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Reviews

How to be a Woman

Johanna Derry

Caitlin Moran
Ebury Press, 320pp

If ever anyone looked like a stereotypical modern woman with feminist tendencies, it was me. I am sitting alone in Pizza Express, killing time waiting for a train in Edinburgh, fully laughing out loud to myself. I'm wearing no make up and in one hand I'm clutching a gin and tonic. In the other is the source of my raucousness: Caitlin Moran's first book, How To Be a Woman.

Because the modern woman knows she's grateful to the feminist movement, but isn't sure any more if she wants to be actually labelled with the f-word. She wants to be free to not wear make up but is worried she'll be judged. She wants to be able to sit alone and not fret about being harassed. And she wants to drink gin and laugh out loud. Is this feminism? According to Moran, possibly yes. With her book, Moran claims to be making an effort to reclaim the word feminism for the good.

For her this means she doesn't think women should wax off their pubic hair (the part where she declares that 'finger-combing' her 'wookie' while lying on a hammock is one of the great pleasures of adulthood is already one of the most quoted parts of the book), but no, that doesn't mean cultivating a matching underarm crop and developing teddy-bear legs.

She thinks women should be offered the option of abortion without condemnation and with the freedom to discuss their choice and its impact, for better or for worse. But no, she doesn't think feminism precludes motherhood.
Interestingly she thinks porn in and of itself is okay. But that the kind of porn available online is boring to women, and that maybe we should maybe make some of our own with better plotlines.

Yes, high heels are of the devil and, she can reveal, were never meant to be worn to be walked in. No, that doesn't mean they're a symbol of male oppression or subjugation of the female body.

Those are the headline parts of the book, the bits that everyone has and will talk about. But although these are 'feminist' issues, How To Be a Woman isn't really a feminist text. It's been touted as Germaine Greer's The Female Eunuch for the 21st century, but it's probably more accurately described as Times columnist Caitlin Moran's memoirs, with a bit of what she thinks about porn, waxing, and high heels thrown in for good measure.

She covers puberty and womanhood through the lens of her own experience, making this, in spite of the title, less of a distanced and academic, bullet-pointed 'how to' guide, and more a text offering the comforting reassurance that, although every woman's experience is different, some general truths do apply. She gives you hope to believe that perhaps you're not the only fully grown woman still waiting for the manual on how to be a fully grown woman to arrive in the post.

Her wry and pithy observations and brutal truth-telling means that she keeps you hooked, and giggling, even through the most toe-curlingly cringeworthy of passages. Like, for example, her graphic description of discovering masturbation aged 13 (another of those headline passages), or the part where she tells how she gave birth to her first child, what muscles were torn, how long everything lasted and the devastation that it wreaked on her body. In spite of the fact that it should come with a warning for women who haven't yet been through childbirth (like me), somehow I found it an enjoyable read. It's the honesty that's so endearing.

Therein lies her charm. This book is like one of those annoyingly good conversion testimonies people tell in church services - the ones where they'd done drugs and time behind bars, and had an alcohol problem and six wives and seven mistresses, and then found Jesus and become the sweetest kindest person and had somehow managed to subsequently amass a fortune of millions which is all being used for philanthropic purposes. They're annoyingly good stories that leave you unable to resent the person at the end of it.

So, Moran was a fat teenager, who had to share a bed with one of her many younger siblings. Then she got a job on Melody Maker, started to smoke, drink, take drugs and have lots of sex. Then she got a job at the Times, married Pete Paphides, had two beautiful daughters and lived happily ever after. Having learned what it is to be a woman who is comfortable in her own skin, she then writes her story and sells it. If it weren't so hysterically entertaining I'd probably want to poke her eyes out. But this is not a journey of gratuitous self-discovery, Eat, Pray, Love-style. Thank goodness.

In weaving together anecdote after anecdote she magnificently hits the right balance between the serious and the silly. Instead of envying her the ease she says she has within her own skin, it's as if you feel a little easier in your body after reading it. Who cares if I'm make-up-less, drinking gin in Scotland and laughing to myself like a mad woman? If Caitlin Moran can be comfortable enough to point fun at herself, laugh at her weaknesses, share stories that are less than flattering, and that are deeply moving, then so can I. And if that's how the feminist movement can be most relevant today, then perhaps this book is a just successor to The Female Eunuch after all. 

Johanna Derry