How to Be a Woman, the best-selling book by Caitlin Moran published in the UK in 2011, will be released by Harper Perennial in its American edition on July 17. To date, it has sold more than 400,000 copies in 16 countries. There is a good reason for this: It is pretty phenomenal. (As evidence to that, the American media coverage is starting to come in as well.)
Moran, 37, wrote the book in just 5 months, propelled by cigarettes and a sense of her mission to write "a funny, but polemic, book about feminism! Like The Female Eunuch—but with jokes about my knickers!" as she writes in her acknowledgements page. Chances are you'll read it in far less time than that, turning down the corners of extra-resonating pages to come back to later and possibly even, if you're like me, photographing lines that you want to share with friends. One of my personal favorites comes on page 83 of the chapter "I am a Feminist!" in which Moran writes, "Because the purpose of feminism isn't to make a particular type of woman. The idea that there are inherently wrong and inherently right 'types' of women is what's screwed feminism for so long ... What is feminism? Simply the belief that women should be as free as men, however nuts, dim, deluded, badly dressed, fat, receding, lazy, and smug they might be. Are you a feminist? Hahaha. Of course you are." (For further greatness regarding the definition of feminism, see page 75.)
Jen Doll: How would you describe this "current wave" of feminism, what we're in right now?
Caitlin Moran: We don’t have waves anymore. Those were like the building blocks, and now those ground rules are really in place. We’re just in feminism, it’s just a feministic era we live in. When women say, "I’m not a feminist," well, you have to be, you are. Unless you’re gone and handed back your vote to Parliament or wherever, all women in the first world are feminist by default. You're seen as a free agent, your paycheck goes into your bank. Unless you’ve gone and undone those feminist opportunities, you just are. We’re post-wave.
There are very few men and women in the first world who aren't feminists; they just don't know what the word is. This isn't a failure of academic feminism; it’s just that popular culture dropped the ball. We stopped having reference points in pop, in movies—you can jokingly blame it on the Spice Girls, but before that it was grunge, and girls didn’t wear makeup and got on with what they wanted to do. Now Adele is the first woman in 16 years who has an ass and wears sleeves and gets to number one.
What inspired you to write the book?
I felt the pendulum had gone far enough with the patriarchal bullshit. I'd seen the pubis of everyone in the [Billboard] Top 20. Maybe women wanted to put their clothes on.
You wrote it in five months. What was that like?
Absolutely shaggy macaroons. Seven-day weeks, my nicotine habit became immense, and I cried a lot, but when you’re writing that much, you just hit velocity. You don’t think at all; it’s all coming from your subconscious. Later I was looking at it thinking, I really wrote some truthful stuff! It just didn’t occur to me to be scared or second guess it while I was writing it; i wasn’t thinking about the reception. If I’d had more time I think I would have been more cautious.
What are the differences between the Americanized and British versions?
Mainly it's just replacing the s in certain words with zed. It was funny, though, there are cultural differences in each country. It’s a very British thing to refer the Nazis, for example, but in the German edition whenever I jokingly did this, they were like, you need to make it very clear that the Nazis were a heinous regime. In America they wanted to remove all references to Nazis entirely. We didn't.
Do you see any differences between feminism in America and in Britain?
Not really. Everyone keeps going on about the difference between American and English feminism, but I haven’t noticed any difference at all. You know, with pop music, with your eyes closed you wouldn’t know if the artist is British or American. It’s all just pop, it all sounds the same.
What sort of reactions have you gotten?
Everyone’s been so nice. My favorite comments come from boys. A third of our sales are e-books, and our e-books sales are guys; they don’t want to be seen reading it. There was a massive bidding war when I signed to do the book, and they were like, "You’ve just knocked out 48 percent of your audience," but men are reading it. The comments I get from men are, "Now I know more about women. I realized you’ve got all these weird secrets you keep from men. I understand my sister, I understand my daughters." I had an 87-year-old Catholic [pro-life] man who read the chapter on abortion and changed his mind.
Any negative reactions?
I haven’t had a single negative reaction. I was braced for it. I think the reason why is that the book is really brave and honest and visceral, dealing with masturbation, having kids, abortion, imaginary relationships. Everything that happens is carefully chosen and happens to every woman. It’s the stuff we don’t talk about because we think it would be bad or dirty, but the secret is, you don’t have to keep it secret. People now tell me about their first masturbation experience at parties. I wanted it to be celebratory about womanhood: There’s still a lot of bullshit but it’s kind of funny. Do I really need to save up money to remove the hair on my vagina? Or, on Twitter, I showed the box of shoes under my bed that I’d bought and never worn....we probably all have $700 of shoes under our beds; we’re demented!
