How to Be a Woman

Book cover: How to Be a Woman by Caitlin MoranHouston, we have a problem.

Caitlin Moran’s How to Be a Woman, which was released across the pond last year with much success, was released in the United States this summer. It’s been marketed as a memoirish feminist manifesto, with Moran being billed as a British version of Tina Fey and her book being billed as a feministier version of Bossypants. Feminism, but more fun! Feminism that you can relate to! Feminism with an irreverent sense of humor! Every young woman should read it!

Yeah…no. I’ll be perfectly blunt here: the thought of this book serving as anyone’s introduction to feminism horrifies me.

The sad thing is that this book isn’t all bad. There were things I could get on board with, like real talk on abortion experiences or the distortion of media images or her experiences being harassed on the street as an overweight teen. It’s not perfect, but Moran adds a healthy dose of self-deprecating humor, and it’s a useful perspective that the book’s intended audience probably doesn’t hear enough of.

But then there are the other things, things she’s just so profoundly off the mark on, that I just cannot — will not — accept.

So much of what Moran says sound like it comes from a weird twilight zone of “feminism.” It’s a lot like those celebrities who say they support gay rights or a women’s right to choose, then make a point of scoffing, “But don’t worry, it’s not like I’m a feminist or anything!” Except in Moran’s world, she’s proudly proclaiming “YES I’M A FEMINIST!” while saying a lot of stupid shit so she can keep fitting in with the guys. Because this is cool feminism. Or something.

Let’s start with a subject near and dear to my heart, women’s history:

Even the most ardent feminist historian…can’t conceal that women have basically done fuck-all for the last 100,000 years. Come on — let’s admit it. Lest stop exhaustively 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.

This really pisses me off for a couple of reasons. The first is that she’s distorting an entire academic field. I read a decent amount of women’s history; not once have I ever come across a serious historian claiming that there was a “parallel history” of women being equal to men. Like, ever. There is, however, a history of women’s contributions — some of them quite amazing — that would be buried and forgotten if not for this focus on women’s history. However, the real reason this flippancy angers me is because it is the same attitude used to dismiss Native American history, or Black history, or Latin@ history, or any other kind of history that isn’t white and European. This attitude has been quite the problem in the legacy of mainstream feminism. (Trust. I’ll come back to this.)

Since we’re on the subject of feminist legacies, let’s talk about the chapter that’s very much the heart of the book: the one specifically dedicated to converting people to feminism (a.k.a. An Illustration of What NOT to Do When Preaching Feminism).

  • Rule #1: Don’t start by paraphrasing Germaine “Transphobe” Greer (but if you absolutely must, don’t double down by paraphrasing creepy, cissexist shit like “you need to taste your menstrual blood,” for christ’s sake).
  • Rule #2: Don’t say that people who can’t say “I’m a feminist” are “basically bending over, saying, ‘Kick my arse and take my vote, please, patriarchy.” Plenty of people know damn well what feminism is and reject the label (but not the principles) precisely because of dumb, alienating shit like this.
  • Rule #3: Don’t keep quoting Germaine Greer. For real.
  • Rule #4: Don’t say cissexist shit (do you see a pattern here?) like:

Here is the quick way of working out if you’re a feminist. Put your hand in your underpants.

a. Do you have a vagina? and

b. Do you want to be in charge of it?

If you said “yes” to both, then congratulations! You’re a feminist.

  • Rule #5: Don’t say, “I want to reclaim the phrase ‘strident feminist’ in the same way the hip-hop community has reclaimed the word ‘nigger,’” then follow that gem with, “Imagine if, in the 1960s, it had become fashionable for black people to say they ‘weren’t into’ civil rights.” Especially if you’re white and are writing what alarmingly appears to be the most Privileged White Feminist book we’ve seen in a while.

There are tons of other problems with the book, but since the book is being marketed as fun feminism, I’ll just touch on Moran’s take on what her intended audience might consider fun: sexy stuff! Like pole dancing classes! And burlesque! But don’t you dare become a stripper:

I can’t believe that girls saying, “Actually, I’m paying my university fees by stripping” is seen as some kind of righteous, empowered, end-of-argument statement on the ultimate morality of these places…One doesn’t want to be as blunt as to say, “Girls, get the fuck off the podium — you’re letting us all down,” but: Girls, get the fuck off the podium — you’re letting us all down.

Ah, here we go distorting arguments again. However!

pole-dancing classes, on the other hand, are fine! I know! Who would have thought!…In a world of infinite possibility, why not learn to hang off a pole by your pelvic floor? It probably will be more useful than learning Latin…So long as women are doing it for fun — because they want to, and they are in a place where they won’t be misunderstood, and it seems ridiculous and amusing…then it’s a simple open-and-shut case of carry on, girls. Feminism is behind you.

Also!

With burlesque, not only does the power balance rest with the person taking her clothes off…but it also anchors its heart in freaky, late-night, libertine self expression: it has a campy, tranny, fetish element to it.

