How to Be a Woman by Caitlin Moran

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Cannonball Read IV: How to Be a Woman by Caitlin Moran

By Sara Habein | Book Reviews | December 14, 2012 | Comments ()


According to some corners of the lady-blogosphere, I'm supposed to be annoyed with Caitlin Moran for not being the "right" kind of feminist. As though our desiring equality is also supposed to be synonymous with with uniformity. Not long ago, Moran was asked, through Twitter, if she, during her interview with Lena Dunham had asked about "the complete and utter lack of people of colour in [G]irls."

Moran, though she later said in this Salon interview that she should have been less "brusque," replied to the tweet, "Nope. I literally couldn't give a shit about it."

I broke my own first rule: Be Polite. But I was frankly offended that this woman thought me and Lena Dunham were somehow conspiring in some undefined racist plot, simply by telling our stories about slightly overweight spotty girls just trying to get on in the world, and tell a few jokes about our thighs. I'm not going to wank on about the ethnic mix of my friends and, indeed, family, but I found that first tweet presumptuous, rude, and about the worst thing you could accuse anyone of. I'm bemused by the notion that there should be rules in story-telling that mean you should have to tell everyone's story, all the time. Clearly that's not the case. No one's ever done it, and no one ever will. I wrote 'How to Be A Woman,' not 'How to Be ALL Women.' I would never presume to speak for 3.3 billion women. There is no 'one voice of feminism.' There is no 'one voice' of anything.

Yes, How to Be a Woman is promoted as a type of feminist manifesto, but it's really more of a memoir. Moran talks about her experience of growing up in Wolverhampton, England during the 1980s and early '90s, home-schooled and a bit overweight, crammed into her house with her parents and eventually seven siblings. She wants to talk about how she came into feminism, a feminism outside the the Women's Studies World.

Again and again over the last few years, I turned to modern feminism to answer questions that I had, but found that what had once been the one of most exciting, incendiary, and effective revolutions of all time had somehow shrunk down into a couple of increasingly small arguments, carried out among a couple of dozen feminist academics, in books that only feminist academics would read, and discussed at 11 P.M. on BBC4. Here's my beef with this:
  1. Feminism is too important to be discussed only by academics. And more pertinently:
  2. I'm not a feminist academic, but, by God, feminism is so serious, momentous and urgent that now is really the time for it to be championed by a lighthearted broadsheet columnist and part-time TV critic with appalling spelling. If something is thrilling and fun, I want to join in -- not watch from the sidelines. I have stuff to say! Camille Paglia has Lady Gaga ALL WRONG! The feminist organization Object is nuts when it comes to pornography! Germaine Greer, my heroine, is crackers on the subject of transgender issues. And no one is tackling OK! Magazine, £600 handbags, Brazilians, stupid bachelorette parties, or Katie Price.
And they have to be tackled. They have to be tackled, rugby-style, face down in the mud, with lots of shouting.

Moran's feminism is a populist feminism that concerns itself with the everyday shit women have to endure. She's not saying that bigger issues like pay inequity and abortion are unimportant, nor is she saying that no one should be an academic, but rather that women need to decide how they feel about the things they encounter in their own lives. If you are an academic, a politician or activist, those bigger issues could very well be your everyday fight. But me, for example? My battles remain more in the realm of how can I feel good about what I'm doing, especially while raising my children. How can I direct my kids into being more compassionate, unprejudiced humans?

This isn't just a "We need to teach our daughters to be strong" matter -- it's also about teaching our sons not to be the assholes who came before. And perhaps more importantly, I'm hoping that they will not fear or hate anyone who is different than they are. They will be imperfect, as we all are, and sometimes they will be contradictory in their worldview. No one is immune to this, but I figure it is better to make the effort, however incrementally, to improve. We don't have to be one with the universe, but if we dislike, say, waxing our tender bits, then we should feel free to ignore whatever pressure we feel to do so.

Yet, when we meet a lady who does wax, who genuine feels better by doing so, or maybe she just isn't over that particular insecurity hurdle? Well, she's not instantly "anti-feminist" for doing so.

