Do Women Have It Easier Than Men Now? On Caitlin Moran’s “What About Men?”
By Meredith MaranOctober 30, 2023
What About Men? A Feminist Answers the Question by Caitlin Moran
The author of the 2011 international conversation changer How to Be a Woman, the piquant 2020 polemic More Than a Woman, and several other “Moranifestos,” Moran has accrued awards and accolades including “most influential UK journalist on Twitter,” where 858,500 followers currently await the subject of her next probe.
Surprise: This time, it’s men. Double surprise: This time, Moran’s candid humor does the cause of gender equality more harm than good.
In its opening pages, Moran lays out the book’s intention, describing her response to the question she was surprised to be asked, night after night, on her 2019 book tour: “So—do you have any advice for men?”
“I’m onstage in front of 1,198 people,” Moran sets the scene, lest our awareness of her celebrity should somehow have slipped our minds. “This is the first time I have ever been asked this question. I’ll be honest: I feel a bit annoyed by it. Why this topic? I’m a feminist! […] I don’t do … the other guys,” she admits. “Men are awesome! I married one! All four Beatles were men! […] But, ultimately, if forced to pick a team, I’m Team Tits. […] [L]et the men sort themselves out.”
That should have been the end of Moran’s attempt to “do the other guys,” but no. Scrambling for a laugh, by her own admission, Moran offers the “46 men” in her audience two bits of advice—“a) please, if you can possibly avoid it, don’t rape us, and b) put the bowls in the dishwasher—rather than next to the dishwasher.” Seemingly satisfied by this equation of unwashed dishes and rape, Moran reports, “It gets a laugh […] Then we move the conversation on.”
But years later, mothers of boys are still asking Moran how to raise good ones. Grown men are still asking her how to be good ones. Meanwhile, Moran’s two twentysomething daughters report a disturbing trend among their male friends. “[T]hey call feminism a ‘cancer,’ and feminists ‘Feminazis,’” one tells her, while the other points out that “[t]hey make rape jokes.” “Tell the boys what they should be reading,” the girls beg of her, “about the problems of boys and men.”
Unable to find a book that fits the bill, Moran decides to write one. The framework she builds for it is clever, and accessible. Each chapter is devoted to an aspect of manhood: “The Conversations of Men,” “The Clothes of Men,” “The Pornography of Men,” “The Oldness of Men,” and so on. Interesting, all of it, and Moran’s wit keeps it entertaining. The book’s problems, however, outweigh its entertainment value. For starters, the “journalism” on which she bases her shaky suppositions makes a mockery of the profession. Her “research” consists of conversations with herself, her daughters, their friends, and her audiences. Unsurprisingly, the conclusion she draws, and spends 300 pages attempting to defend, is insulting to her own intelligence, and ours.
“I had, let’s face it, spent the last five years humorously refusing to even countenance the problems of boys, and men,” Moran writes. Now, she says, “I have, finally, taken absolutely seriously […] the biggest complaint of Men’s Rights Activists and the Manosphere. Which is, in our culture, ‘It’s easier to be a woman than a man, now.’”
Wait. What? Women have it easier than men now?
One can only hope that Moran’s next book isn’t What About White People?
If Moran is saying that it’s easier emotionally to be a woman than a man in today’s world, I’d understand. I raised two sons. I heard that complaint repeatedly as they grew up in the People’s Republic of Berkeley: girls were encouraged to be anything and everything; boys were told who and what not to be. Two decades ago, my 10th-grader’s US history teacher, trying to calm a rowdy classroom, declared, “There’s too much testosterone in here.” My son replied, “That’s sexist! You wouldn’t say there’s too much estrogen in this room, would you?” The teacher agreed and apologized. I was proud of them both.
But Moran offers no such qualifier, leaving the reader to compare the book’s premise to our own lived reality, and the facts. A 2020 study of gender equality across myriad real-life measurements—employment, household labor, reproductive freedom, childcare, and social attitudes, among others—found that “there has been dramatic progress in movement toward gender equality, but, in recent decades, change has slowed and on some indicators stalled entirely.”
