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Caitlin Moran: How to be a Woman (2011)

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This is another one of those posts I begin by going “I read this ages ago but never posted on it because…” This time, my excuse is that I wanted to do this review “properly”, but I’ve realised this is probably never going to happen, so I’ve decided to just post some more or less incoherent thoughts based on notes I took after finishing How to be a Woman. For more coherent thoughts, I’d like to refer you to the posts of the more put-together-than-me ladies Melissa and Iris – and there are probably a million other excellent reviews out there (if you’ve written one, please do leave a link in the comments!).

So, How to be a Woman. Honestly, it’s not often that a book produces such conflicting reactions in me. There were bits I wanted to shout from the rooftops because everyone needs to hear them loud and clear, but there were also parts where I wanted to get a hold of Moran and give her a good shake. I think the reason for this is that How to be a Woman doesn’t really know what it wants to be: a feminist manifesto, a “hilarious” autobiography, or a show of “I am Caitlin Moran and look how awesome I am”.

As it stands, it has a bit of each, and as a result, the fact that it has been heralded as the new awesome feminist manifesto is, at least in my view, a problem. How to be a Woman mixes Moran’s feminist with other views that don’t seem to be particularly well thought-out (e.g. her constant quoting of Germaine Greer, known holder of anti-transgender views – what is up with that?!*). Throw in some not strictly necessary episodes that seem to be there mostly in order to reinforce Moran’s own standing as The Coolest Woman On Earth, a.k.a. “Look at me, I party with Lady Gaga!!! Does that make me cool or what?!”), and you get a rather confusing jumble. If this is the New Feminist Manifesto Every Woman Needs To Read, I think we need to reassess our expectations, because we’re heading in the wrong direction.

What I loved about How to be a Woman is that it advocates a no-nonsense, de-academicised version of feminism, moving it out of discussions “carried out by a few dozen feminist academics, in books that only feminism academics would read, and discussed at 11p.m. on BBC4.” The woman has a point here, I have to admit. This cornering of feminism into exclusive circles has made it obscure and made it easy for those wanting to give it a bad reputation. Again, Moran makes this point very nicely:

Over the last few years, I’ve seen feminism – to remind ourselves: the liberation of women – blamed for the following: eating disorders, female depression, rising divorce rates, [… a list too long for a blog post follows]. But these are all things which have simply INVOLVED WOMEN, and have nothing to do with the political movement ‘feminism’.

I also agree with her view that throughout history, there have been women who have gotten things very right, but “ended up being compromised, unhappy, hobbled or ruined, because all around them, society was still very wrong”. I’d argue that this is still happening on a daily basis (see the recent #aufschrei debate on sexism in Germany, New York Times article here).

And another statement I loved was

Because simply being able to vote isn’t the same as true equality. It’s difficult to see the glass ceiling because it’s made of glass. What we need is for more birds to fly above it, and shit all over it, so we can see it properly.

But then there are so many things in How to be a Woman I disagree with or that sit uncomfortably with me. There’s her insinuation that lesbian women are a certain way in a dialogue with her friend who tells her she’d make “a terrible lesbian”, while she insists “If I wanted, I could be a great lesbian!”. Stereotypes much?

There’s some warped logic that makes strip clubs terrible but for some reason, pole dancing is perfectly fine. This was the point where I started doubting my intellectual capacity to understand Moran, because I somehow fail to see the difference. If it’s public pole dancing in a strip club it’s bad, but if you go and support the idea of women being objectified by wriggling themselves around a pole with your girlfriends, this is suddenly perfectly OK? Likewise, how is burlesque so different, as Moran argues? Just because a woman is objectified in front of a large crowd rather than just a few men, and because gay men go there? And in this context, we’re regaled with more stereotypes about queer people: “Gay men wouldn’t be seen dead in Spearmint Rhino – but you can’t move for them in a burlesque joint. […] They are up for glitter, filth, and fun.”

