Welcome back to Hermione Granger’s feminist book club! Thus far, Emma Watson has recommended books by uber-iconic feminist leaders Gloria Steinem and bell hooks. April’s book is pretty different: How to Be a Woman by Caitlin Moran. I hadn’t heard of her before Watson selected her book, but Moran is a well-known comic journalist in Britain (as you see, the cover features a blurb from Vanity Fair describing her as the UK’s Tina Fey).
HOW TO BE A WOMAN follows Moran’s journey to “womanhood”, with all its familiar markers: puberty, menstruation, sex, love, work, marriage, motherhood. But becoming a woman runs a parallel trajectory her becoming a STRIDENT FEMINIST (all caps!) at 15, when she reads Germaine Greer’s The Female Eunuch for the first time. Along the way, Moran dissects the equal-parts-hilarity-and-insanity of being a woman in modern society, which runs the gamut from pornography, strip clubs, fashion, weddings, and celebrities to more conventional feminist concerns like sexism in the workplace, body image, the pressure on women to have children, and abortion.
Now, I’m only on, like, Chapter 5 of being a woman myself, and I quickly realized that there’s a lot of British culture (i.e. stuff other than Arctic Monkeys) that I’m not too familiar with. But Moran is very fun and relatable, not to mention refreshingly frank: not just about controversial topics like abortion, strip clubs, and burkas, but also about stuff like Brazilian waxes, Aslan fetishes, and the myriad of euphemisms and terminology for vaginas and breasts (or cunts and “my girls”, in the words of Scarlett Johansson). But she’s also intelligent, measured, and thoughtful in her crassness, which is frankly even more refreshing than frankness.
My initial opinion was that, though the chapters on the everyday nuances and nuisances of what “being a woman” means–can I get a HELL YES (question: are all caps the equivalent of italics in the UK?) for her pointing out that no, most modern feminists don’t say “porn is sexist” in the sense that pornography is intrinsically sexist, but that most mainstream pornography as an industry is really damned sexist–were terrific, the chapters that directly deal with feminism and sexism seemed strangely…less. I mean, yeah, I agree with her that no, criticizing other women isn’t necessarily antifeminist, but it’s bizarre how she initially seems to defend to the death talking shit about other women’s hair or sexual choices but later does the complete opposite in later chapters. Also, her stance on women’s history–while not entirely off the mark–comes across as pretty one-dimensional given a lot of recent (and mainstream, not fringe feminist) scholarship that shows history of gender is actually a lot more complicated than we realized. I mean, I don’t even have to work all that hard to discredit it: just look at Moran’s own country, Great Britain. Name the English monarch during the greatest age of England. I’ll bet that half of you picked a woman. And the other half picked another one. I know what she’s saying, and it’s undeniably true that women haven’t had nearly as many opportunities for greatness as men. But it’s also true that a lot of women’s achievements just haven’t been valued as much (i.e. how many people know that Ada Lovelace and Murasaki Shikibu invented computer programming and the novel), that women have been influential even if they haven’t been remembered in the history books (Vikings, Mongols, and even the modern civil rights movement, which was 2/3 female as far as the ordinary foot soldiers of grassroots activism). Women have spent most of their time on the bench, but their batting average when they actually get to play has actually…been pretty damned impressive, is what I’m saying. (I don’t know sports.)
But I changed my mind as the book went on. The last chapter, in particular, is a tour de force. Compared to Steinem’s activism and hooks’ sociological theory, it’s easy to describe Moran’s brand of feminism as a breezier, NYT-bestseller variety, along the lines of Tina Fey or Amy Poehler. That’s not even wrong, what with her focus on humor and pop culture over complicated gender theory. But that doesn’t diminish her (or for that matter, Fey or Poehler) in the slightest. Though Moran’s brand of feminism is cheekier and more accessible, it’s no less strident–and if you need any proof of that, look at how she insists on reclaiming strident as a positive. Or, for the matter, less smart or important.