So, no, Caitlin Moran isn't flawless, and she isn't pretending to be either. She's the first one to admit that it's actually her husband who is a "better" feminist than she is. On a small scale, despite saying we need "lots of shouting," on the very next page she says that we don't need shouting to fight "patriarchal bullshit," but we need to laugh at it instead. Does this make her inconsistent? Maybe, but I don't view it as a fireable offense. There are days to be mad, and days to laugh while saying, "Are you for real with this ridiculousness?"

Besides, Moran is someone for whom humor comes easily -- of course she'd rather make jokes. Making jokes does not inherently mean she does not take the subject seriously.

That's not to say I'm with her on every point. For instance, her stance on strip clubs seems a bit short-sighted. She says they "let everyone down," and that at them, "no one's having fun."

Now, it is true that a large percentage of strip clubs do not treat their dancers right, and that there are customers who do not treat them right, but I doubt that is 100% the case (as, again, there's no "one way" of anything).

But what are strip clubs and lap-dancing clubs if not "light entertainment" versions of the entire history of misogyny?
Any argument in their favor is fallacious. Recently, it has behooved modish magazines to print interviews with young women who explain that their career as strippers is paying their way through university. This is thought to pretty much end any objections against strip clubs on the basis that -- look! -- clever girls are doing it, in order to become middle-class professionals with degrees! Ipso facto Girl Power!
[...] If women are having to strip to get an education -- in a way that male teenagers are really notably not -- then that's a gigantic political issue, not a reason to keep strip clubs going.

She's right in that it is a political issue that we do not have the same culture that would allow women to openly express pleasure at seeing a naked male form, in the same way that men have the opportunity to do so, but it is not a reason to get rid of strip clubs. The underlying misogynistic culture at some strip clubs should be changed, yes, but "change" does not mean the absence of dancing women. There are problems to be dealt with, but condemning (what I see as) a public form of sexuality isn't the answer.

A couple of pages later, Moran says:

Just as pornography isn't inherently wrong -- it's just some fucking -- so pole-dancing, or lap-dancing or stripping, isn't inherently wrong -- it's just some dancing. So long as women are doing it for fun -- because they want to and they are in a place where they won't be misunderstood, and because it seems ridiculous and amusing [...]

Right. Because the other ways in which people make a living are all for fun, and there's never any misunderstandings about who those workers are as people. Yep. Oh, and are you saying that pornography doesn't have the same misogynistic problems in some venues?

No, she's not saying that pornography is an exploitation-free zone, but if she's generally okay with porn, I guess I don't see why she should be so hostile towards the existence of strip clubs. Also, as far as the generalization that "gay men wouldn't be seen dead" in your average strip club, but will support burlesque shows instead -- Well, for one thing, your average strip club is mainly about getting aroused by women, an activity I'd venture that most gay men aren't so interested in. It's fine if you prefer the artistry behind a burlesque production, but that doesn't mean everyone has to prefer it.

Work to change the problems within the venue, but don't burn the place down and salt the earth.

There are other contradictory viewpoints that Moran holds, but you know what? I still really enjoyed this book. The stories that are specific to her life, particularly her relationship with her sister Caz, are great and often hilarious. I wholeheartedly respect that Moran remains unapologetic in her writing, and I think that just because How to Be a Woman exists does not mean she won't one day change her mind or better articulate her thoughts on certain subjects. As we all do.

Some cranky writers have dismissed her work as "Feminism 101," to which I'd ask, "Oh, you never had to take a 101 class? My, look at you! Sprung into this world so fully-formed and serious!"

Ladies and gentlemen, we all have to start somewhere.

For more of Sara Habein's reviews, check out her blog, Glorified Love Letters.

This review is part of the volunteer Cannonball Read IV. Read all about it.

And yes, Virginia, there is a Cannonball Read 5!

(Note: Any revenue generated from purchases made through the affiliate links in this review will be donated in entirety to the American Cancer Society.)

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Comments Are Welcome, Bigots and Trolls Are Not

  • Maguita NYC

    I really like the fact that the author includes the education of boys in a feminism discussion.

