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CatMo or CatNo? Re-examining Popular White Feminism

247I had the opportunity to interview Caitlin Moran for our first issue of GEEKED. I was irrationally excited and, as I stated in my piece, planning my outfit took almost as much time as deciding on interview questions. I was, like many women in the UK, electrified by Moran. How To Be A Woman was everything I had learned throughout my graduate education but rather than outlining feminism in dry-toast academic speak, H2BaW was written in raucous, hilarious, deliciously irreverent English, and damn it felt good!

Suddenly I felt like feminists (like Love, or Christmas, depending on the version) were all around and that the ‘white tower’ syndrome I had been fighting from within academic feminism was finally starting to shake loose. Here was a chance to march in the streets of life, not only waving our banners and burning our bras, but also sloshing our gin cocktails and adding extra hairspray to our coifs. Caitlin made it possible, it seemed, to be the kind of feminist who demands to be taken seriously and if she wants to wear eyeliner and big hair, then damn it, that’s her business. She was full of contradictions, but that excited me and made me feel inspired.

When I first read H2baW, I gave loud recommendations to all my sisters, encouraging them to run out and buy two copies: one for themselves and one for their bestie. One of my pals expressed some doubts about CatMo’s seemingly contradictory opinions:

‘She writes about the porn industry being bad, but she thinks stripping is OK? I don’t know, doesn’t that strike you as problematic?’

‘Yeah, I know it seems like a contradiction, but that’s what makes her awesome! Her explanations for her thoughts on each issue—stripping and pornography—are actually pretty nuanced, and I don’t think she’s offering a staunch verdict on either industry. Once you start to read her writing, you realise that she is full of conflicting opinions but hell, we all are! This is human, this is real. I love that she is unafraid to fight for what she believes even in spite of the tensions in some of her arguments!’

I liked the idea of imperfection as the standard, an unabashed acceptance of being whatever hot mess you are and rockin’ it. Unfortunately, it turned out that my perception of what it meant to rock your own hot mess was more permeable than CatMo’s.

The Turning of the Tides

At some point during this last year, in between the time I interviewed CatMo and the time I sat down to write this piece, Caitlin would blow the top off her own powder keg and the resulting debates illuminated just how damaged feminisms have become. In response to a question posed on Twitter, as to whether Moran challenged Lena Dunham’s decision to cast all-white actors for the show Girls, Moran (now infamously) stated that she literally ‘could not give a shit’. Did the Avengers fuck up and let Loki loose? Because I swear the kind of chaos that ensued following this remark could not have been solely of human creation.

Social media feminism went bizerk and suddenly feminism’s heavy hitter went from being adored to being admonished. From then on it seemed as if everything Moran said was evidence for a racist, ignorant, privileged ‘Feminism’ that had achieved nothing and poisoned everything. The vitriol and disgust that coursed through Twitter was akin to the river of slime flowing under NYC in Ghostbusters. You could practically feel it oozing every time you logged onto social media.

I too waded into this debate, writing a blog post about the ways in which I thought ‘white guilt’ was driving much of the controversy surrounding Moran’s comments. It’s not that I disagreed with writers like Laurie Pennie, for instance, who suggested that perhaps Moran needed to take a good, long hard look at her privilege as a white woman. And in fact, I’m sorry that I did not make this point of agreement clearer: I think Moran needs to reinvestigate her own position of privilege. But I was sick of seeing (on one day), all of these feminist voices on Twitter acting shocked and horrified in response to Moran’s attitude, and then (a few days later), they returned to squealing about how ready they were for a new episode of Girls.

These women were not actually interested in the bankruptcy of Hollywood’s ‘diversity department’; were that the case, surely they would refuse to patronise all-white productions. If you believe it is vital that TV and films portray greater diversity then do not prop up the status quo. Do not let producers believe that they can continue to make, buy, pedal shows that only explore the lives of white people. If you don’t buy their product, they will eventually stop selling it. What I saw happening on Twitter was not this kind of abstinence, though. What I saw were a bunch of white women who wanted to waggle their finger at someone who had been overtly crass and calloused to the problem of racial homogeneity in Hollywood, but who also wanted to be able to tune in to Girls once they were off Twitter.

Blinded by the White

It wasn’t until later that I realized that my own privilege had effected ‘what I saw’. In an email to another blogger, I admitted that perhaps my reason for believing this to be, at least partially, an issue of ‘white guilt’ was that my Twitter feed was filled almost entirely with white feminists. I wasn’t hearing the nature of the critiques from women of color because there were very few in my Twitter feed to begin with. I had to totally re-examine my perspective and admit that although what I had said about white women feeling guilty may have been relevant to some of the Moran/Dunham debate, it was by no means an accurate representation of all of the feminist critiques being voiced. I had totally failed myself as a feminist, and in the process, had let my own privilege blind me to myriad other voices whose concerns would have vastly enriched my own perspective on the discussions surrounding Moran. I felt really disappointed in myself, and determined to open my eyes. I wanted to write a new piece admitting my own short comings as well as being more honest about Caitlin’s. And then things got worse.

