Comment: On Feminism and the Suzanne Moore Controversy


In an article featured in a new anthology, then re-printed in the New Statesman, Suzanne Moore told her readers that “the desired body for women is that of “a Brazilian transsexual”.” What then came after was a bucket load of abuse, telling Moore that she was transphobic and not a real feminist. Suzanne-Moore1

This desire to denote what is and is not a feminist is something that often comes up in order to throw the argument of a person with whom one disagrees into disarray. But is it always called for?

Moore’s argument, after the abuse she received for her “throwaway” line, as she described it, is that “Everything I wanted for my daughters and yours is being denied them: housing, free education, employment.” In this sense, why are we tearing blows out of each other when in fact there is something significantly more important going on in the real world?

On Twitter she noted: “Not one trans activist has engaged with economic argument or attack on welfare. Why not?”

While many are happy to sit and have very academicised debates about language and “privilege-checking”, the government is tearing down the markers of civil society. Identity is important, for sure, and Moore doesn’t care whether “you were born a woman or became one”, the difficulty that the coalition are making for women at the moment is worth an infinite amount more time than semantics.

Let us, for example, take this popular notion, championed by many today, that “my feminism will be intersectional [meaning: understanding oppression within society, such as racism, sexism, homophobia, and religion-based bigotry, as not acting independently of one another] or it will be bullshit!” I’m certain that the most committed feminists who prioritise combatting prejudice of all stripes accept that intersectionality is, at best, a bolt-on extra to feminism proper.

Feminism itself is the ability for women to resist the expectations of them in a society that is unequal. Intersectionality crowds in many other social ills that need fighting against generally speaking, but in theory runs the risk of confusing people as to what it means. If by intersectionality one means being an active participant in several fights to achieve harmony for everyone (what, say Caitlin Moran calls “Thumbs up for the six billion”) then let’s just say this.

But ultimately calling people out on their disregard for intersectionality, then advancing the argument that they are therefore not a feminist, is a peculiar exercise.

The same argument occurs when we look at “privilege-checking”, and particularly where it has been used to shun the work of Moore and Moran (calling them transphobic and then levelling the accusation at them that they are not checking their cisgender privilege – which is the privilege one has of identifying as the gender that societal norms has classified them as, for example the simultaneity of having a penis and identifying as male also).

At the heart of “privilege-checking” however is a kind of narcissism and desire to exercise guilt, which arouses a great many problems of itself. First of all “privilege-checking” assumes that we can only understand things we have direct experience of, as Tom Midlane recently put it. This just needlessly problematises solidarity and divides those who are fighting the good fight against societal injustice into blocks of oppressed and non-oppressed. The protest space is necessarily subjective, sure, but it is also a space for fighting the greater good in union.

Looking deep into one’s soul and seeking self-privilege is peculiarly individualistic and contrary to the spirit of protest.

Secondly, I suspect it only serves to underline a guilt which, stripped down, is ultimately hubristic. I’m reminded of how Pascal Bruckner defined guilt in his book on the subject, as a substitute for power for the middle class European individual in a post-empire age, or a way to appear to reverse the co-ordinates of power relations in society, when in fact the presence of guilt firmly keeps those relations in place.

In this sense guilt only divides people from the guilty (non-oppressed) to the non-guilty (oppressed).

In her defence of “privilege-checking”, Zoe Stavri claims that: “It is utterly urgent that we listen to those who we claim to be fighting for and avoid contributing to any continuing oppression.” In itself of course those fighting the good fight should listen to the voices of those who are affected most by a particular oppression, but what has this to do with the ultimately pointless self-flagellation of checking one’s self for privilege – surely it is clear to see how this exercise stems steadfastly in to an exercise of needless privileged self-pity.

Of course if you are, for example, Caitlin Moran, and neglect to privilege-check when addressing particular subjects, you can expect to be told that your feminism is not real. This is what the Vagenda editors Rhiannon and Holly were criticising when they spoke out for Moran’s popular feminism. They pointed out that:

“Achieving “intersectionality” is impossible unless you can communicate clearly, with everyone. Moran at least speaks a language that we all understand. And how many other feminists can you credit with that?”