Strippers are letting us down, feminism supports pole dancing classes, and it’s totally okay to use a derogatory term that hurts trans people on top of tying adjectives like “campy” and “fetish” to trans identities. Got it. Yay, feminism! 

Which brings us back to that initial women’s history quote and the hurtful legacies of feminism that, as you can see, remain a problem to this day. Thing is, Moran has obviously done her feminist homework. I know from the way that she writes, and the names that she drops, and the quotes she uses, and the insights she has that she is well aware of feminism’s darker side.

So what is her problem? Why does this book have so many issues?

Earlier this month, Moran interviewed Lena Dunham to talk about her TV show, Girls. Someone on Twitter contacted Moran to ask if she had addressed the lack of representation of women of color on Girls (an issue that has been cropping up pretty much since that show first began):

And there it is. Intersectionality? She doesn’t give a shit about it.

How to Be a Woman was released in the U.S. in July 2007 by Harper Perennial, an imprint of HarperCollins.

I read it as a(n): Paperback
Source: Publisher
Pages: 320

26 comments

  1. Jeanne

    I read something about the stripper/pole dancer thing and was horrified. It sounds like the rest of the book has enough germs of truth to be genuinely horrifying in its distortions.

  2. jenn aka the picky girl

    I had never heard of Moran until this book came out, but I read about the Lena Dunham/Twitter thing and was a bit taken aback. I mean, wow.

    But that first quote you use? OH MY GOSH ARE YOU FLIPPING SERIOUS? Is she just ignorant of women’s contributions, or does she just not care about how many women have contributed to technology, science, medicine, literature, art, youcanstopmebecauseillkeepgoingotherwise….

    Yeah, I’m not a fan of comedic feminist texts that basically denigrate everything women before them have worked so hard for.

  3. Alison

    Thank you SO MUCH for putting yourself through reading this. When I first heard about this book (from a brief reference to it on a book blog somewhere, months ago), I thought it sounded great – a witty, straight-forward “hell yes, I’m a feminist” kind of thing. Then I read another review…and another…and heard some clips of an interview with Moran…and read more blogs…and yeeeeeeeah, I will NOT be reading this. Your review further cemented that decision. Like you said, I’m sure she does have some good points and ideas, it’s just a shame they’re surrounded by a bunch of offensive, gross bullshit. It’s also really disheartening that of course she’s being held up now by some people in the press as like, this new feminist icon. Once again, they’re getting “feminism” totally wrong. Sigh.

  4. Natalie Ramm

    I really enjoyed this book, perhaps because I’m a white female?? But I can see the flaws in some of her arguments, which you point out very well. And I do think her twitter fiasco was insensitive and just wrong. However, I think the point about every woman being a feminist is important, perhaps not in a “just like the guys” kind of way but in the “I care what happens to me and other women” kind of way. Basically, stop trying to be “the cool girl” because she doesn’t exist!!

    I would be interested to read say Oprah’s feminist manifesto to balance it all out.

  5. The Literary Omnivore

    Hideous.

    I read a review of this on another blog, where the reviewer quoted Moran tearing into the concept of the little black dress and accessories, which sat very poorly with me—do I not get to sit on the feminist table because I like accessories? I mean, I understand the frustration of seeing women not identifying as feminists over and over again; I’m always frustrated when I hear the dreaded “I’m not a feminist but…” myself. But we respect other people’s choices. They’re people, not automatons with bad programming—being awful to them doesn’t reprogram them.

    I just want to keyboard smash, especially at the last bit. How infuriating!

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  7. Jenny

    I have been in a quarrel with Caitlin Moran (she doesn’t know about it but I DO) since she said that extremely annoying thing about Lena Dunham on Twitter. (Also because Lena Dunham has said that she DOES give a shit about it and doesn’t want to keep having a show where everyone is white.) And I’m not surprised she has lots of other annoying things to say that don’t acknowledge women that don’t fall within her ideas of what people should be like.

  8. meadowgirl

    i’m so glad you wrote this and read that awful book so i don’t have to. reading her twitter BS was enough to turn what little hair that isn’t gray of mine, gray!

  9. Jessica

    It sounds like she encapsulates what is wrong with white feminism today, which, as you say, can be summed up in four words: complete lack of intersectionality.

  10. Iris

    Thank you. I read this and I just didn’t know where to start with this review. There’s a part that just draws you in as the self-depreciating humour and the things that you recognise from your own life are very sympathetic. But I agree, about the women’s history, that one had me with my mouth open wide. And I didn’t quite know what to make of the stripper/pole dancing thing. I was also quite puzzled with the way in which she separates feminism from class struggles and tells you that it is okay, don’t even worry about, having a maid in the house, and anyone who tells you to think about the difference in status is not actually right, and yeah, you can be feminist and basically be classist. Yay. (I mean, I get it, why having a maid is actually an issue and why some have one anyway, and why in a way it’s a matter of everyone “doing their job”, and yet something’s amiss there, isn’t there? Something just doesn’t sit right with Moran’s dismissal of the issue). I hadn’t considered the cissexist stuff, thank you for pointing that out. Okay, I guess I should not postpone writing my review any longer.

