A problem that stubbornly refuses to budge

by Philippa Willitts // 8 October 2012, 11:29

Tags: Caitlin Moran, guest post, racism, representation

This is a guest post by Reni Eddo-Lodge who is on Twitter @renireni.

Bellhooks.jpg It has always proved interesting, how less critical of the power dynamic some feminists become when they stand to lose their own stake in it. Back in 1981, bell hooks wrote that "labelling ourselves feminists does not change the fact that we must consciously work to rid ourselves of the legacy of negative socialization". Decades later and this is a problem that stubbornly refuses to budge, in turn holding back feminism from being the truly liberating movement is has the potential to be.

Until feminism is for everyone, it will work for no one. Those women who gain from it with power and a platform should do well to remember that.

There's been a twitter storm circling around Caitlin Moran, author of How to be a Woman, and purveyor of 'funny feminism'. After her interview with Lena Dunham, creator of the TV programme Girls, was published in the Times, Moran was challenged on Twitter by a user who pondered why she didn't ask about the lack of women of colour on the show. Moran dismissively replied, 'I literally couldn't give a shit about it'.

Understandably, many who define as feminists have called her out on this remarkable act of white privilege, and understandably, lots of white women have jumped to Moran's defence. Some are saying Moran' words were taken 'out of context'. Vagenda Magazine is insistent that this is all 'infighting', distracting us from the very real issue of patriarchy.

caitlin moran.jpg Caitlin Moran blithely proclaims that she has no idea why a feminist screenwriter's continual lack of inclusion of black women in her plots is a problem. She cannot comprehend that the exclusion of marginalised people in pop culture representations is actually racist, equating the lack of representation with not having someone Chinese in her house.

It's time to have an honest conversation about racism and white supremacy. There have been valiant efforts to end racial discrimination, and they've found themselves enshrined in law. Now the word 'racism' itself has become a linguistic hot potato. Nobody wants to be accused of it, those suffering it are scared to call it out- and if we do, we're often branded as worse than the racists for highlighting the fact that it exists. Modern day feminism is not exempt from this.

Racism is understood to be embodied in a word, or inherently and solely in an action - a punch outside a pub door, or a tragic attack. Well, I've got news for you - racism doesn't work that way. It's no longer that blunt, heavy hammer of contempt my grandparents faced when they moved to the UK sixty years ago.
Racism in 2012 works in a covert manner. It exists in the disgust of diehard Hunger Games fans, sorely disappointed to see the film version of their beloved plots cast black people as main characters. It manifests in skin bleaching creams, and black pop stars growing progressively lighter skinned as they reach the peak of their fame. Racist words and actions are symptomatic of a society that reinforces and endorses the message that white skin is the right skin.

When Moran says she 'doesn't give a shit' about the representation of Black women in a TV programme, it's important to remember her comments are part and parcel of a society that upholds white as the norm. That's how the dynamics of race and racism in our society work, and without any critical analysis, the people who benefit from it will continue perpetuate it. Feminists included.

Hooks also wrote that 'it's obvious that many women have appropriated feminism to serve their own ends, especially those white women who have been at the forefront of the movement'. Caitlin Moran is just part of the problem. When feminists can see the problem with all male panels but can't see the problem with all white television programmes, it's worth questioning who they're really fighting for.

[The first image is of bell hooks giving a speech with a microphone in her hands. It was taken by Cmongirl and is in the Public Domain. The second image is of Caitlin Moran smiling. It was taken by Chris Scott and is used under a Creative Commons Licence]

Comments From You

sianmarie // Posted 08 October 2012 at 11:50

Well said Reni.

As well as all the huge issues on race and white privilege that you mention, one thing that really pisses me off is that as soon as feminists disagree with one another, or call each other out, we're accused of in-fighting and not focusing on fighting patriarchy.

We have to be allowed to criticise and question each other and we have to be able to accept when we make mistakes and listen to why. It's not in-fighting. Caitlin Moran was wrong to say what she said, and white feminists refusing to recognise their privilege, and refusing to listen to what that means are wrong too.

Laura // Posted 08 October 2012 at 12:46

Great post, thank you. If feminists of colour are saying that a TV show is racist, white feminists like Caitlin should shut up and listen to them, then make damn well sure those arguments are raised when their privileged position allows them the opportunity to interview the maker of the show.

I wonder whether Moran doesn't "give a shit" about men not bothering to include female characters (of any race) in TV shows and films, or if it's only the exclusion of women of colour by white women that she doesn't give a shit about.

