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Bookworm Redux: a man reviews “How to be a Woman”

2011 August 10

We’re a diverse bunch here at BadRep towers, and sometimes we don’t agree. When that happens, we sometimes offer a second opinion from another of the team. Sarah C reviewed Caitlin Moran’s book for us last month – with one or two exceptions, she thought it was brilliant. For contrast, here is my review:

I think it’s BRILLIANT.

Sarah C lent me How To Be A Woman, Caitlin Moran’s recent feminism handbook/memoir, and I expected to like it. I follow Moran on twitter where she’s always deeply funny, and I thought this would be an enjoyable read even if it’s just her personal take on the issues. What surprised me is how incredibly effective the book is – and how it does some things which are amazing from a male point of view.

Of course, cis male points of view aren’t automatically important in feminism (with some arguing that they have no place in it at all). When it comes to deciding what women want their future to be, and what they feel is harmful or unacceptable to that, men don’t really need to be part of the process. And most male feminists that I know understand that.

However, when it comes to implementing feminism against the status quo of patriarchal bullshit, when women are fighting for their rights from one direction it helps if men are on board too. If men feel threatened by coming changes, they’re more likely to do the kind of heinous, disgusting, and frequently violent things that we see thrown back at women who challenge anything the patriarchy is currently comfortable with.

Which is why I think that Caitlin Moran’s book should be compulsory reading for boys.

A black and white photograph of Caitlin Moran. She is visible from the waist up, facing the camera with a neutral expression. She has a very large silver streak in her hair.

Photo of Caitlin Moran by Chris Floyd, which won August's "Portrait of the month" at the National Portrait Gallery. Source:

Moran does two things which are absolutely crucial. She actively calls bullshit on the many forms of misogyny which have somehow become acceptable in society, and then she laughs at them.

Calling bullshit is not a small thing. It takes incredible strength to say “no” to Hollywood, magazines, posters, tv and the expectations of your friends, family, colleagues and boss. By being brutally honest about becoming a woman – periods, body hair, boobs, everything about a teenager’s brain – she humanises it and makes it possible to go against expectations. Of COURSE the idea that every single woman needs a Brazilian shave by default is stupid bullshit. Step back a moment and compare it to real life as she does, and it becomes easy to laugh… and more importantly to finish laughing and shout HELL NO.

Boys will read this. They want to know what girls think, and what the changes happening to girls’ bodies and minds are actually like. The book is full of comedy but also danger, which keeps it exciting and holds your attention. I’m always going on about how pop culture is great because it engages people and slips messages past them while they’re having fun – this does exactly that, really well.

Importantly, when talking to the male side of the equation, it also demystifies. Male readers can look at the stupidity of some conventions, see what the reality is for women and it will become easier for them to realise where the bullshit lies.

Moran speaks directly to men in the book as well as women. After telling female readers to say the words “I am a feminist” out loud, possibly while standing on a chair (“Say it. SAY IT. SAY IT NOW! Because if you can’t, you’re basically bending over saying ‘Kick my arse and take my vote, please, the patriarchy.’“) she adds this:

“And do not think you shouldn’t be standing on that chair, shouting ‘I AM A FEMINIST!’ if you are a boy. A male feminist is one of the most glorious end-products of evolution. A male feminist should ABSOLUTELY be on the chair – so we ladies may all toast you, in champagne, before coveting your body wildly.”

Note to men: this is relatively true. Identifying as a feminist in actions as well as words (unless you’re a lying weasel who is just doing it to get into their knickers) will by itself put you quite far into the “not a raging asshole” category. That’s hot. I’m just saying.

I agree with Sarah on the minor disappointments. The author’s use of “retard” on page 5 really jars and stands out, just plain doesn’t work, and isn’t okay. Where Sarah found it limiting that the events are focused only on Moran’s personal experiences, though, I didn’t think this mattered as much to the message. Where Caitlin says she doesn’t feel that the word “boobs” really describes any part of her body (and “breasts” is worse), I know some women who feel comfortable with that word – but her final decision doesn’t seem as crucial as long as the reader is made aware that girls face the situation of having to find the right words for themselves. Making everyone ask themselves the question means the answer she chooses almost doesn’t matter.

