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How To Be A Woman

Posted in Book Reviews on January 17th, 2013

I picked up Caitlin Moran’s How To Be A Woman over the summer in London. It’s part memoir and part Feminism 101. In the beginning of the book, Moran describes herself as an awkward teenager with a hopeless crush on Chevy Chase. I settled in hoping for the best. But while Moran is good at naming sexism and patriarchy, she’s not very clear on blaming it.

Moran explains her two step test for spotting sexism:

Is this polite or not? And, are men doing it too?

This is excellent. It’s a very simple thing to understand and can be explained without the use of jargon or making anyone feel defensive.

But then Moran goes on to say that she thinks the cause of sexism in the world is just that men are used to being the people with the most power and resources. And men don’t like the idea of losing that special status. This is not an original observation, but instead of expecting men to reject patriarchy as a matter of justice and embrace equality rationally, we should understand their actions as logical. You see, the reason for sexist behavior from men is that,

A quiet voice inside – suppressed, but never wholly silenced – says, “If women are the true equals of men, where’s the proof?

For even the most ardent feminist historian, male or female, citing Amazons and tribal matriarchies tribes and Cleopatra – can’t conceal that women have basically done fuck all for the past 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 equal with men, that’s just been comprehensively covered up by The Man. There just isn’t. Our empires, armies, cities, artworks, philosophers, philanthropists, inventors, scientists, astronauts, explorers, politicians, and icons could all fit, comfortably into one of the private karaoke booths in SingStar. We have no Mozart; no Einstein; no Galileo; no Ghandi. No Beatles, no Churchill, no Hawking, no Columbus. It just didn’t happen.

Nearly everything so far has been the creation of men – and a liberal, right-on denial of it makes everything more awkward and difficult in the long run. Pretending that women have had a pop at all this before but just ultimately didn’t do as well as the men, that the experiment of female liberation has already happened but floundered gives strength to the belief that women simply aren’t as good as men, full stop. That things should just carry on as they are – with the world shaped around and honouring, the priorities, needs, whims, and successes of men. Women are over without having been begun. When the truth is that women haven’t begun at all. Of course we haven’t. We’ll know it when we have.

There are several problems with this. First that “everything so far has been the creation of men” is just a flat out myth. There have been many brilliant women artists, architects, philosophers, philanthropists, inventors, scientists, astronauts, explorers, politicians, and icons. We know the names of some, others have had their work stolen by men or posed as men when they were making their contributions. Moran is either severely uneducated in women’s history or is just plain disingenuous.

Secondly, when we celebrate women’s contributions to the world, we aren’t “pretending that women have had a pop at all this before but just ultimately didn’t do as well as the men.” We are celebrating women that achieved in spite of the odds. We are saying, Look at what these women did, even though they everything about their culture or was telling them they could not! Isn’t that great?! Imagine what women could do if they didn’t have any of this bullshit to deal with all of the time!

And third, it’s a cop-out. Men are capable of understanding nuance just as easily as women are. If they really don’t know why there aren’t as many famous women as men in history, and because of this they don’t think that there’s a problem with the way women are treated, then they are a lost cause. And we should tell them so. Women taking their rightful place in society is not an act of aggression toward men. And there’s no reason to soothe men’s egos if they imagine this to be an insult.

Later in the book, Moran returns to this point and says that women are still trying to come to terms with not being chattel anymore, and with throwing off the psychological scars of oppression. She does this much more conversationally, but she also explains that this is why she thinks women haven’t caught up with men yet. I can agree with this, but again, there’s no reason not to celebrate the accomplishments of women in the past.

In a chapter about strip clubs, Moran writes,

Women have been shafted by the simple fact that men fancy them. We can see that men’s desire for women has, throughout history given way to unspeakable barbarity.

This idea that men cannot control themselves is one of the biggest myths of rape culture.

Moran goes on to say that strip clubs are the “light entertainment versions of the entire history of misogyny” and then compares them to minstrel shows. There’s several comparisons in the book of women’s oppression and racism. I think that this can be done sensitively, but the book draws the parallel in a very blunt way. Moran does say that she sees space for the erotic in our culture and praises the art of burlesque accordingly. But to blame sex workers and not the men who abuse and degrade them misses the mark completely.

Despite all this, How To Be A Woman might be worth the read just for the humor. Moran is extremely funny. But the analysis behind the jokes falls short. There is a lot of good stuff in this book which calls out sexism in pop culture, double standards and toxic messages women get about body image and motherhood. However I think there are some parts that could be confusing to someone just starting out with feminism who might not have a good grasp on intersectionality or the many different kinds of feminists that are out there.

One Response to “How To Be A Woman”

  1. Palaverer Says:

    I’ve joined a new liberal feminist book club. Our first meeting is next week and we’ll be discussing this book. I had very similar impressions to yours. There was funny, there was stuff I agreed with, and there was stuff that just played into the same patriarchal tropes we’re sick to death of. More of the former than the later, thankfully.

    One of my favorite parts was the chapter on abortion, where she draws a parallel between miscarriage and abortion by asking what the difference is whether her body chooses to abort or her mind does. It’s just a nuance that the mind is part of the body, that I hadn’t thought of in that context before.

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