How to Be a Woman
by Caitlin Moran
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:
- Feminism is too important to be discussed only by academics. And more pertinently:
- 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.
Full Disclosure: Harper Perennial sent me this book as a review copy. I thank them for the gesture and I will continue to be fair with my reviews.
ETA: This review now also appears on Pajiba.
ETA: This review now also appears on Pajiba.