Sunday, 19 June 2011

Book Review: How to be a Woman by Caitlin Moran

Whenever a new feminist book hits the shelves, there’s always some debate and argument around it. Nothing will compare to the furore surrounding Ellie Levenson’s publication of ‘The Noughtie Girl’s Guide to Feminism’, where she memorably said rape was just a penis whilst including it in her ‘sex’ chapter, but the conversations on Twitter and the blogosphere about Caitlin Moran’s book ‘How to be a woman’ are reminiscent of some of the arguments we saw then. So, what is it all about?

Times columnist and renowned tweeter, Caitlin Moran has called herself a feminist since she was 15, and her book takes us on a journey through her life from her 13th birthday to her mid-thirties. It is a memoir that uses feminism or, more specifically, her understanding of feminism, as a way to frame her experiences and thinking through the years. It is very personal, and very, very funny with plenty of laugh out loud moments. A polemic on feminism, a book that deeply explores the issues, causes and effects of inequality it is not. Instead it is an intimate and emotional look at one woman’s life and what feminism means and has meant to her.

I loved it. I read most of it in one morning.

This is not a book that gives you the facts. It isn’t a book that interviews women about their experiences of violence, misogyny, inequality. As feminism was pronounced ‘no longer dead’ by the media (it never was, they were just ignoring us) we had three fantastic, non-academic books published that asks these questions, gives voice to a range of women, shows us the numbers and takes the reader through an informed and vital journey to explore what feminism means today, in the 21st century. If you haven’t read them yet, then check out ‘Living Dolls’ by Natasha Walter, ‘The Equality Illusion’ by Kat Banyard and ‘Reclaiming the F Word’ by Catherine Redfern and Kristin Aune.

What Moran’s book does is more personal. It doesn’t give us a deep analysis on the problems of how pornography is intimately connected with violence against women and girls. Instead, we learn about how she discovered masturbation via Jilly Cooper and various artsy movies. To have a woman writer talk so joyfully and enthusiastically about masturbation, an experience that still remains silent in so much of women’s discourse, is pretty cool. She uses this experience as a springboard to criticise the violence, degradation and lack of pleasure in modern pornography, and asks why is it that we don’t have images of people’s sexuality that includes pleasure, desire and consent. As many a feminist before her has said, something like 90% of online porn depicts violence against women and girls. This is not acceptable. Moran’s book asks for a revolution of the way we depict sex and sexuality, so that rather than it being about dominance, pain and violence, it is about equality, pleasure and desire. I think it is these comments that have caused the most controversy in the feminist social media world, with these statements being read as being pro-porn. I read them as questioning why violent and degrading pornography dominates our cultural landscape, and what can be done to ensure that images of sexuality depict pleasure and consent. I felt that Moran was saying, as Zoe Margolis has said and many other feminists too, that there is nothing wrong with images of sex and sexuality, but there is something very, very wrong with the modern porn industry.

Of course, what this argument doesn’t consider is whether we can ever record or depict people having sex without it being exploitative in a capitalist society, whether it can ever be truly consensual if money is involved, or what it means to perform sexuality rather than simply have sex. These are huge, complex arguments that feminists are discussing every day all over the UK (if not the world). I’m not sure Moran’s proposed solution is entirely satisfactory, but then that isn’t the intention. It can and should be read as part of her personal reflections on her sexual awakening (via Riders and Camomile), rather than a ‘how to’ guide for answering one of the big debates that has formed part of our feminist discourse since the 1970s, if not before. It raises questions, and perhaps causes us to question and consider our own views on pornography. And as feminists, questioning and considering our own views is never a bad thing.

The book takes us through her adolescence, conversations about language and women’s bodies, her experiences of sexism in the workplace, a particularly upsetting chapter on a violent relationship, her pregnancies and childbirths, why women shouldn’t be criticised for not having children, why she loves Lady Gaga, and how she feels about her own abortion. It explores the pressures on women to fit a narrow version of beauty and sexuality, it questions expectations on women to be ‘feminine’ and it refuses to accept that Jordan is in any way a feminist role model. She disavows Brazilian waxes and warns us all against high heels and expensive handbags.

Again, this isn’t a groundbreaking book on the future and present of feminism. It is about Caitlin Moran’s life and the impact that feminism has had on her.

The book is of course very white, and very western. She has been rightly criticised for her use of ableist language in an early chapter and has apologised on Twitter. There are many, many issues it doesn’t explore. But this is because, first and foremost, this book is a memoir, a journey through Caitlin Moran’s life, and what feminism has meant and means to her. I don’t think this book is about ‘fun feminism’ or ‘feminism TM’, where drinking a glass of wine, shopping for shoes and giggling about men is a ‘feminist act’ because it is ‘your choice’ as a woman to do those things. For a good look at Feminism TM, check out Nina Power’s ‘One Dimensional Woman’. This book takes us on a bouncing, fast paced and hilarious journey through adolescence and young adulthood that shows us how sexism and feminism impacted on one woman’s life, and there are plenty of moments or incidents that UK women will recognise, laugh about and maybe even cry about.

I don’t agree with everything she says. I don’t agree, for example, that there is that much of a distinction between burlesque stripping and other kinds of stripping. I don’t agree with everything she says about porn, or historic achievements of men and women. But I loved the way it was written, the personal stories and the way she brings feminist issues into her every day experiences and anecdotes. For women who don’t identify as feminists, I think it is an accessible and easy way to see how feminism and sexism is an issue for all women. Even if you don’t identify with all of her experiences, there’s probably one we can each point to and go ‘ahh, that happened to me!!’

I would definitely recommend this book. And straight afterwards I picked up Laurie Penny’s ‘Meat Market’ which looks at the politics of female flesh via sexuality and performance of sexuality, eating disorders, gender and work. Finishing that, I’ve re-started ‘Reclaiming the F Word’. We all need to read these books, and those mentioned above, and books about global feminism to get to grips with the challenges that we as feminists face today. But for taking a trip down Caitlin’s memory lane, and re-considering why we shouldn’t just accept having our pubic hair waxed off, this book is just right. Curl up with a cup of tea and some chocolate biscuits, and enjoy.


A few people have said thank you for the book recommendations. So, to make it even easier to treat yourself to a new feminist library, here are the Amazon links:

The Equality Illusion:

Reclaiming the F Word:

Living Dolls:

One Dimensional Woman:

Meat Market:

How to be a Woman:

Happy reading!

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