Moran, in her book How to be a Woman, shows precisely how to make a simple feminist argument that doesn’t drift off into postmodern obscurity. In calling for women to be true to themselves she says:

“If what you read in magazines and papers makes you feel uneasy or shitty – don’t buy them! If you’re vexed by corporate entertaining taking place in titty-bars – shame your colleagues! If you feel oppressed by the idea of an expensive wedding – ignore your mother-in-law, and run away to a registry office!”

I myself am more inclined to say if reading magazines and papers makes you feel uneasy then it is time to challenge those institutions much like one would be challenging male colleagues who frequent strip clubs. But the point Moran is simply making, in her inimitably punchy and accessible way, is that in the fight for dignity and equality we must all ensure that societal expectations, based on outdated and outmoded dictation, are quashed.

Moran, in How to be a Woman, makes this essential point in another way too. While working as a music journalist for Melody Maker she came in to contact with the Riot Grrrl movement in America – a post-punk, female-dominated genre that had a message to spread about inequality and female dignity.

The problem was in how it expressed itself. The movement chose not to talk to mainstream press outlets and to distribute their literature at obscure punk shows. But Moran felt this was not reaching the right audience, such as those girls and women “in council blocks, listening to Radio 1, fantasising about New Kids on the Block.”

In this sense the postmodern feminist left does a similar thing, casing its protest in a language most are unfamiliar with, thereby ensuring it remains necessarily hierarchical.

Caitlin Moran is not only an essential feminist, to be read by experts and non-experts alike, she provides a corrective to other strands of feminist thought. Reading How to be a Woman, I realised that it wasn’t simply a popularising of Germaine Greer’s The Female Eunuch, but a correction of its flaws.

She does this by rejecting the opinion that everything has to be viewed through the grand totality of patriarchal dominance. In the same way that the cigar in a dream can often just be a cigar, not a penis, so a heel worn by a woman does not have to be symptomatic of her being at the beck and call of men – instead she may want to wear them, as Moran notes, because “they think they make their legs look thinner”.

Perhaps, one might argue, this is a consequence of the totalising effect of the patriarchal order, but the important thing to note is that this is not often how it would be experienced. What Moran is saying is that the intention and the act of wearing a heel has very often been called out erroneously by feminists such as Greer, and it is a critique that is not necessarily useful looking at it today.

Inherent to dismissing Moran and Suzanne Moore as un-feminist is snobbery, followed by a desire to academicise the real lives of women living in an unequal society, and to maintain the differentiation between oppressed and non-oppressed via the vehicle of narcissistic guilt. My own feminism does not share this desire, and my feminism will be egalitarian or it will be bullshit!

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  • http://twitter.com/JulianHBurchill Chris Marshall

    “Everything I wanted for my daughters and yours is being denied them: housing, free education, employment.”

    Replace daughters with sons. Or perhaps simply children. Am I missing that men are somehow receiving a free education, have easy access to housing, and are all in full-time employment? Because if that were the case then Moore and indeed you might have a point.

  • http://twitter.com/PrimlyStable Primly Stable

    ‘On Twitter she noted: “Not one trans activist has engaged with economic argument or attack on welfare. Why not?”’
    How does she know this?

  • http://twitter.com/Paul0Evans1 Paul Evans

    Got any advice for people who’ve got more sense than to take any notice of anything they read in a newspaper? ;-)

  • Ash

    It’s rather disingenuous to focus on the ‘bucket load of abuse’ received by Moore and omit any mention of the abuse she dished out: “I dont prioritise this fucking lopping bits of your body over all else that is happening to women”, “People can just fuck off really. Cut their dicks off and be more feminist than me.” Remind me again who is guilty of ‘problematising solidarity’ and ‘dividing the movement into different blocks’? Is it the people who objected to those comments, or the person who made them?

  • Alvin Lucier

    Yes Paul “At least you aren’t as sad as people who comment on websites”

  • Alvin Lucier

    Yes Paul “At least you aren’t as sad as people who comment on websites”

  • Alvin Lucier

    Yes Paul “At least you aren’t as sad as people who comment on websites”

  • Alvin Lucier

    Yes Paul “At least you aren’t as sad as people who comment on websites”

  • Alvin Lucier

    Yes Paul “At least you aren’t as sad as people who comment on websites”

  • Alvin Lucier

    Yes Paul “At least you aren’t as sad as people who comment on websites”

  • Louisa Young

    Have you read what SM was responding to when she wrote these things? It’s rather disingenuous to take them out of context.

