Caitlin Moran, How to be a woman
Sylvia Walby, The future of feminism
Granta 115, The F-Word
175 - Edwidge Danticat,
81 - Lydia Davis, The Dreadful Mucamas
97 - Louise Erdrich, The Ojibwe Week
229 - Maja Hrgović, Zlatka
37 - Julie Otsuka, The Children
127 - Taiye Selasi, The Sex Lives of African Girls
115 - Helen Simpson, Night Thoughts
255 - Jeanette Winterson, All I Know About Gertrude Stein
91 - Laura Bell,
A Kept Woman
209 - Urvashi Butalia, Mona’s Story
31 - A.S. Byatt, No Grls Alod. Insept Mom.
7 - Rachel Cusk, Aftermath
243 - Janice Galloway, We’re Not in This Together
53 - Caroline Moorehead, A Train in Winter
163 - Francine Prose, Other Women
225 - Eudora Welty, Gentlemen
30 - Gillian Allnutt,
77 - Linda Gregerson, Ariadne in Triumph
174 - Sadaf Halai, Inheritance
253 - Selima Hill, Black Against the Sky, the Giant Mothers
190 - Plus ‘Un-Possible Retour’, a photo essay by Clarisse d’Arcimoles, with an introduction by Téa Obreht
Caitlin Moran writes about her body, Rachel Cusk dissects the aftermath of her divorce and Sylvia Walby addresses 'raunch culture'. What do their books reveal about feminism today?
What is feminism? "Simply the belief that women should be as free as men . . . Are you a feminist? Hahaha. Of course you are."
Caitlin Moran's How to be a Woman is firm, delightfully firm, on many things – heels (against), pubic waxing (against), abortion (for), the disadvantages of economising on sanitary products – and she is firm, she insists on, this simple definition of feminism. Feminism is just equality. Would a man be allowed to do it? Then so should you. Would a man feel bad about it? No? Then nor should you. Everything else – the pressure to be sisterly ("When did feminism become confused with Buddhism?"); the idea that we should be held to account, as feminists, for every possible ill that could befall the modern woman ("There's a whole generation of people who've confused 'feminism' with 'anything to do with women'") – all of that is just hassle in disguise.
Moran is right, it is simple: and yet, for such a simple message, its cultural penetration has been patchy, fluctuating and disappointing. People who like to sound the death knell for the ideology – it's remarkable even that such people still exist – point to the fact that young women tend not to describe themselves as feminists. There is a certain sour enjoyment from pointing out all the privileges that they owe to the sisterhood – the equal pay, the maternity leave – but I would query the importance of the self-description. One can promulgate the values of feminism quite effectively by just living them, by expecting fairness at work and at home, and young women are better at this, less surrendered, than anyone. Much more chilling for me was the recent debate around the Slut Walks. On mainstream television (Newsnight) the Conservative MP Louise Bagshawe said that the word "slut" could never be reclaimed, would always be a horrible word, because it "lionised promiscuity". Meanwhile, in mainstream print (the Sunday Times), columnist Minette Marrin wrote: "There is no universal human right to dress and behave like a sluttish streetwalker touting for sex, without occasionally being taken for one." These are not young women; they have been many years in this culture, without apparently encountering feminism's basic precepts. It ought to be taken as given, by now, that you can object to promiscuity generally, if you like, and I imagine this would be on faith grounds, but if you object to promiscuity in women, specifically, then you are barking up the wrong skirt. It ought to be obvious, beyond remarking, that a woman should be able to sleep with whom she wants, when she wants, as often as she wants, without danger and without shame. It surely should go without saying that being a prostitute and being raped are two different activities. The fact that so little progress has been made in the specific area of female sexuality is partly because of divisions within feminism – many of the boldest voices see the Slut business as a post-modern stunt, where sexual violence is used as a stalking horse to co-opt young women into hot pants and thence into the raunch culture that oppresses them further. Sylvia Walby, in her new book, The Future of Feminism, adjudicates on this magisterially. But divisions alone cannot account for this.
The best explanation I have read comes from Walby's account of the relevant "epistemic community", a term which is defined by Peter Haas as "a network of professionals with recognised expertise and competence in a particular domain . . . who have 1) a shared set of normative and principled beliefs . . . 2) shared causal beliefs, which are derived from their analysis . . . 3) a shared notion of validity and 4) a common policy enterprise". Such a community is the means by which ideas become practices and norms. The patriarchy isn't going to smash itself, to paraphrase Habermas (sort of), but nor is it so entrenched that it cannot be overturned by sustained, informed argumentation. This accounts for the huge advances that feminism has made – consider the daunting economic inequality that has been tackled in the past four decades, the astonishing speed of equal pay legislation across Europe and indeed the world. But it also accounts for the relatively meagre differences wrought in the arena of sexuality, because the epistemic community isn't there, the argument was never sustained. The last person to make any serious noise about female sexuality was Shere Hite; that was nearly 35 years ago. Orgasms were the stuff of the academy and of politics in the 1970s, but now, to go anywhere near that stuff would be a fast and effective way to sound like a crank.
I was expecting to find some tension between the dual purposes of memoir and polemic in Moran's book, but in fact, every word of the memoir is loaded with political importance. Female sexuality needs women to talk about sex, intelligently, out loud and in public (not just on Mumsnet) or it will forever remain a source of shame. Moran has been a columnist since she was a teenager, and while she has always been idiosyncratic, I'm not sure that I would have described her as radical. But there is iconoclasm lurking under every one-liner. I realised I have never read an account of someone's period starting. The closest I can even think of is Sarah Silverman's memoir about wetting the bed. I have never read a woman writing about wanking while fantasising about Chevy Chase (or anyone else; Chevy isn't the radical bit, here, although I do now see him in a whole new light). I have never read a sentence like this: "There is a great deal of pleasure to be had in a proper, furry muff . . . Lying in a hammock, gently finger-combing your Wookiee whilst staring up at the sky is one of the great pleasures of adulthood." I have read some of Moran's arguments about porn (though none so comically expressed); other insights are so shiny, neat, self-evidently right that it was like she was potting a snooker ball in my brain. This one about binge eating is an example:
"Overeating is the addiction choice of carers, and that's why it's come to be regarded as the lowest-ranking of all the addictions. It's a way of fucking yourself up whilst still remaining fully functional, because you have to. Fat people aren't indulging in the 'luxury' of their addiction making them useless, chaotic or a burden. Instead, they are slowly self-destructing in a way that doesn't inconvenience anyone. And that's why it's so often a woman's addiction of choice. All the quietly eating mums. All the KitKats in office drawers. All the unhappy moments, late at night, caught only in the fridge-light."
Structurally, the argument-told-as-memoir is not easy to pull off. A life told in comic episodes will not arrange itself neatly along feminist or any other ideological lines. The exigencies of the argument mean that the chapters have a very different emotional weight, so that the one on abortion is nothing like the thumping heart of the one on menstruation. The prose is columnistic, in that it's quite informal and very conversational; the sensation of having Moran in your house can be uncanny. But essentially, she's a comedian; her cadence is comic, her punctuation is comic, her wordplay is mischievous, and all this before you even touch on her observations. The irresistible pull of self-parody gives each paragraph a gravitational urgency. "I am a virgin and I don't play sport, or move heavy objects, or go anywhere or do anything, and so my body is this vast, sleeping, pale thing. There it is, standing awkwardly in the mirror, looking like it's waiting to receive bad news. It is the bad news." She can be funny in a terse, edgy way: "In those days, the music scene was much like Auschwitz. There were no birds. You couldn't find a woman making music for love nor money." She can be funny in a more expansive, absurdist way: "The problem with the word 'vagina' is that vaginas seem to be just straight-out bad luck. Only a masochist would want one, because only awful things happen to them. Vaginas get torn. Vaginas get 'examined'. Evidence is found in them. Serial killers leave things in them, to taunt Morse . . . No one wants one of those."