There are plenty of universal truths in there. The chapter where she reveals how the word “fat” has basically become weaponised to a greater degree than previous nuclear-level playground insults, and gives examples, all rings totally true. The stories of her 16-year-old self veer between amusing and devastating, but it just helps the reader identify with the general problem. Hell, it made *me* identify with it, when my 16-year-old self was dangerously underweight, gangly, six-foot and male.

And that’s the secret. The reason I’m excited about this book is that it’s the first one I think will be hugely effective, to women but especially to the average man. There are many modes of communication which just don’t work: language is important, but I think we can frequently become so removed from daily discourse in our attempts to avoid discriminatory words that we lose the audience entirely. Caitlin Moran will change male attitudes a million times more powerfully than, say, a paper by feminist academics which would only be read by feminist academics, containing newly invented language that boys barely understand and have not been convinced they need.

You can tell whether some misogynistic societal pressure is being exerted on women by calmly enquiring, “And are the *men* doing this, as well?” If they aren’t, chances are you’re dealing with what we strident feminists refer to as “some total fucking bullshit”.

How to be a woman engages the reader with great humour and truth, says things of interest, and is entertaining enough to do the pop-culture stealth-feminism thing. The early reaction from feminists was “This is an important book!”, but the opinions then swayed back and forth a bit afterwards. I think “important” is precisely the right word, because it’s going to work.

Teenage boys! Want to know about teenage girls? Read this book. Men! Want to read something that’s genuinely hilarious and interesting, even if you don’t ‘do’ feminism? Read this book. It’s angry without being exclusionary, very funny, very honest, and has a real shot at inspiring a new generation to become feminists.

Top marks, Moran.

5 Responses leave one →
  1. August 10, 2011

    If I may be allowed to disagree just for a tiny bit… (I promise I’ll keep my most radical views to myself)

    This book may be titled “how to be a woman”, but it’s written by a single woman in the form of a memoir. A more appropriate title would have been “how to be caitlin moran”. There will be plenty of women on this planet who do not feel their lived experiencies can be accurately portrayed by Moran’s life.

    Language is important. Moran may be, on the one hand, refusing to engage with politics. But on the other, she’s titling her book “how to be a woman”. That’s a political statement in itself.

    • Miranda permalink*
      August 10, 2011

      Yeah, I’m halfway through it and have found it hugely entertaining, but initially when it came out I was reluctant to read it because of the title! Also the Marian Keyes style posters, which say things like “tiny pants and Lady Gaga? This book has being a woman TAPED” – as someone who’s never given a crap about either enough to need a How To at any rate, it looked from the marketing like a real life Bridget Jones memoir – which it isn’t. I think it could’ve been better marketed in some ways. Can’t quite decide at the mo. (Maybe when I’ve finished the book I’ll be clearer…)

    • gwenhwyfaer permalink
      August 12, 2011

      Or it’s possible that Caitlin Moran meant the title literally, as in “how to be *a* woman (not *all* women)”.

  2. August 11, 2011

    “Identifying as a feminist in actions as well as words (unless you’re a lying weasel who is just doing it to get into their knickers) will by itself put you quite far into the “not a raging asshole” category. That’s hot. I’m just saying.”

    I don’t get it. It’s not okay to lie about being a feminist to get into girl’s pants…but it is okay to be a ‘real’ feminist, even if you’re still doing it because ‘it’s hot’ to the ladies? Do men have to be encouraged to do anything by implying they might get more pussy? I don’t think so.

    • Stephen B permalink
      August 11, 2011

      I know it’s a little self-defeating to be using sex as the message. Lots of men have a problem with being seen as feminists, when there’s so much scope for them to be received positively, and I was half playing it for laughs. It works better in Moran’s book, because she balances it with a strong focus on how sexualising all relations (mostly for advertising reasons) is really not helping any of us.

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