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  13. Jason Connor

    Great post – I agree with a lot of the things you say, particularly about the way she completely ignores intersectionality.

    My only disagreement is that there might be a bit of a cultural mistranslation with her humour – correct me if I’m wrong. I think many people who read HTBAW in the UK would have been familiar with Moran’s column in The Times prior to reading the book. As you’ve noticed, her shtick is that sort of hyperbole-cum-humour thing, like that paragraph on women’s history. I doubt many people would have taken that paragraph literally; I think Moran and most of her readers would readily acknowledge the hugely important, often ignored contributions that women have made throughout history.

    (As an aside, if I recall correctly, I think the context of that paragraph was to say that women have for so long been suppressed by men that they haven’t had the opportunity to have a “parallel history…equal to men”. I certainly don’t think she intended to say women’s history should be “dismissed”.)

    Fair enough if you’re horrified that HTBAW would serve as anyone’s introduction to feminism. It certainly has several major shortcomings and I definitely don’t take it as gospel. That said, as a 21 year old guy, the book’s humour (even if sometimes wide of the mark) made feminism accessible and has encouraged me to read more widely and broaden my perspectives. Surely, on the whole, that’s a good thing?

  14. KateP

    To other commentators here — if you want to express an opinion on this book then you have to read it!! Please form your opinion based on the actual text, not on quotes taken out of context.

    I liked this book. I thought it highlighted many feminist issues that have not been discussed by others. I don’t expect Caitlin Moran to cover ALL the issues that women deal with. I was just looking for her take on life and she delivered her story with wit and passion.

    And I think her definition of feminism is exactly correct — if you have a vagina (or even more, if you have a uterus) AND you would like to be the person in charge of it (rather than your local legislator), then you ARE a feminist.

    • Melissa

      KateP: Which quotes were taken out of context?

      Her book is called “How to Be a Woman,” so that definition of feminism is a HUGE problem: not all women have a vagina (and/or a uterus). And not all women are comfortable with being called a feminist, not because they’re clueless and want their rights taken away, but because feminism has a long, LONG history of alienating marginalized groups of people. Saying “nigger,” “tranny,” and “I have the joyful ebullience of a retard” (as she does in the UK edition)? Then blowing it off as a joke? That’s not going to make people who are uncomfortable with feminism want to join the cause.

      I don’t care if she’s vulgar or irreverent. Say “fuck” all you want; it’s your book. And if you don’t want to write an academic feminist text, fine! You can leave out language like “cissexism” and “intersectionality” while still keeping those principles in mind. I get that she’s going for the average reader, and you know what? That’s awesome. But that’s makes it even MORE important to write a book that makes everyone feel welcome to feminism. Instead, the reaction is divided: a lot of people love it, but a lot of people feel offended and are further convinced that feminism isn’t for them.

      • Melissa

        “You can leave out language like “cissexism” and “intersectionality” while still keeping those principles in mind.”

        Argh, not exactly what I meant. I meant that you can introduce these concepts to readers (informally lead up to them without using academic jargon) in a way that makes those words accessible. Because it’s NOT academic jargon. Those two words are lived realities for a lot of people.

    • valeriekeefe

      How wonderfully cissexist of you. I’m a woman who would like to be in charge of my own body, and my genital morphology is pretty irrelevant to that, especially when you compare the death rates between denied/delayed abortions (including back-alley deaths and suicides) and denied/delayed transitions.

      Know why more and more women are not identifying as feminists? Because we live in an era where, thanks to those evil patriarchs and their desire to make real-troo-(cis-)women sexually available through birth control, or feminism inventing birth control to liberate real-troo-(cis-)women from their uteri… I forget which history is correct, really it depends on whatever hackneyed, unidirectionalist rhetorical point the author is making at the moment, gestation is not the be-all-and-end-all of most women’s lives anymore unless they want it to be.

      I’m a feminist, and I’m telling you that the lazy, self-centred, classist shit that people who reduce gender to genitalia spew is not relevant to most women’s lives. 40% of women are voting Republican, for example. Do you think that none of them want control over their own body? Sure they do. They just think that control should be a commodity (this is the classism I referenced earlier, rearing its ugly head). Someone in a household that brings down $100K a year is never going to want for a safe, accessible, abortion in the United States, just like they never did before, and the failure of middle-class cis feminists to acknowledge that, their insistence on arguing disingenously, destroys the movement’s credibility and its capacity for positive change. .

      More than thirty years since Rivera, Stone, and Hooks, feminists like me shouldn’t have to remind feminists like you about the importance of intersectionality and making the analysis fit the data instead of the other way ’round.

      • Melissa

        40% of women are voting Republican, for example. Do you think that none of them want control over their own body? Sure they do. They just think that control should be a commodity (this is the classism I referenced earlier, rearing its ugly head).

        THIS.

  15. nomadreader

    I’ve been curious about this one since seeing your instagrams of it! I picked it up at the library this morning, and I’m curious how I’ll react. Great review today.

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