Page for page, my favourite chapter is "I Am in Love!" It's purportedly a story about falling in love with an unpleasant man, but I read it as a love letter to sisterhood, with a small "s"; a love letter to her actual sister, Caz. But in terms of changing the world, the momentous thing is to talk so freely about her body and its functions, in "a culture where", she says, "nearly everything female is still seen as squeam-inducing and/or weak". Germaine Greer, in a review that was warm but a bit salty, like sperm (sorry, I am essaying a new sexual openness – it is not as easy as it looks), ends: "More disconcerting is the way that Moran revisits themes that I have written thousands of words about, and even made TV documentaries about, the C-word and pornography for two, and restates my case in pretty much the same terms, with not the faintest suspicion that anyone has ever said any such things ever before." One can see how irritating this would be from Greer's perspective, and also how much it would have ruined Moran's momentum to have to finish everything pace Germaine. But what makes this book important is something unique to Caitlin Moran; she and Greer have both attacked the elemental shame attached to being a woman, but where Greer was furious, Moran sloughs it off with exuberance. There is a courage in this book that is born, not made, and not borrowed, either. It is vital in both senses.
In her prologue, Moran bemoans the fact that the women's revolution "had somehow shrunk down into a couple of increasingly small arguments, carried out between a couple of dozen feminist academics, in books that only feminist academics would read". Sylvia Walby, Unesco chair in gender research at Lancaster University, would probably concede that her audience is small, but would trenchantly contest that her arguments are small too. Hers is a densely written book, whose propositions proceed from one to another with the unforgiving directness of a quadratic equation. If you need a bit of breathing space, you can do it in your own time. It repays the effort, though, in the following ways. First, she addresses raunch culture or, if you prefer "post-feminism", which preoccupies and, I sometimes think, mires feminists, often creating discord between the second and third wave that needn't exist. "Raunch culture," Walby writes, "is bound up with the neoliberal turn, with its commercialised and competitive approach to intimacy. The alternative social democratic form is based on mutuality and equality. Hence, a celebration of innovation and experimentation in intimacy and sexuality, in the context of mutualism and equality, is aligned with feminism, while competitive commercialised sex is not." This is the message I take from that – though Walby, enemy of the broad brush stroke, would probably correct me: do what you want, girls, so long as you do want it. So long as it's in the service of your own sexual pleasure, and not to score some competitive advantage by manipulating the pleasure of someone else.
Walby takes great care to examine what we might call the disappearance of feminism, demonstrating that its change in nature has led to a change in visibility – far from having failed, this new low profile is actually testament to its "intersectionality". Again, I am putting this crudely, but feminism started out as a protest movement, so made a lot of noise; a process of persuasion has put feminists and their aims at or near the centre of governments, in many countries, so of course the protest element has been largely replaced by constructive, fruitful political engagement, which takes place with much less fanfare. She reminds us of so much that has been achieved, and alerts us to changes in gender equality architecture at a European level that would make Richard Littlejohn's eyes pop out. She explores the ways in which feminism can work with other aims, what the crossover is between feminism and environmentalism, and what the implications are of the financial crisis. But the strongest message of this book is that neoliberalism "makes the achievement of feminist goals more difficult. The increase in economic inequality and the decrease in the legitimacy of state action alter the context in which feminism makes its demands."
Her writing style is so restrained and so disciplined, that it takes some time to realise the impact of what she is saying: first, that feminism cannot thrive against a wider backdrop of inequality, and second, that feminists have a duty to more than just women. We are a battalion in a wider fight against the trend towards inequality. I found this a heartening and timely book, a proof against demoralisation, a warning against internecine splits. I also changed my mind about various things – unions, for one (they were somewhat slow off the mark in taking women seriously as a force worth allying with; but Walby shows these alliances were, and always will be, crucial); quotas, for another. It's interesting that Moran, from a totally different direction, arrives at roughly the same place – that quotas are a good thing. She says about sexism: "I don't really see it as men vs women at all. What I see, instead, is winner vs loser. Most sexism is down to men being accustomed to us being the losers. That's what the problem is. We just have bad status." The endpoint of both these very different books is that feminism has no meaning unless it's tied to a belief in equality overall.
The editor of Granta magazine, I dare to hope, when calling the latest edition"The F-Word" is referring to "female" rather than "feminist". If not, he has fallen into that GCSE syllogism: this book is about women; women are feminists; ergo this book is about feminism. Caroline Moorehead's "A Train in Winter", which describes the arrival of 230 French female resistance fighters in Birkenau, does seem to be attempting a feminist angle on the Holocaust at one point: "Block elders [were] for the most part German criminal prisoners who effectively collaborated with the SS and whose own survival depended on brutality. Their viciousness and vindictiveness was said to surpass by far that of their male counterparts." It's an interesting story, sensitively written, but a) this sounds suspiciously like one of those Daily Mail observations –"isn't it amazing that it's often women who bully other women?" – which, frankly, is not very feminist and b) I think it's pushing it to present the Nazis or any of their works as an outrage against women. Their brutality seems to have been fairly even-handed, or if it wasn't, the men surely suffered enough not to be presented as the winners of the atrocity. Julie Otsuka's "The Children" is a wonderful, mellow, seamless tale of first-generation Japanese immigrants to America. The most overtly feminist pieces include AS Byatt's "No Grls Alod. Insept Mom" (a notice attached to her five-year-old grandson's door), a short inventory of clubs she'd encountered that wouldn't allow girls or women. And Rachel Cusk's "Aftermath", a tantalising excerpt from her divorce memoir, which comes out next year.
Cusk's characterisation of feminism starts strangely: "Then again, the feminist is supposed to hate men. She scorns the physical and emotional servitude. She calls them the enemy." This isn't a sophisticated reading of feminism, so the author is clearly ascribing this belief to someone other than herself. But to whom? To mainstream society? To the past? To her soon-to-be ex-husband? I felt foolish not knowing, but then it struck me that it didn't matter. Why start a conversation about ideas with what a mistaken person thinks? Why not start with what you think? The next paragraph brings us, it seems, closer to Cusk's territory: "I suppose a feminist wouldn't get married. She wouldn't have a joint bank account or a house in joint names. She might not have children, either . . . I shouldn't have called myself a feminist because what I said didn't match with what I was."
Again, these definitions are curious. There is an argument that marriage reinforces the patriarchy, but there is no precept in feminism against sharing your wages. If you object to money or property held in common, that's not feminism, that's possessive individualism (the two are confused with one another, but not often on this subject). And a vision of feminism that involves eschewing reproduction altogether is like a vision of environmentalism that involves ending reproduction: it might work, but it would have the iatrogenic consequence of species suicide. This is not standard feminism; nobody would try to live by it. This is separatist feminism, the sort that makes young women say "I'm not a feminist".
This was written in fresh anger; Cusk is still very much in the throes of de-marriage. Aside from the confused versions of feminism – and the contortions do seem to be down to the splenetic mood – there are elements that are really indefensible from the husband's point of view, unless his return were to be added as an appendix. Cusk writes: "My husband believed that I had treated him monstrously. This belief of his couldn't be shaken; his whole world depended on it." It leaves the strong impression that she has plenty of beliefs of her own that she doesn't want shaken, and yet she has "come to hate stories. If someone were to ask me what disaster this was that had befallen my life, I might ask if they wanted the story or the truth." He, in this version, is blinded by his need for a narrative, while she plugs directly into the truth. It's a little bit partial. At one point, she describes their family situation – her husband gave up work to look after their daughters – as the result of her unwillingness to play the maternal role. This "cult, motherhood, was not a place where I could actually live. It reflected nothing about me: its literature and practices, its values, its codes of conduct, its aesthetic were not mine." And so she "conscripted" her husband into the care of the children. Less than a minute later (in reading time), a solicitor told her she would have to continue supporting her husband, financially, when they split up. "But he's a qualified lawyer, I said. And I'm just a writer. What I meant was, he's a man. And I'm just a woman . . . the solicitor raised her slender eyebrows, gave me a bitter little smile. Well, then he knew exactly what he was doing, she said." Whether she imputes that view to the solicitor or not, Cusk still wants it both ways: we're asked to imagine her ex as such a magnificent lawyer that he managed to make her feel as though she were conscripting him, when all along, they were working to his long-game. Her feelings of maternal alienation were, in this version, a confection of his, with the aim of divorcing her some years down the line and pinching half her salary. Not since we met Heathcliff have readers been presented with an anti-hero whose grudges are so intricately prosecuted.
