. I just think that's so rude.
It's just, you know, we don't know what issues she's got. You know, that's totally her decision. The idea that this is like a national debate that we have all the time. You know, is she pregnant? Isn't she pregnant? Does she want a baby? Is she sad? Did she still wish she could have Brad's baby? Is she going to adopt a baby? Is she going to have a baby with this new boyfriend then leave him so she can be a single mother? It's just never been an option for Jennifer Aniston not to have a kid.
Imagine if you saw George Clooney on the cover of a magazine every week with, is George broody? Is George going to adopt a baby? When is George going to have another kid? It would just seem weird. We'd seem demented, yet it's totally valid for women.
And I was spurred by the fact that having worked for women's magazines myself as a journalist, if you go off and interview a female celebrity, I'd just go in and interview them like I'd interview any human being and talk about the things that interested me. And you'd come back, and you'd file your copy. And then my editor would read through my copy and go, why haven't you asked them if they want kids? And I'd be like, well, I don't know, I interviewed Aerosmith last week. And I didn't ask them that.
MORAN: And they'd be like no, you - then she just would ignore that and go, look, just ring the PR. And just get - fix up another sort of quick phone interview, five minutes where you ask her if she's going to have a kid or not. And I'd be like, why? You know, a woman gets to 32 and even if you do it in a kind of double-back ironic way, to say to her, is your body clock ticking? Tick, tick, tick, tick, tick, tick, tick. I mean it's the only thing that would spur me into violence. It's just a horrible thing to keep saying to a woman, do you want a baby inside you? I mean, it's creepy.
GROSS: So I want you to read another excerpt of "How To Be A Woman." And I think of this as another of your greatest hits, another excerpt that has been quoted a lot. And it's basically about your feelings of women thinking that they need to wax their pubic area and have, you know, a clean bikini line. Would you read that for us?
MORAN: Yes, I like to think of this as my "Strawberry Fields"/"Penny Lane." It's a double-A side, this one. (Reading) I can't believe that we've got to a point where it's basically costing us money to have a vagina. They're making us pay for maintenance and upkeep of our lulus, like they're a communal garden. It's a stealth tax, muff exercise. This is money we should be spending on the electricity bill and cheese and berries.
GROSS: That's Caitlin Moran reading from her memoir, "How To Be A Woman." We're listening back to my 2012 conversation with her. "Raised By Wolves," a BBC series she co-writes with her sister, has just been made available in the U.S. on the Acorn streaming service. We'll hear more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my 2012 interview with feminist and writer Caitlin Moran. The BBC comedy series "Raised By Wolves," which is loosely based on her childhood, has just been made available in the U.S. Caitlin writes the series with her sister.
Let's talk about your background a little bit. You grew up in, like, an industrial town in England.
GROSS: Your father was a drummer in a rock band?
MORAN: That's right, yes. He was our rock 'n' roll contingent. He faked his passport when he was 15 and ran away from home and did the same - he was in a kind of psychedelic rock band - and they did the same tour circuit as The Beatles kind of two years after The Beatles. But he just sort of never made it. And he never made any money. And he met my mother, who was from sort of quite a nice background.
But the presumption always was that he was going to make it as a rock star next year. So kind of when we were watching television and we saw Bob Geldof and his sort of beautiful children, I would always presume that next year I would be friends with Bob Geldof's kids. And those would be the people I would be hanging out with. And we'd all be at Live Aid together backstage. But that continually and persistently never happened for my entire childhood (laughter).
GROSS: No, in fact, you were living on the British equivalent of welfare.
MORAN: Yes, in the British equivalent of the ghetto. And it was pretty poor. Sometimes we didn't have enough to eat. And we certainly never had enough clothes. I was brought up in my mother's underwear and my father's thermal underwear, in winter, was my pajamas.
GROSS: And when - you often didn't have enough to eat, but you write when you did have enough to eat you binged...
GROSS: ...And that your siblings - or at least your sisters - binged, too. And you ended up becoming very overweight. You got fat.
MORAN: Oh, the whole family did. I mean, even now sometimes just for a laugh, I'll arrange for - to meet all my siblings in an all-you-can-eat buffet.
MORAN: Even 20 years after we got out of that scenario they'd just, all of a sudden, just be hovering there just, like, with the tray going - after three minutes you get into that kind of carbohydrate tunnel. And you're like, we could just not bother with the plate. Let's just pile it straight onto the tray. Let's eat the whole tray of food. Yes, no, it was very much a wax and wane, binge and fast. So, yeah, no, we all became very, very fat.
And also, we were taught at home, which kind of - my parents were quite apocalyptic. They kind of believed that the end of the world was nigh and also that they couldn't be bothered to get everybody's school uniforms ready for school, so a combination of those - that very prosaic thing and that complete belief in the end of the world meant that we were taught at home. So all that happened was there were just seven enormously fat, pale, shy, socially awkward children stuck in a very small house all day watching the classical musicals of MGM whilst eating an enormous amount of cheese.