Her attitude - and that displayed by Vagenda Magazine - mimics that of male lefties who tell women that we need to shut up complaining about "women's issues" and unite to fight capitalism. But marginalised people suffer more than one form of oppression and we need to address all of them if we are to free everyone. Feminism is a waste of time if it addresses gender-based oppression in isolation (Vagenda's "let's stop squabbling and focus on fighting patriarchy" argument) - we MUST address racism, classism, homophobia and disablism too.

Otherwise it's just a movement for middle-class, non-disabled, straight, white, cis women who refuse to check their privilege and stamp in the faces of other women while they fight to win social power and status from their middle-class, non-disabled, straight, white, cis brothers.

Moran and Vagenda's brand of feminism appeals to so many precisely because it doesn't demand that privileged women recognise our privilege and do something about it. Calling out disablism and racism is viewed as pissing on their fun, feisty feminist parade, rather than as an essential part of women's liberation.

Ciarán Mc Mahon // Posted 08 October 2012 at 13:21

To say that such an issue wasn't her focus, or was beyond the scope of the interview (or something like that) would have been acceptable, no?

But to dismiss it in the manner she did seems wilfully ignorant, xenophobic and stupid.

Nat // Posted 08 October 2012 at 13:23

"Moran and Vagenda's brand of feminism appeals to so many precisely because it doesn't demand that privileged women recognise our privilege and do something about it. Calling out disablism and racism is viewed as pissing on their fun, feisty feminist parade, rather than as an essential part of women's liberation."

Quoted for utter truth. I once complained about Jezebel being disablist (again), and their editor sent me a tweet saying 'caring about ableism is crazy and lame'. They know they're being offensive, and that [insert prejudice here] is 'wrong', but carry on doing it regardless. How is that any different to, for instance, UniLad and their rape joke schtick?

It really frustrates me when people like Moran, Vagenda and Jezebel are promoted as the 'mainstream' face of feminism, when it's like saying that Mean Girls is an accurate depiction of your average teenage girl.

Mr. Rude Word // Posted 08 October 2012 at 13:37

Caitlin Moran is all about Caitlin Moran first and foremost, her take on feminism being just that.
Anyone who writes a book called "How To Be A Woman" clearly has something of an ego, aswell as not taking her chosen subject very seriously.
For "funny feminism" read "diluted feminism".

Leslie O'Neil // Posted 08 October 2012 at 14:01

It's comments like these that are the reason that black women do not now, have not in the past and will not ever call themselves feminists. Most of the "problems" that feminists have should be called "White Women's Problems." As a black woman, do you think I give an actual fuck about pink fucking Lego or Barbie? Not when black women are routinely depicted in some of the nastiest, most sexualised imagery around. I can't get too exercised about Bratz Dolls when black women have the highest rates of heart disease, have higher maternal and infant mortality rates and suffer more from joblessness and underemployment than other groups. In all the feminist groups I've been in, in an all of the discussions about feminism that I've had with white women, not one has asked my experience as a black woman or how patriarchal societies within black and white communities affect me. No one has listened the pressure that black women face from black men to look a certain way. No one wants to know my anger at some of the crass and disgusting comments made about Michelle Obama. No one seems to care that black women are depicted in mainstream culture (in the rare case we are depicted at all) as either a mammy, a whore, or a ball-breaking bitch without a man, cos "she don't need no man."
My daughter was born this year and things are going to be just as bad for her as they were for me. Fortunately, she has a clued-up mother who will fight for her and every other little black girl, little Latina, Asian and South Asian girl who feels marginalised by men and women.

Anna Brown // Posted 08 October 2012 at 14:12

I have to agree with Nat:

"It really frustrates me when people like Moran, Vagenda and Jezebel are promoted as the 'mainstream' face of feminism, when it's like saying that Mean Girls is an accurate depiction of your average teenage girl."

I think the only people who consider Moran to be anything of a feminist activist is the traditional press/media who are just not interested, or afraid, of what feminist activists are actually getting on and doing at the moment. That's not to say the issue doesn't exist, and I applaud this article, it's a shame this conversation is still going on. But it is, and we must continue to talk about and work towards a true intersectional, representative women's feminist movement.

