Interview: Hadley Freeman – How to be Awesome

In a packed room in Blackwell’s bookshop in Oxford, Hadley Freeman is doing what she does so well: roundly condemning the Daily Mail. The tone of her voice is deceptively light and playful as she mercilessly dissects the Mail’s image of the ideal woman. “If the Daily Mail had its way, all women would preferably be twenty-four, married with five children, silent, and dressed from head to toe in Boden. If you deviate from that you are a sad-sack lesbian who is doomed to a life of misery.”

Her talk is going well. Freeman is here to promote her new book, Be Awesome: Modern Life for Modern Ladies, a collection of essays which Guardian reviewer Miranda Sawyer described as a “worthy, funny addition to our new tits-n-wit-lit genre”. The book confronts the many issues a modern woman must contend with today: the toxic misogyny of the media, disappointing portrayals of women in film and books, and why we all think being in a relationship is the only true validation of happiness. 

Coming to Oxford must be a nostalgic experience for Freeman; reading English Literature at St Anne’s, she became editor of Cherwell in her final year. She then went on to work at the fashion desk at The Guardian for eight years, before becoming a full-time columnist and features writer. She has also contributed regularly to US and UK Vogue and so must have first-hand experience of the media’s unhealthy portrayal of women. She tells me she wishes it was term-time: “I always like to see the students around town.”

I’m speaking to Freeman before her talk begins. In the short time we spend chatting, it strikes me how likable she is: her answers to my questions are warm and witty, but she is also sharp and no-nonsense. Nevertheless, Freeman is surprisingly modest about her own achievements, so much so that I wonder if she should reread the chapter in her book about how to avoid what she calls ‘Self-Deprecating Tourettes’. While Freeman doesn’t do herself down unjustly, she is reluctant to admit that her book can be identified with the recently sprung genre of amusing feminist literature that has been spearheaded by the likes of Caitlin Moran (How To Be A Woman) and Tina Fey (Bossy Pants). Such women realised that comedy sometimes has the potential to convey an important point more successfully than the dry academic style that characterised earlier feminist literature such as Betty Friedan’s seminal The Feminine Mystique and Kate Millett’s Sexual Politics. Moran and similar have evolved a style that is as subversive today as Friedan and Millett’s works were to second-wave feminism; the bold, abrasive attitude that characterises such ‘funny feminism’ has become massively popular among young women of this generation.

It seems clear to me that Be Awesome is of this ilk, but Freeman does not view it as a feminist book. She points out that it’s “a bit weird how women just talking about equality and being funny about it are immediately put into some little niche or box. But it’s a box I’m very proud to be in, and a term I’m very happy to use for myself and the women I admire.” It has been suggested by reviewers that Freeman should try her hand at novel writing, but Hadley was disillusioned by fiction when, at twenty-six, she pitched an idea about a novel that ended with the female protagonist quitting her job at the Daily Mail and getting a job at a better paper: “that was a happy ending to me”. Her agent was not of the same mindset. “I remember my agent saying, ‘getting a good job is not a happy ending, Hadley, could there be a boy in the background that she likes?'” She laughs. “I have a nice agent who wouldn’t say that now.”

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Freeman has high expectations of what a ‘proper’ feminist book written by her would need to contain. “It would have to include more discussion about the abortion debate, intersectionality and the 1970’s feminist movement in America. I’d definitely do a bit more about the history of feminism which I’m really interested in, whereas this just felt like I was saying things that any vaguely liberal, sensible woman thinks. I didn’t think of it as an actual political movement to complain about the Daily Mail.” But Freeman’s self-effacement cloaks many talents; reading Be Awesome it is clear that, while she might be stating the obvious when she writes about how being single or lonely is not abnormal, Freeman is doing the important job of illuminating how skewed our perceptions are of how we are supposed to appear and behave. I ask her if she thinks women are aware of this – does she see feminism in the twenty-first century progressing?

“I think women today are much more aware of feminism than they were ten years ago, they’re happy to identify with the whole thing, but I do think there’s a whole lot more misogynist crap around.” She sounds exasperated, as she does whenever we come close to the subject of tabloid misogyny and the Daily Mail or The Sun. “I think young women are under a lot more pressure than they were in the nineties, or even in the sixties. There’s more equality, you can’t be fired from your job for being a woman and abortion is still pretty much legal in most western countries, but women are basically portrayed as sexual objects and meat in the media.”

This leads me to ask her about her recent controversial article which justified why it was possible to shave your armpits and be a feminist. In Be Awesome, Freeman rightly condemns the brazilian wax for being for “people who dislike signs of female sexual maturity”. Yet isn’t shaving one’s armpits just a more accepted version of the same societal pressures? She negotiates the contradiction easily: “I do think it’s weird that they have been so normalised, but to accuse someone of not being a feminist because they get a brazilian is so missing the argument. You can have a brazilian and be a feminist, that’s fine, but you have to be aware of why you’re doing it. For me, a brazilian is just about pornography and paedophilia. But that attitude of ‘you have to be a certain way to be a feminist’ is dangerous and really undoes the feminist movement.” 

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Freeman cites Nora Ephron, best known for writing romantic comedies like When Harry Met Sally and Sleepless in Seattle as one of ‘the great feminists of all time.’ Her book Crazy Salad: Some Things About Women (1975), was one of the first books that got Freeman into feminism when she was in her mid-twenties. “She would write controversial essays on why she wanted to have bigger breasts, all these things I’m sure a lot of people see as anti-feminist, which is nonsense. She supported herself, she made her own money, she believed in equality. For me, that’s feminism. It’s not about whether you shave under your arms or not, it’s not about whether you wax your vagina or not.”

I suggest that the misogyny of the media is one of the most difficult challenges feminism has had to come up against, but Freeman disagrees. “The real challenge is the abortion debate as well as intersectionality: how different minority groups relate to feminism. Black women, Asian women, Spanish women, they feel that they’ve been excluded and have had different experiences.” She is happy to admit that “feminism is still mainly fronted by middle-class white women like myself”.

As she gets up to leave, I ask Freeman if she enjoyed Oxford. She grimaces. “I did it really badly. I’d been in hospital throughout my teenage years (Freeman suffered from anorexia) and I did my A-levels in a year at a crammer school. I was still basically a kid – so I just threw myself into the work. My memories of Oxford are of me in the Sheldonian obsessively trying to memorise Sir Gawain.” I tell her I will have to do this next year, and her flippancy is heartening: “I would say to all students out there, let yourself have a good time, don’t break your backs and don’t worry about firsts. It doesn’t matter. Honestly, I’ve been out of Oxford fourteen years now, and no one has ever asked me what class of degree I’ve got. You can get a 2:2!” And with that, the interview is over and she is hurried off by the events manager to go and prepare for her talk.

I watch Freeman tell her audience that if her book can stop one person from behaving as ridiculously as she did in her twenties, then that would be a justification for writing it. While it is hard to imagine Hadley Freeman ever being that ridiculous, it would seem that the message she is trying to impart is this: youthful folly is an indispensable step on the way to becoming ‘awesome’.