(This article contains explicit language)
If there was an equally appreciative crowd at the Times Cheltenham Literature Festivals to the huge gathering for How to Be a Woman author and journalist Caitlin Moran, it was only Jarvis Cocker that same Saturday night – this feminist and columnist has the appeal of a rock star and the devotion of more than one generation of women and enlightened men.
The informal chat began with a discussion of that hit book. “The title made me laugh when I came up with it,” said Moran, explaining that it should be said in a tone of disbelief: “How to be a Woman?” With a film on the way – in which the heroine will get larger not thinner, and more single as the film progresses – it’s a title Moran will have to hear a whole lot more.
Being a woman means working out how to refer to one’s body, yet it’s not an easy as you might think, said Moran. She said that ‘vagina’ is a scary word because scary things happen to them, “like serial killers leave things in them”. Meanwhile, “‘Tits’ are jolly. That’s quite Britpop.”
Despite buckets of humour in Moran’s book, she makes many serious points about feminism today. “If something’s worth doing, it’s worth doing well… and funny,” said the author. The best truths come in the form of gags, she said, a route that is non-combative and therefore more effective. Even the word ‘feminism’ is problematic, but it’s “the best and only word we have for women being equal to men”. If anyone is in doubt that feminism needs a new hero, Moran pointed to her sister, who for years believed Germaine Greer was an invented character. But men can also be feminists. Talking to the women only, Moran said: “They’re on your side, and they’re really, really sexy.”
Moran’s book is also graphic – deliberately so, since she realised that many issues facing women daily are not discussed honestly, from masturbation to abortion. On the latter, Moran was extremely candid about her own choice to have one after she “was an idiot about contraception”. “I was married, I had two children already, and we just knew we didn’t want another child,” she said, noting that the impossible expectation is that women should be able to love “endlessly".
Plastic surgery came in for (deserved) flack – specifically, the expectation of women to look a particular way. “It’s almost like we’re creating a new species,” said Moran, joking: “I’m just really against pain and really against things that cost money.” She added that “It’s patriarchal bullshit because men aren’t doing it; they’re walking around looking like wizards.” In a man’s world, “We’ll know that feminism has worked when a woman goes up to get a Best Actress Oscar wearing flat, comfortable shoes.”
Moran’s own childhood was a strange, hippy upbringing in Wolverhampton (her parents lived in Brighton before she was there, and returned to it after she left home). School saw her bullied for eating “poo-sli” (muesli) and called boy’s names. “It was tough,” she said, “I didn’t feel like a girl at all.” Only when The Young Ones became a TV hit did she recognise her family as hippies; she was removed from school and spent a childhood eating cheese in various forms and generally being so bored than writing was the only option to keep off the malaise. “We went to the library every day. I read the sexy books, then the funny books, then the conspiracy books.”
Moran isn’t afraid of shaking up the established view, including in the book world. “I can read a book a day,” she said. “I read One Day – it made me so angry, I thought it was terrible… fleshing out a screenplay and pretending it’s a book.”
This was one of many times that Moran received a hearty round of applause, while in the question and answer session people thanked her for making them feel better about their choices and lives. Yet if Moran has her way, there’ll be no need for feminism in year to come, “because we won’t need it. Feminism is something that should die out.”
How to Be a Woman is out now, published by Ebury.