Book Review #1: How To Be a Woman

Aka, How Not To Be a Lady

How To Be a Woman was always going to be a challenging book for me. Put simply, I am a disgrace to feminism. I tend to go down the frightfully woolly line of ‘feminism is about choice for women, and I actually really enjoy cooking, cleaning and looking after people, so I choose that’. I was worried that the book would make me confront certain unpopular behaviours in myself. Namely, that the line most likely to make me drop my knickers when uttered by a man is: ‘don’t worry, beautiful – here, let me do it’. Closely followed by: ‘shall I carry that for you?’ and ‘god, you’ve got good legs’.

It isn’t that the feminist movement passed me by, as I lay in my pink painted bedroom on my silky quilted bed. Quite the opposite – I was fed on a diet of feminist literature and theory at university, and it was enough to turn anybody’s stomach. Sadly, the type of feminism we often encountered involved talking openly about certain parts of your anatomy, being really rather bullish when it came to getting your point across, and wearing –quite frankly – terrible clothes. Moran does actually address this in her book, stating that if you’re interested in any sort of fair judgement/rights for women, and you are in fact a woman, you’re a feminist. It’s unfortunate that the word has so many negative associations; I think most girls would be hesitant to align themselves with such a label.

Of course, there are degrees of feminism, but it’s the Nazi-like beliefs of some particularly militant groups (several believe men should be completely eradicated) that, in layman’s terms, ‘give feminism a bad name’. I had hopes for the book. I thought it was going to tell me that I could still wear my five inch heels and be remarkably empowered. It sort of does. Moran talks us through the issues facing women: fat, ‘fur’, naming your own anatomy, sexism, underwear…it amused me at points, but also left me faintly shocked. I also struggled with the fact that she frequently reinforces the very messages she’s trying to subvert.

Ultimately, I think I’m too repressed to properly engage with this book. I’d love to be able to stand on a chair and yell ‘I am a feminist’. I’d love to talk too loud, wear really big knickers and not wax. I’d love not to care. I’d enjoy naming my anatomy with particularly bizarre terminology, but I can’t. I am tightly and rigidly controlled, and my own belief system far too entrenched. The language in the book is, to coin a delightful phrase, ‘salty’ at best, and I was wincing at virtually every page. It appears I have the sensibilities of a Victorian maiden. I die a tiny bit inside when I read a lexicon of crude words for a woman’s body. I nearly fainted at the last few chapters (more on that later.)

It started getting better around the ‘Sexism’ chapter. And I shouldn’t imply that I hated the whole thing; I sat there laughing at points, cringing at others. I enjoyed Moran’s writing, up to a point. The ‘Sexism’ chapter rang true, and I was stopped dead in my tracks as she detailed her relationship with ‘Courtney’; a relationship she treated as a sort of ‘penance’. It so perfectly summed up that Dream Relationship vs. Real Relationship syndrome every girl has experienced at some point. You’re convinced you love someone, but you don’t actually like them very much. You stop being able to distinguish between the aching pain of love and someone who, quite frankly, is a bit of a tosser. The hint is, there isn’t really an ‘aching pain’ of love. It isn’t the 1800s anymore.

For a few chapters, I was flying. I chose to overlook the fact that comments on the sexualisation of young teenagers, bikini waxes and the size of underwear were massively hackneyed, and let myself get into the book. It was fine for a while, but then came the hugely graphic description of the birth of Moran’s first child. Trust me, women. DO NOT READ this chapter if you’re planning on having children. I, who masterfully conquered some of the vilest passages in American Psycho, was completely repulsed. I wanted to stop reading but couldn’t. It was all gruesome, heart-stoppingly horrible, and hugely similar to many an article in the Daily Mail. By the time we were at the chapter on abortion, I felt utterly miserable. I have to confess, I couldn’t even handle the final chapter, ‘Intervention’. I didn’t really want to read about how we’re all ‘dying, crumbling into the void’ very late at night.

Ultimately, I couldn’t escape the cynical feeling that Moran couldn’t sell her autobiography on the strength of her name alone, so she shaped it into a faux polemic on the state of womankind. Despite apparently being a book on feminism, no other feminist figures apart from Germaine Greer were cited. As far as I’m concerned, you could pluck out the most sexist, ill-read, beer-swilling of blokes, and he’d know that Greer is a feminist. It’s entry level. Where was the Andrea Dworkin, the Camille Paglia, Helene Cixous? If you’re going to write a book with feminism as the main subject matter, then perhaps it would be a good idea to, you know, read some feminist theory? The omission of anyone other than Greer led me to believe either that Moran simply hadn’t bothered to read anything else, or that she selectively chose just the tiniest portion of feminist ideology to fit with her own ideas.

I must also add that, to any man reading this book, it might appear a mite confusing. In the chapter addressing things like pole-dancing, Moran essentially seems to say ‘if we’re falling about having a laugh with our mates, it’s fine, but if we’re not, and we’re doing it for ANYTHING ELSE AT ALL, then it is WRONG and DISGUSTING’. Pfft. Women, eh? And also, I would have liked to see more of a discussion of how destructive women are to each other – it isn’t just men perpetrating myths about how we should behave, but women too. Women suffer sexism at the hands of female bosses too, you know.

The title is mostly a misnomer. It really is mainly a memoir, with a bit (a lot) of ranting tacked on. It should actually be called How To Be Caitlin Moran. Like I said, I think I’m just too uptight to enjoy it; next time I’ll just stick to my Collected Works of Nancy Mitford and leave this kind of malarkey to everyone else. It seems that in Moran’s world, it’s her way or no way. She makes snap judgments (rather like I’ve done on her book, I suppose) on what’s ok and what isn’t. Strippers bad, burlesque artists good. Katie Price bad, Lady Gaga good. I’m wrong for wanting to employ decent personal hygiene. On her grounds, I am wrong for so many things. It’s ok to be fat (ish), to be too loud, to wear cheap clothes. Fine, but what about the converse?

I know I’m more or less completely panning it, but I had such high hopes for it. Everyone seems to love it, and it’s won plenty of accolades. I suppose the crux of the matter is, while it might tell (some of) you ‘How To Be a Woman’, it isn’t teaching anyone how to be a Lady. And even in this empowered, enlightened, post-bra burning age, I still value being civilised and ladylike. I don’t go around saying everybody should be like that, or that people are wrong for wearing Doc Martens and dungarees. If you’re happy wearing it, then wear it and I’ll stick with my heels and 1960s minidresses. Just don’t tell me I’m wrong for doing so.

It was summed up perfectly by one review I read on Amazon:

“(It was) just a story about one woman who believes her life experiences are shared by everyone, and those who didn’t experience the same or who disagree with anything she writes are obviously oppressed by the patriarchy.”

Word. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to slip on my highest heels and continue to disappoint ‘the sisterhood’.

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One thought on “Book Review #1: How To Be a Woman

  1. Pingback: NYE Resolution Challenge: January RESULTS « ameliaflorencesimmons

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