    I'm back in college part-time, and this time around I am definitely noticing a few transgressions either perpetrated or tolerated by academic educators themselves. For example in Finance, whenever we have to work in teams on a given project, and we are unlucky to get ourselves a penis-head or borderline misogynist pig within the group, the professor would state something along the lines of "in the real world, you will not always get along with everyone. Sometimes, you need to keep your head down, and do what you need to in order to finish the job." And he's right, reality dictates that you forgo equality, and simply do your job.

    However, I have yet to hear a professor correct a male student after hearing comments such as "Well, you know how women get around their periods", or "that lucky guy had probably gotten the right kind of attention from his girlfriend this morning with his coffee", or even "obviously she deserved it. She was a prostitute. She expected to be beaten to a bloody heap" (during business management no less).

    Never a professor corrected or interrupted the student with something remotely close to "this is inappropriate commenting in a classroom", or "in the real professional world, such comments will not be tolerated and could be construed as harassment".

    Never. Not even once.

    I am attending a reputed college here people, I promise (I am starting to believe that the cost is not worth the reputation). And this has gotten me thinking about how women are constantly being prepared during their academic years to accept what is to come in the real professional environment, but young men aren't, on the same level at least, prepared to behave accordingly with the new expected PC etiquette of the new era, in that same professional work environment.

    Your book review was honest and well-balanced in its criticism as well as admiration. And by such, you have raised many questions and pondering on the new anti-PC feminism, as per all previous comments.

    You made me want to read that book, simply to understand another woman's opinion on feminist views. And I thank you for that!

  • Sara Habein

    And thank you!

  • BierceAmbrose

    I’m hoping that they will not fear or hate anyone who is different than they are.

    I, for one, both fear and hate other people who are most like me. The ones who are different I mostly ignore. They're less of a threat.

    Um, I've said too much.

  • alwaysanswerb

    I'm not mad at Caitlin Moran (or Lena Dunham -- I like "Girls") for existing, or even for getting her story told. But I think she stumbled into a quagmire of myopia and ignorance somewhere between "I speak for myself" (nothing wrong with that) and "literally not giving a shit about it." It's one thing to feel ill-equipped to tackle the issue of POC representation in the media if you're not trying to speak for anyone other than yourself, but it's another thing to then say that you don't give a shit that said representation is missing. Worse is that I'm not convinced she fully understands exactly how she stepped in it. She's still arguing for her right to be able to tell her story without having to shoehorn in "everyone's stories, all the time," and making really asinine semantic statements like "I wrote ‘How to Be A Woman,’ not ‘How to Be ALL Women,'" as if the former isn't code for the latter in popular jargon. I just think it behooves her to acknowledge that the institution that allowed her to have a platform is still pretty unfriendly to WOC voices, and furthermore, that the act of giving more WOC platforms like hers doesn't take away her platform.

    The problem with Moran's brand of "fun feminism" isn't that it's not serious or academic -- it's that it's only fun if it includes you. And if she can literally, explicitly say that she "doesn't give a shit" if WOC aren't represented, well, it's hard to feel included if you're a WOC. And it's even hard for me, a white woman, to swallow, because I wonder what other classes of women she doesn't give a shit about?

  • Sara Habein

    Indeed. Like I said near the end of the review, I do hope that her particular brand of feminism, as it is represented in this book, might be one day better articulated so that if it's NOT about "only fun if it includes you," then that will be more clear.

  • Audrey

    Very interesting review, well written and balanced. I was a bit hesitant to read her book, but you convinced me to have a go at it.

  • Sara Habein

    Thanks. Yes, there's plenty to the book, and if it's read more as a memoir rather than some Be-All End-All Feminist Tome, then it's quite funny/enjoyable.

  • Amanda Meyncke

    I kind of liked the book but also felt like I kept saying "Well, yes, and?" It all was too agreeable to me. Not that I'm a perfect feminist or anything, but still, I was looking forward to being challenged or upset.

