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How to Be Caitlin Moran

The controversial British feminist's career is founded on great material, but it's still material. She writes and performs an amount that, to me, remains unfathomable-indeed. Even much of this interview feels like a performance.

by Lauren Oyler
Jul 16 2015, 4:00pm

Photos by Mark Harrison. Photos courtesy of HarperCollins

Within five minutes of meeting Caitlin Moran, I've seen her breasts and the contents of her suitcase, and the latter is far more revealing. Fresh off a trans-Atlantic flight during which she wrote 2000 words about celebrity gossip for one of her three weekly Times of London columns, the 40-year-old best-selling British writer walks into the VICE studio waving and mid-sentence, not so much making an entrance as seeming to live a perpetual one.

She has just "smoked all sweet Gregory's fags" (Gregory is her publicist) and is wearing: red pants, gigantic red sunglasses, red Birkenstocks, green eye shadow, very thick winged eyeliner, a black top with embroidery evoking Mexico, and three engraved dog tags. I ask if they're somehow for or about her daughters. (She has two, not three, ages 12 and 14. I know this, but I pose the dumb question anyway.) "No. Fuck them," she says. "Every year I get new mottos to remember to live by." This year's are: 1) Always ride out as if meeting your nemesis ; and 2) how we turn the roofs into floors; and 3) Hold steady at the center, "which sounds like a philosophical thing, but it's just to remind me to do pelvic floor exercises."

The black top with embroidery evoking Mexico is not allowed, which Moran knows-the day before, I emailed Gregory to say we would be shooting the video portion of our interview in front of a black background, so she shouldn't wear the color if she could avoid it. Gregory forwarded me Moran's reply: "Tell them I'll do it NAKED except a snorkel!!!" She parks her carry-on (maroon, scuffy, normal) in the middle of the room and begins going through her options, moving on to the next print before my producer and I have a chance to comment on the one before. I like her, but she quickly begins to stress me out. Ultimately she decides to swap the black top for a blouse covered in wispy, watercolor-y David Bowies: Bowies in blue, red, and yellow leotards; Bowies in patterned leotards; Bowies in red, green, and orange short-sleeved leotards; Bowies in powder blue suits. Of Moran and Stardust, this much can be said: They both have a lot of outfits. To my surprise, she has actually packed a snorkel.

As for the breasts, you can see those anytime. Moran is in New York for a weeklong book tour to promote How to Build a Girl, her semi-autobiographical YA-ish novel that was published in paperback in the US at the end of June and is kind of like Angus, Thongs and Full-Frontal Snogging but with more "wanking," welfare, and riot grrrl. During Moran's reading at the Strand bookstore later, she will perform what she calls her "feminist smile" in front of a packed house, but for now she eagerly asks if we'd like an (un)dress rehearsal in the studio. Sure. Moran lifts up her shirt, revealing her entire torso and indicating that usually she would have eyes drawn on her bra so that, when she pulls her stomach fat in a happy half-circle around her belly button, like so, there is a body-positive face smiling back at you.

Like much of what Moran tells me over the afternoon we spend together, this sounds over-the-top empowered and kind of like shtick. Since the success of her 2011 memoir/manifesto How to Be a Woman-a bestseller the New York Times described as "a glorious, timely stand against sexism so ingrained we barely even notice it"-the already-public figure has become a feminist icon, doing frequent interviews and promoting her outspoken opinions on issues like abortion, body image, and masturbation. This last one is a particular focus; How to Build a Girl has been described as "Portnoy's Complaint for girls." (It has sold over half a million copies in more than 16 countries since it debuted in the UK last summer, will be followed by sequels called How to Be Famous and How to Change the World, and is currently being adapted for film by Moran herself.)

Moran also writes a sitcom, Raised by Wolves, and does the two-to-three pieces a week for the Times of London, where she started columning at age 18. At that point she had dropped out of formal schooling because she was bullied and because her mother needed her help caring for her seven younger siblings (age 11); written a novel called The Chronicles of Narmo in very precious adolescent hopes of earning enough money to get her family out of subsidized housing (age 15); won the Observer's Young Reporter award (age 15); started working as a music journalist for the weekly magazine Melody Maker (age 16); and began co-hosting a short-lived television show about music calledNaked City (age 17). (Here's her 1992 interview with Björk, which takes place in what looks like a batik-tapestried squat. They eat "pot noodle." Moran: "They don't have these in Iceland. Do you have these in Iceland, at all?" They don't!)

