Reading Caitlin Moran’s How to Be a Woman was like a roller-coaster ride—some ups and downs, some confusing parts, some hilarious parts, and some parts where I was pretty sure I saw God. Ms. Moran hit me with an idea early on that had me reeling, depressed me in the middle, and had me forever by the time she said goodbye. Although we don’t agree on everything, I’m pretty sure we could hash out our differences over a bottle of wine—and have a damn fine feminist party while we’re at it.
To understand How to Be a Woman, it is helpful to know, going in, that it is infused with autobiography—at times, it is like a long rant, a stream of feminist ideas that the author formed between the ages of 13 and 35. Ms. Moran is British and grew up in an impoverished household with seven siblings—as in all things feminist, the author’s political thoughts are informed by her personal experience, which includes youthful excess, professional success, marriage, and motherhood.
Here’s a sampling of Ms. Moran’s thoughts, along with my reactions:
Ms. Moran believes we need more pornography, in more variety, because what we have is monochrome and misogynistic: “After the brief promise of the sexual revolution freeing up women’s sexual lexicon, it’s been closed right down again, into this narrow, uncomfortable, exploitative series of cartoons” (p. 33). What Ms. Moran wants in pornography is to see a woman experiencing pleasure rather than being portrayed as a submissive, plasticized sex toy.
I am still forming my opinion on pornography: unlike Ms. Moran, I haven’t been an avid viewer of it. I’ve read some research that shows pornography in its current state is harmful to both men and women, and I’ve never been a big porn advocate. However, I have to agree with the author that there’s nothing intrinsically wrong with wanting to see some sex—she’s probably right that cavepeople drew pictures of themselves having sex on the cave walls. And I can see an argument for porn playing a positive role in committed relationships in which both partners enjoy adding a little spice to the proceedings. So—if we’re going to have porn, non-misogynistic porn in which women enjoy themselves sounds good.
Ms. Moran’s primary justification for her idea is this: “…in the 21st century, children and teenagers get the majority of their sex education from the Internet. Long before school or parents will have mentioned it, chances are they’ll have seen the lot on the net” (p. 34).
OK—true in many cases, though not in all.
However, in my mind, the solution to this problem is to start putting some real boundaries on the Wild West of the Internet, to increase the quantity and quality of sex education, and to give parents the tools they need to talk about sex with their teens. Not to throw up our hands about porn and make sure the kids get to see more kinds of it.
Ms. Moran does state that she doesn’t think young children should be watching porn—the audience she has in mind is teenagers. I think she is simply being a realist here, and wanting to give teens who are building their entire conception of sex on pornography (which the author did when she was growing up) a shot at learning what real, pleasurable sex is like. I get the realism, but I can’t agree with her approach to it.
Thus, the need for a bottle of wine and some serious feminist dialogue.
Ms. Moran says what every feminist should shout from the rooftops—we need to reclaim the word feminism. She urges women to stand on a chair and say “I AM A FEMINIST!”
- “…if you can’t, you are basically bending over, saying, ‘Kick my arse and take my vote, please, patriarchy’” (p. 68).
- “[Feminism] is what will keep us alive” (p. 72).
- “Without feminism, you wouldn’t be allowed to have a debate about a woman’s place in society” (p. 75).
- “The more women argue, loudly, against feminism, the more they both prove it exists and that they enjoy its hard-won privileges” (p. 76).
To all of this I say: sing it, sister. Sing it, sing it, and sing it some more.
On Sexism and Female Power
Ms. Moran and I disagree on the best way to confront sexism (she thinks we should tell sexists they are being impolite and uncivil, rather than speaking the word sexism, as we might get more traction this way), but that’s a small point—we agree that every woman encounters sexism and must deal with it internally as well as externally. As part of her internal dealings, Ms. Moran’s musings as a young woman led her to this conclusion: “…without cities, philosophers, empires, armies, politicians, explorers, scientists, and engineers—women were the losers” (p. 133). Her definition of women as “losers” is not meant as name-calling: Ms. Moran wants to acknowledge that patriarchy has been a long-standing system, and that women haven’t begun to truly make their mark since getting some basic freedoms.
Still, this idea didn’t sit well with me. I spent most of the book frustrated with it—I thought the author was being dismissive of the women who had made their marks despite patriarchy, and of the women who are uncelebrated because of it. And I don’t want us to call ourselves “losers,” not even in a funny book that is meant to inspire us.
And then, bless her and kiss her, Ms. Moran gave voice to all my frustrated mumblings: “…of course, on being freed, people who’ve been psychologically crushed don’t immediately start doing glorious, confident, ostentatious things. Instead, they sit around for a while, going, ‘What the fuck was that?’ trying to work out why it happened, trying—often—to see if it was their fault” (p. 248).
Oh, that is beautiful, and true.
That is where we live, in this moment.
Trying to figure out what went on in all the thousands of years before us, and if it was our fault. Trying, as Ms. Moran says, “…to work out what bits you want to keep, which bits you want to throw away: which bits are poisonous to you, and which parts salvageable.”
That is the best description of modern womanhood I have ever read.
There’s more to this book—much more. I underlined many passages, commented on the truth and poetic beauty of them. Ms. Moran covers it all—childbirth, motherhood, abortion, lingerie, Brazilians, and Lady Gaga. You might not agree with everything she says, and every once in a while you might wonder where this crazy ride is going—but hang in there, baby. This book is worth the ride.