How To Be A Woman: in which I review a book that I read

I have just read Caitlin Moran’s How To Be A Woman, a semi-autobiographical book which has been hailed as The Next Big Thing in feminism, and has received rave reviews from noted feminists such as Jonathan Ross and Nigella Lawson. On the back, it says that Moran “rewrites The Female Eunuch from a bar stool and demands to know why pants are getting smaller”. Overall, it seems exactly like something an angry feminist such as myself should despise with all of the burning fires of hell.

The short review is that I didn’t hate it. I only hated some of it, actually quite liked some parts, and the rest only left me with a bitter tinge of disappointment.

The writing style veered from engagingly, chattily conversational to annoyingly CAPSLOCKY and RIDDLED! WITH! EXCLAMATION MARKS! It is easy to tear through, in the manner of a sunlounger bonkbusting tome, and I found myself rather liking Moran: she has a good sense of humour and an honesty about her own flaws.

Moran is absolutely spot-on about some issues, and I found myself nodding in agreement in sections on pornography and lapdancing, where Moran argues that while there is nothing inherently wrong with fucking on film or stripping, but it is a problem with the industry. I also very much liked her discussion of what to call one’s cunt (Moran favours “cunt”, but was reticent to teach it to her daughters as it is still a taboo word), and her very frank account of her abortion and her suggestion that this is something we should talk about honestly and openly, and it is all right to feel good about having had an abortion. Moran also puts across good points about society’s expectation about how women should want babies, and this is not right, and not reproducing is perfectly all right, too.

This last good point, though, is sullied by a massive clanger. Talking about childbirth, Moran says:

In short, a dose of pain that intense turns you from a girl into a woman. There are other ways of achieving the same effect–as outlined in Chapter 15 [the chapter on abortion]–but minute for minute, it’s one of the most effective ways of changing your life.

Right there, Moran has declared that use of one’s reproductive organs is the only way to truly become a woman. This line of reasoning is a minefield: it automatically writes off the experiences of infertile cis women, of trans women, of cis women who have been fortunate enough with contraception never to find themselves pregnant. It jars with the rest of the book, the “anything goes” approach, yet it says it there as clear as day. Reproduction is the only path to womanhood. Before that you’re a girl.

When I read that paragraph, I considered rethinking my embargo on burning literature and setting fire to that book there and then. I decided to plough on. Perhaps Moran did not mean what I thought she had meant. Indeed, this is never mentioned again. I still cannot think of another way to interpret that sentence, though.

No other individual part of the book is quite so starkly, shockingly problematic: much of the rest of my issues with it lie in the tone. It smacks of privilege: an amusing point-and-laugh at the working classes here, a throwaway usage of ableist language (“retard”, “thalidomide pasties”) and fat-hating (Moran draws the distinction between “fat” and “human-shaped”) there, and a sort of vaguely patronising view of gay men as nothing more than arbiters of excellent taste in music bars. I prickled in rage each time I saw these.

This privilege also fans out into what is part of the central thesis of the book: that perhaps everything would be improved if we treated humankind as “The Guys” and sexism as “just bad manners”. For a woman in Moran’s position, perhaps this is possible. For many, it is not, and sexism is not dead, and is unlikely to be killed without confronting it head on. I take umbrage to her phrasing viewing everyone as “the Guys”, too, particularly as it jarringly occurs pages after I had been smiling in agreement at Moran’s acknowledgement that men are viewed as “normal” with women as the other. This hypocrisy goes unmentioned, perhaps unnoticed by the author.

The thing is, for much of the book, I was not angry. I was just disappointed. Firstly, Moran seems to have a confused relationship with feminism and feminists. She identifies as such, and, indeed, encourages her readers to identify as feminist as it is not a dirty word. This is laudable. Unfortunately, Moran seems to have a rather dated view of feminist writing, falling back frequently on Germaine Greer as though this is the only feminist she has ever read, and beginning statements with “feminists think”, then falling back on to a straw feminist trope. While Moran wishes fervently for more women to identify as “strident feminists”, the book itself is not particularly stridently feminist.

Most of the issues discussed in the book were very trivial concerns. An inordinate amount of space was dedicated to clothes and shoes and bras and knickers. Rape is given a cursory mention in one sentence somewhere. At no point in the discussion of whether marriage is necessary was it acknowledged that perhaps romantic relationships or traditional monogamous relationships may not be necessary either. The truth is, it all feels a little superficial: talk about handbags is favoured over broader feminist issues. For many women, after all, there are a lot of things more worrying than pubes or ill-fitting knickers.

Take, for example, a point where Moran recounts the story of having met Jordan and being struck by how obsessed Jordan was with selling things and selling herself as a brand. At this juncture, it seems like a fairly obvious place to segue into discussion of the relationship between capitalism and feminism. Instead, Moran just tells the story, then contrasts it with meeting someone whom she considers to be a genuine feminist icon: Lady GaGa.

I sometimes wonder if perhaps Moran knew she could have done this. Much of the book seems to be driving at good points which are never made. Perhaps the editor of the book cut all of the good bits out? Certainly, the editing of the book was poor; I noted numerous typos and the editor was very lenient about allowing all of the CAPITALS and ENHUSIASTIC! PUNCTUATION! to stay in. As I said earlier, I rather like Moran, and I wanted this book to be better than it was.

In the conclusion to the book, though, it becomes abundantly clear that Moran’s feminism–at least, as presented– is shallow, bourgeois feminism, concerned with consumerism: just don’t buy the things you think might be oppressive, is her message. I was thoroughly disappointed by this message. I had hoped for much better, much more. I had hoped for depth.

If this book is our generation’s The Female Eunuch, as it says on the back cover, we are well and truly fucked. The good news, is, I do not think we are. This book is not harmful, it is simply trivial, inconsequential fluff. It is something to read on holiday, and then forget about once the tan has all peeled off. Had the book ended with a list of other (better) feminist books and resources to check out, I would probably see it as a decent, readable, primer to feminism for those who had never thought about the issue before and may be inclined to learn more. It may have also been improved vastly by shaving out the patronising bits and replacing them with something vastly more substantial.

As it stands, though, it is just fluff. This book will not change the world, for better or worse. For that, I am thoroughly disappointed.