Saturday 7 December 2019

Review: How to be a woman by Caitlin Moran

(Ebury Press, £11.99)

Eilis O'Hanlon

Whocould have predicted that a polemical book about feminism would attract the sort of fireworks-blazing reception of which less-blessed authors can only enviously dream?

How To Be A Woman has been launched with profiles and interviews in every major publication; its arguments thrashed out enthusiastically on radio and TV; the reviews have been universally ecstatic ("a manual no woman should be without. . . the funniest intelligent book ever written"). Its author, Caitlin Moran, has practically been hoisted aloft and paraded in triumph through the streets.

What marks it out from the rest is that Caitlin Moran is, first and foremost, a humorist, who sees most subjects as the opportunity for a joke rather than a rant, and who deliberately eschews heavier traditional themes of feminism for questions at which more academic writers might turn up their noses, such as: "Why are we supposed to get Brazilians? Should we use Botox? Why does your bra hurt?"

Wrapping it all up in the baggy, comfortable form of a memoir, charting her progress from awkward teenager to the successful wife, mother and writer she is today, doesn't hurt either.

For Moran, the personal is unashamedly political, and, as a thirtysomething child of the MTV generation, her reference points are all grounded firmly in popular culture.

She's much more likely to quote Lady Gaga than Simone de Beauvoir. As a result, there's a refreshingness about her approach which is bound to appeal to a new generation of women, just as her insistence on finding the funny side of every argument is a welcome change from the more po-faced approach of professional feminists who have tended, to its detriment, to dominate the debate on gender.

Her impatience with the notion that women should always be sisterly and supportive of one another is spot on too ("when," she wonders, "did feminism become confused with Buddhism?")

She's never less than engaging and committed. That being so, why did I come away from the book feeling so dispirited? Perhaps because when Moran demands to know why "no one is tackling OK! magazine, £600 handbags, tiny pants, Brazilians, stupid hen nights and Katie Price", I can't help thinking the answer is because none of it actually matters very much.

Time and again, when she could be talking about important stuff, she responds with yet another riff on knickers, or porn, or shoes. The tactic only takes you so far -- and not very far at that. The book's defining slogan has the same inherent flaw. All a woman need do in every circumstance, Moran asserts, is ask herself a simple question: "Are the men doing it?" If the answer is no, then she says women shouldn't have qualms about doing it either. That, to put it mildly, is a very shallow basis for any philosophy. She even admits finally coming down against burkas on this basis. Was she unable to think her way through the issue on its own terms? Nor does she follow her credo through to its logical conclusion, because do men write and read and get excited by such navel-gazing books on their collective identity? Of course they don't.

How To Be A Woman is riven with such contradictions. Moran says that feminism needs to get away from the idea that there are right and wrong types of women, or that women who don't conform to expectations are "letting the side down" -- and hooray to that, it can't be said often enough; but while urging feminists in her laddish way to embrace "slaggy birds" and "dim birds", she later excoriates Katie Price for, well, letting the side down by pandering to male stereotypes. So some women are unacceptable, after all.

Her attempt to crown Lady Gaga as the future of feminism is strikingly silly, too. Feminists did all that with Madonna in the '80s. It wasn't the answer then, and it isn't the answer now. In fact, the pop culture which Moran celebrates surely bears part of the blame for filling young women's heads with inconsequential nonsense in the first place.

Maybe it's a generational thing. Plenty of younger women clearly find Moran thrilling and iconoclastic; the book didn't become Amazon's current top seller by accident. Ultimately, I just found myself nostalgic for writers who came before like Germaine Greer and Gloria Steinem, complex, brilliant women with fearsome intelligence who, for all their other faults, wouldn't have wasted a moment's thoughts worrying if "society" expected them to shave their pubic hair.

They were women, while Caitlin still sounds like a little girl. The book begins on the eve of her 13th birthday, and in many ways she has never stopped being a teenager, hence the giddy, slightly manic prose.

A manual no woman should be without it most definitely is not, but then maybe the fault lies in women for still wanting manuals in the first place instead of just getting on with the actual business of living.

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