  • Andrew

    Absolutely, what’s missed in that is Moore’s blunt language was a direct response to the accusations made about the original article, and part of her rejection of that whole branch of identity politics. I’m sure she was perfectly well aware that some people would find the comment offensive, but it came form the frustration that the original comment about the ‘Brazilian transexual’ had been taken entirely out of the context, twisted to something it wasn’t, and then used as grounds to accuse of not being feminist. When accusations of ‘hate speech’ are bandied about not based on the views expressed, but the specific language used regardless of context, then we know the left’s in real trouble. It’s entirely self defeating.

  • Ash

    I haven’t read what she was responding to, and I don’t see why it matters. What could possibly make it OK to respond to individual trans women, however obnoxious, by lashing out at trans women in general in such grossly offensive terms?

    And it *is* about the views expressed, not just language.

    How obnoxious would a black tweeter have to be in challenging my credentials as (say) a representative of British values, before it became acceptable for me to respond by tweeting “People can fuck off really. Straighten their afros and be more British than me”?

    No analogy is perfect, but that comes close to capturing what is so wrong about Moore’s tweet. Just as the white British racist presumes himself to be the arbiter of what Britishness is all about, and thinks black British people are really just Africans dressed up as Brits and so in no position to speak out on the subject; so Moore presumes herself (as a cisgendered woman) to be the arbiter of what feminism is all about, and thinks trans women are really just men with their dicks cut off and so in so position to speak out on the subject.

    If I’m genuinely missing something important (e.g. she was satirising someone else’s views rather than expressing her own), please let me know. Otherwise I hope that explains why I think context is fairly irrelevant here.

  • Ash

    My comment above is in reply to this as well as Louisa’s comment.

  • Emma

    She doesn’t, and was quickly corrected. It’s a shame that it’s been repeated uncritically here, because it couldn’t be further from that truth.

  • http://twitter.com/itsjustahobby Jemima101

    Right wing apology for bigotry on a blog called left foot forward. I take it your name is an ironic joke?

    A poorly written, poorly argued article that ignores the facts of what happened and uses Moran as evidence. If it is not a parody it is a sad sad day that anyone thought this worth publishing.

  • http://twitter.com/itsjustahobby Jemima101

    Right wing apology for bigotry on a blog called left foot forward. I take it your name is an ironic joke?

    A poorly written, poorly argued article that ignores the facts of what happened and uses Moran as evidence. If it is not a parody it is a sad sad day that anyone thought this worth publishing.

  • http://twitter.com/itsjustahobby Jemima101

    Right wing apology for bigotry on a blog called left foot forward. I take it your name is an ironic joke?

    A poorly written, poorly argued article that ignores the facts of what happened and uses Moran as evidence. If it is not a parody it is a sad sad day that anyone thought this worth publishing.

  • http://twitter.com/itsjustahobby Jemima101

    Right wing apology for bigotry on a blog called left foot forward. I take it your name is an ironic joke?

    A poorly written, poorly argued article that ignores the facts of what happened and uses Moran as evidence. If it is not a parody it is a sad sad day that anyone thought this worth publishing.

  • http://twitter.com/itsjustahobby Jemima101

    Right wing apology for bigotry on a blog called left foot forward. I take it your name is an ironic joke?

    A poorly written, poorly argued article that ignores the facts of what happened and uses Moran as evidence. If it is not a parody it is a sad sad day that anyone thought this worth publishing.

  • CFE

    It’s amusing to observe this storm in a PC teacup, and hardly surprising that it’s happening. The whole leftist “equality” ideology is built on lies. To be a leftist, you must deny truth, and to (pretend to) believe lies.

    The races are not equal. The sexes are not equal. Cutting of a man’s genitalia does not make him a woman. Some men are better (at anything you care to mention) than others. European men hate to see their women with Negroes or Asians. The sexually disabled are not equal to the sexually healthy.

