Tagged: feminism

A Conversation about Conversations between Feminists: On Caitlin Moran’s How to be a Woman

“Read any good books lately?”

“What a question.”

“Well we have to start somewhere.”

“I suppose.”

“So?”

“So what?”

“Have you read any good books lately?”

“I’ve just finished How To Be a Woman by Caitlin Moran (she’s a journalist, child prodigy, and writer) and depending on your perspective, it’s a 21st century Female Eunuch. It’s memoir, essay, personal narrative. It charts the experiences that form her understanding of being a woman – starting from bullies calling her fat as a twelve year old girl, all the way through teenage-hood, sex, relationships, clothing, work, marriage, children and more.”

“Did you like it?”

“Yes I did. She makes some very sensible-sounding points in a very funny and engaging way. I laughed, and I almost cried. She’s honest, frank. The story of the births of her daughters were particularly powerful; funny, painful, beautiful. I could have cried and I never cry.”

“I didn’t know that.”

“That I don’t cry?”

“Yes”

“Not something you open with I suppose. Maybe makes me sound a little dysfunctional too. Anyway, back to the book.”

“It’s been in the top five of the bestseller list for a while now – obviously lots of other people like it too. Or they’re at least buying it.”

“Well I got excited by it because it said some really positive things about feminism, encouraging women to recognise that they are feminists. A particular chapter encourages women to stand on a chair and shout it out loud, that if you like equality you’re a feminist and it’s an empowering thing to say out loud. She discusses how feminism has been misconstrued as a position that involves the indiscriminate hatred of men, or that feminists are misers. Her position picks up on this feeling and suggests that humour might be a way to combat discrimination and misogyny. Moran seems to be trying to draw attention to the idea that feminism is not about hating men or denying femininity, but about realising how ridiculous and often hurtful it can be if you don’t like the things you feel you have to do, the way you’re treated or how people talk to you, specifically because you’re a woman. Moran shows the reader the ridiculousness of this through genuinely funny and interesting discussions. She really stresses that if you like equality for women, then you’re a feminist, end of. And that’s great.”

“Needs to be said I think. It’s a shame that so many women shy away from the concept because of its status in popular culture.”

“Lots of feminists have taken issue against it, and I think for all the wrong reasons. It seems a shame to dismiss Moran’s approach when it’s full of such positivity.”

“Ok, well what are people taking issue with?”

“The same things I took issue with really.”

“Um, playing devil’s advocate then are you? Or do you just like a good contradiction?”

“What, like, ‘I hate salt and vinegar crisps but love a gherkin’?”

“Yes.”

“Well, yes then. But let me explain: Moran includes a section about women’s history relating to sexism. She says, briefly, that men are patronising and sexist towards women because they associate the gender with underachievement. Before the 1980s, women filled none of the positions of great role models, creators, philosophers, politicians or artists; there were no female prime ministers, no female Mozart, no female Einstein. This disgruntled me and a few other reviewers because she seems to dismiss anything women have ever achieved or contributed to. Moran writes: “For even the most ardent feminist historian, male or female – citing Amazons and tribal matriarchies and Cleopatra – can’t conceal that women have basically done fuck all for the last 100,000 years. Come on – let’s admit it. Let’s stop exhaustingly pretending that there is a parallel history of women being victorious and creative, on an equal with men, that’s just been comprehensively covered up by The Man. There isn’t. Our empires, armies, cities, artworks, philosophers, philanthropists, inventors, scientists, astronauts, explorers, politicians and icons could all fit, comfortably, into one the private karaoke booths in SingStar. We have no Mozart; no Einstein; no Galileo; no Gandhi. No Beatles, no Churchill, no Hawking, no Columbus. It just didn’t happen.” (Moran 134-35) I agree with the following response to this statement: “[This] makes me think that [Moran] doesn’t understand a) the concept of feminist history, b) the basics of feminist theory, and c) the patriarchy…Feminist history is, most often, about understanding the ways in which women lived and operated within these bounds, and negotiated their place in the world. Sometimes this means highlighting their previously unrecognised achievements”1.”

“Why do you agree with this?”

“Because she’s generalising history, and working with a very specific idea of what constitutes ‘achievement’. Patriarchy has dominated, suppressed and repressed women, preventing women from performing the roles that men did, so it makes sense that we’re not present in the particular version of history she references.”

“Ok, that’s understandable.”

“I would suggest that most people in the world don’t wake up every morning and think, thank goodness for Einstein.”

“No, I wake up every morning and think, thank goodness for Tina Fey.”

“Despite this, the accessibility of Moran’s writing about feminism is its strength. Her book takes pivotal moments in her life and discusses the issues surrounding them in relation to being a woman. She grew up in a house with multiple siblings so many of her anecdotes and essays centre around moments when she reveals something to her sister, or when her parents notice her growing up. Privacy was a rarity for Moran it seems, and so other moments come from her attempts to find her own space in the world. I recognise these moments (the desire for finding a place in the world outside of my family, the burgeoning awareness and confusion of developing sexuality – hair growth, rejection by boys, masturbation etc). This book is accessible, is appealing; it’s an introduction to feminism for those who didn’t realise they were one, and a different take on feminism for those who do know about feminism.”

“Right, I see.”

“Perhaps the text brings women together. You could suggest that every feminist from every wave from every where wants to be free from discrimination and persecution because of their gender.”