But she's like a lion, depositing a trophy kill: you might feel a bit queasy about it from some angles, but there is so much meat here. "Help is dangerous because it exists outside the human economy: the only payment for help is gratitude," she writes, distilling that awkwardness between couples, especially between parents, the tightrope between being put-upon and beholden. There is something marvellous, even monumental, about her honesty, the unabashed importance she attaches to every event: "I went to Paris for two days with my husband, determined while I was there to have my hair cut in a French salon. Wasn't this what women did? Well, I wanted to be womanised; I wanted someone to restore to me my lost femininity. A male hairdresser cut off all my hair, giggling as he did it, amusing himself during a boring afternoon at the salon by giving a tired blank-faced mother of two something punky and nouvelle vague. Afterwards, I wandered in the Paris streets, anxiously catching my reflection in shop windows. Had a transformation occurred, or a defacement? I wasn't sure. My husband wasn't sure either. It seemed terrible that between us we couldn't establish the truth." There is a topnote of derision for her own sex ("wasn't this what women did?") that is a much more likely wellspring than Cusk's divorce for her suspicions over whether or not she is still a feminist. But sisterliness and feminism have never been interchangeable; they are less so now than ever, as the expansion of our choices has shaped us into so many varieties.
Her final paragraph is evocative to an almost supernatural degree: "I begin to notice, looking in through those imaginary brightly lit windows, that the people inside are looking out. I see the women, these wives and mothers, looking out. They seem happy enough, contented enough, capable enough: they are well dressed, attractive, standing around with their men and their children. Yet they look around, their mouths moving. It is as though they are missing something or wondering about something. I remember it so well, what it was to be one of them. Sometimes one of these glances will pass over me and our eyes will briefly meet. And I realise she can't see me, this woman whose eyes have locked with mine. It isn't that she doesn't want to, or is trying not to. It's just that inside it's so bright and outside it's so dark, and so she can't see out, can't see anything at all."
Cusk gazes at herself unblinkingly, and judges harshly what she sees. But to call herself not a feminist? Hahaha. Of course she's one.
• This article was amended on 28 June 2011, correcting the spelling of Shere Hite
Monday 20 June 2011 21.00 BST
Here I am on my 13th birthday. The Yobs are shouting at me. I'm too fat to run away. The dog is licking her vagina. I don't KNOW what to do!!! I realise I am femin-none. I go home and make a list. 1. USE LOTS OF CAPITAL LETTERS. 2. Ditto italics. 3. !!!!!! 4. Never use one bad pun where two will do.
I love Simone de Beauvoir and Germaine Greer yet I didn't have a clue how to be a woman when I hit puberty. I thought it was something I'd discover in the underwear section of a C&A catalogue!!! I mean, WHAT DO YOU DO? How do you stop eating cake, quarrelling with your siblings and LEARN HOW to groom your pubes in a feminist kind of way? Much as I enjoyed the dirty bits, The Female Eunuch just didn't tell a 13-year-old girl how to grow up in Wolverhampton!
OMG! I'm bleeding. I thought it was going to be a lifestyle choice!!! Actually I didn't, it's just HYPERBOLE!!! But tampons and stuff are so confusing when you're fighting with your siblings and you're trying to have your first ever wank over Chevy Chase! There, I've said it!! Feminists wank!!! Who would have thought it??? And porn is great as long as the women are loving it and come first. Go, sisters, go.
I've grown some hair!!! Down there!!! When I first see it in my tiny Wolverhampton tin bath, I shave it in disgust, but over the years I've come to take pride in my bush. A Brazilian is patriarchal oppression. ENDOV. Though it's fine if you want to give it a neat ironic trim in the shape of a heart like my friend Rachel does on Tris's birthday. I mean, it's the 21st century and women should be relaxed and know how to have a joke about this stuff.
We need to drop the DOGMA about feminism and just get on with having a laugh being women. And there's no laughs in doing the house work, so just chill and get a cleaner and knock back a few bottles of wine and some Es. This woman business is easier than you think. Just take charge of your vagina and off you go. Though I like to call mine a FOOF. I've never been sure what to call my breasts though. So I don't call them ANYTHING!!!
I'm going out on a date with Courtney and I'm wearing my Dr Martens that I bought with my first pay cheque from Melody Maker when I was nine . . . AND I Don't Know WHAT TO DO. I want to flirt with him, but does he fancy me and, oh my God, I think he thinks I'm fat. Sisters, I was!! How does a feminist know she's fat??? When she doesn't look human and when I was out with Courtney I so looked like a row of porta-bogs!!! Which was quite handy, because my CYSTITIS was killing me!!!!
So I've lost weight and I'm in the Melody Maker office and I'm doing some flirting and all I'm getting in return is casual sexism and a lot of heartache. Man, relationships are a minefield when you'd rather just be getting stoned with your little sister in Wolverhampton!! Love you too, Caz!! Thank God, I met my husband Pete!! He's just about the biggest feminist I know. He never wears thongs – except in bed!!! – he hates high heels and he loves reading all the bitchy bits in Grazia!! Because you know what? Being a fifth-wave feminist doesn't mean you can't gossip or wear suspenders.
I literally think I'm dying!!! I'm screaming in pain as my first baby is being born – it feels like I'm shitting a hippo!!! – and Peter is crying and then I'm holding her and it feels like the most feminist thing in the world anyone could ever do. I love my children!!! And suddenly I feel, Woomph, I'm creative, I'm going to write five columns and a book while I'm breast-feeding. Wowzer!! If you want a job done, ask a working mother. They are the most productive people in the UNIVERSE.
And like it's OK if you don't want to have babies too. Because it's a woman's right to choose. Though obviously women who don't have babies are basically lazy!!! Abortions??? If you want one, have one!!! You see, a woman can do anything really in the 21st century. Well, anything as long as I approve!!! If in doubt, just ask yourself, what would Caitlin do????
Katie Price!!! What a solipsistic bitch!! She doesn't ask me a single question when I interview her. What a rubbish role model!!! But Lady Gaga . . . Go girl! Her music is just so brilliant, she takes me to a gay bar in Germany and SHE BUYS ME A DRINK and we get totally trashed and she says she really, really loves my hair before passing out on my lap. Feminism rocks!
The Saturday interview: Caitlin Moran
Caitlin Moran's new book, How to Be a Woman, is a no-holds-barred polemic (with lots of jokes) about modern feminism. She talks about what inspired it.
When Caitlin Moran won a British press award this year for an interview with Lady Gaga (she won two awards, in fact: the other being for columns, where, among other things, she called David Cameron "a slightly camp gammon robot") she was making more than a statement of her ability to turn a phrase or break down barriers with interviewees (Gaga more or less admitted to suffering from lupus, took Moran to a German sex club, and went to the toilet in front of her): she was making a claim for a particular kind of feminism. At one point, in the sex club, Gaga turns to Moran and says, "Do you know what that girl at the bar said to me? … She said, 'You're a feminist. People think it means man-hating, but it doesn't.'" Gaga is clearly proud of this achievement, and – apart from her weeing through her fishnets – the moment is a linchpin in the piece.
What Gaga's also done, Moran says now, sitting in her sunny north London garden, talking a blue streak, sentences peppered with the emphases and jokes that appear on her Twitter feed or in her prose as exclamation marks, ironic caps, sentences beginning with 'SCREAM', "is open up a space where people who couldn't get together can get together. You see her on tour – and it's anyone who's freaky or outsider: all the gays, all the fat chicks, people with wonky eyes – an amazing panoply of people – and she's just opened up this space [and said,] 'You can all talk speakeasy, it's safe here.'"
Which is exactly what Moran has aimed to do with her new book, How to Be a Woman: make a space where everyone can have a conversation in which they are not cowed, or (as is unfortunately often the case) repelled, by received notions of feminism: that sisterhood trumps all ("women should be able to bitch about other women – being a feminist doesn't mean you're a Buddhist"); that a love for fashion or men is a betrayal; that serious feminist discourse comes from the academy. A conversation in which anything can be said, as long as it's civil, and kind, and where the guiding principles are, "Does this apply to men, too?" and "is it polite?" – if not, call time on it. This is not to be in the slightest bit lackadaisical – Moran's is a rallying cry to a "broken windows" or zero-tolerance philosophy of feminism, in which the whole point is to sweat the small stuff – "OK! magazine, £600 handbags, tiny pants, Brazilians, stupid hen nights or Katie Price" – in order, as she puts it, paraphrasing Rudy Giuliani, to stop squatters breaking in and taking over the whole building. To discuss it, laugh at it, treat it, above all, with as much common sense as it is possible to muster.