Reading What About Men? and having enjoyed Moran’s previous books, I had a hard time believing that she meant what she seemed to be saying. Had I misread her somehow? Could her stance—declaring men the more oppressed gender—be a PR stunt? Had this successful feminist thought leader abandoned evidence and reasoned argument, resorting to controversy to sell her books?
As a literary critic in a time of shrinking books coverage, I shun the takedown as a rule; in fact, I’ve never published one. So, I did something I’ve never done, something a critic really shouldn’t do: I emailed Moran to give her a second chance to explain herself.
“In almost every material aspect,” she wrote back, “we are still disadvantaged, compared to men. But AT LEAST WE TALK ABOUT THESE PROBLEMS. [Emphasis hers.] There isn’t really a problem a woman or girl could encounter [for which Google] doesn’t come up with, at best, a solution, and, at worst, solidarity and comfort.”
You can’t buy groceries or a safe abortion with solidarity and comfort, last I checked. Nor does talking about our problems resolve the inequities Moran herself acknowledges—“the pay gap, the sexual assault rate, access to healthcare and abortion, representation in business, politics, the economy, or art.” So I pressed Moran about the heterosexual bias I perceived in What About Men?, including extensive discussion of heterosexual women’s risk of rape, although queer women’s risk is even higher. Per a 2010 CDC study, 44 percent of lesbians and 61 percent of bisexual women “experienced rape, physical violence, [or] stalking by an intimate partner,” compared to 35 percent of straight women.
“Oh, this book is super heterosexual,” Moran responded. “I figured straight women would turn to [this book] because they were worried about their husbands or sons [who] were struggling.”
As the lesbian mother of two sons, I resisted the urge to inform Moran that we queer parents also have sons we worry about. Instead, I asked her about another of the book’s glaring omissions. The LGBTQI+ movement, arguably the greatest influencer and contributor to human gender relations since the advent of modern feminism, is barely mentioned in What About Men?
“Again, it was a deliberate decision to keep the book generally rooted in the cis, hetero world,” Moran replied.
In a book ostensibly about one half of the world’s population, I wanted to concentrate on subjects that affect simply the most amount of men. I’m currently making notes on what might well be my next [book], which would be entirely and wholly about trans, nonbinary, and genderfluid people.
As if in an afterthought, Moran added, “I’m aware that, as a cis woman, there will be many people in the trans/nonbinary world who would say, ‘That’s not your experience to write about.’”
No, Caitlin, it’s not. But this acknowledgment is too little, too late. Your decision to “keep the book generally rooted in the cis, hetero world,” your underlying notion that “trans, nonbinary, and genderfluid people” can be excluded from the question “What about men?” puts you squarely on the side of those—from conservative Republicans to TERFs—who are waging war against a newer, more inclusive gender worldview.
More than an intellectual distinction, according to the human rights organization Council of Europe, this divisive ideology has been linked to “virulent attacks on the rights of LGBTI people […] in, among other countries, Hungary, Poland, the Russian Federation, Turkey and the United Kingdom.” Certainly it supports the escalating attacks on trans and nonbinary people in the United States, where, in 2023 alone, state lawmakers have introduced 583 anti-transgender bills in 49 states, leaving thousands of trans kids in public school districts that require teachers to tell their parents if they change their pronouns or their names in school or that prohibit them from using a bathroom that does not match their sex at birth. Thirty-five percent of transgender youth now live in states that have passed bans on gender-affirming care. Every one of those kids, in their self-protective need to distinguish friends from foes, those who are part of the solution from those who are part of the problem, can rightly question which side the high-profile feminist Caitlin Moran is on.
“It’s been lovely to hear from you,” Moran concludes our correspondence. “It’s been refreshing to hear from someone whose questions are ‘Why isn’t there more queer/trans/nonbinary stuff in the book,’ rather than people calling me a man-hating pig-faced Feminazi who’s trying to turn men into cuck libtard pussies.”
Don’t hold back, Caitlin. Do the thing you do best. Rightly or wrongly, ignorantly or callously, wittily or dangerously, tell us how you really feel.
Meredith Maran, a regular reviewer for LARB, The Washington Post, and the Los Angeles Times, is the author of The New Old Me: My Late-Life Reinvention (2017) and a dozen other books.
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