  • Ash

    You seem to have a very peculiar idea of what ‘leftist “equality” ideology’ is all about. Nobody believes, or pretends to believe, that all people are equal in all respects – e.g. that men and women are equally tall, that black and white people are equally at risk of developing skin cancer, that disabled and able-bodied people are able to perform any given activity equally well. What most people (not just leftists) now accept, however, is that all people are of equal moral value and should have equal rights. Whatever differences there are between black and white people are not such as to justify treating black people as slaves and white people as free. Whatever differences there are between men and women are not such as to justify denying women the vote, or access to education. And so on.

  • Ash

    You seem to have a very peculiar idea of what ‘leftist “equality” ideology’ is all about. Nobody believes, or pretends to believe, that all people are equal in all respects – e.g. that men and women are equally tall, that black and white people are equally at risk of developing skin cancer, that disabled and able-bodied people are able to perform any given activity equally well. What most people (not just leftists) now accept, however, is that all people are of equal moral value and should have equal rights. Whatever differences there are between black and white people are not such as to justify treating black people as slaves and white people as free. Whatever differences there are between men and women are not such as to justify denying women the vote, or access to education. And so on.

  • Vagina Riot

    I used to be a fan of Julie Burchill’s column when she wrote for the Guardian! Yeah, I was young, but she often made me laugh. I’ve always considered myself a feminist, however I am now the mother of a transgender child: a “chick with a dick” if you will. This whole furore has left me feeling utterly sickened. If Burchill, Moore or even Greer think transgenderism is solely about “getting dicks chopped off” they are hugely ignorant and misinformed and I challenge any “feminist” to come and live with me for a week and see what our family has to deal with every day and witness what our child has to endure. Our child was born a boy but identifies and has always identified from the time she could walk and talk, as a girl. She doesn’t think she’s a girl. She is a girl. But she has had to struggle to convince us and everyone around her of what she know’s to be true and authentic and innate. Her definition of self is not according to the genetalia she was born with but an acute awareness of an innate sense of self and gender identity. And to think that so called feminists would try and deny her that?

    Only a fool could imagine that trans activists and allies are not engaged with education, housing, health, welfare and the economy. These issues affect trans people and their families as much as the next person. How pompous, ridiculous and irrelevant do you have to be to imagine we don’t engage alongside everyone else? Opinion is only valid if it is based on truth, experience and facts and not a vile, bigoted, ignorant perspective.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Melvin-Polatnick/100003372319445 Melvin Polatnick

    The social life of an Alpha male is not complex, he sees
    each woman as self-centered and goal oriented. As one in demand the Alpha male
    fully controls the situation, he pays little and gets a lot. Most women are
    left in tears as the Alpha male moves on to fresh pastures, many times leaving
    behind an unsupported litter. The opposite is true for the wimp; he bears the
    burdens of the Alpha Male. Most unwed mothers find a wimp to help support
    themselves and the children of the Alpha male. Unfortunately 80% of men are
    wimps who would rather pay for the wanton pleasures of the Alpha Male than stay
    single and masturbate in their mother’s basement.

  • steve

    “What Moran is saying is that the intention and the act of wearing a heel
    has very often been called out erroneously by feminists such as Greer,
    and it is a critique that is not necessarily useful looking at it today” – before offering her OWN critique of heel-wearing which is that anyone who wears them only has thmeselves to blame if they’re raped.

    And the idea of ‘egalitarian feminism’ put forward in this piece sits rather oddly with the outright anti-trans bigotry of Moore and Burchill – they are NOT egalitarian.

    Also – moore was ismply wrong to ‘NOTE’ that no trans activists ever oppose austerity, etc. It’s typical of her and her mates (like Nick Cohen) to pretend that somehow their critics are not proper left-wingers.

  • http://twitter.com/akicif Steve Glover

    Er – you really didn’t see the whole thing, did you? First off, the original twitter comments were perfectly reasonable, and the “attacks” as you style them, were not a response to the original article but to Moore’s unbelievably offensive follow-up tweets. Of course, if you did see all that and chose not to mention it you should be ashamed of yourself – and given the comments floating around the net today you’d have had to try pretty hard NOt to see it. So, what’s your real problem?

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Stephen-Wigmore/61311392 Stephen Wigmore

    Here’s a hint. How about not being utterly unnecessarily rude and insensitive to people when it adds nothing to the discussion. Suzanne Moore shouldn’t have been rude in her article. People on twitter should not have been rude back. BUrchill should not have been even ruder in response.