GROSS: And it sounds like you had to do a lot of the parenting of your siblings.
MORAN: Yes, which I never resented then. I mean, I've always been very, very cheerful. And my diaries at the time have all the joyful ebullience of an idiot. It's just sort of stuff like, moved the deep fat fryer onto another sideboard, looks great. Found a new way to store shoes - in a cardboard box under the stairs, brilliant.
MORAN: So I was just, I was enormously cheerful, because all the heroines that I read about - that's why books are so important to me, like kind of, you know, Jane Eyre. She's poor and working class and a bit gobby. And she triumphs. And Anne of Green Gables, she's kind of an orphan and a bit weird. But she triumphs. And Annie in "Annie," you know, it was all about that kind of like, you know, girls from restricted means making it, which is kind of very much the trope of heroines from like sort of the late 19th century, early 20th-century literature. So that was, you know, the stuff that I clung to.
GROSS: Do you think that being fat contributed at all to...
MORAN: Not losing my virginity till I was 17? Yes. Definitely.
MORAN: Yeah, definitely. Yes.
GROSS: I was going to say to your sense, your early understanding of feminism because the whole kind of feminine thing was something you weren't going to easily fit into.
MORAN: Yes. I mean I was brought up in the '80s. I was born in 1975. So by the time I got to 10 and I kind of knew that I probably was going to have to be a grown-up lady at some point, the feminine role models that I had were kind of the cast of "Dynasty" and "Dallas." And I just found that terrifying. I was just, I just remember sitting there sadly going, I'm just not going to make it. I'm just - literally, it was like being a woman was a boat that was leaving a dock and it was already too far away for me to jump.
I mean how could I, this fat girl in Wolverhampton, you know, just who had no clothes - I didn't have a coat, I was wearing a dressing gown for a coat, a tartan dressing gown - look like Alexis Colby Carrington or beautiful Cybill Shepherd in "Moonlighting?" Or, you know, or even Agnes DiPesto in "Moonlighting?"
I just couldn't, you know, I would cling to people like Doris in "Fame." And it was kind of like, but it's OK. It's just her personality that will get her through. I know what, I'll have a personality, instead. That'll be useful. You just wanted to be normal. It wasn't even being beautiful. I just wanted to be smooth and thin and have, and you know, have beautiful glossy hair and lovely clothes and be able to walk in heels. And I thought that once I did all of that stuff that my life would begin.
And I sort of remember getting to about 28 and 29 and still really realizing that I subconsciously thought that, that when I was perfectly smooth and perfectly thin with perfect hair and beautiful outfits, and I could sort of spring out of bed and just put on a beautiful kind of - beautifully tailored skirt suit and go down and drink half a cup of coffee before going, must dash, and getting into a cab...
MORAN: ...that would be the point where my life would begin, and just realizing I was never going to do that even one day ever, let alone that be my life. And I think loads of women have this idea that their life is going to start at some point, once they've busted all these problems of being a woman, once we're thin and we're pretty and we've got all of our clothes and stuff, that's when our life will begin. And you meet people at 48 who are still thinking that, and 58.
GROSS: So if fabulous for you wasn't going to be the perfect skirted suit and the expensive clutch handbag and the heels and everything, how did you redefine fabulous for yourself?
MORAN: When I realized that I couldn't, I wouldn't be fabulous - I just thought I could be so, that I could just be a muse. Like it still hadn't occurred to me I could actually do anything in my life. I had given up on being beautiful. But I thought I could kind of inspire boys to write songs about me. So I became a music journalist at the age of 16. And I had sort of dyed bright red hair down to my waist and sort of stomping around in my little Dr. Martens boots. And I just sort of tried to stand around being fascinating and saying amazing things - often things that rhymed in the hopes that they would be able to pick them up and just turn them into lyrics straight away.
MORAN: I mean, I was just trying to save them time. You know, I wanted a "Layla" written about me. You know, I would've had a "Rita" written about me. I would've become a traffic warden if I'd had to. But that never happened. And it was - again, the penny didn't drop until too far into my life and I would just hope that another generation of women aren't as stupid as my generation was. I just realized I was going to have to do it myself. If anyone was going to write a song or, you know, or a book, or make a film about a girl like me, it was going to have to be a girl like me, and quite literally, me.
GROSS: Thank you so much. It's really been great to talk with you.
MORAN: Thank you so much. It's been a hoot.
GROSS: Caitlin Moran, recorded in 2012 after the publication of her book, "How to Be A Woman." After we take a short break, we'll listen back to interviews with two people who died this week - Christian fundamentalist leader Tim LaHaye, who wrote the "Left Behind" novels, and singer Marni Nixon, who dubbed the singing for Natalie Wood in "West Side Story" and Audrey Hepburn in "My Fair Lady." And David Edelstein will review the new movie, "Jason Bourne." I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
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