A year of reading women

365 days of women's lit

Caitlin Moran: How to be a Woman

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Much like Room, this was a book that stalked me. I didn’t want to read it. I wanted to avoid it. I was sure it would be nothing more than a cynical moneyspinner, trading on jokes about periods and dildos with very little of substance to say. Caitlin Moran’s face stared out at me from the posters with a sort of sturdy insolence, and I would duck my gaze and stare resolutely into my Obreht, feeling literary and virtuous.

But being the suggestible soul that I am, it was only a matter of time before curiosity and the marketing campaign wore me down. A moment of weakness on the morning commute and, before you could say ‘Germaine Greer’, I had downloaded the text and was plunging in.

And I’m happy to report that I was wrong. For all the slickness of its publicity machine, How to be a Woman is certainly no mere moneyspinner: UK journalist Caitlin Moran holds many passionate views about the female condition and expresses them with fervour and humour — whether they’re justified or not.

As you might expect from a seasoned columnist for The Times, Moran has the knack of encapsulating tricky concepts in accessible images. Her use of the Broken Windows Theory (that if you don’t fix smashed windows on empty buildings they attract more vandalism) to explain the slow creep of anti-women ideas into society is a great metaphor for the dangers of complacency. Similarly, the observation that teenage bulimics, anorexics and self-harmers are essentially ‘waging war on their pituitaries’ is a powerful, personal insight.

Much of this is helped by humour and, when she does it well, Moran can have you glancing guiltily around the tube carriage in case her outrageous references to ‘My Dickens of fucking’ and microscopic knickers are causing offence… before you remember that you’re only reading a book. But it isn’t always done well: at times the perpetually hyperbolic registers grate and the whole thing feels like waking up the morning after a house party to find the overexcited friend of a friend who no-one invited still mixing vodka cocktails in your living room and insisting on accompanying you on your journey to work.

Part of the problem is that Moran has decided that humour is one of the badges of the liberated woman that she must defend. She takes up her cudgels on the mistaken premise that, apart from Dorothy Parker in the 1920s, ‘no other women are funny until French & Saunders and Victoria Wood’. In light of Aphra Behn, Stella Gibbons, Richmal Crompton, Barbara Pym and the army of bawdy performers who delighted music hall goers throughout the 19th century — to name but a few laugh-out-loud-funny women — it seems odd that Moran should seize on this. Her lengthy and repeated assertions that women are chronically under-represented in all fields of achievement throughout history because of the mental barriers that hem them in would suggest that successful comediennes are no thinner on the ground than, say, female nuclear physicists, female conductors, or female tycoons.

This isn’t the only inconsistency. Throughout the book, Moran’s railing against the Patriarchy (she even jokes that she has taught her daughters to say ‘Damn the Patriarchy’ when they fall over)  jostles uncomfortably with her ‘the Guys’ philosophy — that we human beings should forget gender distinctions and think of ourselves as being all in this together.

Leaving aside the linguistic problem of a gender-neutral group of ‘Guys’, there’s an awkward ‘them and us’ mentality attached to the constant harping on the Patriarchy, which makes gender-blind equality seem impossible. You can’t help feeling that there are more fundamental changes needed than Moran has conceived of, and that, if she had taken a little longer than the ‘five-month blur’ she says she spent writing the book in the acknowledgements, she might have hit on something a bit more substantial.

Nonetheless, the book is a good read, full of amusing anecdotes and brave confessions. Its accessibility may prompt some  of those who haven’t grappled much with the ‘f’ word before to give it more thought. And that’s got to be worth something.

Picture by Maga Soto

Written by Ann Morgan

July 22, 2011 at 12:58 pm

2 Responses

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  1. I’ve read Caitlin Moran’s columns on and off for nearly twenty years now and I’m afraid I find her more miss than hit, but will happily concede that when she’s good, she’s excellent. The book sounds interesting; the combination of amusing anecdote and brave confession is appealing, and I’ve had it recommended to me by someone else on the strength of one chapter alone, so I may well take the plunge and get a copy out of the library (no new-fangled technology for me…)

    Chaz Folkes

    August 23, 2011 at 2:54 pm

  2. […] witty and passionate, if self-contradictory, memoir-cum-feminist-manifesto-for-the-modern-gal as How to be a Woman, Guardian columnist Grace Dent brands her canter through the ills and marvels of microblogging […]

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