This takes Moran to some interesting places: porn is fine, she likes porn – it's the porn industry that's the problem, being "offensive, sclerotic, depressing, emotionally bankrupt" and entirely geared to men. "Ban it? Feminism doesn't need to start BANNING pornography. It needs to start MAKING it." Lap-dancing is not fine, but pole-dancing and burlesque are. Heels are not empowering – they are silly and impossible to walk in. Brazilians (the wax jobs, not the people) are a horror. She teaches her daughters to pity the girls on MTV, and that there are consequences to dressing like them when you're too young: "Even if you're not getting raped, but you have some bloke who's not listening to what you're saying, he's just looking at your legs – you don't necessarily realise, when you're still a little kid in your head, that that's what's happening. So, you know, you have the option to put your legs away and simply engage this person in conversation by smiling instead." Having a cleaner is not anti-feminist, children do not have to be had, abortions do not have to be regretted, and "I don't think that women being seen as inferior is a prejudice based on male hatred of women. When you look at history" – achievements in arts, science, exploration, for instance – "it's a prejudice based on simple fact." Few feminists dare to say such basic things, on the assumption that any admission of weakness will lead to whole-scale loss of the war; paradoxically, of course, the Manichean worldview that results has led to a consistent 71% of American women and 58% of British women who won't describe themselves as feminists at all.
And Moran has set out to woo them back. Common sense will do a good part of the job, she hopes – the abiding tone of the book is one of amused, somewhat hectic reasonableness, deliberately designed to take the heat out of things and drag the disaffected, and especially the young (get them before they have children and they're too tired to fight), back to basics without making them feel that they're being dragged – "not to go, 'You should be into feminism because it's good for you, like fibre.' It should be as exciting as rock'n'roll, you know? All the little checks and things that you do in a society where you're judged by the way you look – that's just knackering. You should have the same liberation as rock'n'roll about it – fuck it! It's amazing! Brilliant! Yeah!" – and above all, funny. "The main thing I'm interested in is making jokes, really. The main thing I'd define myself as is as a humourist, and there's so many jokes to be made that haven't been made, because we haven't talked about this stuff, you know? I think there are brilliant jokes to be made about abortion, and we should be able to talk about this in the way that we make jokes about death – you should be able to make jokes about everything." She says she doesn't mind that her book is classified, for bookshop purposes, under humour (far better than travel, where, bafflingly, it ended up first). "But you know," she adds, some rapid-fire sentences later, "I would rend my garments if anybody said that the humour was to the detriment of the polemic."
Moran's background – much mentioned in her own journalism over the years, and, when she was a teenager, by journalists sent to marvel at her outsize precocity: first novel written at 13 and published at 15, when she also won the Observer's Young Reporter award, writer at Melody Maker at 16, writing for the Observer and the Guardian at 17, a column in the Times at 18 – was, among many other things, one in which the ultimate requirement was to make other people laugh. "You can be forgiven anything in our family if it's funny." Funny for its own sake, but presumably also as a survival tactic, a cheap way to keep eight children and two adults living in a three-bedroom council house entertained (the siblings still put on a full pantomime each year, writing, directing and acting it all themselves).
Moran's father – with whom she bonded over Spike Milligan – was from a large Irish Catholic family, a drummer and psychedelic rock pioneer who had toured all over Europe but was now confined to the sofa by osteoarthritis; her mother a middle-class girl who dropped out of college when she married him and started having babies. She loved having babies, rather than children, "So after two years the child would be ours [often Caitlin's; as the oldest, she was in charge]. The way it worked was as soon as the baby was born we'd bring it back to the house," – searching for a way to light her cigarette, Moran accidentally sets fire to the sink – "and you had to climb straight up a tree with it and you had to put it on a certain branch and balance it there for a second – I mean you look at that now and think, 'Wow, that was really dangerous.' But it was our way of saying, 'Come and join the clan, we'll put you up a tree.'"
And she grew up almost cartoonishly far from any widely accepted (read: socially mandated) way of being a woman. Her mother, a hippy who dressed them in rainbow wellies and ponchos and gave them screw-top jars of muesli for lunch when she was still going to school (she was "home-schooled", ie largely left to her own devices, from 11, and never went to university), told her deodorant would give her cancer and that she didn't need a bra. Moran seems also to have got the idea that she could ask her mother only one question when her period began, which wasn't, 'how long does this last?': the first time, she bled for three months in silence. Poverty meant that there was often not enough food (it was also the reason she wrote her novel: "Our family got so poor that I was worried that the end of the world was going to come, and I thought we have to earn money.") "Some weeks it would be like chapatti – you'd just make flour and water and grill them and have them with margarine on top" – other weeks they simply binged, and many of them, including Caitlin, became obese. It meant very few clothes – a patched skirt and shirt of her mother's, her father's cast-off thermal underwear when they were in the wash. "We never went anywhere, we never had a holiday, one year my birthday present was £10, and my parents had to borrow it back the next day to get food."
This is said with no self-pity at all: she has a horror of self-pity, of neediness and of anger – and especially, and always, of the thing they can lead to, proper depression – and that horror can tip into a slightly manic sort of cheerfulness. When she was 13, she couldn't stand the idea of even her private diary pitying her, so while she was being bullied in the streets, for being fat, a pikey, a girl, she was writing, "Mum bought pastry brush! USEFUL!" She still suffers panic attacks; the cheerfulness project is second nature, and an article of faith. So she will say, "I'm SO glad I spent 10 years being sad and lonely," (because being on the outside, observing, taught her so much, not least to rely on her own intelligence and considerable gifts). Or, very pointedly, "I think it's really interesting to come from a background of knowing that kind of poverty, because when you hear [politicians saying,] 'It's a time of austerity for all of us, we must all scale back' – you know there's just a level of poverty below which you can't scale back. There's not an understanding of that."
She will also say, however, that reading the diary for her new book, structured according to her autobiography, each stage ("I Start Bleeding!", or "I Encounter Some Sexism!") leading to a general discussion of feminist issues, "I got retrospectively quite scared for myself," – she does a soft, mouse-like voice – "Oh my God! The chances of you getting out of here are so small!"
She did get out, of course; became famous, met her now-husband, rock critic Peter Paphides, at 17 and married when she was 24, three days after suffering a miscarriage; they have two children. She is distinctly refreshing about motherhood: "Feminism needs zero tolerance over baby angst"; "Every woman who chooses – joyfully, thoughtfully, calmly, of their own free will and desire – not to have a child does womankind a massive favour in the long term." But, strikingly, she does not explain exactly how she combines three columns a week, and, for this past year, writing a book (average output: 15,000 words a week), with raising two girls. Turns out it's a combination of imaginative babysitting (there is almost always a sibling staying in the house to pitch in, and local parents club together), TV, punishingly early mornings and immense ambition. This last is something she's notably silent about in How to be a Woman, which strikes me as something of an omission, given women can rarely admit to ambition without suffering the consequences. "I guess because my experiences aren't typical … it was LUCK. It's not hard work." It was talent; these achievements do not come from nowhere: "You can't really make generalisations about talent, can you? It's not inclusive to go on about that." And so it's back to the driving force behind her polemic: everyone is welcome. "You're safe here. The rules of engagement are that we're all polite, we all try and make a joke about this, and we're all honest about what we do, and try to do it from a good heart." It's rather sad this has to be argued at all, but at least someone's doing it. The bonus is that it's being done with such verve.
Review of Germaine Greer in THE TIMES
Caitlin Moran first caught my eye in November 1994. I was looking for young
women to contribute to an all-women talk show that I was presenting for BBC Two;
part of the plan was to give outspoken, clever women writers an opportunity to
strut their stuff in broadcast media.
Moran was a true prodigy who had written her first novel at the age of 16 and got it published. She was already presenting her own late-night TV show on Channel 4. I wanted her to tell the viewers what women her age were thinking about the world of work. When she was interviewed by the researcher she said: “I think work should be the most important thing in our lives, but for women, more often than not, men are the most important thing in their lives.” It seemed to her that women were discouraged from being really serious about work: “It’s OK to be a career girl till you’re about 25 or 30 and then, after that, it’s time to get real and settle down and have babies.”
