Book review: How To Be A Woman by Caitlin Moran

Wednesday, 22 June 2011

Journalist Caitlin Moran's much-anticipated memoir-cum-feminist rant, entitled How To Be A Woman, was published less than a week ago, but the buzz surrounding it has been incredible. I'm calling it "buzz", but some would regard it as controversy because for the feminist camp, it's turning out to be a little bit like Marmite.

I knew it was coming, from the moment I read that little blurb, reminding us of Emily Davidson throwing herself under the King's horse and feminists protesting the Miss World pageant, telling us that this is 2011, sisters - this is the year that "Caitlin Moran rewrites The Female Eunuch from a bar stool". For months now, a lot of people have been reading Caitlin's tweets with excitement and gearing themselves up for the big event.

As a result, many of the comments I've seen online - often from people who haven't actually read the book, choosing instead to pass judgement after reading a newspaper article or two - aren't too positive. Moran's talking about bras and shoes and sex! About what it's like to be a woman today, with her trademark wit and turn of phrase! What a bandwagon-jumper. What a "fun feminist".

Now I'm a fairly humourless, strident wimmin's libber. What's become known as "fun feminism", the sort of dubious twaddle about pretty much everything - heels, strip clubs, capitalism - being great for women and "empowering" and awesome because these days feminism isn't about being a hairy man-hating lesbian, it's about CHOICE - and BEING SEXY, girls, doesn't wash with me. The thing is, it does't wash with Moran, either.

Here, she's written a gloriously funny memoir, but also an exhortation to women to stop falling for the lies the world tells us about what it is to be a woman - and as a result, start having a good time. And because it's a memoir, it's not a book about global women. Or intersectionality. But there's much to be gleaned from reading it all the same - much about the ordinary lives of women who aren't quite feeling the thick academic tomes and wading through theory, but will probably find a hell of a lot of food for thought in this book.

Moran talks us through her adolescence and the milestones we all remember so well - body hair, bras, crushes, bad fashion choices - weaving in her memories of how she found feminism and what it came to mean to her, at the same time encouraging readers to use the term to describe themselves. Let's not see the adjective "strident" as a bad thing, she tells us.

"Feminism has had the same problem that 'political correctness' has had: people keep using the phrase without really knowing what it means."

She looks back on her teens as a time when women were much less visible in the music industry and when she had to put up with appalling sexism in the office - but also remembers the joys of being a young woman in the era of riot grrrl and then Britpop - minimal makeup, clumpy boots and drinking lager as standard, a time when no-one could have predicted what the "Noughties" would bring - the rise of the Pussycat Dolls and Katie Price, the 'WAG' and the return of lapdancing clubs as an acceptable place to be seen on a night out.

If you were thinking that How To Be A Woman is all about the hilarity, it certainly isn't. Moran devotes entire chapters to her experiences of being in an abusive relationship, going through one horrendous experience of childbirth (and another one which was much easier), experiencing a miscarriage and having an abortion.

I don't agree with everything she says. We're agreed that the porn industry represents an enormous and thoroughly unpleasant problem and that a lot of men have simply been conditioned to see us as second-class citizens but I don't think I'm with her as far as pole dancing goes. Or the role of women in history. I don't think it's necessary to always 'be polite' in order to further the strident feminist cause.

What I really do love about this book, though, is the way Moran pulls no punches in identifying exactly what is toxic about our society's treatment of women - and telling us that we should just stop taking notice of it all, laugh at how pathetic it is and refuse to get involved.

Wearing shoes you can't walk in, which leave you in excruciating pain? Saving up hundreds of pounds for that "investment handbag" that the glossies say every woman needs? Wasting time and money removing every last strand of your pubic hair? Obsessing over finding "the one" and judging women's decisions about having children? Buying magazines which make you feel uncomfortable, with their relentless speculation about celebrity women, weight and cosmetic surgery? None of it's necessary. It's poisonous - and I think too many people in Moran's position are afraid to say this.

As she says, we're conditioned to believe that being content and comfortable in our own skin is not quite right - we're supposed to be that little bit neurotic, worrying about dating and weight loss and wrinkles and aspiring to be princesses or someone's muse or indeed, anything but ordinary. But isn't being an ordinary woman who's happy with herself, in control of her mind, her body and her destiny more important than all that? I'd say so.

"Because if all of the stories in this book add up to one single revelation, it is this: to just...not really give a shit about all that stuff. To not care about all those supposed 'problems' of being a woman. To refuse to see them as problems at all. Yes - when I had my massive feminist awakening, the action it provoked in me was...a big shrug," says Moran.

And it's here that I really identify with her, because as the saying goes, the truth will set you free.

This post originally appeared on BitchBuzz.


Claire | French for Cupcake said...

Great review, I'm really enjoying the book so far! x

MadamJMo said...

Great, balanced review. I quite agree. Finished the book last night and writing my own review at the mo...

Raz said...

I'm just starting to read this book. Having had a few seminars on gender this term I'm starting to get quite anxious about the way young women see themselves - a lot of girls at my university appear to be taking things back a few decades. Still, I look forward to seeing what Moran thinks.

sianandcrookedrib said...

love this book! love your review!

Kels said...

just finished this book today!


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