How To Be a Woman

Ava Jackson reviews Caitlin Moran's book of the moment; a laugh-out-loud, light-hearted look at the day-to-day obstacles which await women in a modern world, from plastic surgery to tiny knickers

, 13 July 2011

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Caitlin Moran is an established part of the British press and, having written for The Times since the age of 17, continues to be one of the paper’s most distinctive and admired voices. As well as the professional acclaim she has received over the years, she has also achieved the status of role model for many young women. As a funny woman and self declared ‘strident feminist’, there is perhaps no better figure in the media today to address the old taunt that feminists have no sense of humour. She has the opportunity to turn-on a new generation of young women to the idea that they too can be feminists without having to forsake much of their cool in the process. In writing this book Moran had a chance to make an impact, in much the same way that Germaine Greer’s The Female Eunuch inspired a young Moran to declare herself a feminist.

However, the effect is much like that of reading one of her columns: it’s a gratifying read, yet, in much the same way as you would read a newspaper, you are just as inclined to discard it the next day. There is not much here that really sticks. In terms of the issues feminists confront, laughter isn’t always the best medicine and Moran has neglected a unique opportunity to inform rather than merely entertain. To be fair it wasn’t her intention to take an academic approach; feminism for Moran ought to be “thrilling and fun” and the book is marketed as written “from a bar stool”. Even so, much of her commentary on what it means to be a modern day feminist is implicit and although her offbeat style is engaging, when it comes to substance there are no new bold articulations of the feminist cause to be found or genuinely inspire.

How To Be a Woman is a pop culture symposium of what it is to be a feminist in a post feminist landscape

How To Be a Woman does however have some merit if read as a self-help manual about one woman’s attempt to enact a “Zero Tolerance Policy on all the Patriarchal Bullshit”. Her litmus test for sexism, “are the men doing it?”, is a great way to detect any manner of insidious sexist bullshit which we all grapple with from a young age. Beyond that there is not much else that is instructive. However if you are already a fan of Moran’s satirical, quick-draw take on popular culture, you will find much in her new book to love. “Part memoir, part rant”, it delivers a neat blend of pathos and pitch perfect one-liners that compel you to read on. As a memoir it works well, but as a feminist work her ultimate point is less clear – rant is definitely the operative word here.

How To Be a Woman is a pop culture symposium of what it is to be a feminist in a post feminist landscape. This is Moran’s view of how woman are faring and how best to cope, not how to change matters. She checks for cultural symptoms, not the cause: tackling such issues as porn, personal grooming, tits and bras, fat, flirting and sexism, Botox, lap dancing, whether or not to get a cleaner, babies and abortion. This is the sad debris of our modern age.

Through this terrain she constantly seeks to reconcile her love of men with her ardent feminist identity, yet does so almost too politely. Her ultimate point that she has always just wanted to be ‘one of the guys’ betrays the fact she knows we are far from there yet. This is a woman trying to reconcile her insecurities and settle her conscience toward the middle ground, yet reading about the tussle of her life leaves the reader wondering if Moran struggles more than she lets on.

Feminism needn’t always be defined in terms of bras, body insecurity and consumerism and the real issues at the heart of the cause – social and political injustice – shouldn’t be sidestepped for the sake of seeming humourless

Using humour she attempts to offer a salve to such issues, but rather than do this she would be better placed to highlight the extent of gender inequality and lack of societal consensus that makes feminism as pertinent today as it ever was. She pretty much neglects facts altogether where a statistic or two wouldn’t go amiss. The chief goal of feminism, in my mind, is to revoke, disrupt, outrage and generally make it clear there is no happy consensus. Disregarding this conflict means we are left with Moran’s heartfelt but ultimately caricatured view of what women’s roles as feminists in a ‘post feminist’ landscape ought to be (just one more task to manage whilst not upsetting the boys).

Feminism needn’t always be defined in terms of bras, body insecurity and consumerism and the real issues at the heart of the cause – social and political injustice – shouldn’t be sidestepped for the sake of seeming humourless. Unfortunately Moran’s story merely shows she is a post-modern chick in a post-feminist media bubble. She raises issues women are most likely to discuss in outraged tones in the pub. We can all relate to these insecurities and betrayals and yes these are feminist issues, but ultimately it is not something we can fundamentally tackle by getting drunk and laughing it all away. There is no attempt at resolution in How To Be a Woman, beyond an urgent desire for more feminism.

Her writing will catch you off guard and rid you of self consciousness and if you don’t class yourself as a feminist she could very well change your mind

However, a key strength of the book is Moran’s attempt to bring feminism to life through the telling of her own experience of what it is like to be a woman. Her main point is well delivered: feminism needn’t be an anachronism. Anyone who has ever read a woman’s magazine, or felt the sting of a ‘good humoured’ sexist remark could and should attest to this. It hurts to feel undermined, whether through unequal pay, domestic abuse or playground taunts; it hurts to be the ‘other’ in a society marred by different sources of inequality, be they on the basis of gender, sexuality, class or race. Feminism is as pertinent today as it ever was and yet its definition is still shadowed by negative stereotypes. In this sense, Moran as a successful, funny, confident and yes also ‘strident feminist’ serves the cause well to make a stand, albeit apologetically. Her heart is in the right place. In a time when feminism seems particularly marketable, this is important.

In recent months, many in the media have been grappling to define feminism’s value and the only answer it seems is in its apparent novelty, Slut Walks et al. Moran’s account of what it is to be a feminist does not assume being a feminist is also in conflict with celebrating our difference as women, rather it ought to be part of who we are. For any young woman who is marred by self criticism and insecurity How To Be a Woman is an essential read; I assure you no other book is so brazenly, embarrassingly and hilariously honest. Her writing will catch you off guard and rid you of self consciousness and if you don’t class yourself as a feminist she could very well change your mind. As an exercise in feminist consciousness-raising Moran has done well, in her own haphazard sisterly way – it’s easy to appreciate her advice.

Ava Jackson is a freelance journalist and artist living in Glasgow, with an interest in politics, women’s rights and unpopular culture

Comments From You

Mary Tracy // Posted 14 July 2011 at 12:27 am

Fantastic review. Congratulations to the writer.

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