Welcome back to my holiday book-giving guide, where I’m reviewing various popular feminist books in the weeks leading up to Christmas to help you decide which to get for your loved ones (everyone gives books for Christmas, right? Books are cool, right? Right??). If you missed last week’s review, you can find it here.
This week, I’m reviewing Caitlin Moran’s wildly popular “How to be a Woman”. In this part-memoir, part-feminist self-help guide, Moran takes us on a fast-paced journey through her life as a woman, detailing the ways in which she encountered various issues like puberty, sex, sexism, body image, relationships, and weddings, all of which taught her how to be a woman (see what I did there?).
Moran’s writing style is energetic, engaging, and entertaining as she dives headfirst into issues that other writers might be reluctant to tackle, and does so from a very practical, everyday standpoint. Moran isn’t afraid to take a stand on various feminist issues; she believes that pubic hair is good, high heels are bad, and that a little flirting in the office to get ahead is generally not the worst thing in the world.
Moran is honest about her own flaws and foibles; as she takes the reader through her journey through womanhood, she discusses the ways in which she bought into stereotypes and gender roles before realizing that they didn’t work for her. Her openness and self-deprecation helps the reader feel as if he or she and Moran are on the same side, trying to figure out the world as they go along.
Moran doesn’t often move away from humor, but when she does, it’s purposeful and effective. For instance, she candidly discusses her own abortion and the thoughts and emotions she experienced before, during, and after the procedure.
The main problem with “How to be a Woman” is that it is a humor book that is sometimes feminist, instead of the other way around. When given the choice between making a joke or addressing a feminist point, Moran invariably chooses to make the joke, no matter how sexist it may be. She reinforces stereotypes – “Women start planning their weddings when they’re five, for goodness’ sake” – makes judgmental statements about any woman who doesn’t fit into her version of feminism – “we know women who always blow-dry their hair before leaving the house are freaks” – and repeatedly blames women for their complicity in patriarchal structures – “Weddings are our fault, ladies… Not only have we let humanity down, but we’ve let ourselves down too”.
On a more serious level, Moran deliberately ignores the structures of power inherent in the issues that she discusses, choosing instead to focus on individual women’s choices. For instance, she defends her choice to hire a female house cleaner, saying that it’s no different from hiring a male plumber. However, she doesn’t address the fact that plumbing is considered a trained skill, and that plumbers usually have the protection of unions (and therefore things like pensions and benefits), whereas housecleaning is often a cash business that offers its employees little protection. In another section, Moran judges and scolds women who choose to strip as a way to pay their college tuition, but fails to discuss issues of sex trafficking and abuse as regards strip clubs.
Moran has a long way to go on the way that she writes about gay, lesbian, and trans* people. In her book, gay men exist to be arbiters of taste, lesbians hate shoes, and drag queens are some of the only people who can walk in heels (don’t even get me started on her bizarre conviction that her aborted fetus would have been a gay son). She uses these categories as humorous props instead of as groups to which many diverse individuals belong. To her credit, she did admit in an interview that her use of the word “tranny” in the book was problematic and that while she didn’t realize it was at the time, the feedback that she received about it encouraged her to educate herself about the issues.
Whose stocking should it go in?
“How to be a Woman” probably shouldn’t be someone’s first exposure to feminism; at the same time, it might not be that enjoyable to someone who’s got a long history of feminist studies under his or her belt. If you have a friend or relative who’s got a little knowledge of feminism, and who likes a smart, funny read, he or she would might like this one.
Interested? Purchase the book here.