The “All or Nothing” Conundrum


Over the summer, I read/listened to Caitlin Moran’s book How to Be a Woman. I knew she was British, funny, and beloved by many feminists, but very little else, so I went in with a pretty open mind.

For the most part, I found the book relatable, hilarious, and endearing. She tells stories about growing up female and navigating the world as a young woman that weren’t universal, per se, but still engaging and accessible. And she’s an astute observer of pop culture.

However, there were several sections that actually enraged me. I didn’t just disagree with her views, I wanted to punch her in the face for expressing those views in the ways that she did: She stated that the reason men view women as inferior is that we haven’t really done anything notable yet as a gender – in science, art, politics, or humanitarianism. She had some preposterously backwards views on body image that bordered on fat-phobia. She made statements about evolution and sociology that she’d clearly extracted from her own butt without consulting any research or getting any expert input. And she’s touted as “a feminist heroine for our times,” looked up to by countless impressionable young women, setting a sloppy example for the generations coming up behind her.

BUT. I still enjoyed the book, and I’d still totally take her out for a cheeseburger if I had the chance. And perhaps more importantly, I would never say that she’s not a feminist. Or not a good feminist. Or that her views – which occasionally clash with my own – will ruin feminism.

And you may be saying to yourself, “So what? That just makes you a reasonable human being.” But here’s the thing, friends: It also puts me in the minority, especially amongst my fellow feminists. The feminist blogs I read are clogged with call-outs and overrun with in-fighting. One of them seems to have created an editorial calendar that revolves around pointing out all of the things feminists and allies are doing wrong. You are expected to be completely perfect, or turn in your feminist badge and go home.

“All or nothing” works beautifully in many realms, but it is unwise to take it on as a universal life philosophy. If a designer you love releases a collection you loathe, you don’t need to write them off forever. If a family member you respect says something boneheaded, you don’t need to cut them out of your life. If a prominent figure makes a statement that enrages you, you don’t need to decide that they’re a minion of Satan. Discarding mere disagreement in favor of outright hatred turns people into closed-minded robots focused on false binaries.

There are may ways to be a Christian, many ways to be a woman, many ways to be a teacher, many ways to be a mom, many ways to be a leader, and – of course – many ways to be beautiful, and many ways to be stylish.  We may want a simple, easy, black-and-white world, but we just can’t have one. Instead, we have the one in which Caitlin Moran thinks women are historical underachievers and still gets to be a feminist. We have the one in which hypocrisy is part of human nature. We have the one in which we could all stand to get a little more comfortable with the gray areas.

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12 Responses to “The “All or Nothing” Conundrum”

  1. Sewing Faille

    I completely agree. And there are plenty of other downsides to harsh binaries. They make it harder to distinguish– and address– the truly bad people, and the truly damaging people. If people who are largely good but who do the wrong thing on occasion receive harsh condemnation, what’s left for the people who are bad on all fronts? And if the people who are basically good get the same reaction as the really bad people, how easy is it to confuse the two categories?

    It’s also a bad strategy for encouraging good behavior at the individual level. If you’re going to get reamed for the occasional screw-up or for legitimate differences in opinion, why bother considering other peoples’ feelings? Why even bother trying?

  2. Vildy

    Great wisdom. Glad you wrote it. I am so very tired of the incendiary hatred. You’ve put your finger on what’s gone wrong.

  3. Linda B

    You hit the nail on the head–again, as you so often do, Sally! It is one of the real challenges of our times that human beings want things to be black and white, all or nothing. There is not room for complicated, nuanced views. Thank you for reminding everyone that we can speak up about what we disagree with–and still have respect for others.

  4. Rebecca Roueche

    “Instead, we have the one in which Caitlin Moran thinks women are historical underachievers and still gets to be a feminist.”
    Well…..we kinda have been. But not because women are just not as good as men, but because women have historically been held back. So yeah, we haven’t come up with as much or been as recognized. I wouldn’t say that’s WHY men might view women as inferior though, I’d say it’s the other way around. Chicken before the egg and all that.

  5. Rachel

    Amen to so much of this. Whilst reading your post, I couldn’t help thinking of the old adage: a rising tide lifts all ships. Encouragement is key.
    When reading the book, I too definitely felt for the likes of Marie Curie, Kate Shepherd, Maggie Thatcher (note to self: wow!), and the very many other women who have excelled (publicly or not) in male dominated fields. But she is a comedian, and whilst it behooves her to do a bit of research (so as not to appear daft), she isn’t a theorist.

    The observational humor in her book was great, and you never know, some readers may start to ponder inequality (of whatever kind) that hadn’t before.

  6. Jean Thilmany

    I read the book a year or so ago. I can’t remember the instances you cite, but I totally agree about her saying many things I don’t agree with. But many I do, and I liked her tone and overall life attitude. She had success at a young age and in a different era (before Internet prevalence) so I also feel that formed her views. And she was overweight and lost weight (without really trying or thinking about it, it seems) so that also .. yeah, that part was depressing. her body issue views. I do remember that now.

  7. Jane Jestson

    I didn’t read it but I like your analysis. I hate the infighting and litmus tests too. Since I didn’t read it, my comment is that there are some writers and thinkers who call themselves feminists and then do nothing but criticize feminism. There must be a middle ground. And I loved… “She made statements about evolution and sociology that she’d clearly extracted from her own butt…”

    Technically anyone who is for equality for women is a feminist but that breaks down very quickly.

  8. kathryn foley

    “One of them seems to have created an editorial calendar that revolves around pointing out all of the things feminists and allies are doing wrong.”

    I can’t tell you the number of pages I’ve unfollowed or unliked on social media for this reason. I understand how people need to vent their frustration, but that level and frequency of criticism makes me not want to relate at all. Thanks for articulating this point so well.

    I also found this article helpful, about how to be a fan of problematic things:

  9. Heina Dadabhoy

    As a person who calls people out, I don’t necessarily agree that a call-out translates to all-or-nothing. I only call out people who I care enough about to call out. If I didn’t care, why would I bother to talk with them about their views?

  10. Melanie

    I liked your review, Sally, and I’m glad you’d take her out for cheeseburgers. Heh. It’s so easy to fall back into the ways of thinking that I grew up with. Particularly my concept of pretty is deep and stubborn and sometimes when I go back and read something I’ve written, I want to shake my head. Although it’s hard to dislodge those deep roots your blog helps me be a more aware person.

  11. Ruth Slavid

    Of course you are right. Just as in my personal life, almost everybody that I know and care for has done at least one thing of which I disapprove/ with which I disagree, so in the public arena nobody is 100% right and nobody is 100% perfect. In fact, in order to achieve things, people need to be imperfect. I enjoyed Caitlin’s book, I read it some time ago so it is a bit hazy. But I do remember that it made me feel inadequate. I don’t think I would hang out with her because after all it would not be for a cheeseburger but would be a drinking session and she would drink me under the table and make me feel wet. She is so fierce. She makes me feel that I never did adolescence properly, Why wasn’t I obsessed with music, crushing over boys, masturbating non-stop? Because I am milk and water and she is some ferocious spirit. Which I know is probably not the impact she intended to have, but the one she had on me.

  12. BartSkipner

    What she actually wrote is
    “‘even the most ardent feminist historian…can’t conceal that women
    have basically done fuck all for the last 100,000 years…We have no
    Mozart; no Einstein; no Galileo; no Gandhi. No Beatles, no Churchill, no
    Hawking, no Columbus. It just didn’t happen.’
    And then she writes:
    ‘the truth is that we haven’t begun at all. Of course we haven’t.
    We’ll know it when we have.’