  • Sara Habein

    I don't really read things looking to be "upset," per se, but I see what you mean when it comes to being "challenged." For some people, particularly those who pay attention to feminist issues in general, sure it could read as a little too entry-level, but I also think that there's nothing wrong with having an entry level. Everyone has to jump off from somewhere.

  • Quatermain

    As far as strip clubs go...when I was younger I worked as a bouncer/bartender in a strip club. Out of all of the women and girls that cycled through that place(and they did cycle through at a fairly brisk pace)I can say with a fair amount of certainty that none of them enjoyed being there. They all had reasons of varying degrees of legitimacy for being there, but in the end it was something they had to do, not something they wanted to do.

    As for the clientele, well for the most part they were the kind of people that got off on paying naked women to pay attention to them, or on being able to pay for naked women to pay attention to their friends and/or business associates, so yeah, they had fun. But even then it was the sort of manic, trying just a bit too had kind of fun that if you stop and think about it for a couple of seconds, isn't really fun at all.

    Do I think they should all be closed down? I'm not a big fan of pointless, stupid laws or efforts, so no, I don't. But I don't go to them anymore and if I'm out with a group and the evening trends that way, I tend to try and discourage it.

  • Sara Habein

    That's where I fall -- pointless stupid laws? No, thanks. If I don't want to go, I won't go. But for the people who do go, I would of course like the dancers to be treated better than they often are.

  • TK

    That basically sums up my experience perfectly. There's something kind of sad about both the workers and the customers.

  • BierceAmbrose

    Strip clubs are weird. You don't have to be a feminist to feel the discomfort and awkwardness. Everybody's covered in blame, shame and resentment, at least in one NE US, second-tier towns. (I got dragged, twice as m,ore or less mandatory extra-curricular "work" events. So, layers and layers of wrong, there. Also, with the last people in the world I'd choose to go to such a place with.)

    I don't like my titliation all tangled up with interpersonal power games. There's hotties and boobies and money flying around - that's three kinds of awesomeness getting somehow tainted. WTF?

    I wonder if it's different in less puritanical cultures. You can see a boob on a billboard occasionally in Germany, and the world doesn't end. What happens to hotty dancing & perhaps paying for a view if sex & sexiness aren't just weird in the surrounding culture?

    BTW, how exploited, exploiting and patriarchy-y is Magic Mike?

  • ,

    The few clubs I've ever been to I've gone with somebody who really wanted to be there. I usually ended up bored to tears and and watching SportsCenter on the TV.

  • Bert_McGurt

    Mine too. Anytime I've been in one it makes me feel creepy and uncomfortable. The atmosphere, what with the bouncers, skeevy regulars, crappy & expensive beer, the bathroom attendant guy, the weird smells of perfume or lotion or whatever the hell is all mixing together - it just doesn't lend itself to a particularly arousing experience. Christ, I've felt more comfortable near-blackout drunk dressed as a nineteenth-century fur trader in a biker bar than I do as a customer in a strip club.

    Of course then there was the time where I actually heard a dancer say "Ugh, I'm getting to old for this." That's really stuck with me. It's one thing to do it temporarily when you're young to pay for school or whatever, but what about the ladies who wind up taking off their clothes for 20 years? What do they do when they get "too old for this"? Start all over again without the pay premium that comes from taking your clothes off? How do you list it on a resume? Where do you apply? How far does the stigma of being an ex-stripper follow you?

  • Louxroux

    So feminism is less about the big fights and more about making white ladies feel better about the 'choices' they make in every day life. Bullshit.

  • Miss Laaw-yuhr

    No, it's that saying that being a feminist means every encounter does not necessitate putting on one's "angry feminist" hat and make the situation into a give-me-liberty-or-give-me-death struggle. A shrewd woman knows you pick your battles and that sometimes it's appropriate to make fun of the bullshit. For example, I've never understood why any woman would engage Rush Limbaugh with anything beyond ridicule. You can't logic with bloviation, nor should you.

