Review: ‘How to Be a Woman’ by Caitlin Moran

June 18, 2013 12:28 pm

When I first set eyes on Caitlin Moran’s novel ‘How to Be a Woman’, I noticed two things. Firstly, that the title presumes to tell me how to ‘be’ based solely on the fact that I am a woman, and, secondly, that the woman on the front cover has unkempt hair, wears doc marten boots, stands with a masculine gait, wears minimal make-up, and is dressed in ill-fitting clothes; in short, she represents (at least to me) the cliched ‘feminist’ stereotype.

The blurb reads, ‘Caitlin Moran rewrites ‘The Female Eunuch’ from a bar stool and demands to know why pants are getting smaller’. I think ‘written from a bar stool’ is an accurate description of this book… Moran’s style of writing is colloquial and informal at best; she uses text speak like ‘tbh’, disregards rules of grammar and punctuation such as the use of the full stop, and her language is perpetually hyperbolic. Moran uses brackets and capital letters to interject angry messages on every page. She raises her voice in a way that screams ‘LISTEN TO ME, I AM A FEMINIST AND I WANT TO BE HEARD’. Oh God! Caitlin Moran

Now, Caitlin Moran is infamous for her dry sense of humor, but sometimes she does push the boundaries. In a desperate effort to be funny Moran tries to fit her ‘Marmite’ humour into practically every sentence; it invades even the most sober of topics, and consequently makes light of them. One example is where she compares the machine in her abortion surgery to a Dust Buster… Do we actually find that funny?

A vast portion of ‘How to Be a Woman’ is dedicated to clothes and accessories; bras, small knickers, high heels and handbags. Moran rants continuously about how bras hurt, and how she dislikes small knickers, and how she can’t walk in heels. How very 1980s of her. I would suggest burning her bra, but I am fairly sure that’s already been done. Women are not forced to be fashion slaves; a lot of women choose to dress well and fashion can be extremely liberating for them. Professional women love spending their money on clothes and shoes. Yes, that’s right, professional, well educated, emancipated women. While men may spend their money on flashy cars and gadgets, we tend to, but don’t always, spend our own on clothes. Maybe I am only speaking for myself, but from a very young age I enjoyed dressing up, while my brother enjoyed playing with toy cars. Was this indoctrination by the media or a natural inclination?

Moran posits that women embrace fashion to please the male gender. Okay, but then why do men feel they need to work out and dress well? It couldn’t possibly be because women like well-dressed, ‘buff’ men, could it? It couldn’t be anything to do with the fact that women go gaga over a strapping man in an expensive suit. It cannot be denied that both genders can be superficial; women may have the physical pain of wearing heels (should they choose to) but they also judge men on superficial qualities such as penis size, how much money they have in the bank, and how well-dressed they are.

Moran also dedicates a whole chapter to women’s anti-ageing products and plastic surgery. I would like to point out that men also have an aversion to turning grey and adding on the pounds. Speaking of weight, Moran also dedicates a vast amount of the first chapter to a preoccupation with her weight and then, only upon losing weight, decides she can be attractive to men. This hardly sends a favorable message to her ‘feminist’ readers. Moran talks about weight exclusively as a feminine issue, and this seems rather biased. When young boys are fat, they get ridiculed just as much, if not more, than girls. Even in adult life having a weight problem can be debilitating for both genders can’t it? I know plenty of women who would not be attracted to an overweight man. It works both ways!

Certainly, Moran’s overwhelming focus on the effects of unisex issues on women alone seems to unfairly belittle the corresponding problems of men. I would never accuse Moran of being a man-hater, but I believe that she makes a number of assertions that would offend the average male reader:

The reason they don’t ask men when they’re having kids, of course, is because men can, pretty much, carry on as normal once they’ve had a baby […] people ask working women, “when are you going to have a baby?” what they’re really asking is “when are you going to leave?”

Caitlin-MoranI object to this statement; the idea that only women are changed by parenthood is ludicrous. In this day and age, parenthood is a joint effort. Yes, of course, men cannot breast feed, and they don’t go through the pain of childbirth, but to belittle the role of the father in rearing a child shows only ignorance. As for career-orientated women giving up their job, it is only an option; one which many women decide to take but which many also don’t. If they do, very often, it is because they want to spend time with their children. This is the twenty-first century and many men actually expect their wives to get back into the work-place, not look after the baby and bake cakes all day!

My final point is on the issue of ‘feminism’ itself. One of the reasons why men yawn when you mention feminism is not because they are sexist, or because they don’t want equality, but because ‘feminism’ often takes the form of a long, self-indulged rant; something that Caitlin Moran is guilty of in this book. ‘How to Be a Woman’ is not ‘The Female Eunuch’, and this is certainly not ‘The Second Sex’. Those are feminist texts that at least try to offer an objective, academic analysis; Moran makes no such attempt. This is very much her story and her view on gender inequality in a book which purports to be a feminist text and, annoyingly, contains rather frivolous definitions such as this:

So here is the quick way to see if you’re a feminist. Put your hand in your pants.

a) Do you have a vagina? and

b) Do you want to be in charge of it?

If you said ‘yes’ to both, then congratulations! You’re a feminist.

I studied feminism both at university and at school from two very passionate feminists. However, neither my professor nor my teacher was in possession of a vagina. Moran addresses feminism as though it were a uniquely feminine standpoint. She forgets that feminism was first a political movement and is, still, a belief in equality. I feel like this book does not grapple with gender inequality in modern society, but rather superficially laments ‘issues’ such as periods, hair removal, bras and high heels. Yawn. Is this what feminism means today? For a book entitled ‘How to be a woman’, it spends a significant amount of time focusing on the (arguably) negative aspects of womanhood.

