Caitlin Moran and feminism’s ableism problem

// 14 June 2011

Diane Shipley is a freelance journalist who has contributed to The Guardian, The LA Times, Mental Health Today and more

cover of Caitlin Moran's book

This week sees the publication of award-winning journalist Caitlin Moran’s first book, How to Be a Woman. Part memoir, part feminist treatise, it was excerpted in The Times this weekend, complete with pictures of her styled as Rosie the Riveter. Excited to read it, I enjoyed the description of her adolescence until I read one line that I’m convinced made my heart stop beating for a second. Talking about herself at age 13, Moran writes:

I am, by and large, boundlessly positive. I have all the joyful

ebullience of a retard.

I’m not sure what’s more offensive: that she used a word the majority of people with a developmental disability find demeaning, that she’s promoting such a facile stereotype, or that while Moran advocates against misogyny, she apparently sees no problem with using language that another marginalised group finds hateful.

This may be a particularly egregious example, but she’s not the only feminist to use ableist language or demonstrate this type of ignorance. As a woman with disabilities, I often feel ostracized by mainstream feminist media, which seems almost exclusively focused on the experiences of able-bodied people. Disability rights too often feels like an afterthought.

Last Autumn, Feministing’s coverage of Jon Stewart’s Rally to Restore Sanity didn’t spare one sentence to suggest that the name played on fears around mental illness, conflating it with poor judgement. (When one commenter pointed this out, they were given the “I’m sorry you were offended” treatment.) But I shouldn’t have been surprised: in 2009, a group of women feminists with disabilities and their allies challenged the site over its history of ableist language use and scant representation of disability issues. Of particular concern was one writer’s complaint that having doors opened for her made her feel (horrors!) “like an invalid”.

Meanwhile, Jezebel has reported incorrect information about Bipolar Disorder and ran a series in which a guest blogger ‘diagnosed’ reality TV stars with mental illnesses, as an explanation for their unreasonable behaviour. When some readers complained about the ableist nature of these posts, editors advised them to “skip them”.

It’s even more disappointing when discriminatory language is used by feminist academics whose job it should be to question oppression. I recently checked out Rosalind Gill’s Gender and the Media from the library and was dismayed to find that the author states magazines aimed at young women “can produce some almost Schizophrenic splits in which girls have no language to talk about their own experiences”.

Echoing this sentiment, in March Lisa Solod wrote a piece for The Huffington Post which asked, “Is feminism schizophrenic or what?”

Clearly we’re supposed to be shocked by this invocation of a severe mental illness, despite the writers having no understanding of the disorder (it’s nothing to do with split personalities). Worse, they don’t seem to have grasped that people with Schizophrenia might not want their experiences turned into a cheap metaphor by able-bodied people for the sake of hyperbole.

Maybe you think none of these things matter because they’re not intended to offend. But they’re all rooted in ignorance of what living with a disability involves and help perpetuate the idea that people with disabilities are somehow inferior. That’s not necessarily a conscious choice, but it is thoughtless, and what makes it worse is that it’s sanctioned by the culture we live in. No one at Caitlin Moran’s publishing house or The Times appears to have questioned her use of the R word, and I can’t understand why. The fact that women have been historically discriminated against doesn’t give able-bodied women the right to discount the feelings of people with disabilities.

In fact, when they persist in doing so, it’s doubly disappointing.

Comments From You

Philippa Willitts // Posted 14 June 2011 at 6:11 pm

I have been wanting to write a blog post about this for so long, but haven’t yet managed it. We need to say this again and again, that disablist language is used too freely within feminism, and needs to be challenged. Thank you.

Diane S // Posted 14 June 2011 at 7:09 pm

Thank you, Philippa. I’m so glad I’m not alone in thinking this, and so grateful that the F Word is one of the more inclusive and safe-feeling feminist spaces.

HarpyMarx // Posted 14 June 2011 at 7:34 pm

I know from personal experience of mental distress and being involved in the mental health user movement the ignorance that persists. But certainly I believe things will get worse regarding the ignorance and lack of awareness around disability along with the casual denigrating language with the attacks by the ConDems on the benefits system. The myths perpetuated by the ConDems (and indeed Ed Miliband’s speech) only intensifies the attacks and demonisation of disabled people.

Lisa Egan // Posted 14 June 2011 at 7:42 pm

I absolutely agree with the sentiments in this post.