The point is: Moran's career is founded on great material, but it's still material. She writes and performs an amount that, to me, remains unfathomable-indeed, even much of this interview feels like a performance. At times Moran still talks like a precocious teenager, as if she believes much of what she does is remarkable and knows you will find it remarkable, too. When I ask her if she ever finds Twitter, where she has over 500,000 followers, tedious or annoying, she says, "I live there on my biography. It says, 'Caitlin Moran lives on Twitter.'" Actually, it says, "Writing the fuck out of shit since 1992," followed by the names of her screenwriting agent and literary agent.

Photo courtesy of HarperCollins

I go back and forth about whether I should give a shit about the shtick; it's often pretty spot-on. Besides, she knows what she's doing; in addition to her How to books, she's published a collection of her columns called Moranthology and is currently working on a Moranifesto (the official title). While some of what Moran says can feel exaggerated, or at least withholding of certain key details that might make it less funny or interesting, that she has been writing the fuck out of shit for nearly 25 years is incontestable. And she does love Twitter, even when it causes her strife.

"I've certainly learned to really think about what I tweet and not be as conversational and off the cuff as I used to be," she tells me. I've asked something along the lines of, "But isn't Twitter just so annoying?"

"I've learned a lot about language over the past couple of years," she continues. "I've got some grief referring to 'trannies'-I spent all of my teenage years in drag clubs, where trannies called each other trannies. I had no idea that was a derogatory term; I issued a big apology for that."

"It's useful to get feedback as well, you know? I didn't used to get feedback. I think maybe Ernest Hemingway would've been less of a dick if he was getting feedback on Twitter going, You know what? Some of the things you do are not so nice ."

I don't know enough to speculate about Hemingway's views on social media, so I steer the conversation toward Lena Dunham. Moran has also been accused of preaching to Dunham's white feminist choir-particularly after Moran tweeted she "literally couldn't give a shit about" the lack of diversity on Girls-but her politics are not as easy as her jokey delivery and obvious pro-choice, pro-masturbation stances would suggest. When talking about the Lena Dunham debacle, she admits that it was "not [her] finest hour," though she ultimately stands by her tweet. "If you're writing stories, you can't always be political," Moran says. "If Lena Dunham wants to write a show about spoiled white girls in New York because that's her experience, that's what she knows about, [and] those are the jokes that she feels comfortable making, then [she] can do that. We can't say that you're not allowed to simply talk about your personal experience. If she's going around saying racist things or being horrible to people, that's another conversation, but to say that every single piece of art must be representative of everybody is illogical. We've never made art like that; we never can."

Moran is also anti-strip club, anti-bikini wax, and anti-empowerment for empowerment's sake-none of which is particularly trendy right now. "To use feminism as a weapon, to castigate women [as antifeminist] when they are trying to do something or achieve something, is totally antithetical to my belief in feminism," she tells me. "Similarly, though, you can't do everything and then go, 'I'm doing it because I'm a feminist. I'm really drunk because I'm a feminist!' No, you're really drunk because you drank a lot of sangria, love; it's nothing to do with the struggle." She then cites an Onion article I believe to be this one.

As far as her own "personal experience" goes, it's not as if Moran has known no hardship. She grew up very poor, on a council estate in the English Midlands, sharing a makeshift bed on the floor with one of her younger siblings; she celebrated her 13th birthday with a "cake" made out of a baguette with Philadelphia cream cheese in the middle; to accuse her of perpetuating a white, middle-class narrative is a little rich. She has also, as a chapter heading in How to Be a Woman proclaims, "experience[d] some sexism!" In 1994 the Independent ran a profile of the 19-year-old Moran by Hunter Davies with the headline "Atrocious mess, precocious mind: Meet Caitlin Moran, newspaper columnist, television presenter, novelist, screenwriter, pop music pundit . . . and typical teenage slob." Davies goes on to describe her as "Not as plump as she looks on television, and much nicer, much funnier," which perhaps is credit to the feminist movement she has both benefited and benefited from: A mainstream newspaper has little chance of getting away with a comment like that today.

While internationally Moran is first associated with mainstream feminism because of the success of How to Be a Woman-the overarching point of which can be encapsulated in chapter four, where Moran tells both male and female readers to stand on a chair and declare, "I AM A FEMINIST!"-she is also a long-time advocate of the explicitly unacademic mainstream, which is another thing I find grating but can't really argue with. "There's no point in having a very pure, over-intellectualized feminism," she says. "There are some academics who just want feminism to be for them[selves] and their friends. They're just like, 'If everybody's talking about feminism, and everybody knows these jobs and these concepts, what do we do?' It's defensiveness in the same way there was in Britain in the 1980s, when the miners were having their coal mines closed down. I understand that defensiveness if you see your job is dying. It doesn't mean you're right, though."