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  • Jonathan J Lindsell

    Hi. I agree the title is very problematic due to its one-size-fits-all model of womanhood. Likewise I agree this is not an academic text rivalling the likes of De Beauvoir or Greer. That doesn’t mean it’s useless – as a popular comic and journalist Moran’s importance is arguably her ability to gently introduce feminist discussion to those who would otherwise ignore it. Her lighthearted nature, which I agree occasionally comes across as glib, is an attempt to do this.

    I have a few problems with the body of your review.

    “Was this indoctrination by the media or a natural inclination?”

    Well…that’s a huge discussion point, as I’m sure you know. Moran (and many academic feminists) err towards the media side of things.

    “Okay, but then why do men feel they need to work out and dress well?…It works both ways!”

    Tu quoque does not make everything OK.

    “Moran addresses feminism as though it were a uniquely feminine standpoint.”
    No, she discusses men’s roles at several points. Moreover, reading the experiences and opinions of a woman ‘as a woman’ need not be unattractive to male readers – to suggest otherwise is just as patronising as your characterisation of Moran’s writing on fashion etc.

    In short, it’s far from a perfect book but your review largely attacks it for failing to achieve things it never set out to do.

    • evelyn55

      Jonathan,

      You are correct. The book is not ‘useless’. I didn’t say it was. The fact that it serves a purpose of some sort does not negate my right to critique it. I said it doesn’t rival the likes of Greer which is a view taken by some other reviewers.

      ONE of my qualms was with the way in which it purports (arguably) to be a feminist text (among other things) and the content which, quite frankly, does not live up to the expectations I HAVE of a feminist text. I think modern (F)eminism is something that should be written about, but not in this manner. I am not saying this book is solely an academic feminist text, it is also a memoir and, as you say, a comedic book. But the fact that this book covers a wide range of genres does not preclude me from criticising it for making statements about controversial topics. These issues that I have highlighted are, in and of themselves, statements that I disagree with. These statements are exacerbated by the fact that it purports to be, and has been marketed as, a book about feminism. Even if we forget “feminism”, I believe many people would take issue with the statements that she makes. If you make sexist/reductive comments within the arena of feminist debate, does this make them more justified?

      Bear in mind, Moran is commonly viewed to be a journalist with a ‘feminist’ viewpoint. I was not labelling her as such.

      I think your ‘problems’ with my review centre around your last comment; that I am attacking the novel for failing to achieve things it never set out to do. I had a number of criticisms and not all of them were based on the book’s objective. The book’s objective is largely irrelevant. Also, having read the book, can you claim to know what book ‘sets out to do’? You claim that my review ‘largely’ attacks the book for failing to achieve certain things. I think the vast majority of my review critiques ( doesn’t attack) the book for being badly written, crass, and for making reductive statements under the heading of “How to be a woman”. Notice that I also criticised the marketing of the book, the fact that the blurb talks about it being a rewrite of ‘The Female Eunuch’. I am not necessarily trying to get into Moran’s head and work out what her aim was with this book. I am taking the book as a product and evaluating it as such.

      There are two points here: you don’t know what the purpose of the book is any more than I do (though you claim to) and even if we disregard the purpose, I still take issue with the content. I did not spend the whole article talking about the book’s failings as a feminist text.

      Regarding your specific ‘problems’ with my review:

      1. Yes this is a huge discussion point and one which I did not have the time or space to delve into. She does err towards the media side of thing. My point was that we often attribute too much weight to the effects of the media on gender inequality or gender differences without taking into account the fact that the genders are predisposed towards certain tendencies. I was merely asking a question here which reflects my humble viewpoint, and experience. My view is that the media does have very negative effects on both genders and encourage them to aspire to the wrong ideals. However, it is easily forgotten that nature also plays a role in the genders and I believe that boys and girls are predisposed towards certain things.. in this instance I am talking about a fondness for clothes and aesthetics.

      2. Tu quoque does not make everything okay.

      Both men and women are superficial and judge one another on superficial qualities. Moran seems to forget that women do this just as much as men and the fact that both genders judge one another shows, at least to my mind, that women do not bear the burden of discrimination any more than men. Two wrongs do not make a right etc etc but they don’t make one wrong any stronger. You could argue this was not her intent.. but again, you don’t know.

      3. She discusses men’s roles.. such as the example I mentioned above about having children and men essentially remaining the same while women have to completely change their lives. She talks about how women are oppressed and she implicitly (but not overtly) blames men for this. I never said that reading this book which is written from a woman’s perspective would isolate male readers. (You have a habit of putting words in my mouth, it’s really annoying, please desist). I said that she addresses feminism as a uniquely feminist standpoint which is quite nicely emblematised by her description of feminism i.e. being in control of your vagina. What does that suggest to you? I know what it suggests to me.

      I find it amazing how my statement about Moran treating feminism as a singularly female topic has made you feel patronised. The fact that it is a woman speaking from her own experience does not have the effect of excluding men. The fact that she speaks to women about how oppressed we are/have been in the 21st century, does have this effect for me.

      Superficially, this is a review of Moran’s book but at the same time I was trying to point out that feminism as a concept has become a very nebulous concept in modern society. And yes, it is treated as a uniquely feminine standpoint by many people. This is because rather than actually addressing issues of gender inequality, people like Moran rant about fashion and periods. I don’t believe this is what feminism means today.

      It would appear that I am now also guilty of a lengthy, self-indulged rant. Thanks for reading my article.

      • Jonathan J Lindsell

        Excellent, sorry for misinterpreting you and putting words in your mouth.

        • Stephanie C.

          I think Jonathan made a good comment here which many of the points, I confess, also came to my mind whilst I read the article. However, your reply neatly address all these things and I think that you have a very good point.

          Thank you for an excellent article and read.

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