There’s something about the British writer Caitlin Moran that makes you want tell her inappropriate things about yourself. Like how you spent your adolescence racked with anxiety over the fact that one boob was half a cup size bigger than the other, or that you’re confused – and possibly always have been – about the social implications of pubic grooming.
This, as Moran will tell you, is only natural. If you’ve read her new book, How To Be A Woman (a massive bestseller in the U.K. that is currently taking North America by storm), you will know that subjects inappropriate for polite conversation are her literary oeuvre of choice.
Both in her widely-read column for the Times of London and her new book, she ponders with wonder the details of being a human female, inside and out, down to our sweaty primordial essence.
This is because for Moran, 37, the big social issues of our time – sexism in the media, poverty and climate change, to name a few – are inextricably bound up with life’s mucky minutiae. A key pillar of her feminist polemic, for instance, is that a grown, modern woman must be in possession of the following four things to survive: “a pair of yellow shoes (they unexpectedly go with everything), a friend who will come and post bail at 4 a.m., a fail-safe pie recipe and a proper muff.”
On this last point, as on many others, Moran is hilariously precise. When a woman sits naked, she ought to “look as if she has a marmoset sitting in her lap. A tame marmoset, that she can send off to pickpocket things, should she so need it – like that trained monkey in Raiders of the Lost Ark.”
As feminist rhetoric goes, it’s a far cry from Friedan, Dworkin or Millet, but that’s entirely on purpose. Moran’s book, a self-described “Female Eunuch rewritten from a bar stool,” doesn’t seek to preach but to delight.
As she told me during our interview this week (45 minutes of frenetic girl talk down the phone just before she jetted off to New York to do the Today Show), the mantle of cultural iconoclast is one she’s happy to wear – so long as people are laughing. “Basically I want to discuss everything we currently feel we can’t discuss.
The secret is that you don’t have to keep this stuff secret. So whether it’s menstruation or masturbation or that you want kids, or you don’t want kids, or your shoes hurt or that your knickers are up your bum, I want to take that conversation and place it inside the realm of regular quotidian behaviour so we can stop feeling so oppressed and anxious.”
Moran is the kind of feminist I wish to God there’d been more of in my university Women’s Studies tutorials – an irrepressible loudmouth with a crackling intelligence who is far more in interested in taking clever potshots at the ludicrousness of lad mags and celebrities than aridly bemoaning the patriarchy.
Her revolutionary plan of attack is admittedly rather vague (“I can’t believe we got to the point where we see something as rock ‘n’ roll as feminism as boring and stern. It’s like the French Revolution – woo hoo! Eat the rich! It’s fun!”) but it’s also so totally infectious you can’t resist. She is, like many talented, unapologetically driven wacky-chicks before her – Tina Fey or the late Nora Ephron spring to mind – a humorist first and a political animal second.
The thing that scares her most is not being wrong, but being ignored. “There’s real danger in trying to somehow be scientifically, gleamingly right,” she says. “You end up droning on in the back of the pub and no one cares because you’re so bleedingly boring. The only way I know anything is right is that it’s funny. The very best truths are funny. Funny is also just a brilliant weapon to have – it’s like giving everyone you meet a little pot of whiskey.”
Growing up the eldest of seven siblings in a public housing ghetto in the Midlands, Moran says that humour was a matter of sheer survival. Her background is not just unusual in London’s class-stratified media milieu, it’s utterly unheard of. After dropping out of school at age 11, she published a novel in her early teens, then went on to write arts features for music magazines before landing a column at the Times at 18.
Her astonishing trajectory, she says, isn’t fuelled so much by North American-style “up from the bootstraps” hard work as “Pay attention to me NOW or I’ll be poor and die!” anxiety.
Her politics, she says, stemmed mainly from reading a bunch of books about feminism in her teens in order to scientifically prove to her brother, Eddie, that she was superior to him. Today she’s signed a deal to write a sitcom and a film based on the book with her sister Caz, and is riding high on the U.S. Amazon rankings. One by one her dreams are coming true, but it’s not something she ever foresaw, much less expected.
“Americans kind of expect kids to follow their dreams, it’s part of the story,” she says. “But growing up in Wolverhampton if I’d gone around saying I was ‘following my dreams’ someone would have punched me in the face.”