A couple of months ago I was having a conversation with a group of smart, progressive women and the conversation turned to the differences between men and women. One of the women was recounting a story in which she was going to meet a man somewhere and told him she would be in a taupe SUV. He had no idea what taupe even meant, and she told him he should have asked his wife. She would certainly know and would probably have a few pairs of taupe shoes because of course every woman has multiple pairs of taupe shoes. I laughed along, as you do, but on reflection I realized that I don’t have any taupe shoes–actually, I’m not entirely sure how taupe differs from tan. Clearly I need instruction on how to be a woman. So Caitlin Moran’s How to Be a Woman to the rescue!
Moran’s book is actually not a manual on how to tell taupe from tan or how to choose the best purse to go with your belt and shoes or to make sure you’ve got your body hair situation under control. Just the opposite, in fact. Part memoir and part manifesto, this book recounts Moran’s own realizations about how she wants to live her life and what she chooses to value and how the fact that she is a woman enters into that. Moran makes no bones about the fact that she’s a feminist, and a Strident Feminist at that, and she wants to see more women and men being Strident Feminists. But stridence need not mean humorlessness, and Moran fills her story with humor—raunchy jokes, sarcastic remarks, witty observations, and comical stories.
Although Moran focuses on feminism, this isn’t a serious work of feminist theory. It’s more about the day-to-day issues Western women often face, as observed and experienced by Moran herself. So you get hitting puberty, learning about sex, experiencing sexual harassment, and having babies, as well as trying to find suitable clothes and dealing with weight. Moran’s reflections on all these experiences and the wider issues they raise are idiosyncratic and personal, not based on extensive research. Readers with different experiences may not always agree with her (I didn’t), but it’s clear that she has thought through her ideas.
But I’m perhaps making this book sound too serious. It’s a thoughtful book, to be sure, but what I enjoyed about it was how funny it is. Here, for example, is Moran on women’s clothing:
But now it seems you find “the dress”—but “the dress” must have “the belt,” and a complimentary but not overly matching bag must be found, which works with not only the correct hosiery but also something to “throw over,” if you become chilly. It’s like fucking Dragon’s Quest—an endless list of things you’ve got to run around and try to find, possibly in a cave, or under a sage. The thing you “throw over” can’t be an anorak, or a picnic rug salvaged from under the stairs, by the way, but a deconstructed cardigan, a hacking-style jacket, a £200 pashmina, or a “shrug,” which unfamiliar item seems, to my untrained eyes, to be a shrunken cardigan made by a fool. It all looks bloody knackering. It’s going to cut into my bread-and-butter-pudding-making time severely.
This. This is why I continue to live by my basic uniform of neutral pants or skirt, patterned or colorful shirt, neutral jacket or cardigan, and neutral shoes. (And always the same purse—I’m too lazy to switch my stuff from purse to purse.) I have a couple of pairs of bright shoes and a few dresses (with neutral belts, jackets, or cardis) to liven things up, but trying to assemble outfits of more than that is more trouble than I’m interested in taking. If I’m going to play Dragon’s Quest, then I need to be questing for a dragon.
I laughed in total agreement with Moran about a lot of these sorts of personal decisions. And I’m happy to report that, for the most part, she doesn’t seem to treat making different decisions as an inferior choice. There are some cases, Brazilian waxing for example, where she does have a strong opinion, and she doesn’t mince words about it. But most of the time, she seems to want people to do what brings them joy, whether it’s to wear a dress with stillettos (even if you’re a man) or to not bother plucking your unibrow (even if you’re a woman).
Moran spends a lot of time talking about sex, and those who are easily offended might not be able to cope with her bluntness. Here, again, she’s all about doing what gives you joy. Oddly enough, I was reminded of C.S. Lewis, who said in The Four Loves: “Banish play and laughter from the bed of love and you may let in a false goddess.” Now I’m pretty sure that Lewis and Moran would disagree about a lot of things when it comes to sex, but I think they’re on the same side in that it should be fun and too often isn’t. The desire for joy in sex is one of the reasons Moran objects to strip clubs but not burlesque shows. The other being that, in burlesque shows, the women are in a position of power and seen as having a good time in their own right, unlike the women trying to earn a buck at a strip club. And incidentally, the fact that women are paying for their university educations by stripping does not make it a good thing. As Moran says, “If women are having to strip to get an education—in a way that male teenage students are really notably not—then that’s a gigantic political issue, not a reason to keep strip clubs going.”
Although I didn’t always agree with Moran, I enjoyed reading what she had to say. My only really serious complaint is that she tends to universalize some aspects of women’s experiences in a way that could cause some women to feel left out. I felt that way a few times, but it helped to think of this more as a memoir than as a treatise on womanhood today. That way of thinking also helped me get around some points where I felt her research had some gaps or where I simply wanted more depth. This book is about one woman’s experience and how that experience might sync up with other women’s and how we might together make some progress for all women who’ve faced similar indignities. Considered in that light, it’s pretty effective, and plenty entertaining.