Maxine // Posted 08 October 2012 at 14:28

Really good points. The lack of intersectionality in feminism is a perennial problem, and I found the tone of Caitlin Moran's reaction in this case highly objectionable. However, regarding the question of Lena Dunham, I think we also have to be careful about inferring an individual is prejudiced against a particular group because their screenplay doesn't happen to feature members of that group. A white middle-class cisgendered woman writing about a small group of white middle-class cisgendered women because that's what she is and knows doesn't necessarily signal dislike, disregard or unawareness of the existence of trans* people, working class people or ethnic minorities (or indeed, men). Rather than criticise people from privileged majority groups for writing what they know, the best way to address the lack of diversity in TV is to encourage and promote more writers and programming directors from underrepresented groups who can write characters from those groups authentically.

Leslie O'Neil // Posted 08 October 2012 at 15:55

Anna,
I do feel like there is a disregard for "other" people and whether intentional or unintentional, it exists. There are several women of colour in the USA who are in real postions of power (not in the entertainment or sports world) and of course there is the highly educated, highly intelligent Michelle Obama. I'm heartily bored with sitcoms such as Girls. If you are a talented writer, then you should be able to create a broad spectrum of characters. James Patterson managed to write a measured and complex character in Alex Cross, even though Patterson is white and the fictional Cross isn't. One of the creators of Grey's Anatomy is a black woman, yet she's written white characters.
I work in the media. It's very hard to get ethnic minority people in the door precisely because they aren't represented. It's a cycle.

Leslie O'Neil // Posted 08 October 2012 at 16:10

Oops, sorry Anna. I meant Maxine. Great points from both of you.

Laura // Posted 08 October 2012 at 16:24

This Racialicious piece is excellent on Girls specifically:

http://www.racialicious.com/2012/04/19/dear-lena-dunham-i-exist/

Tom Midlane // Posted 08 October 2012 at 16:29

A couple of points:

1. I think Maxine is spot on with this: "A white middle-class cisgendered woman writing about a small group of white middle-class cisgendered women because that's what she is and knows doesn't necessarily signal dislike, disregard or unawareness of the existence of trans* people, working class people or ethnic minorities (or indeed, men)."

In a clumsy way, I think that's what Caitlin Moran was suggesting with her 'Chinese person in my house' remark. Lena Durham has already spoken about the "racism" issue, so I'm not convinced Caitlin Moran was obligated to bring it up - it's important to remember that this is an interview with the writer of a comedy series and not, say, with Ann Romney or Nadine Dorries.

2. Does the whole discourse around "privilege" not discourage people from writing about other groups i.e. people feel they don't have the 'right' to touch on subjects/write from the perspective of people if they haven't witnessed it first-hand? Dunham said she didn't tackle black characters because she didn't know their experience intimately enough, but I'm betting that if she had, she would have coped flak for having the audacity to try and render the black female experience as a hipster white girl.

MarinaS // Posted 08 October 2012 at 16:30

I don't understand how you can scoff at pink Lego but really really care about some sitcom that's not even showing in the UK, Leslie. I'm not saying you're wrong, or that there's no problem with racism within "the acceptable face" of feminism (I agree with Anna wholeheartedly - the accepted face and the real face are not the same face). I just think it's incoherent, as an argument, to say that cultural trivia that white women care about are somehow more frivolous than cultural trivia women of colour also care about.

My take? Caitlin Moran is an un-serious person who has a Grazia-level understanding of feminism. She said something stupid and unfunny and could probably do with "a good black friend" right now, but she is still a sister. If we only extend our feminism to feminists who agree with us or to women we like, where is that going to get us? Enough with the circular firing squads.

jemima 101 // Posted 08 October 2012 at 17:31

I am new to IDing as a feminist, mainly because of people like Moran, my socialism and belief in equality was always disgusted by the class, race and transphobic prejudices in the people who seem to be published in the mainstream media. Then I discovered that there were feminists out there, and that they felt the same. It was possible to believe in patriarchy and rape culture, and believe they oppress working class women more, all women who identify as female, not just those who fit a right wing view of what makes a women. Even better I found they were not anti sex, anti sex worker, patronizing, victim blaming or slut shaming.

Moran matters because there are thousands of women like me out there, and often they are the ones who would mos benefit from the changes feminism is fighting for.

Vicky // Posted 08 October 2012 at 17:41

"She cannot comprehend that the exclusion of marginalised people in pop culture representations is actually racist."

Yes, but when evaluating pop culture, what scale do we evaluate it on. Personally, I couldn't care less whether there are 5 male guests on "Have I Got News For You" this week. What I am interested in is the OVERALL male/female split on television in general and in comedy in particular. In the same way that you can't carry out a random control trial with 5 people, you can't make inferences about culture or personal beliefs based on a TV show with half a dozen people in it. And in any case, would a white woman feel qualified to talk about the experiences of WOC? I know I wouldn't.