However I’m a little perplexed that, in a post all about the language of disability, the writer is using “able-bodied” to mean “non-disabled”. They’re non synonyms, a great many people with mental health problems and learning difficulties are/identify as both able-bodied and disabled. I know a lot of disabled people who greatly dislike the use of able-bodied at all because it’s so frequently mis-used to mean non-disabled. I rarely use it, but when I do I specifically use it to mean the opposite of “physically impaired”.

Jackie Bather // Posted 14 June 2011 at 10:33 pm

I am so weary of reading offensive language , uttered by unthinking ( I assume ) or uninformed people. The word ‘retard’ is abhorrent to me, as it is outdated, upsetting and meaningless. When used by a feminist, this is even more so. I have lost count of the number of occasions when I have seen ‘Schizophrenic’ reportedly used by so-called celebrities, in a careless and totally inaccurate way. They usually say something akin to ‘ I’m leading such a Schizophrenic life right now, with my busy schedule’. All they really seem to be saying is that they are busy, doing lots of different things. That is all – so why don’t they just say so and leave those courageous people, who manage their daily lives with this major mental health problem, in peace ?

Diane S // Posted 15 June 2011 at 11:43 am

Hi Lisa, I take your point about “non-disabled”. Even those of us who care about ableist language use (and have personal experience of mental illness) won’t get it right all the time and there will probably always be debate about what “right” is. I think it’s just important to be open to discussion, and especially to not purposely use language which is well-established as offensive and hurtful, which I believe Caitlin Moran did.

HarpyMarx, I totally agree that government attitudes are perpetuating stigma re: disability and people with disabilities right now. It’s deeply concerning.

Jackie, yes, exactly. Just say you’re busy, celebrities!

zohra moosa // Posted 15 June 2011 at 12:28 pm

I thought this was a great post, thanks Diane S.

Margaret // Posted 15 June 2011 at 12:56 pm

Thank you for voicing exactly what I’ve been thinking over the past few days about this campaign.

Diane S // Posted 15 June 2011 at 12:58 pm

Thanks Zohra!

sian norris // Posted 15 June 2011 at 1:58 pm

great post.

Caitlin Moran has said sorry on Twitter saying that it was something she wrote when she was 13. But i think this should have been clarified or questioned in the book, in the publishing process, as Diane S said, because it is hurtful and abelist and it does perpetuate discrimination in the way we use language.

I’ve said it before on other issues, i am glad that feminism has alerted me to my many privileges. I think we all have a responsibility to watch our language and listen when people point out or question our language. There are lots of words i had never thought twice about but reading blogs and posts like this one has made me think harder and i am really grateful for it.

Diane S // Posted 15 June 2011 at 6:24 pm

Just wanted to add a brief note of clarification about my post: it has been changed following an email I received (I’m not sure if the sender would want me to identify them, so I won’t) which pointed out that not all of the people who challenged Feministing identify as women, and challenged the fact that I linked to ableist language but not to any defence of it, both valid points for which I apologise.

Diane S // Posted 15 June 2011 at 8:11 pm

And thank you too Margaret, I think we posted comments at the same

time; I wasn’t ignoring you :)

Ah, I didn’t see that Sian; that’s interesting and helps place it in

context. But it really wasn’t clear that it was a quote; it seemed like something written in the present day about the past, and still doesn’t make it OK that it was included, obviously.

I feel the same way you do about feminism: it was an online friend and radical feminist who introduced me to concepts of privilege and ableism, and I’m so grateful.

EMorrison // Posted 16 June 2011 at 7:16 pm

Thank you for this.

I am an able-bodied feminist who enjoys being a bit brash and politically incorrect in my speech around friends. The “R” word was one of my favorite words, and I decided I didn’t want to “give it up” — like giving up a favorite swear word — even though friends had pointed out that it was hypocritical and undermined my claims at solidarity.

I’ve been rethinking my use of it more and more over the past year or so, and although it seems obvious, with this line :

The fact that women have been historically discriminated against doesn’t give able-bodied women the right to discount the feelings of people with disabilities.

I finally have the counter argument to all my weak defenses for using the word. I don’t want to stop using it. Cause it’s shocking. It’s “funny”. It works for me.

But what gives me the right? Nothing.

Genuinely appreciated this post. Keep the good work coming.

Diane S // Posted 17 June 2011 at 9:24 pm

Thanks EMorrison, that’s really open of you to share that, I appreciate it. It takes guts to look at how your language use is hurting others and own up to it. Even as a PWD, I know I have had phases of thinking, “but I *like* this word!” But as you say, there are bigger issues at stake.

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