Moran wasn’t even 25 when she got married (three days after a miscarriage) and settled down. She now has two daughters and a husband to look after. She also has a handful of press awards to pick up and three columns a week to write for this paper. It was only last year that she told Martin Carr: “I’m turning out pissing 5,000 words a week for Rupert Murdoch — I haven’t got time to menstruate, let alone write a book.” And right away she cranks out a 300-page book called How to be a Woman. Her life, like the lives of most women, is all work, but there’s no chapter on that subject in her book.
How To Be a Woman isn’t about how to do half-a-dozen things at once or even about how to keep your husband interested. It isn’t a how-to book of any kind. It’s about how Moran struggled to cope with having a woman’s body. When she tells you that “in many ways there is no crueller or more inappropriate present to give a child than oestrogen and a big pair of tits”, you believe her, even though you know that when you were 13 you’d have swapped your big thighs for big tits any day of the week.
The story begins on the heroine- narrator’s 13th birthday and it ends with the termination of her fourth pregnancy — 20-some years of blood and tears listed by the publishers under the rubric “humour”.
Moran makes plenty of good, tough, unsentimental jokes, mostly at her own expense, in the female tradition. The cover of How To Be a Woman promises “knob gags” but this is one book in which the knob is not mocked.
The child Moran finds womanhood thrust upon her and, though she does her best to adjust, it is never an easy fit. At 13 she weighs 13st and clumps about in wellington boots and her father’s old army greatcoat. Her first period lasts three months. When the yobs in the street call her a pikey, she can handle it. It’s when they call her a bloke that she cries lonely tears. She can’t resort to anorexia or bulimia or self-harming as a way of fending off womanhood. Given her shape and her heredity, lifelong girlhood is not an option. From the beginning she is heading for somewhere else, the heart of her own hairy darkness.
Moran rejects academic feminism, which is just as well, seeing that academic feminists are not sure that there is such a thing as a female body and have theorised that menstruation is a cultural phenomenon. Moran has no truck with such nonsense, and good on her. She is helped on her way by her sister, Caz, who is as unsentimental, clever and funny as Moran herself.
I could have done with a bit more of Caz.
The clear and present danger in writing a memoir that purports to be honest is that it can too easily turn into a confession or, worse, exhibitionism. When Moran describes herself between the ages of 13 and 17 as a zealous and indefatigable masturbator — a challenge in a household where privacy was unavailable even in the bathroom — I find myself hoping that she will not live to regret casting off every last shred of her bodily privacy. She discovers that she likes coming; she doesn’t tell us who the men are who have helped her to come or how they did it. We can only hope that her husband is one of them; his privacy she respects absolutely. He nudges the narrative briefly from time to time. We learn that he is a feminist and that she feeds him on bread-and-butter puddings. In her final sermon she insists that we don’t want men to go away. As far as her book is concerned, they are hardly there.
Moran might be amused to know that in the Seventies I was frequently caricatured as forever prosing about my womb. What I actually talked about in those days was the womb. The Female Eunuch was written in the expectation that most people who read it would disagree; How To Be a Woman is written from the opposite point of view. The womb under discussion is very definitely Moran’s own. There’s plenty of argument wrapped up in her narrative, but it usually ends up as shouting, in storms of capital letters and exclamation points. Moran can hardly fail to draw inferences from her experience but she cannot allow herself to become too serious. It’s left to her readers to ask themselves how, in the 21st century, such a clever woman can have been exposed to so much gratuitous butchery. Moran doesn’t believe in misogyny on any level, let alone institutional misogyny; readers of the grimmer parts of her narrative may come to a different conclusion.
A good deal of the argument in How to be a Woman is with someone called Germaine Greer or Goddess Greer, who bears a fitful resemblance to myself. This straw woman tells women to taste their own menstrual blood (I didn’t), went off sex in the Eighties (more correct to say that sex went off me), opposed the election of a transsexual lecturer at “Newnham Ladies College” (there was no such election) and so forth. More disconcerting is the way that Moran revisits themes that I have written thousands of words about, and even made TV documentaries about, the C-word and pornography for two, and restates my case in pretty much the same terms, with not the faintest suspicion that anyone has ever said any such thing ever before.
Moran doesn’t need to do research to find out if her ideas have been voiced before. She is still, as she was in 1994, a genuinely original talent. I hope that I’m around to see what happens when she cannons into menopause.
Saturday, July 2, 2011
MEMOIR: How to Be a Woman By Caitlin Moran, Ebury, 313pp.
THE PHRASE “women’s liberation” may sound slightly dated to today’s feminists, but in a way that’s just what the British journalist Caitlin Moran is calling for in her hugely entertaining and exhilarating book. In it, she offers women a simple method for figuring out whether some “sexist bullshit is afoot”: just ask yourself, “Are the men doing it? Are the men worrying about this as well? Is this taking up the men’s time?” If the answer is no, well, chances are you shouldn’t have to be caught up in it either.
How to Be a Woman is a feminist polemic, but Moran doesn’t examine the big socioeconomic issues, such as political representation or equal pay. In the opening chapter, she declares her intention to instead examine the seemingly small things that, put together, exert a subtle but persistent and eventually crushing pressure on women to behave in a certain way.
And she does so brilliantly. The book is billed as “part memoir, part rant”, and Moran uses her life to illustrate the issues facing today’s women, from body hair to childbirth, from plastic surgery to pornography. It’s not often I read a book that makes me say “yes!” aloud every few pages, but this is one of them. Moran highlights both the sheer effort – waxing, grooming, shopping, dieting, having the right number of children at the right time – and the financial outlay required of women in order to live up to society’s expectations of how they should look and behave.
She perfectly captures the pointless little demands that weigh us down and stop us being truly, well, liberated, whether that’s the pressure to look young and scarily perfect at all times (“We’re all dying. We’re all crumbling into the void, one cell at a time . . . But only women have to pretend it isn’t happening”), the pressure to be nice to each other all the time lest we let the side down (“When did feminism become confused with Buddhism?”) or the pressure to look like a porn star – the hilarious, spot-on chapter on female body hair should be given to every teenager in the country. And she rightly challenges the idea that women bitching about each other is what’s really holding back womankind; as she says, “tens of thousands of years of ingrained social, political and economic misogyny . . . [has] slightly more leverage than a gag about someone’s bad trousers”.
And whether she’s talking about disastrous weddings or terrible first periods, Moran is very, very funny. Her description of her sexual awakening, complete with fantasies about being kissed by her celebrity crush, Chevy Chase, while Paul Simon plays the bass solo in You Can Call Me Al , left me weak with laughter. But the book is also surprisingly poignant; I expected it to make me laugh, but I didn’t expect it to make me cry, and it did.
Her unsentimental account of her eccentric childhood is both funny and moving (when we meet her 13-year-old self at the start of the book she is friendless and being pelted with stones by local yobs). Her description of the traumatic birth of her first child is deeply upsetting. And she writes powerfully, beautifully and without regret about the abortion she had after the birth of her second daughter.
In fact, what is sometimes lost amid the hilarious jokes and the overexcited ALL CAPS is how gifted a writer Moran is; throughout the book are passages written with an unforced lyricism that sings from the page.
It’s not all good, of course. Her description of her 13-year-old self as possessing “the ebullience of a retard” is ill advised, to say to the least (though she has since said she regrets using the word). And then there’s her claim that since the age of Greer, feminism has stalled and is now purely the province of a few squabbling academics. The only modern feminists she mentions are members of an antiporn group, and she claims that “ no one is tackling OK! magazine, £600 handbags, tiny pants, Brazilians, stupid hen nights and Katie Price”.
Well, no one apart from, say, the hugely popular Jezebel.com, an irreverent and glossy feminist website that regularly discusses all of these things. Or Natasha Walter, whose bestselling 2010 book, Living Dolls , examined gender stereotypes, female body image and pop culture. From riot grrrl, Bust magazine and Cordelia Fine to Ariel Levy, Tina Fey and myriad high-profile feminist blogs, there have been plenty of lively, witty and well-publicised English-speaking feminist voices over the past few decades. Moran’s view of feminism is unique and important, but in presenting herself as a lone voice in the wilderness, as opposed to a part of a vibrant 21st-century feminist movement, she does her readers a disservice.
