This was originally going to be part of my November book reviews, but then I realised I had a LOT to say about this book.
Caitlin Moran’s How To Be a Woman has been praised to the high heavens as the new feminist bible. However, while Moran is often laugh-out-loud hilarious throughout, the conclusions she reaches are neither new and some of them are quite problematic.
First the good. Moran combines her manifesto for modern feminism with vignettes from her own life. Her account of growing up isolated in 1980s Wolverhampton is hilarious and poignant, and should resonate with any odd one out kids. Her relationship with her younger sister Caz (all seven of her siblings are thus rendered in monosyllables) is painted wonderfully. However, I could have done without the graphic descriptions of her periods and puberty. Look, anybody reading the book has most likely already been through puberty and already knows what happens. There’s no need to elaborate. I also don’t see the need to name one’s ladyparts in a grand and important ceremony. It’s this kind of magnifying of trivial issues that leads many to feel that feminism is out of touch and only something that concerns white, middle-class, straight Western women (which is something I’ll get back to).
Moran is at her best when recalling seminal incidents from her own life. Her early relationship with the rather loathsome Courteney is a must-read for all teenage girls with low self-esteem who would do anything for that boy. Likewise, her wedding is also an uproarious affair (her dad’s advice as he steers her down the aisle had me in stitches). Her experience with childbirth and labour is also worth a read. As for the chapter where she details her abortion, it is as an articulate and impassioned pro-choice argument as you will ever read. There is, (perhaps unsurprisingly, given Moran’s ancestry), an Irish angle to this chapter. She encounters an Irish girl at the clinic, and in mere paragraphs cuts through the swathes of nonsense which has been spouted in this state for decades. We cannot keep inhumanely exporting this problem to the UK. And I’m off my hobby horse.
But unfortunately, the actual manifesto chapters let the memoirs down. Moran argues that women can do whatever the hell they want, provided they don’t wax their pubes, or strip, wear high heels, or do any of the things that Moran thinks they shouldn’t.
Moran doesn’t agree with the feminist version of history, that behind the scenes women were achieving things left, right and centre. Gobsmackingly, she says it’s time to admit that “women have done basically fuck all for the last 10,000 years.” She does not jump to the logical conclusion that we haven’t been allowed. (Yes, what were the Brontes called? Ellis, Acton and Currer Bell, but never their real, female names-and that’s just one example out of hundreds!) Instead this is just something else to beat ourselves up about, so we start achieving now.
Because Moran does not seem to believe in solidarity with other women. Of course, women being people, there will be plenty we don’t like, but rather than making a judgement call on an individual level, Moran positively rejoices in judging other women, for their appearance and choices (she justifies this by saying a woman does not need to be nice. No, she doesn’t. But the world is better when people are nice). In short, she sees absolutely nothing wrong with bitching, although she freely admits she was bullied in the past.
This is extremely apparent in the chapter where she meets Jordan, aka Katie Price. Being no fan of Jordan myself, I can hardly believe I’m defending her, but the nasty hatchet job committed to these pages is hardly worthy of a feminist tract. Her version of empowerment is hardly, well, empowering, but to her credit, she has raised a profoundly disabled child (Moran also throws in the r-word as a punchline to an unrelated joke) and run a successful business. Just because Moran couldn’t warm to her, it doesn’t make her a thoroughly evil person (or as Moran describes glamour models, “Vichy France with titties”).
The contrast with the Lady GaGa hero-worshipping chapter is pronounced. In fairness, it was written when it seemed GaGa might actually become a proper, long-lasting popstar, before she released the cringeworthy Born This Way and the world got bored. However, Moran is so starstruck she simply refuses to see that GaGa is not the most original female artist out there. Kate Bush, Tori Amos, Patti Smith, Joni Mitchell, Janis Joplin, Tracy Chapman, Amy Winehouse, Bjork, Debbie Harry, Stevie Nicks, all those wonderful women who fill my iPod and have often opened my mind and heart, all ignored because apparently (although the evidence is scant) Lady GaGa is good craic in a Berlin sex club.
Even the two artists who GaGa has borrowed most liberally from, Madonna and David Bowie, are not worthy of comment. Madonna scares Moran, which is fair enough, she scares most people. Bowie hardly gets a look in, which is not surprising, given that he is a man. The fact that he has been one of the most gender-subversive figures in pop history is unimportant.
Because the only people Caitlin Moran has written this book for is white, middle-class, straight women. Women exactly like Caitlin Moran, in fact. There is no attempt to identify with lesbian, bi or trans women (or men). The only time alternate sexuality crops up is when she tritely observes that gay men make the best friends for straight girls, or that sometimes, when she sees a woman in lingerie, she can see why women are fanciable. Nothing about gender as performance, nothing about what it’s like to grow up gay. The sweeping generalisations are dangerously close to biological determinism. To give a simple example, high heels were originally worn by men before a cultural shift, but Moran does not seem to know or acknowledge this.
Likewise, despite her working class background, she doesn’t seem to have any insight into why women might have to work in strip clubs. It must be easier to call them betrayers to their sex rather than investigate the grinding poverty that might force someone into such a career. There’s also nothing here for women of colour, and Moran has made her position on that issue abundantly clear.
Finally, there’s nothing new here for a young woman, who has come to most of these conclusions already. Perhaps she might have even familiarised herself with more feminist writers than Germaine Greer. It does not seem that Caitlin Moran has. For me, Moran’s advice on sexual harassment is sterling (if it’s something “his mother would clatter the back of his head for” then it’s sexism) and she argues that we should all treat each other better. However, much of How To Be A Woman is contradictory, trivial and old news. Read it for the laugh, and then trot on as far as your heels (or Birkenstocks, I don’t care what you wear) will carry you.