I was very excited about Caitlin Moran’s new book How to be a woman. She’s intelligent and colourful and interesting, and I thought that maybe she would be the woman to breathe a bit of life into this country’s seemingly quite dead feminist debate.
Hence I was also quite disappointed when, in her guide to being a modern feminist in the last issue of Stylist, she used the opportunity to reach over 400,000 readers to talk about whether or not it’s OK to wear heels, why Lady Gaga’s refined sexual imagery is more acceptable than Rihanna’s “willing” approach, and how Nicole Kidman in flip-flops at the Oscars is a sign that feminism is working.
Many feminists reacted to the article by claiming that you don’t have to qualify to call yourself a feminist, and that it’s not about what you wear (I couldn’t agree more), while other feminists responded that you’re an idiot if you suggest that looks are irrelevant to the feminist debate (and funnily enough, I agree with them too). What’s so frustrating, and in fact also symptomatic, about this article by the supposed modern feminism pioneer, is that she simply wasn’t able to go any deeper than the surface: it was all shoes and S&M and sexy dresses.
While it’s important to acknowledge that, as Caitlin Moran says, you can wear whatever you want and read whatever you want and sleep with whomever you want and still call yourself a feminist, it’s even more important to look beyond the thick layer of foundation and lip gloss and talk about who we really are, who we are expected to be, who we are allowed to be, and why.
Gaga can be as willing or unwilling as she wants (and by the way, didn’t Moran once quote Courtney Love’s signature slogan “you can’t rape the willing”?), and talented women can collect Oscars with their tits out for all I care – my point is that they have the right to be judged by what they do, not what they wear. (Moran’s solution? If boys don’t listen to what you say when you’re wearing a short skirt, cover up and they might just listen. Don’t expect them to change – just adapt to the circumstances and get over it.)
How are we ever expected to get anywhere at all if we insist on talking about women only in terms of what they wear and how they wear it and whether or not they should be wearing it, when in fact this is just yet another symptom of the patriarchy? Covering up in the hope of being taken seriously does not make us free.
We have to stop telling teenage girls that they look cheap and instead think about why they feel the need to cake themselves in make-up. We have to stop asking rape victims what they wore and start asking ourselves how the rapists ended up thinking the way they did. If we’re too busy judging each other for wearing heels and telling each other what type of sexual imagery is refined enough, feminism won’t get anywhere – labelled modern or not.
Now, who’s up for talking about the real issues?
(By the way, I will read Moran’s new book, and I’m still hoping – and expecting – that there’ll be both depth and real reflection in there. Somehow, I’m hoping that she just underestimated the Stylist readers, for which I can forgive her. Say what you want, but she certainly has created debate. You have to give her that. Now: fingers crossed. Then: a proper review.)