And yet, even though I didn’t agree with everything in it, How to Be a Woman is still one of the most entertaining and exhilarating feminist books I’ve read – and it’s certainly the funniest. It’s a book with the power to amuse, inspire and even enrage readers of any age and gender, but it should be compulsory reading for teenagers. I have a feeling it’ll have the same effect on the teenage girls who read it that Huggy Bear’s Her Jazz and Susan Faludi’s Backlash had on me when I was 17: it’ll get them all fired up, it’ll make them think and, ultimately, it’ll change their lives. Best of all, it’ll make them laugh at the same time.
Anna Carey is a freelance journalist. Her debut novel for young adults, The Real Rebecca, was recently published by the O’Brien Press
04 July 2011
By Caitlin Moran
Reviewed by Helen Lewis-Hasteley
Caitlin Moran's polemic-by-autobiography might not have the anger or urgency of The Female Eunuch, but it certainly has more jokes.
One of the guys.
As a movement, feminism has been many things, but rarely has it seemed fun. Caitlin Moran is out to change that as she "rewrites The Female Eunuch from a bar stool and demands to know why pants are getting smaller".
How to Be a Woman joins her on her 13th birthday, growing up in 1980s Wolverhampton. Caitlin was the eldest of eight children, crammed into a council house, sharing beds and piling on top of each other on the sofa to watch Bergerac. The lack of privacy (her mother points out her daughter's first pubic hair to the whole family in a chapter entitled "I Become Furry!") perhaps explains why this is such an unabashed book. It's all here: teenage crushes, masturbation, lap-dancing, episiotomies, chafed nipples, drunkenly spilling whisky over Graham Coxon from Blur. And ultimately it's all about her. This is polemic-by-autobiography, so how much you like Moran's arguments will depend on how much you like Moran.
Her feminism is of the easygoing, pragmatic kind. Although she claims, in discussing Katie Price's career, that women who "pander to sexism to make their fortune are Vichy France with tits", she is no hardliner. Even though a mother, she is in favour of women rejecting motherhood as their highest goal, and points out: "Batman doesn't want a baby in order to feel he's 'done everything'."
In essence, she believes the opposite of sexism is politeness, and that our ambition should be to see the whole of humanity as simply "The Guys". Nevertheless, even though this book emphasises the intellectual similarities between men and women, it can't help stressing their physical differences. The writer's unruly female body is centre stage throughout: even Germaine Greer has wondered whether Moran will regret "casting off every last shred of her bodily privacy" by writing about her zealous teenage masturbation.
Take her description of her overweight teenage body: "I am a virgin, and I don't play sport, or move heavy objects, or go anywhere or do anything, and so my body is this vast, sleeping, pale thing. There it is, standing awkwardly in the mirror, looking like it's waiting to receive bad news. It is the bad news." Or her "shattered tits" after breastfeeding: "If they were a character in a film, they'd be the girl who falls over when they're being chased by the Nazis and shouts, 'Go on without me! I've had a good life!' My breasts wish the rest of me well, but they are just not going to make it."
Moran is consistently sparky and has a perfect turn of phrase. In this book, she only occasionally lapses into the stylistic tics - such as USING CAPITALS BECAUSE SHE'S TALKING ABOUT VAGINAS - that make it best to take her Times columns in small doses.
One of the greatest challenges of contemporary feminism is that it can no longer be treated as a singular entity (if it ever could). The concerns of western feminists are far removed from, say, a mother-of-eight farming at subsistence level in the developing world. Moran's book is unapologetically aimed at women like her, who read celebrity magazines and can't wear high heels and worry about whether having children will wreck their careers. That is no bad thing. I am squarely in her target demographic, and I loved reading a book about someone like me, rather than a mythical superfeminist who regards wearing lipstick as a mark of unforgivable capitulation to the patriarchy.
I wish, however, that some of her attacks - on the media's obsession with knocking successful women by calling them fat/frail/unlucky in love because a photographer has taken a single unflattering picture, for instance - had been carried further.
Moran notes in the acknowledgements that she wrote her book in "an urgent, five-month blur" and occasionally it shows in wonky dates, in odd typos, in the way her two daughters are referred to as "Lizzie" and "Nancy" except for one occasion where the elder one's real name crops up and the reader thinks: "Who?" These flaws might be pinpricks, but you do feel that, given more time, she could have landed a few more killer blows on her targets.
Then again, while How to Be a Woman might not have the anger or urgency of The Female Eunuch, it certainly has more jokes. And perhaps that's what modern feminism needs.
Helen Lewis-Hasteley is an assistant editor of the New Statesman
Sunday, 3 July 2011
Ebury Press £11.99
We need to talk about Jordan...
Reviewed by Katy Guest
I met Caitlin Moran once, in a taxi queue at Charing Cross station.
She offered me a bite of her prawn sandwich and I said "You're Caitlin Moran," and then, of course, we were new best friends, as I always knew that we would be when I read her columns.
This sense of instant camaraderie that Moran's writing inspires is often attempted but hard to achieve. How To Be a Woman is full of shouty capitals and shocking personal confessions, which could so easily come across as teenage, grating and slightly mental in less assured hands. What makes Moran's style so impressive is that she makes writing like that look easy. (It's not.) That, and the fact that she's properly funny.
The book is described as "part memoir, part rant". It begins on Moran's 13th birthday, when she is 13 stone, eating lumps of cheese the size of her head, and being chased by stone-throwing boys. How she got from there to here is the story of the book.
Essentially, it comes down to dancing, well-fitting pants, and declaring with gusto that "I am a strident feminist". But it bears close reading, memorising, reciting in social situations and giving to your daughter. In fact, it ought to come free with all waxing strips and women's magazines, and be obligatory reading for all teenage girls.
When only 25 to 30 per cent of women identify themselves as feminists, and girls aspire to being glamour models, footballers' wives or in The Only Way is Essex, Moran's book comes not a moment too soon. "Feminism, as it stands, well ... stands," she writes. "It has ground to a halt .... And no one is tackling OK! magazine, £600 handbags, tiny pants, Brazilians, stupid hen nights or Katie Price. And they have to be tackled ... rugby-style, face down in the mud, with lots of shouting."
The book is rooted in the school of thought that "the personal is political". Moran writes about discovering masturbation, her breasts, and a lot about being the proud owner of a big, furry muff. She describes her three-day labour and a later abortion in horrible detail, so she seems in a position to hold forth about the joys of having children, and the liberation of not doing so. She speculates about over-eating as an addiction (what if more women hit the heroin while Keith Richards binged on pasta?), concluding that: "Over-eating is the addiction choice of carers, and that's why it's come to be regarded as the lowest-ranking of all the addictions." Katie Price, and "women who, in a sexist world, pander to sexism to make their fortune", she likens to "Vichy France with tits".
While this book will inspire moments of righteous fury in all but the most cowed fashion-magazine victims, its overriding achievement is to make feminism seem unthreatening and forehead-smackingly simple. She is not anti-men (in fact, among life's bad stuff, "weddings are our fault, ladies".) Having grown up one of five brothers and sisters, she honestly believes that we're all just "The Guys", that sexism is just a form of bad manners, and that one thing that would help is more imaginative porn.
It would be almost unkind to call this an important book, because what it is mostly is engaging, brave and consistently, cleverly, naughtily funny, but actually it is important that we talk about this stuff. Problems such as domestic abuse, female genital mutilation and women's suffrage don't mean that we shouldn't sweat the small stuff, too. And nobody ever started a revolution while wearing really uncomfortable pants.
Published Date: 28 June 2011
By Lee Randall
How to Be a Woman
by Caitlin Moran
Ebury Press, 320pp
CAITLIN Moran is fast approaching National Treasure status, especially among the Twitterati, who rely on her tweets for entrée to the clique of cool Londoners keeping social media buzzing with their quips, feuds and flirtations.
She is equally
renowned as an award-winning
columnist and interviewer for the Times – a paper she joined while still a
teenager, on the heels of spending six months at the Observer, after winning
their Young Reporter of the Year competition when she was 17.