    Whether you are a good feminist, or a good transactivist or a good woman or not does not remove you from the moral responsibility as a human being to not be a massive asshole.

  • Enough

    Trans women have lost any currency with me and many other feminists by making constant, vitriolic attacks on women and feminism. If you don’t know what I”m talking about, you haven’t been paying attention. Death threats from transactivists are common, for example, to lesbians who don’t want to sleep with them. How long can we pretend this does not come from male socialization and ignore it, hoping they will go away?

  • Enough

    Trans women have lost any currency with me and many other feminists by making constant, vitriolic attacks on women and feminism. If you don’t know what I”m talking about, you haven’t been paying attention. Death threats from transactivists are common, for example, to lesbians who don’t want to sleep with them. How long can we pretend this does not come from male socialization and ignore it, hoping they will go away?

  • Enough

    Trans women have lost any currency with me and many other feminists by making constant, vitriolic attacks on women and feminism. If you don’t know what I”m talking about, you haven’t been paying attention. Death threats from transactivists are common, for example, to lesbians who don’t want to sleep with them. How long can we pretend this does not come from male socialization and ignore it, hoping they will go away?

  • Enough

    Trans women have lost any currency with me and many other feminists by making constant, vitriolic attacks on women and feminism. If you don’t know what I”m talking about, you haven’t been paying attention. Death threats from transactivists are common, for example, to lesbians who don’t want to sleep with them. How long can we pretend this does not come from male socialization and ignore it, hoping they will go away?

  • Enough

    No. He thinks he is female – he is not female. You’ve been had.

  • Ash

    For goodness’ sake. Of course we shouldn’t be ignoring people who make death threats against people who don’t want to sleep with them. Nor, so far as I can see, is there any reason to ignore the possible role of male socialization in producing the attitudes underlying that behaviour (if the women who have those attitudes were raised as men). But we can’t tar a whole group of people with the same brush as the most objectionable individuals who happen to belong to that group. To do so is bigotry, pure and simple. The world is full of people who think black people are bad because they’ve heard shootings by black people are common, Muslims are bad because they’ve heard terrorist attacks by Muslims are common, etc.

    Anyway, it’s clear from your reply to Vagina Riot below that the reason you give here for disliking trans women is nothing more than a flimsy rationalisation of your own prejudices. The fact is, you believe trans women are just creepy and unpleasant men.

  • Ash

    For goodness’ sake. Of course we shouldn’t be ignoring people who make death threats against people who don’t want to sleep with them. Nor, so far as I can see, is there any reason to ignore the possible role of male socialization in producing the attitudes underlying that behaviour (if the women who have those attitudes were raised as men). But we can’t tar a whole group of people with the same brush as the most objectionable individuals who happen to belong to that group. To do so is bigotry, pure and simple. The world is full of people who think black people are bad because they’ve heard shootings by black people are common, Muslims are bad because they’ve heard terrorist attacks by Muslims are common, etc.

    Anyway, it’s clear from your reply to Vagina Riot below that the reason you give here for disliking trans women is nothing more than a flimsy rationalisation of your own prejudices. The fact is, you believe trans women are just creepy and unpleasant men.

  • Ash

    For goodness’ sake. Of course we shouldn’t be ignoring people who make death threats against people who don’t want to sleep with them. Nor, so far as I can see, is there any reason to ignore the possible role of male socialization in producing the attitudes underlying that behaviour (if the women who have those attitudes were raised as men). But we can’t tar a whole group of people with the same brush as the most objectionable individuals who happen to belong to that group. To do so is bigotry, pure and simple. The world is full of people who think black people are bad because they’ve heard shootings by black people are common, Muslims are bad because they’ve heard terrorist attacks by Muslims are common, etc.

    Anyway, it’s clear from your reply to Vagina Riot below that the reason you give here for disliking trans women is nothing more than a flimsy rationalisation of your own prejudices. The fact is, you believe trans women are just creepy and unpleasant men.