“Yes – but that’s such a generalised point to the point where it ceases to have meaning. Discrimination in an office in London is radically different to the discrimination a woman in Kabul might experience.”

‘Well that’s one of the issues feminism has had to deal with in the face of globalisation. But Moran doesn’t attempt to try to solve these issues; her discussion is focused on her experience because she recognises the specifics of her perspective. What she addresses are that the disparate ideas twenty-first century women have about their lives, their bodies, their roles don’t negate feminism. Because there are feminists that shave their armpits, feminists that don’t, feminists that like porn but don’t like the porn industry etc. These feelings and stances don’t make each individual any less of a feminist. The point Moran is making is that it’s about choice and recognising the problems. It’s about understanding why you wouldn’t want to shave your armpits – for political or aesthetic reasons – why it’s unfair and why if you want to, that’s fine, and making an informed choice from there.”

“What does she say about shaving then?”

“Well, she loves pubes, recognises the current trend for not having any and links it to the porn industry. She recognises that shaving armpits, face, legs, arms and so on stems from the same issue, but she’s most concerned about a new generation of boys who have unlimited access to women constructed by the porn industry. She seems to separate her arguments on pubic hair from armpits and legs because men and women can see real-life legs, armpits and faces whenever. There are still expectations of this, but they’re not unreal expectations, like perhaps they are of women in porn films.”

“Isn’t that a bit of a contradiction? Bet you loved that bit.”

“I think she’s prioritising her discussion because of how huge and problematic and every day porn is. Porn creates representations of suppressive, domineering and dangerous sexual expectations – so does the beauty industry, but not enough people are talking about porn. So I appreciate her putting pubic hair and armpit hair in different categories.”

“Is it all a bit frivolous, though? The entire thing I mean.”

“No I don’t think so. Even the chapter on her meeting with Lady GaGa seems important because Lady GaGa is one of the most famous women in the world. She’s a role-model, a representation of twenty-first century women. As I mentioned, she wants us to recognise the absurdity of some of the expectations placed upon women, and she does this by making us laugh. I think this is empowering, and feels infectious. Another reviewer takes issue with this: “Furthermore the idea that we can resist the dominant modes of expression by, as Moran suggests, simply…‘laughing’ seems a little bit less active than I would like. Laugh it off, rather than engage, because if you are engaging, speaking out, you turn into a shrew, and become less attractive”2. I would suggest that laughing at something can be incredibly powerful, and isn’t the same as shrugging something off. A point isn’t necessarily lost just because it’s funny.”

“So it’s not about psychoanalysis then?”

“No – precisely. It’s not. It’s not about theory; it’s about life and the application of feminism. It’s about day-to-day choices, experiences that women have that shape the way they think about themselves; as Zohra Moosa writes, it succeeds “because it bridges the strident and the practical by being really very funny”3. She’s a smart woman, she’s written something on a very ‘un-cool’ topic that will sell and reach a lot of people. I think that’s incredible. I don’t care if feminism is cool or not, but lots of people do and are concerned with how saying they are feminist might affect them. Moran tells us – only in positive ways. I think this book might encourage people to look further afield, in a lot of different, feminist directions, which can only be a good thing.”

“So you know she’s not right about everything, but you don’t care.”

“Yes, I think so. When you write about an entire gender, you can’t possibly expect to find a catch all topic that every woman will agree on. Which is the point of new-wave feminism; we can’t all be lumped together, our experiences are far too complicated and nuanced for that. But that’s no reason to stop writing about our experiences, is it?”

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Notes –

1 Victoria. “The Fifth Wave.” Eve’s Alexandria. 6 August 2011. Web. July 2012. http://evesalexandria.typepad.com/eves_alexandria/2011/08/the-fifth-wave.html
2 McClory, Helen. “Endless Reads Review: How to be a Woman by Caitlin Moran + Swag!” Schietree. 2 March 2012. Web. July 2012. http://schietree.wordpress.com/2012/03/02/endless-reads-review-how-to-be-a-woman-by-caitlin-moran-swag/
3 James, Selma, Bella Mackie, Laurie Penny, and Zohra Moosa. “Caitlin Moran’s feminist handbook: Panel verdict.” Guardian. 20 June 2011. Web. http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2011/jun/20/caitlin-moran-how-to-be-a-woman

Bibliography –

James, Selma, Bella Mackie, Laurie Penny, and Zohra Moosa. “Caitlin Moran’s feminist handbook: Panel verdict.” Guardian. 20 June 2011. Web. http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2011/jun/20/caitlin-moran-how-to-be-a-woman.
McClory, Helen. “Endless Reads Review: How to be a Woman by Caitlin Moran + Swag!” Schietree. 2 March 2012. Web. July 2012. http://schietree.wordpress.com/2012/03/02/endless-reads-review-how-to-be-a-woman-by-caitlin-moran-swag/.
Moran, Caitlin. How To Be a Woman. London: Ebury Press, 2012. Print.
Victoria. “The Fifth Wave.” Eve’s Alexandria. 6 August 2011. Web. July 2012. http://evesalexandria.typepad.com/
eves_alexandria/2011/08/the-fifth-wave.html

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Laura Tansley is a recent PhD graduate from the University of Glasgow. Her fiction, creative non-fiction and academic writing has been published both online and in print in a variety of places. Most recently, she appeared in Issue 7 of Gutter magazine with a short story entitled ‘Fi/on/a’.