If you move in feminist circles, there’s really no choice this summer – you have to read Caitlin Moran’s How To Be A Woman: otherwise, you won’t be able to keep up with the conversations. And it’s not hard to see why it has made a splash – it covers all of the usual issues: body image, harassment, and the general difficulties of being a female teenager in an in-your-face, often laugh-out-loud funny, manner – how an all-women friendship group is likely to talk down the pub just before closing time.
And broadly I’d agree with the hype – if you’ve got a 15-year-old daughter, or know one, I’d want to make sure she read it. Given the nature of 15-year-olds, you probably can’t just give it to her – hide it on the back row of the top shelf of books beside The Joy of Sex; she’s sure to find it. Although if she’s already read Puberty Blues she’s going to recognise the genre.
There were bits of the book that really left me thinking yes, you’ve nailed it – really exposed something not much recognised. Particularly on eating disorders. “Overeating, or comfort eating, is the cheap, meek option for self-satisfaction, and self-obliteration. You get all the temporary release of drinking, fucking or taking drugs, but without – and I think this is the important bit – ever being left in a state where you can’t remain responsible and cogent. In a nutshell, then, by choosing food as your drug – sugar highs, or the deep, soporific calm of carbs, the Valium of the working classes – you can still make the packed lunches, do the school run, look after the baby, pop in on your mum and then stay up all night with an ill five-year-old – something that isn’t an option if you’re caning off a gigantic bag of skunk, or regularly climbing into the cupboard under the stairs and knocking back quarts of Scotch. Over-eating 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.”
Moran’s also very solid and sensible on plastic surgery – even “good” plastic surgery, that makes the operee look just amazingly well-preserved for their age, not rictus (“women living in fear of aging, and pulling painful and expensive tricks to hide it from the wold”) is still not defensible; on abortion and the need for honestness and openness (she’s had an abortion, and a miscarriage, and says there’s a similarity in both – her body or her mind “had decided this baby was not to be”; and the fact that women still find it hard to say they don’t want to have children (because of social reactions), even though many don’t want to, and those who have had will, when honest, admit that they regret it. And on the ludicrousness of the continuing existence of high heels.
And Moran also exactly catches that moment in the mid-’90s when it seemed feminism was victorious, that the fight had been won, at least to women of a certain age and class. (And although I wasn’t in the UK then, it was much the same in Australia.) “I don’t feel like I can talk about sexism with other women… All the woman I know are strong feminists working in male environments – journalists, editors, PRs, computer programmers – but they are too busy at this point – 1993 – just getting on with stuff to have big debates about it. Besides, it is the beginning of Britpop, the dawn of the Ladette. As young women essentially at play – with no children, no childcare worries, no sudden stalling of their careers in their thirties, as the men inexplicably start to sail past – things still feel hopeful. In this era of Doc Martens and beer and minimal make-up, sexism seems to be dying so fast it would be counter-productive to draw attention to it.”
Many women will recognise experiences and feelings that Moran describes. At the age of 15 she first sees Germaine Greer on television: “Greer uses the words ‘liberation’ and ‘feminism’ and I realise … that she is the first person I’ve seen who doesn’t say them sarcastically, or tempered with invisible quote marks. She doesn’t say them like they are words that are slightly distasteful, and slightly dangerous, and should be handled only at the end of tongs, like night soil.” It reminds me when I first read The Women’s Room at about that age, and had much the same feeling.
In some cases my personal sense of recognition might have something to do with the fact that Moran is a columnist for The Times, for which I used to work – and I still live in that London media world. She reports on trying to get The Times to cover the American Riot Grrl music movement, because “the kind of girls who really need a hardcore feminist movement – in council blocks, listening to Radio 1, fantasising about New Kids On The Block – are unlikely to come across a photocopied Riot Grrrl fanzine being handed out outside a Sebadoh gig.” A male editor shouts her down, concluding with “You wouldn’t know what it’s like to be a fat teenage girl, being shouted at in the streets by arseholes.” … “I am rendered silent with astonishment that I am being lectured on a radical feminist youth movement by a middle-aged straight white man.” I know of an almost identical event that happened at The Independent.
But in a way this whole passage sums up the strengths and weakness of How To Be A Woman – Moran is very good on the description, but entirely self-centred in the analysis – the girls “who really need a hardcore feminist movement” are also highly unlikely to come across a copy of The Times.
And she assumes that every girl or woman thinks and is concerned about the same things as those of her set. One section that made me wince was an account of her fantasising about a relationship with a famous comedian, so intensely that she makes herself hysterical and “in many ways, it’s still one of the most memorable relationship of my life”. And she says “nearly every other woman I know” has dozens of such stories. Well I have to say no woman I know has a similar tale – at least not past the age of 12 or so, and her statement that when she “rationalises this insanity to myself” this is a necessary byproduct of being a woman is ridiculous, and not in a good way.
She’s open to lots of possibilities – but seems unable to imagine a lot of other possible women’s lives.
If you’re a reasonably well read feminist already, then you won’t find much here that’s new, and this book will sometimes annoy you. But it’s an accessible, quick, enjoyable read, and one that’s sufficiently transgressive for the young in particular to be excited by it – so all in all a good addition to the feminist library.