Moran is the eldest of eight children who grew up largely unsupervised in an anarchic, cash-strapped Wolverhampton household. No shirker, she wrote a novel at 14, and before leaving her teens she'd moved to London, joined the staff of Melody Maker, and was presenting the pop show Naked City, on Channel 4. In 1999 she married music journalist Pete Paphides, and they're the parents of two daughters.
Along the way Moran began menstruating, sprouted breasts and pubic hair, discovered the joys of masturbation, fell disastrously in love, became a feminist, encountered sexism, and dithered over the most apposite nicknames for her breasts and vagina. Each of these milestones – along with having children, having an abortion and contemplating plastic surgery – forms a chapter in her hysterically funny memoir-cum-manifesto, How to Be A Woman.
It should really be called How to Be a White, Heterosexual, First World Woman. Moran writes from experience, and what research there is functions as garnish, rather than meat. But her experiences, in all their gory, shaming detail, are universal.
I'm old enough to be her (teenaged) mother, but I cringed and giggled at the universality of her struggle to make sense of her ever-changing body and her experiences out in the world. That's rather sad, because it means my peers and I didn't rattle the bars loudly enough.
Moran spares no-one, but her cheerful amiability is magnetic, pulling you through the narrative at a rapid pace. I found her notably eloquent about being fat. She is outraged by our hypocritical view of addiction. Those who eat compulsively do so for exactly the same reasons that others take drugs or drink, yet someone like Keith Richards is secretly admired.
What if his mood-altering drug of choice had been food, she wonders? "Overeating 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. It's a way of f***ing yourself up whilst still remaining fully functional, because you have to."
At every step of the way she challenges perceived wisdom. She argues for and against having kids with tremendous lucidity. She boldly challenges the premise that choosing to abort is traumatic. The point of feminism, she reiterates, is to offer women options. Still, I suspect what will really stick with readers is the raw cry of pain that is the story of her eldest daughter's traumatic birth – it's harrowing enough to function as birth control.
At no point does Moran write off the male of the species, nor does she absolve women from all blame, insisting that we won't make real strides until we stop worrying about such foolishness as Botox, Brazilians, and boob jobs. She knows there are those who will argue that she's being trivial, and that it's far more important to focus on genital mutilation, HIV transmission, equal pay, glass ceilings and the dearth of female heads of state and companies. But, she counters, "all those littler, stupider, more obvious day-to-day problems with being a woman are, in many ways, just as deleterious to women's peace of mind".
Along with reclaiming the phrase "Strident Feminist", she proposes a new rule of thumb for sniffing out sexism. "It's asking this question: 'Are the men worrying about this as well? Are the men told not to do this? Are the men having to write bloody books about this exasperating, retarded, time-wasting bullshit?'"
How to Be A Woman is not without flaws. For example, Moran argues for more, and different, pornography, but calls strip and lapdancing clubs "light entertainment versions of the entire history of misogyny … No man who ever cared for or wanted to impress a woman made her stand in front of him and take her knickers off to earn her cab fare home." She reckons they should be abolished, because no one inside is having any fun. But she makes that proclamation after describing a fun night out … at a lapdancing club.
One of the most distracting, potentially undermining problems, is her habit of hitting the Caps Lock button. The effect is like a gobby teenager grabbing your lapels and screaming in your face. And it's unnecessary, since Moran is completely capable of expressing her intelligence in a normal typeface.
If I had my way this book would be issued to every teenage girl along with her first box of tampons. Who better to help them navigate the minefield of adolescence than everyone's favourite fun auntie, whose presence is testament to the lifesaving value of humour, and who understands that the best way to administer home truths is by slipping them in with the gags?
23 Jun 2011
How To Be A Woman
by Caitlin Moran
What a useful manual that would be, specially for men. But the title is a misnomer, Caitlin Moran admits in her final para.
All she really wants, she says, is to be decently human. "Just a productive, honest, courteously treated human." Fortunately, her book turns out to be a bit more specific than that - tightly focused, in fact, on her own special subject, the one on which she is uniquely well qualified to pronounce: How To Be Caitlin Moran, the 35-year-old fantastically fêted journalist, the queen of Twitter.
A cross between a memoir and a comedy routine, "it's the story of all the times I - uninformed, underprepared, fatally deluded as to my ability to 'style out' a poncho - got being a woman wrong".
She's well aware that "merely recounting experience" and ranting about such subjects as "OK! magazine, £600 handbags, tiny pants, Brazilians, stupid hen nights or Katie Price" might not appear to be addressing the bigger issues of traditional feminism, "like pay inequality, female circumcision in the Third World, and domestic abuse".
But, she claims, the "littler, stupider, more obvious day-to-day problems with being a woman are, in many ways, just as deleterious to women's peace of mind" and that therefore what is needed now is a Rudy Giuliani-style Zero Tolerance "broken windows" policy, transferred to female inequality, clobbering every little bugbear.
And with that neat little bit of footwork as a rationale, she's off. Caitlin Moran is a brilliantly funny writer, who doesn't really need all the noisy capitalisations, italics and exclamation marks she favours to make an impact.
You can just put this book in front of people and watch them start snorting in 15 seconds. She pushes it all further than you expect, with formidable confidence and invention - and she's as ruthless and explicit about her own life as about everything else she tackles. She has the nerve to say things loudly and clearly that others may have felt but have kept quiet about, being more embarrassable. Caitlin cuts the crap. And most of her exasperated truth-telling is aimed directly at women, hardly any at all at men.
She's great on the stupidity of "investment handbags" and high heels: "WE CANNOT WALK IN THE DAMN THINGS. We might just as well be stepping out in anti-gravity boots, or roller skates." She says that while men might well be blamed for many terrible things - "wars, rape, nuclear weapons, stock market crashes, Top Gear" - the horror of weddings is all down to women. "Weddings are our fault, ladies. Every aspect of their pantechnicon of awfulness happened on our watch."
She's completely impatient with the mass adoption of the Brazilian: "I can't believe we've got to the point where it's basically costing us money to have a fanny. They're making us pay for maintenance and upkeep of our lulus, like they're a communal garden. It's a stealth tax. Fanny VAT.
This is money we should be spending on THE ELECTRICITY BILL and CHEESE and
She's totally opposed to routine cosmetic surgery to hide ageing, calling it another women's conspiracy. "Women living in fear of ageing, and pulling painful and expensive tricks to hide it from the world, does not say something amazing about us as human beings. Oh, it makes women look like we were made to do it, by big boys. It makes us look like losers. It makes us look like cowards. And that's the last thing we are."
As for the likes of Katie Price: "Women who, in a sexist world, pander to sexism to make their fortune are Vichy France with tits."
There are excellent chapters on the merits of having children and not having children, both honest and emphatic - and another on having an abortion herself, after two children, and simply feeling "thankful for the choice I made".
This is a feminism (a "strident feminism", she calls it) that doesn't bother to condemn men. "I don't want men to go away. I don't want men to stop what they're doing," she says. Instead, she wants more from women. "I want women to have more of the world, not just because it would be fairer, but because it would be better." And she thinks "simply being honest about who we really are is half the battle" for women.
You could find fault with this book for its preoccupation with popular culture, media imagery and relative trivia. There's more not just about Lady Gaga but about Moira Stuart than there is about Islam. Then again, Moran may be over-optimistic in calling for her readers just to crack on, to flirt or not to flirt in the office, just as they like, to stop pretending they're not getting older, to treat sexism just as a question of manners, to admit that men made the world … Few can have her radical confidence.
But then she earned it. Caitlin Moran grew up one of eight children, home-educated in a three-bedroom council house in Wolverhampton. Yet by 16, she somehow had already joined Melody Maker and, still so young, she has been a prize columnist at the Times for 18 years now. She has invented her own style. How she achieved this break-in to the Establishment - talent, plus unparalleled chutzpah? - is the one story she doesn't tell at all here, perhaps because it might seem boastful, which she is not, never self-pitying either, preferring funny always. A must-read for all humans, this.
The award-winning columnist argues for less self-flagellation and more fun in her witty and astute manual for women
Before we start, let's be clear: this is a great big hoot of a book. There are lines in it that will make you snort with laughter, situations so true to life that you will howl in recognition. It is very, very funny. So, you could read it just for that, for the entertainment value.