Caitlin continued to give interviews and every new word that ushered forth from her usually wide-open mouth became more fuel for the already raging social media fire. There was something about women wearing heels, click-clacking down night-time streets acting like dinner bells for rapists—VICTIM BLAMING! Another interview wherein Caitlin again touched upon the Girls interview, and I swear I read (but now cannot find it anywhere) that she said, ‘I don’t do race’—WHITE PRIVILEGE! She received an award for being an LGBT advocate in London and jokingly commented that she would keep ‘all the gays’ as her ‘pets’—DEHUMANIZING! It got to the point that even when I could see what Caitlin was trying to do/say/joke about, I was totally unwilling to put that perspective into writing because 1) the social media environment had gone from toxic to nuclear and 2) I actually felt massively uncomfortable with the ways CatMo seemed to be lashing out rather than looking in. At what point did she sit down for a quiet pint with Pete and say, ‘Baby, I need some help. Where have I gone wrong?’ Surely, this must have happened… right?

I don’t know if Moran has actually spent time rethinking her positionality, or even her word choices. I really want to think that she has. I still really like her and I still think that her role in ‘popularizing’ feminism on a large scale is traceable in at least some positive ways. But that doesn’t mean that what she’s done, in terms of ignoring the ways her privilege has harmed other women (and specifically women of color), is excusable. I am not interested in further ‘punishing’ Moran by shouting at her on Twitter, or verbally attacking the very essence of her humanity. I have a hard time with ‘feminists’ who choose this route; I know you’re angry, and I know that this person has betrayed your trust, but you are no better if you elect violence as a means of response. (Let me be clear: I am not simply speaking about people who write angrily about Moran, or about perspectives like Moran. I am pointing towards authors who choose to belittle other women with overtly violent labels which deny them of their human integrity.)  More than anything, what I have taken away from the chaos that now seems to constantly surround Moran, is the desire to re-examine my own privilege.

My Name is Sam, and I Struggle with White Privilege

As I said before, I know that I fucked up with my first CatMo post because I was speaking about wider feminist issues from a very narrow starting point. I totally let my own whiteness blind me (which isn’t hard, my skin is so pale I glow), and the conclusions I reached may have been true about a handful of women, but they obscured the larger, more pressing problems of race, representation, and feminisms.

I was having a debate with a friend the other day about the new Doctor Who: another man, another day, another dollar. She made arguments based on plot lines and character developments; as if those things are not driven by real, live white men who have their own best interests in mind. She concluded by suggesting to me that hoping for a female Doctor was a little like hoping for a female Pope, and then a light went off in my head. In my post about Girls, I suggested that including a single black or brown character in the cast, simply to ‘tick a box’, was tantamount to tokenism and therefore, not a solution. To some extent, I do think that problems of representation are larger than a single character on a single show, but that’s not really the point. We have to start somewhere. There has to be change and usually, change starts small. Of course women of color have the right to ask to see themselves represented in Hollywood. Of course it’s reasonable to question shows like Girls about their casting, even if it means starting with a single character. Jeez, Langsdale, get it together! White privilege is insidious and I’ll be totally honest, I didn’t really start to face mine until CatMo refused to face her own.

I, in no way, believe that I am ‘cured’ of the problems that come with having so much privilege that you can’t see past the end of your own nose. I struggle constantly to be aware and when confronted, to legitimately try to do what is right to correct my own mistakes. I posted a blog about why I feel feminisms are still relevant (NSFW). A reader commented on our Facebook page that she felt the language I used undermined the efficacy of my point. I suggested to her that anger can be productive, and in a more personal sense, this blog was about my own anger at being in a position to have to ‘explain myself’ as a feminist. She conceded that anger might work for some, but not for all and although she could understand my need for catharsis, it was a shame that the post was only for me, because perhaps it might also speak to those who do not, or cannot express themselves in the same terms. Another light bulb moment.

I realized that the very bottom line of ‘checking one’s privilege’ is truly coming to grips with the fact that ‘it’s not ALL about ME’. This woman calmly and clearly explained that for her personally, sharing a post filled with profanity with her husband was simply not an option for religious and cultural reasons (although she might have wanted to). She also believed that whilst profanity serves as a method of catharsis for me, it may act as a trigger for other women who have only encountered such language in abusive situations. She was 100% right. I made a ‘clean’ version of the same post, not because I was hoping to up our numbers (I don’t kid myself about the size of our audience, nothing I do is going to drastically increase readership), but because I genuinely want to try to be a better feminist. I am legitimately interested in intersectional feminisms and what I’m learning is that the first step to realizing that is to get out of the way.

The Beat Goes On

Twitter-based conflict has not ceased for CatMo, nor has it stopped for feminists more generally. Waves of online abuse, threats of violence, and campaigns for ‘silence’ have kept social media awash with debates about race, privilege, solidarity, intersectionality, and the future of feminisms. My adoration of CatMo has changed, sure, but I’m still grateful to her for the ways she has helped to solidify my own feminist journey. I’m also disappointed in her for the ways she has hampered the journeys of countless other women whose feminism is much harder fought-for than my own.

I’m still learning what it means to be an advocate and it’s no secret that my position as a cis white feminist (who is also mostly able-bodied) still occasionally blocks my ability to effectively participate in intersectional feminism. I don’t say that because I believe I’m a victim, the task of ‘checking privilege’ is absolutely necessary and it is entirely my own. I don’t have a set game plan either, I just figure I’ll continue to open my eyes and ears wide, keep my mouth shut when it’s my turn to examine my own complicity in the perpetuation of white feminism at the expense of intersectional feminisms, and apologize when I cock it up.

I’m sorry I cocked it up.

One comment

  • Hollie
    August 13, 2013 - 15:01 | Permalink

    I wouldn’t angst about your respect for CM too much, I doubt that she thinks herself infallible or above criticism. It’s difficult to say anything publicly without upsetting somebody or other. I am confident however, that she means well, and has done feminism the world of good.

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