What do you see as the aim of feminism as it exists in 2012, in America and elsewhere?
I think the big battle now is the fight for what normal means. Until recently it meant white, heterosexual, male. Our definition has stretched on TV, for example, to include the token woman who’s strident, or the token black character. But until “normal” means all types of women, we're not there. In Britain, whenever Parliament is coming up with legislation, they come up with the laws, and then consult with women’s groups about them. If the idea of being a woman was "normal," we would have been there from the beginning.
Or, for instance, you’re not allowed to use the word vagina. I just wish everyone had just said, “vagina!” What are they going to do? In my dream feminism world, every single woman who’d had an abortion would say, "I had an abortion." 1 in 3 women will have had an abortion, 1 in 3 won’t tell you. If all the women who’d had them who are prominent would say it, "It hasn’t fucked me up, I’ve carried on my life happily" ... it’s when women try to keep it secret and when we lie about the normality of being a women that we hurt ourselves.
You wrote about having an abortion in your book.
It was a calculated risk, to start describing it. It's like Nora Ephron writing about abortion. It was a risk, but I wanted to do it. I knew no one else had done it, and I wanted to be honest. The amount of women hiding those secrets, it makes us go backward. If we have legal abortions, we should spread the word that we’re finding the law useful. If we all pretend we’re not using it, they can reverse it.
You said you're working on a movie based on the book?
The people at Film Four over here bought the rights. I’m writing it with my sister, we'll be casting by Christmas, and it will come out in the autumn of 2014. We intend to make the first feminist rom-com. All the films with women in them now annoy me; the female characters dream of eating or making cupcakes and sit around and talk about their problems, and there's this nice bloke, it takes them the film to realize they want to go out with the good guy and not the bastard. We did a list of everything we hate in films. In ours, she’s going out with a bastard, the worst boyfriend ever, and she dumps the asshole and is on her own. She hangs out with her sister and smokes dope; they have a little dog called Mr. Jenkins that they love. She grows her pubic hair back and gains two stone and gets really, really happy. For women it's the equivalent of men watching the Death Star explode.
What do you say to people who say women aren't funny?
[Laughs.] That's just really embarrassing. That’s like being a women who says "I don’t know any good-looking men." Log onto Twitter for 20 seconds! Google Nora Ephron, Lena Dunham, Dorothy Parker. Saying that, you just look like you don’t know what Google is, and you insult every women you know.
Speaking of Lena Dunham, what do you think of Girls?
We’re not legally supposed to watch it here, yet; I’ve been illegally streaming it. I love Lena Dunham, it's the rise of the round-faced girls—these ladies being funny and looking doubtful. It’s such an obtainable and human image. I give thanks that my daughters are growing up with images like that.
How does it compare to Sex and the City for you?
Girls sits on Sex and the City and squashes it. For me, Sex and the City is about four gay men who are wearing dresses. It doesn’t tap into the essential truths of being a woman. There's some brilliant writing, and it's great to see Sarah Jessica Parker getting covered in water by a bus, but you get to the end and feel bad about yourself. You’re on the sofa, covered in bits of potato chips, thinking I've never been on a boat with 5,000 sailors who want to fuck me up the butt. I don’t like the aspirational stuff; it’s very neurotic. It’s about accumulating things, using your knowledge to crush other people, and becoming brittle. I’m an old hippie, but I think the most important thing anyone can do is walk in and say "I know nothing so I won’t comment," or "I’m a bit of a dick, I admit it, I fucked up." I can’t walk in heels and I can’t sashay my way out of a problem. It takes balls to be more ambigious. Sex and the City felt like show biz; Girls feels beautiful, truthful, and will do us good. It's good to not always have to draw a moral conclusion. It’s normal for women to not be shiny and fabulous all the time. As an optimist I say there’s something more to come. When things become at their most shitty and awful and saturated by Michael Bay-ness, there’s a whole underground generation of people saying, "Fuck this, this is a matter of cultural urgency, I need to make a film."
The bottom line is, most men think women are at their most attractive while wearing a pair of jeans and an old tee sitting on the sideboard eating some cereal and just joking. The skintight Herve Leger dress with the high heels and spray tan, no one wants that. The men who are looking at her are either terrified to talk to her or so turned on they can’t talk properly.
What else do people need to know about How to Be a Woman?
Please buy my book! I come to make life better. I will not bore you. It’s like a self-help manual, but in all of those they’ll make you do loads of shit, buy shit off a yoga website; it will be a massive pain in the ass. My book just tells you not to bother with loads of stuff! Fuck all of that. By the end of it your life will be so much easier.
Inset by Adam Lawrence.