Skip to content

Bookworm: Caitlin Moran’s “How to be a Woman”

2011 July 4

Let’s be clear here, I love Caitlin Moran. Her tweets make me laugh until milk comes out of my nose, often at times when I have not drunk milk. That is how magic she is. So once I found out she had written a book on feminism I almost broke land speed records on the way to the bookshop. Caitlin Moran How to be a Woman book cover showing a colour portrait of the author, a woman in her thirties with dark hair with a blonde streak in it

Which is high praise as these days, as I usually balk at the price of books when they can be gotten for free from your local library – and indeed should be for the most part, because otherwise those fools in power will try to close them.

Torygeddon aside, I’ve recently been really happy with the “new” (over the past ten or so years; they aren’t appearing like the rash of teenage vampire novels) books about feminism – like Living Dolls by Natasha Walter. Angry books, clever books, often books by young women. But at the same time I did get a little turned off by them – they were also difficult books, thoughful, smart books that needed full your full attention and dealt with very big, very important feminist issues in very serious ways. After which you tend to feel sad, or angry and a bit frustrated.

Whilst there is certainly room and need for those books, there’s also a need for this book. Because this isn’t about the big stuff, not entirely. It’s about one woman and her journey through a very personal feminism. It’s about pants being annoyingly too small, fashion, eating too much cheese, having a crap dog, rowing with your family and the general business of living. It’s pop-feminism, and we at BadRep are all behind that – the kind of feminism that is easy to access, relevant and doesn’t require you to have digested a thesaurus or the entire works of Helene Cixous in the original french. It’s a “normal” book, and normalising feminism is something I am all for. It does cover some “serious feminist” topics – such as abortion (covered in more detail in a review by Abortion Rights over here), having children, not having children, prostitution, rape, sexism in all its many forms. But you never feel preached at, or patronised.

So, what’s it like to read? Well, it’s a bit like being in the pub with our Editor, Miranda, when she’s had a couple of ciders and is “holding forth”. Certainly as far as goes the excessive use of CAPS LOCK AND EXCLAMATION POINTS TO MAKE THINGS STAND OUT!!!1 To call it “friendly and personal” sounds a bit pat and cliched, but it is. The book takes the form of an autobiography of growing up – poor and in Wolverhampton – and dealing with the challenges of becoming a woman. It’s deeply refreshing to find some non-university educated, working class feminism. Feminism that doesn’t rely heavily on theory. Feminism that makes me laugh, and read sections out to my flatmate so we can both spew milk from our noses. It’s a book that’s easy and fun (yes, feminism can be fun!) to read, and I devoured it in a few hours.

I recommend it, naturally. But I also offer a few caveats. There were a couple of points that I didn’t like, and they came from the same place as the stuff I did like. You see, when you write informally, personally and from the heart, you also tend to be a bit less careful than you might with word use. And sloppy language is very perilous when you are criticising sexism, which is also about sloppy language, in part. The word “retarded” for example, is used a couple of times, to describe being like someone with a learning disability. This is not cool. It’s a word that we should all stop using (much like “n*gger”). There is no reclaiming this word. End of.

I also found myself getting a bit twitchy with some of her assumptions – and again, these were down to the personal, anecdotal approach. Her feminism is not exactly my feminism. I do not believe, for example, that women are quite so biologically constrained that cystitis is the reason we didn’t found empires. I found the focus in on the experience of living in a cisgender woman’s body and the assumption of “natural” consequences to this a bit disarming. But then, my teenage years were not hers. My growing pains were different.

It is a brave book. It doesn’t pull any punches, and there will be bits that you disagree with. But that’s part of the point of polemics; they stand their ground, pitbull-like, and assert a view. The ensuing debate carries them forward. And the jokes. Still cleaning milk off my t-shirt over the high-heeled shoe bit.

  1. “Oh GOD, guilty as charged” – Ed []
2 Responses leave one →
  1. July 5, 2011

    Just bought this (on my not-very-shiny-as-it-has-a-matt-screen Kindle) and am about halfway through.

    I completely agree on the points here about language. The uses of the ‘r’ word, also the use of various mental health slurs (‘nuts’, ‘crackers’ come to mind as as she distinctly wasn’t describing light snacks…) and the description of everyone, all 7 billion of us, as being The Guys. It grates in what is, otherwise, a very enjoyable book with which I identify with about 90% of the time.

    Perhaps a little scurrilous; I was very recently talking with someone who has an association with Ms. Moran, he mentioned that ‘the Cat [he] knows’ cares a great deal about language, so I’m all the more surprised that such blatant and egregious examples of exclusionary language are tossed about like salad dressing.

    One other thing (I don’t know how the physical book is laid out, but in the Kindle version, it could be poor editing) that is slightly bothersome is that it switches from the personal to the general with little definition. It took several paragraphs of me thinking ‘But I HATE weddings!!!’ (it seems that the CAPS lock thinking is contagious!) before it dawned on me that she was writing about her feelings on the subject. As if they were universal, which in her life, they might well be.

    Maybe this is why I’ll never manage to write a book…

Trackbacks and Pingbacks

  1. The so-called ‘victims’ of bullying » Readers Have Rights

Leave a Reply

Note: You can use basic XHTML in your comments. Your email address will never be published.

Subscribe to this comment feed via RSS