  • Ash

    For goodness’ sake. Of course we shouldn’t be ignoring people who make death threats against people who don’t want to sleep with them. Nor, so far as I can see, is there any reason to ignore the possible role of male socialization in producing the attitudes underlying that behaviour (if the women who have those attitudes were raised as men). But we can’t tar a whole group of people with the same brush as the most objectionable individuals who happen to belong to that group. To do so is bigotry, pure and simple. The world is full of people who think black people are bad because they’ve heard shootings by black people are common, Muslims are bad because they’ve heard terrorist attacks by Muslims are common, etc.

    Anyway, it’s clear from your reply to Vagina Riot below that the reason you give here for disliking trans women is nothing more than a flimsy rationalisation of your own prejudices. The fact is, you believe trans women are just creepy and unpleasant men.

  • http://twitter.com/Pity_Kitty Kitty Mittelschmerz

    Pipe down. Grown-ups are talking.

  • Nualaan

    While this initial journalism faux pas has escalated with no end in sight, I am hopeful that after the ranting and raging subsides, the various parties involved will sit down to a discussion and dialogue rather than becoming further polarized.

    I should just like to point out that the initial *spark* of contested interaction on Twitter, took place between the author of the piece Ms. Moore and an individual cis (non trans) woman and sister feminist named Jo. However, when Jo makes an attempt at a reasonable dialogue with Ms Moore, that is when the transphobic diatribe begins in earnest (much to the shock of Jo, who only sought a reason for the use of a pejorative reference in the otherwise decent original article).

    Here is a brief synopsis:

    http://storify.com/leftytgirl/suzanne-moore-timeline-of-trans-misogynistic-twitt

  • robynheartz

    Let us take our trans community and secede to form our own feminism, separate from the one TERFs seek to dominate. Let us avoid their precious wbw “safe spots”, dismantle Camp Trans, and avoid them online in exchange for our rights over our OWN bodies and lives. We cannot live with them, let us, as a community, live APART from them. We need not respond to every TERF tantrum in the tabloid rags that pass for Brit press. Let us NOT interact with them at Dyke marches, let us NOT attend their radfem reboot Klan rallies, so long as they agree (I’m talking to YOU Sheila Jeffries) not to violate OUR boundaries with their attempts to ban transition and gender confirmation surgery. I propose this at the new “GendertrenderS” mini blog at wordpress.

  • http://twitter.com/flightrisker _

    There are many arguments I could start against this article, most of which have already been touched on by other people below. One thing I will go into a little though is the big scary word: Intersectionality and try to explain (my own view) of why it’s so bloody important. Also before I go into it I think it’s relevant to point out that I’m a white, cis, straight, middle-class, guy. I’m very aware that my views on this topic come solely from reading and observation than through personal experience and I welcome any feedback or criticism from those that disagree with my points.

    Anyway, Intersectionality.

    Imagine the scenario where “feminism proper”, as you describe it, wins. The war is over. Equal right for all women. An end to street harassment. Sexual assault a murky memory from a time gone by. Women valued and judged purely on their individual actions and not on their gender. The world’s most powerful people are now equal split between men and women. Hurrah!

    Except chances are that the vast majority of these women in power are probably gonna be white… and cis… and straight… and able-bodied…and middle to upper class. That’s the reality of winning that fight.

    Now if you consider that 80% of the world, and therefore also of women, are not white, not to mention the thousands of women that would not fall into the cis, straight, able-bodied, middle-upper class brackets, you have a massive amount of women that will not gain any proper representation through the victory of your “feminism proper”. As people like Moran, and Burchill, and Moore, and Bindel show, those not fighting for intersectional feminism will be the first to discredit the oppression faced by their feminist allies, put their feet up, drink some champagne and chow down on some lobster.

    And that’s why, in my opinion, my feminism will be intersectional or it will be bullshit.

  • http://twitter.com/RapidEddie Rapid Eddie

    “What then came after was a bucket load of abuse, telling Moore that she was transphobic and not a real feminist.” In a word: no. A reasonable and civilized debate on the use of a stereotype terminated when Moore told them to fahk off and slurred something about “cutting off their dicks” before falling headfirst into a potted plant at the Groucho Club. Then things got ugly.

    It’s a bit difficult to take the rest of the article seriously when its basic premise is a lie.

  • LabanTall

    “Tweet in haste, repent at leisure”.

  • Brandon Lytle

    This pompous/ridiculous/irrelevant, apparently.

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