However, if you are female, and particularly if you are a female under 30, then, tucked around the jokes, Moran has provided you with a short, sharp, feminist manifesto. It's not academic: she doesn't present a research paper into gender differences in pay or interview women who have suffered domestic abuse. Instead, she uses her own life to examine the everyday niggles of everyday womanhood – hair removal, getting fat, tiny pants, expensive handbags – as well as the big stuff such as work, marriage and kids. She pins each topic out like a live, wriggling, sexist frog, ready for dissection. But, instead of scalpelling it into little bits, as, say, Germaine Greer would, Moran tickles it so hard that the frog has to beg for mercy and hop off.
Moran, a columnist for the Times, writes very quickly, so How To Be A Woman is timely. (In fact, if you're a regular reader of her columns, you'll be familiar with some of the book's topics – her wedding, the joy of bras, meeting Lady Gaga.) The book is also on point: like the best columnists, much of what she says is something you've already thought of, but not articulated, not quite. And, like I say, it's funny. Humour is, of course, the coolest, sharpest weapon in humanity's social armoury, and it's one that feminists, supposedly, lack. (Though we might mention Tina Fey, Joan Rivers, Nora Ephron…)
So, perhaps, the very fact that How To Be A Woman is so hilarious is its greatest strength. However, the parts of this book that I loved the most were actually the most serious. There are moments when Moran writes about her unconfident younger self that make you want to clutch that small person to you and say, "It will be all right". And her account of giving birth and – particularly – of her abortion are exceptionally moving. Not because they are feminist. But because they are true.
The book's structure loosely follows Moran's life, from child to thirtysomething, with the feminist analysis woven in between. If you wanted to be picky, there are a few occasions when this analysis doesn't quite work. Her conclusion about pornography is pretty woolly.
There are times when her test for sexism – equating it with a lack of politeness – will not work. But, for this reader at least, that is made up for by her seven-page rant about the delight of pubic hair that includes this observation: "Lying on a hammock, gently finger-combing your Wookie whilst staring up at the sky is one of the great pleasures of adulthood."
And Moran's final, simple argument, that there should be more of us, more, different women taking up more space and having more power in the world, is spot on. Why should women only be allowed to be seen and, particularly, heard if they are deemed acceptable enough to do so? Acceptable meaning "pretty and of the right age". You only need to go online, to read the blogs and tweets of the thousands of anonymous women out there to realise that we have as much to say, and can say it as cleverly and wittily, or as irritatingly and crassly, as men.
Moran has written for the Times since she was 17. She has won awards for her criticism and interviews. She is not an "ordinary" woman by any stretch of the imagination. However, the very nature of being female in the UK means that you share the same life architecture as most other women. Your life is structured in much the same way: to be blunt, you are sold the same shite. Brazilians, Botox, babies before you're too old: even if you know that you want none of these things, it can be hard not to be affected by an overbearing general atmosphere that tells you that you do. You must.
It can be hard not to be cowed.
The joy of this book is just that: the joy. What Moran is really arguing for is more female happiness. Women spend too much of their time worrying, beating themselves up, going along with time-wasting, restrictive, often expensive, sexist mores. The triumph of How To Be A Woman is that it adds to women's confidence. It reminds us that sexism, and all that is associated with it, is not only repressive, it is tedious and stupid. It is boring. Best give it a body swerve and get on with having fun.
Her new book has shocked Germaine Greer… but wait till the Spice Girls get a load of it
OK, the back of your book says you've rewritten The Female Eunuch from a bar stool. What's the big idea?
Well, I'd always described myself as a feminist, but it seemed increasingly that my idea of what a feminist is was completely at odds with what professional feminists out there were doing and saying. It came to a head when I went to a meeting and there was a massive row about pornography, and all the old-school feminists just seemed to think it was totally unacceptable. There are problems in the world but pornography's not a terrible thing. Pornography will never go away. The pornography industry's sexist, and bad stuff's being made, but the idea that all pornography must be bad is really wrong. It just got to the point where I thought I need to get out there and sort it out myself.
Do you think feminism was hijacked by intellectuals and became slightly po-faced?
Not hijacked – they just became the only ones who were interested in it. I don't come from an anti-intellectual viewpoint: people from Oxbridge turn me on. But I have none of those chops at all. I have no qualifications, I know none of those words, and I haven't read those books. I come from pop culture, and I wanted it to be like rock'n'roll. I wanted someone to shout "I'm a feminist! It's really fun! Let's all go and be feminists in the pub!"
Germaine Greer has read and reviewed the book. It must have been a bit of culture shock for her.
I was quite amused because she was horrified by the fact that I'd documented the first time that I'd had a wank. I have shocked Germaine Greer! No one's made nearly half enough fun of the ridiculousness of being a woman though, so the idea of having your first wank as a girl thinking about Chevy Chase in the Three Amigos or Fletch, I find really, really funny.
Rather humanely, you suggest that the patriarchy must be knackered by now, and we'd be doing it a favour to give it a rest. For you, humour seems to be the best way forward…
It's the most human way. But also if women just turned around and were honest and said I don't give a shit, I'm not playing – I don't care what Angelina Jolie was wearing this week, I haven't got time to pamper myself, I don't care if I've got blackheads, I don't care if my arse is a bit spongy, I have not got time for you, you ridiculous capitalist construct, then the whole game would be fucked overnight.
Where did it all go wrong then?
I said this jokingly but I think it's true: that it was the Spice Girls who messed it all up. I was a teenage girl during Britpop, and you watch the footage of early Blur concerts, and they're all in Doc Martens and jeans and no make-up, and there's this brilliant, puppyish, I'm-just-being-a-human-being kind of vibe. Then the Spice Girls come along and it's like Adam and Eve eating the apple of knowledge in the Garden of Eden. And obviously, the appropriating of the phrase "girl power", which at that point overrode any notion of feminism, and which was a phrase that meant absolutely nothing apart from being friends with your girlfriends. Is that it? You're literally going to tell me as a woman that the two things that are good for me are 1) to make me feel I should go back to wearing a very short skirt, and 2) be friends with my girlfriends. And in exchange for that you're basically going to wipe out feminism for a decade? Thanks!
You write very candidly in the book about having an abortion. Why was it so important to you to include that?
It felt like a privilege and honour to write about something that's so common but that for whatever reason women haven't felt like they can talk about. It's ridiculous that women feel they have to be silent. If these experiences are so common but no one's talking about them, then that's a form of societal mental illness. I don't think there should be anything that women are embarrassed to talk about in the 21st century, because for the last 100,000 years men have said everything that's on their minds and described everything they have done.
You grew up in Wolverhampton, the eldest of eight kids. You were educated at home, then got a job at Melody Maker in London at 16. How did that happen?
It was either that or working in Gateway. I had no qualifications whatsoever, no experience of doing anything. I was also very socially awkward. It wasn't just the fact that I wanted to be a writer, it was literally that no one would talk to me in Wolverhampton. And the only way I could conceive that I would ever make friends or be allowed to talk to someone was if I became a journalist and put in to interview them. It was totally out of expediency. I'd kept a diary since I was 10, and writing is still the easiest thing out of anything in the world. I genuinely miss writing now on the rare days I don't write; my mouth waters when I think about writing, and I have an extreme physical reaction to the idea of doing it. Because you're completely in charge of your world there, aren't you? And now you can muck around on Twitter at the same time, it's double bubble.
You really do tweet a lot, don't you?
People always say this, but if they knew how much I wanted to tweet! The loveliness of being able to talk to people on Twitter and then go and write an article afterwards totally thrills me. And also, a couple of weeks ago my brother had his wallet stolen at Victoria station, and I just went on Twitter and asked if there was anyone nearby who could go and give him a fiver so he could get the tube to my house. And within 12 minutes, someone had.
Rock journalist at 16, TV presenter at 18, newspaper columnist for nearly 20 years. What else can there be to do?
The next thing's going to be a sitcom I'm writing with my sister Caz about our childhood. In the end I want to spend my 60s writing bonkbusters like Jilly Cooper. And I want to have my hair at least a foot wider before I get to my 50s.
And so what have you learnt about being a woman?
I've learnt that you tend most to make a div of yourself when you're trying to cover up the fact that you don't know what you're doing. And that simply saying I don't know what I'm doing is a massive relief. It's best if you're polite. Try to be cheerful and laugh at stuff. But that's general advice for humanity.