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.

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17 responses to “How To Be A Woman: in which I review a book that I read

  • Anna

    Am currently reading this and agree mostly too. Its a fun read but not our generations Female Eunuch by any stretch. The thing I will say in its favour is I think it is a book that is more targeted at women who are afraid of calling themselves feminists. Most of the women I work with actively chose not to identify as feminists, not because they don’t believe in equality, but because they are afraid of the media sterotype of a “feminist” – a person who will bully and intimidate them for chosing to dress more femme and having more femme hobbies. They are, however , the kind of people who read Moran’s columns and would buy this book. If How To Be A Woman opens their eyes, and the eyes of women like them, to a more feminist viewpoint, I think that is a good thing.

    • stavvers

      Absolutely. Which is why I would be completely, 100% OK with this book if it ended with a reading list. And cut out the slightly murky language. :D

  • Alec Lindsay

    I’ve got Caitlin Moran’s book on holiday with me. Like you I Instinctively like her. Initially I laughed with the book, but then started to get edgy and irritated with it. In the end I think the relentless jokiness began to dominate the book and its theme in a bad way. I know this is Caitlin Moran’s style, and ordinarily I like her style. Perhaps I became bored with it because I’ve not been exposed to it over such an extended piece of prose. Perhaps she’s best in small chunks. I recognise that her humour is inspired by rage, and it’s another way of expressing that rage, but I thought why can’t she, sometimes, just rage?
    On my last holiday I had the most recent of Stephen Fry’s autobiographical books with me. It pissed me off because it was relentlessly self deprecating. His experience had told him that people don’t like intelligence and so he kept apologising for it. I could understand but I didn’t agree with his decision. I gave up on both books in the end, deciding I wanted more determination from both of them not to worry about their intelligence being discovered, unvarnished, out in the open, away from the cover of style.
    I gave up on Caitlin Moran’s book before I got to the childbirth passage, so I missed the thing that particularly incensed you. I can’t find my kindle at the moment so I can’t check it, but based on your quote she seems to be saying that it was pain, not childbirth per se, that turned her from a girl into a woman. If that’s so, your criticism of her at this point might not have legs?

    • stavvers

      In the context and surrounding paragraphs, it was clear she was specifically talking about the pain of childbirth. It was so incongruent, though, that I’m not sure she could’ve meant what I thought she’d meant. It just seemed weird. Very weird.

  • mel

    you totally miss the point.
    if the book can get a 50 somthing male plumber with no interest in feminism intrigued enough to read it to some extent its done its job, i found it thought provoking AND interesting .
    i sometimes think most feminism is almost at a metaphysical level discussed just between the elites.
    to progress you need to engage with us semi illiterate types as well as the middle class uni educated types………..
    i’ll get back behind the samdbags and await the flack …..LOL

  • Caitlin Gwynn

    I’ve just finished the book myself, and I completely understand where you’re coming from. Like you, there were a few chapters where I was totally getting what Moran was saying, but then, other things really didn’t sit right with me, such as her descriptions of her male gay friends. I’m glad it wasn’t just me who was slightly unsettled by some of the viewpoints she was expressing.

    However, as the first comment rightly stated, this definitely feels like a book for those nervous as identifying as feminist. Hopefully, these particular women will be inspired enough to move onto texts like the Female Eunuch upon which Moran claims her book is based. My male partner expressed an interest in reading Moran’s book, which he has NEVER done with any of the other feminist texts he’s seen me reading. A book that’s encouraging debate amongst feminists and non-feminists alike can only be a good thing.

    • Jo

      Yes, my husband read and loved it, and he’s not such a reader, much less a reader of Issues. And was impressed by some aspects of the female perspective he claimed never to have thought of before.

  • Clairus

    Thank you for this – I was looking for an honest, balanced review of this book. I have yet to read it myself.
    One small point, you say the book smacks of privilege, obviously I can’t comment on the tone of the book, but I always thought Moran was from a very poor family, this is why she began writing so young? Just a thought.

  • Quiet Riot Girl

    Interesting review, thanks.

    I will give the book a miss. She also said in an article (which may have been an extract from the book) that there are no current ‘feminist thinkers’. I wonder if she may be right.

  • No, Diane. Abortions are not tragedies. « Another angry woman

    [...] that abortions are tragic. Yet there is nothing that is inherently tragic about abortion. As Caitlin Moran, and numerous other feminists have pointed out, one can be relieved by an abortion. Not all [...]

  • emotionalcynic

    Couldn’t agree more with this review – it says all I wanted to and then a little bit more. Thanks!

  • Pecking over scraps and calling it feminism « Another angry woman

    [...] something of a guilty pleasure of mine. GaGa has been declared a feminist icon by some, including Caitlin Moran. GaGa certainly subverts the usual sort of narrow sexuality found in pop music videos and acts: she [...]

  • gabbylm

    I found this, largely by accident, and it probably says a lot of me that I was terribly relieved you didn’t savage her, as my review was rather fawning *shamelessplug*. :P
    Good review though, I didn’t pick up on the childbirth bit, and I tend to be quite problem-language-blind.

  • Jo

    From the line you quoted about childbirth, she says it’s ‘one of the most effective ways’ of turning you from girl to woman. You immediately translate that into ‘the only way’. I don’t remember that she actually says that, but to me, they’re two significantly different statements?

    I think Moran makes the mistake of assuming all birth are like her first birth – I certainly wouldn’t raise the fairly manageable pain I felt in childbirth to a particularly life changing level, and there’s little that has made me feel as helpless and floundering and childlike as parenting… but this is the danger of generalising from the particular. She’s positing her experience as everywoman’s. I don’t think that’s such a huge crime but nor is it useful.

    However, I don’t think your quote exactly says what you say it does. Ok, I’m reading it as a woman who’s had children so I don’t feel any sense of resentment or outrage or suggestion that I’m not a woman for not having chlidren – I really don’t see that there. Of course there are many other rites of passage into adulthood, but that’s the one she’s had and she’s writing from her own viewpoint and journey. I think the book is very honest about that. It’s her life she’s presenting through a certain glass, and I think a lot of the criticism is levelled at who she is rather than who she fails to represent. Which is perhaps not so useful, given the autobiographical nature of the event.

    Your points about privilege in your later posts aren’t wrong, no and give me a lot to think about. I still think this book has a role and has value, though, even so.

    One more thing – one of the guys – means one of the guys in the American sense, as in, hey, guys, you various group of people I hang out with. She’s not talking about one of the BOYS. Guys as in all of us. One of the gang. Unisex use. I took that to be the point, it works on that level.

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