What Amy’s reading: How To Be a Woman

Funny, often courageous, yes, but also superficial, baffling, and downright misleading.

My first question, upon reading the last page of Caitlin Moran’s How to Be a Woman, was: who is this book for? I had been thinking of it as a book to hand to my daughter someday when she’s in her mid-teens. Moran’s mix of forceful polemic and raw, hilarious memoir is enormously appealing for entry-level feminism, and the chapter titles (“I Start Bleeding!” and “I Need a Bra!”) seem geared toward a coming-of-age audience. But the polemic turns out to be far too soft for the feminists I want my son and daughter to become, and the jokes are probably best appreciated by someone who has already been there. Like me. Since I’ve mastered how to be a woman.

But if this is a book for those of us, like Moran, who are in the thick of child-raising and career-building, those of us still forming our identities out there in the world long after our politics have gelled, then this book is entirely inadequate. She gives a one-paragraph dismissal of the need to discuss structural inequality, and there is nothing remotely resembling a roadmap for changing our laws, workplaces, schools, hospitals et ad infinitum cetera.

Instead, Moran takes on cultural subjects that strike me as very, very easy targets. And even on these she is perplexing. Germaine Greer and Lady Gaga are her unoriginal lodestars. With great vigor, she calls out for more and varied women-created pornography, and then in the next breath says that we need to ban strip clubs. Oh wait, strip clubs are tacky and should be outlawed, as they are in Iceland, but we should fully embrace burlesque, “lap-dancing’s older, darker, cleverer sister.” Huh?

This is not a politics, this is a personal preference, a class-based taste (highbrow over lowbrow) disguised as a radical, fresh new kind of feminism. Moran makes this category slippage over and over. You could come out of this book thinking that feminism can be gotten from tasteful consumption: boyshort underwear instead of thongs.

Now let me back up. It takes guts to reveal just how awkward, fat, and naïve you were as a teenager, to write about that former person honestly but not scathingly. It is flat-out brave of Moran to discuss how poor her family was. Most of all, I applaud anyone who will discuss her abortion in public, especially one that was neither traumatic nor regretted. But tell me this: why does the world need yet another story of a birth gone terribly wrong? How will that empower women?

And there are some curious silences in a book that styles itself as a brazen revelation. The book might have had more traction with me if Moran had shown how she’d actually become a feminist, from being a clueless young reporter who was the butt of casual sexism, to the informed and gutsy writer she is now. She lets us know it has something to do with her husband, Pete, “the most Strident Feminist I’ve ever met,” but this, curiously, is one area of her private life she is unwilling to explore in the book. For all that she divulges to us, sex and a mature relationship remain offstage.

Her sister Caz, though, gets plenty of airtime, and Moran perfectly channels her acerbic wit. “I don’t want children anyway,” Caz says when she is eleven and gets her first period. “So I am getting nothing out of this whatsoever. I want my entire reproductive system taken out and replaced with spare lungs, for when I start smoking. I want that option. This is pointless.” If I have a say in the matter, Moran’s next book should be about sisterhood.

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