Another one from the category of making me slightly uncomfortable is Moran’s view on having children: “Every woman who chooses – joyfully, thoughtfully, calmly, of their own free will and desire – not to have a child does womankind a massive favour in the long term.” How? What kind of a favour? This is never really explained in the book. I agree that it’s wrong to see women without children as incomplete or that womanhood is only fulfilled if there are children involved, but how is not having children doing womankind as a whole a favour? Not having children should be accepted as a perfectly normal choice for women, but I wouldn’t go as far as going along with her suggestion. In fact, I think this could very well go wrong by reinforcing the idea that women who want to be successful can’t be mothers at the same time because motherhood and a solid career are impossible to combine.

And finally, here’s my major “WTF?!?!” moment with How to be a Woman:

For even the most ardent feminist historian, male or female […] can’t conceal the fact that women have basically done fuck all for the last 100,000 years.

I have no words. How can you argue that throughout history, women have been hampered by a society that has had it wrong and then a few pages later blame women for this? You can’t be serious, Caitlin Moran!

If you’re still with me after this rant, I’d like to return to my earlier point that the main problem with How to be a Woman is the fact that it doesn’t know what it wants to be, manifesto, autobiography, or autobiography-cum-self-glorification. Moran’s broad definition of feminism and her idea that feminism needs to be dragged out of its corner and into the streets are fine. But her refuge to gender determinism in some parts gives out a conflicting message. The biggest issue, though, and totally counterproductive to the goal of getting feminism “out there” is the way she reduces it to her personal experience. How to be a Woman is not a feminist, but a Moranist manifesto, and this is highly problematic if it’s marketed as anything else.

German title: How to be a woman – Wie ich lernte, eine Frau zu sein (in my view, a very good translation of the title, because it brings the personal experience into the title – “How I learned to be a woman” – and doesn’t give out the wrong expectation that this is about being a woman in general.
Spanish title: no translation yet.

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Author: bettinathenomad

Nomadic fan of books, food, the outdoors, and water. International Relations geek. Chlorine is my perfume.

6 thoughts on “Caitlin Moran: How to be a Woman (2011)

  1. I think, when it comes to stripping/burlesque, Moran is differentiating on the basis of choice. I can’t speak to the reality of either, but I think that’s what she’s going for.

    Ugh. I have such problems with this book, and I haven’t even read it! Yes, feminism is for everyone—and then you start alienating trans people, femme women, women with children… Plus, her reaction to someone asking her about race in Girls was just disgusting.

    • You’re probably right about the differentiation on the basis of choice. But if you were to take the argument all the way through, you’d have to argue that some or perhaps even most women who work in strip clubs (unless they’re there as a result of forced “labour”) are working there by choice. Hm. I just find the line she draws too fine to be treading it.

      Plus, I totally agree with you re: her reaction to race in “Girls”. It sometimes just seems like she doesn’t think before opening her mouth, but then again she does seem to think at other times – so there’s a good chance she might actually think these things. Urgh.

  2. Yes to all of that. And the history thing, I wanted to argue with that statement so much, being a historian and all 😛 There is so much fault to find with this book that by now I’m mildly annoyed at enjoying parts of it. I don’t know. Not my favourite book on feminism. And it makes me kind of sad that you have to downgrade so much about feminism (blatantly locking out so many groups of people) for it to be hailed as a “new modern feminist book everyone should read” blah.

    • Just one word: agreed. While I think she’s right in wanting to get feminism beyond BBC4 at 11pm, there’s no need for dumbing it down completely. And I also had this nagging feeling where I got annoyed about enjoying bits of the book when there’s evidently so much wrong with it.

  3. I suppose it works in Moran’s head if she sees herself as a feminist and thus can also talk about herself, but it wouldn’t to others. That last quote has actually put me off reading this quite a bit. You’ve said it, society, and also all the women in history who have had power or accomplished amazing feats. Iris’s point is interesting, maybe if the book had been more “correct” it wouldn’t have sold as many copies.

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