I must confess to having never heard of Caitlin Moran before How To Be A Woman was published but the hype surrounding the book on many feminist websites convinced me to get it. On my first reading, I thought the book, particularly her anecdotes about her life, was hilarious and often found myself laughing out loud at some paragraphs. However, on my review reading, I found so many problems with her arguments and her hyperbole grating rather than funny. I think that had I reviewed the book straight away, I would have given it 5 stars, so why this sudden change in my appreciation of the book?
To start off, I did enjoy the book, even during the second reading. I laughed at all the parts I previously found humorous and definitely found some of her commentary as insightful as the first time. The main thing I liked about the book was how she wrote about her own personal brand of feminism without it being overly academic or stinking of pop-feminism. However I did not like the way in which she sees herself as the only person writing about feminism since Germaine Greer because even a quick search on Google for feminist blogs will bring to you to several successful writers and fifteen minutes of browsing in a bookshop will introduce you to writers such as Susie Orbach, Ariel Levy, Jessica Valenti and Courtney Martin, to name a few.
Moran aims through this book to reclaim feminism from the state of “a couple of increasingly small arguments, carried out among a couple of dozen feminist academics” which, in her opinion, only focus on socioeconomic and political issues. She feels that this focus has limited the scope of modern feminism. Instead Moran focuses her writing on cultural issues like pornography, celebrity culture and body hair, but to my annoyance, she claims that these issues are as important issues for modern feminism as the paygap, lack of equal representation, female genital mutilation, human trafficking, domestic abuse and rape. My problem with this assertion and its accompanying logic of small issues reinforce bigger issues is that at least for the small issues like waxing your pubic hair, there is always a choice, maybe a difficult one for some women, but still a choice. You can just not fork over your hard-earned money to some to completely remove your short and curlys. However, if you are being trafficked to work as a prostitute or being forced into an arranged marriage, there is no opt-out.
Despite this irritation, I can recognise that Moran writes with great sensitivity and insight into the issues which most women will often experience in their lives. I particularly thought her writing about her abortion after having two children was something was very moving and simply something which needed to be discussed, particularly the part where Moran comments that she has never regretted it but only felt relief afterwards. Furthermore, the chapter about women self-medicating themselves through eating was very thought-provoking, particularly when she describes over-eating as “…slowly self-destructing in a way that doesn’t inconvenience anyone.”
I also loved that she highlighted some of the more ridiculous aspects of our society like tiny underwear, waxing, fashion, shoes, designer handbags and celebrities. While I don’t agree with all her conclusions, she has a certain way of calling bullshit on things that women have just accepted wholeheartedly. Possibly the most insightful part of How To Be A Woman for me was one paragraph in which she talked about how women are raised to be passive and men are taught to be active participants in their lives. I think in this one paragraph, she highlighted the solution to many of the problems she talked about in the book.
My main problem with How To Be A Woman lies in how Moran constructs her arguments about the cause of and solution to sexism. She slates the “porn monoculture” but slates the attempts of female friendly porn to address these problems and ignores the rise of amateur porn. While arguing against waxing, she never actually states what her problem with waxing actually is, instead highlighting the social pressure to do so. I would assume that she is against waxing as she states that every woman needs a “full bush”, but then argues that all she wants is an expansion of the “aesthetic lexicon”. The part of the book that really bothered me was when she ranted about how sexism is due to a case of strong versus weak, rather than men versus women, and the reason why women still experience sexism is because deep down in men and women, there is a quiet voice asking that if women are truly men’s equals, why haven’t we achieved the same amount as they have. Moran even puts it as women having done “fuck-all for the last 100,000 years”. I believe this statement to be completely incorrect, and doubly ignorant of the effects of patriarchy and the women in history who made a massive impact on society; Marie Curie, Elizabeth I, Virginia Woolf, Ada Lovelace, Jane Austen, Emily Dickinson, Lise Meitner and Boudicca, to name a few. By this statement, she also valorises the typical masculine behaviour and diminishes the things women did both inside and outside the home as carers and workers throughout the centuries. Shockingly enough, history just shows that if you deny women a full education and opportunities, you won’t get a female Einstein or Gallelio.
Overall I would recommend reading this book. While it might seem sometimes like a self-indulgent rant with some very random conclusions; it is worth reading for the polemic on the current state of feminism and culture. While I disagree with certain aspects of it, I enjoyed her writing style and the topic, even when I disagreed with Moran, kept me engaged during reading.