Monday, 8 October 2012

Why Caitlin Moran and Lena Dunham can't win

This weekend's Twitter brouhaha centres around Caitlin Moran's response to a question about a question she didn't ask Lena Dunham. "I literally couldn't give a shit about it." was Moran's answer when asked on Twitter why she didn't ask Lena Dunham about the lack of people of colour in her new sitcom Girls.

Moran was crucified, left, right and centre as if she was the new poster girl for the English Defence League. And all over an interview for The Times that Moran herself hardly touted as hard-hitting journalism when she plugged it in a tweet thus: "Girls starts in Britain this week, and I went to talk to Lena Dunahm about why I love her face so much."

There has already been plenty of criticism of Girls for the all-white lead characters. Would Moran asking the same question have added anything at all to the discourse? Was she under any obligation to ask a question that is already out there? It reminds me of the time, as a 21-year-old journalist, that I asked a recently separated politician in Australia about her break-up. She didn't want to talk about it. She was perfectly polite about not wanting to go into details and I felt like a bit of a dick for asking the question. It wasn't relevant to the interview and it was a topic that had already been given plenty of airplay in the media at the time.

Dunham telegraphed why she didn't include any women of colour among her main characters when she told NPR: "I am half-Jew, half-WASP, and I wrote two Jews and two WASPs."

It is not unusual for any writer, regardless of race or religion, to write fictional pieces about stuff they know about. If Dunham didn't feel qualified to write authentically about the experiences of people of colour, she could perhaps be accused of lack of imagination. Or accused of not getting in some ethnically diverse co-writers to help her out. But what if she did include a non-white character and it didn't ring true? Would this cause the same people who have jumped down Moran's throat this weekend to then accuse Dunham of tokenism?

I'm a journalist and an editor, I deal in non-fiction day in, day out. As such, I'd be perfectly confident in interviewing a woman of colour about her life experiences for a journalistic article, but I'm not so sure I'd be as confident writing a work of fiction from her point of view. I am not about to write a novel or a TV series about a woman of colour but that's no reason why anyone else, with a better imagination than I have, or with that particular life experience, or anyone more confident than I am, shouldn't give it a go.

Maeve Binchy, the late and lovely Irish writer, was frequently quoted as saying that her books didn't include explicit sex because it was something that was not part of her experience. She was worried that if she invented elaborate sex scenes, they would be unconvincing. That was a wise move and it saved her from winning The Literary Review's annual bad sex awards. There was no backlash from the bondage and discipline community, who felt Maeve ignored their experiences.

Of course, I am being churlish in comparing public misunderstanding of the B&D scene with the absence of ethnically diverse characters in a TV series. But while it is important for the media, for TV producers, film-makers and book publishers to be mindful of diversity and to try and give voice to as many people as possible, it is ridiculous to try and force every single writer to include every single group in the community in every work of fiction.

It is important for the people who commission TV series, who decide what books get published, who produce movies to think outside the square, to seek out stories that might not otherwise get told. Fear of bad box office stifles the diversity of movies and fear of poor ratings stifles the diversity of TV scripts. Saturday Night Live and The Daily Show have been criticised for not having a diverse enough bunch of people in their respective writing teams. Yet nobody ever really questions the lack of diversity in, say, the films of Judd Apatow. (And he is the executive producer of Girls...) Why do some writers get a free ride while others are put under scrutiny?

My mum would have said Moran could have been more polite in her response to the question. But the 140-character world of Twitter doesn't lend itself to nuanced responses on serious issues. It was an honest response and it doesn't make her an instant Klanswoman. Moran pointed out that other issues, such as sexuality and class diversity, are also poorly represented. Hell, perhaps she also should have asked Dunham about lack of a B&D storyline or why Girls doesn't feature regular outings to Cannery Row...

The situation, as these things tend to do in the online world, snowballed and suddenly people were criticising Moran for blocking people, for not apologising, for the tone of her responses (in a format where tone is often sadly lacking except for excessive use of exclamation marks and emoticons). Then there were the accusations of "privilege". It was odd that the "privileged!" accusation was levelled at someone who came from a poor background, worked hard to get to where she is today and writes extensively on the misconceptions of poverty in Britain based on her own experiences.

And what is truly sad is that this whole Twitter shitstorm has seen women, all of whom identify as feminists, turn on each other to the point where the original race issue has become secondary. That is always an unedifying spectacle. When that happens, it means plenty of people literally won't give a shit - about feminism.  

(Photo courtesy of Chris Scott)



  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. Bearing in mind that there's a trend on the internet for saying that white people CANNOT have an opinion on issues affecting other races because they don't know what it's like, I kind of wonder how Caitlin Moran is supposed to feel. You know if she'd written a piece calling for more diversity in Girls she'd have people (probably the same people) saying 'thanks for explaining that to me, white feminist'. (Many of whom *are* white feminists.)

    EDIT: And that's not to trivialise the issue in any way. White privilige exists. It's just hard to have an honest dialogue when even mentioning it makes the internet explode.

  3. Yep - if she did call for more diversity, she'd be accused of whatever the white, feminist equivalent of mansplaining is! And it was a white feminist who set off the whole shitstorm in the first place by asking the question of Caitlin Moran.

    This is an interesting alternate viewpoint in today's Guardian:

    She is right in that there are issues that traverse race and gender that need to be discussed but I feel she contradicted herself here: "But I think she embodies a certain kind of feminism, the feminism that is mainstream commonsense: women should earn the same as men, they should not suffer in the career stakes when they go off to have babies, they should be able to have sex as plentifully (or as little) as they want with no shame or opprobrium etc.

    Where this feminism often falls down is in its ability to be intersectional."

    This just doesn't make sense to me. Is she trying to say that the issues of equal pay, career breaks for childbirth and slut/virgin-shaming, are only relevant to white feminists? Surely these issues are intersectional in that they are totally relevant for women of all races?

    1. I know, it doesn't make a lot of sense. I agree that mainstream feminism often assumes a certain kind of background but at the same time surely issues like abortion or maternity leave (you know, the actual laws of the country we live in) affect all of us.

      By the way, I'd never heard of it before but now you mention it virgin-shaming happens all the time at my union, to men and women. Could you recommend a good source to read up on it?

  4. @Georgia Lewis: Yes, surely.

  5. Yep, Kate, it does seem a little reductive to suggest that issues such as abortion and maternity leave somehow only apply to privileged white women. Women of different ethnic backgrounds have myriad stories to tell about oppression that comes from their cultures, and those stories need to be shared, just as there are plenty of issues that women of all backgrounds can surely unite on.

    As for virgin-shaming, that is just as destructive and cruel as slut-shaming. Here are a few pieces I've found on the matter:

    A heartfelt discussion:

    A feminist take from Canada:

    Virgin-shaming and other assorted crap on TV:

    Ah, bless Jezebel...

    Happy reading and feel free to share anything interesting you may come across with me.