Regarding Caitlin Moran's book, I found it entertaining and useful although slightly flawed, based on it is on a personal perspective. It slightly neglects the structural elements of patriarchy and at some times you get the sense that she is a little self-conscious about being labelled a feminist. But that's by no means a rare experience, that's what internalised sexism is all about.

The tone of her dismissal is worrying, yes. However I think you have to place that in the somewhat confrontational context of which the topic was raised. None of us are at our most reasonable when confronted by internet criticism from strangers.

The Goldfish // Posted 08 October 2012 at 19:59

I think I find Moran's comments much less shocking than the actions of those who have defended her. I suppose I regard Moran as something of an entertainer more than anything, and don't find her blunders on race, disability or trans* issues as much more demoralising than those of other celebs because she talks about (a very narrow version of) feminism. But for other feminists to talk of criticising her as infighting? Come on.

I have sympathy for those - whether because of issues around race, transgender, disability or sex work - who stop come to see mainstream feminism as a movement that treats gender as the only oppression, dominated by people for whom gender *is* the only oppression. I'm really pleased that the F Word features such a broad mix of feminists and versions of feminism.

Safiya Outlines // Posted 08 October 2012 at 21:46

Thank you for taking the time to write out something so obvious, that we all should know and act upon and yet people still miss the point about.

According to Graham Linehan, demanding that a show set in New York not just have white people in it is "Demanding tokenism". I can't, I just can't.

Leslie O'Neil // Posted 09 October 2012 at 01:54

Marina, Girls airs in the UK on 22 October. Furthermore, I am American, and my daughter is half-American. I stated that I don't care about pink Lego because I have far more pressing issues as a black woman that affect me and will affect my daughter. I'm sorry, but after 15 years of mainstream feminism I am done, because white women refuse to admit their privileges. I find it insulting that I can't raise issues of racism within feminism without being accused of "letting down the sisterhood." Nobody asked Caitlin Moran to write her book or to set herself up as the modern face of feminism. She did that herself. I've also found in my 15 years of feminism that many white women in the movement are damned uncomfortable around black women. White women can afford to be frivolous about cultural trivia because you exist. Women like me don't. Like I said, I work in the media and I am one of the few black women there who isn't pushing a broom, guarding a door, working on a till or serving food.

Caitlin Moran does not need a good black friend (ugh, how patronising). She needs to own up to her own privilege. It is not my job as a black person to guide white people in race relations. My husband is white and grew up in Glasgow in the 70s and 80s and rarely saw a black face. Yet he doesn't tiptoe around black people because he acknowledges our differences, realises the privilege that comes along with being a white male, but treats people like people.

Tay Tulloch // Posted 09 October 2012 at 21:36

The fact that we are debating whether or not the erasure of Women of Colour from mainstream media is a feminist issue is ridiculous. Minority are women are women too our stories can be just as universal as the many depictions of white women.
I'm not here to be my white friends racial conscience and it's disgusting that it would even be a suggestion.

JV // Posted 11 October 2012 at 09:43

Maxine and Tom no one said that dunham had to represent every single race. I know shes a sheltered white lady whose only experience of non-white people is seeing the President of the USA on television or a hotel maid. What annoyed WoC was her racist jokes against Japanese people and Muslim women which got a pass from other feminists because as a successful women in the media she's blazing a trail. Caitlin Moran followed this line of thinking. Also Tom if she was so reluctant to write about race why did she make a number of racist jokes about Black men, Mexican teenagers and Asian women in her show? She can't write nuanced commentary about race because she's apparently scared to do so but she's not scared to make non white people the butt of her jokes. One of the co-writers on dunham's series is a woman who has made numerous racist comments and dunham has continued to support her as well. I'm not going to support a woman who clearly hates me and wishes me ill in the name of sisterhood. Had these same comments been made about a white woman by a non-white woman the media including Caitlin Moran would have been up in arms. We have seen the constant criticism of Beyonce, MIA, Rhianna, Nicki Minaj etc whilst women like Lady Gaga and Dunham escape scrutiny for their racism.

WoC are constantly told by white feminists that we should shut up about racism because sexism is the real issue. Caitlin Moran stated in her book that racism has all been solved which was a surprise to me as I constantly receive racist abuse where I live. Or we are told in patronising tones to focus on issues of real racism. I made the decision to not call myself a feminist in my late teens because of women like Moran and Dunham and I'm glad I did so. These women would do not view non-white people as people so why should they receive our support?

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