Another times-have-changed moment in the 1994 Independent profile comes when Davies is discussing pop culture, which has been Moran's beat since she started writing at age 17. "At the ancient age of 19," Davies writes, "it seems surprising that [Moran] is still so obsessed by pop music, when she's seen so much, done so much-and, anyway, pop music is dead." Yeah, right. One of the less obvious achievements of How to Be a Woman is how it represents the sheer breadth of what a lot of people like. Moran name-drops a lot of the obvious proof that pop music did not die in 1994-Lady Gaga, "the 'Single Ladies' dance," etc.-but she also paints a pretty diverse portrait of the popular imagination in semi-recent history. A random selection of references: Dorothy Parker, Cagney and Lacey, "voluminously lipped sex-minx du jour Scarlett Johansson," Scarlett O'Hara, Working Girl, Urban Outfitters, the Illuminati, John Mayer (coincidence?), The Chronicles of Narnia , The Adams Family [sic], Blur, Graham Coxon from Blur (she spills a whiskey and Coke on him), Jennifer Lopez, Picasso's Guernica, Obama, Paula Abdul, the Slits, Chevy Chase in Paul Simon's "You Can Call Me Al" video (she is in love with him), Doc Martens (often), Kate Winslet, Crowded House, Lou Reed, The Grapes of Wrath, Care Bears.

But for all her "obsession," Moran is no poptimist, resoundingly positive on anything associated with something she likes. As in her feminism, she advocates a more common-sense approach. We start talking about the Rihanna video.

"I think Rihanna might have liquidized all of her assets and just put them into angry think pieces on the internet," Moran says. "I think the key thing to do is just [to] become amused by it and look at the slight logical inconsistencies. First of all, what happened to the dog? Secondly, it's her accountant that's embezzled all the money, so why is his wife being tortured?" (Well, yes, I think that is maybe perhaps the-) "Third, at the end of it, where she's going, The accountant stole all my money-that is why I've kidnapped his wife and I am torturing her. Are you sure he stole all your money? Because I've just seen you on a yacht throwing an iPhone 6 up in the air and shooting it with a gun. Can we just go through your [purse] and just check that maybe you didn't spunk quite a lot of it away yourself, before you start with the murders?"

At the Strand reading, none of this controversy is apparent, though the event is packed with the controversially expected: white millennials in vintage-inspired dresses and Converse. Moran performs the feminist smile, calls it part of her standup routine, and says she suggested it for the cover of How to Be a Woman, but for some reason her publisher didn't go for it. Applause. In a moment that sharply contrasts the in-your-face confidence with which she performs the feminist smile, Moran ends her appearance with a throwaway, "So that's my tits, everyone, sorry" and veers off the makeshift stage. Maybe it's a remnant of the friendless, 182-pound, "femi-none" 13-year-old being chased by older male bullies who appears at the beginning of How to Be a Woman. Regardless, there's more applause. Kate Bush comes on over the speakers, a nod to Moran's taste and, I assume, Britishness.

Moran announces she will stick around to sign books. While most readings see a dramatic exodus at this point in the evening, hardly anyone here moves. A line system is established: Each row will snake around the Strand's bookcases as it is called to the front. Moran is spending several minutes with every fan, greeting each woman with a hug, sometimes a kiss on the cheek, and something very genuine, to the effect of "Hello beautiful!" If a selfie is requested, it is always granted. Women in the back pull their books out of their bags to settle in for the wait.

Although I end up spending over five hours with or around Moran, how she manages to do so much remains mysterious to me. Before I go in for my own farewell, I see her eyes are red and tired; she has also made repeated joke-calls for wine, once flinging herself on the table in mock desperation. But she does not waver, seem distracted, or start cutting the meet-and-greets short. As I'm lurking around the front of the line in hopes of sneaking a goodbye, I hear Moran ask a fan about her job. "That's her thing," her American editor at Harper, Jennifer Barth, who's there for the reading, tells me. She notes that at least their dinner reservation isn't for another hour and fifteen minutes, and I honestly don't know if they'll make it. "That's why they love her. It's all authentic."