    Also, I think it's appropriate that white feminists don't speak for all feminists, a point the author is making. For example, African American women have been disproportionately affected by HIV. Black women account for the largest share of new infections among women (15 times that of white women in fact) - and in some cities, the infection rate is comparable to sub-saharan African countries like the Democratic Republic of the Congo. I think we can all agree that that's really screwed up. There are a lot of facets to the issue like stigmas towards testing and good access to medical care, that stem from a different American experience. So isn't this a cause that is best not being led by white feminists? Supported by white/all feminists, for sure, but taking the lead seems pretty damn condescending.

    Finally I think it's bizarre that critics attack what I call a "little show" like Girls (which, has a really narrow perspective and is pretty much one person's creative vision) but nowhere near the same level of vehement criticism has been leveled at Seinfeld or Friends or Big Bang Theory or Two Broke Girls or New Girl or Sex and the City or 2.5 Men or It's Always Sunny. Yeah, there's a real dearth of female characters of non-white ethnicity in show business, but Girls is somehow the straw that broke the camels back? Please. Lena Dunham at least made thoughtful response to that critique; you think Chuck Lorre gives a fuck? I'll wager a quart of tiger's blood he's not given it a second thought.

    Basically I just think you glazed over the whole point of this book and review and applied knee-jerk criticism to one person's individual story. Lighten up. Life is too short to not have any fun with this. And write your own book.

  • overandout

    And also, Lena Dunham does not represent the end all be all of the entertainment universe, but the response of others to the fact that she's even been *asked* the question is over the top. It's like persecuting poor wittle Lena Dunham for even looking at her show with a critical eye. I am half expecting someone to put out a 'LEAVE BRITNEY ALONE' type video. The reaction is telling, in my opinion.

  • Miss Laaw-yuhr

    I'm not saying that the criticism is invalid, but that the vehemence of the criticism seems to be greatly disproportionate to the reach of the show. I think big network shows - who broadcast for free and reach many more homes - have a much greater obligation to be representative, but have not really garnered as much criticism lately. Maybe it seems more just and effective to go after Girls because people just expect more of it/the creator and it's a single target as opposed to a network or networks, but I think for this particular battle the stronger case can be made against big network shows.

    There aren't that many female driven shows out there to begin with, so I'm always hopeful that they do well even if I don't care for them so that we get more female shows and writers. I thought Whitney was god awful. I've only seen one episode of Girls and I didn't like it. I'm also not a Grey's Anatomy fan. However, I'm glad as hell that Shonda Rhimes, Lena Dunham and to a lesser extent Whitney Cummings are successful. It seems that a lot of the fiercest criticism of these shows come from women and I think it would be nice if feminists were overall more supportive of success even if it's not what we our individual selves would envision.

  • Guest

    Yeah, as a black person, I don't really have the freedom to 'lighten up' the way that Caitlin Moran does.

  • Miss Laaw-yuhr

    While you are deliberately misconstruing my words, I take your point. I don't mean to be dismissive: your concerns are real and shouldn't be dismissed, you are quite right. However, you are also speaking to your particular experience. It seems Moran's major point is that she is speaking to her own experience (white, overweight, British) and observations. Her response to the Dunham question was definitely poor form, but I also think that it's wrong to insist she (or Dunham) somehow represents us all, especially given that she's more humorist than journalist . Humor and satire are tools that have been used in many causes; you Guest, don't have to use them, but I think it's a misdirection of energy to rail in all seriousness against a singular comedic approach. "By "lighten up" I mean take the work for what it is rather than what it isn't; no one watches The Expendables and holds it to the standard of Shakespeare. And I think that feminism in general could use some levity even if doesn't reflect all experiences or even my experience. There is plenty of serious bad shit out there that we should talk about seriously, but I think that maybe it's ok to laugh with the chick on some things.

  • Bert_McGurt

    "She’s not saying that bigger issues like pay inequity and abortion are unimportant, nor is she saying that no one should be an academic, but rather that women need to decide how they feel about the things they encounter in their own lives."

    It's right there in the article. She's saying that women need to make their own decisions. Hard to get a more succinct and appropriate definition of feminism, but I guess comprehension is hard.

  • Sara Habein

    Cheers for that.

  • Stephen Nein

    Nice argument. Try again.

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