How to be a Woman is a manifesto memoir. Feminism, says the Times journalist Caitlin Moran, ‘has ground to a halt … shrunk down to a couple of increasingly small arguments, carried out among a couple of dozen feminist academics’. Moran wants to pull feminism out of its rut, dust it down and sex it up. She does this by laying bare her own transition from childhood to adulthood, when she hurtled through adolescence like ‘a monkey strapped inside a rocket … There isn’t an exit plan.’
Feminism is ‘serious, momentous and urgent’, which is why Moran seeks to make it accessible through anecdote and chat. She deliberately avoids the big issues — ambition, money, education, rape, sex trafficking, female circumcision — though she does, bravely, discuss abortion, via her own experience. Instead, she advocates a ‘zero tolerance’ policy towards the ‘littler, stupider, more obvious day-to-day problems’ that hollow women out. Get rid of the small stuff and you’ll weaken the big stuff, she implies:
No one is tackling OK Magazine, £600 handbags, tiny pants, stupid hen nights, or Katie Price. And they have to be tackled … rugby style, face down in the mud, with lots of shouting.
Moran is happy to provide the shouting. I’ve already quoted a lot, and I’m still on the prologue. That’s because every sentence jumps up and down, arms waving, screaming to be noticed. She sets out to shock us and to make us laugh. Laughter, she believes, is the strongest weapon in the new-wave feminist’s armoury. ‘We don’t need to march against size-zero models, risible pornography, lap-dancing clubs and botox … We just need to look it in the eye… and then start laughing at it’.
Most of the time this works. Few will discard this book out of boredom. However, older readers may find that the details of Moran’s menstrual and masturbatory history bring out their inner Victorian aunt, and the constant throwaway pop-cultural references may take too much de-coding (and will mean that the book dates quickly). Moran argues that anything can and should be joked about, but she loses my sympathy when, for instance, she describes a nine-year-old boy’s reaction to having a bra thrown at him — ‘he will run, screaming, away from you, like that Vietnamese kid covered in napalm’. That’s horrible, not funny. It doesn’t help.
Happily, such misjudgments are rare. This is a good-natured book; indeed, benevolence is central to Moran’s thesis. Feminism, as defined by her nice husband Pete, is really ‘Everyone being polite to each other’. Moran is desperate to destroy the stereotype of the feminist as a humourless manhater. The only person she really (and gloriously) lays into is Katie Price, the automaton formerly known as Jordan: ‘She’s like the ouroboros — the mythical serpent, forever eating her own tail’.
Moran is very good on fat. She was a 16-stone teenager from an impoverished family of eight; her parents were feckless and neglectful, though she doesn’t seem to hold that against them. She distinguishes between ‘the kind of overeating that’s just plain, cheerful greed’, and the kind of addiction to eating that blunts pain, which she sees as ‘exactly the same’ as drinking, smoking, drug-taking and indiscriminate sex.
Overeating is the addiction of choice of carers, and that’s why it’s come to be regarded as the lowest-ranking of all the addictions … Fat people … are slowly self-destructing in a way that doesn’t inconvenience anyone. And that’s why it’s so often a woman’s addiction of choice.
She’s less convincing — though very funny — on pornography. She is rightly concerned that the sexual imaginations of most 21st-century children will be formed by the internet ‘porn mono-culture’, freely available to them before their parents have even told them the facts of life. She accurately describes the heartless, sterile detachment of male heterosexual porn — ‘It all ends with him coming all over her face … as if he’s haphazardly icing a bun in one of the challenges on The Generation Game.’
But her solution — ‘what we need to do is effect a 100 per cent increase in the variety of pornography available to us’ — raises more questions than it answers. I’m not aware that anyone in the last few millennia has come up with any pornography that doesn’t at some level exploit and degrade, and I don’t share Moran’s optimism that, in the hands of women, that’s achievable, any more than I share her faith in the power of Lady Gaga to change the world. It takes more than imaginative dressing up.
This book has little to say to, or about, post-menopausal women. It’s a bit dispiriting that, in her kindly championing of every woman’s right to have fun, Moran’s ideas of fun circle repetitively round getting drunk. But nevertheless this is a valuable book. Moran wants to convince the coming generation that cripplingly high heels, pubic waxing, a blind adherence to designer labels, £21,000 weddings, and boyfriends who see it as their mission to undermine your confidence, are all inimical to a full, happy life as a woman. If she succeeds, she’ll have done us all a favour.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated July 16, 2011Tags: Book review, Feminism, Mainfesto, Memoir, Non-fiction