Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Book Review - Caitlin Moran's How to Be a Woman

How to Be a Woman by Caitlin Moran
Published by: Harper Perennial
Publication Date: June 16th, 2011
Format: Paperback, 320 Pages
Rating: ★★★★
To Buy

The only reason I ever found out who Caitlin Moran is is because of a good book cover. Yes, we've all been lured into picking up a book because of a fabulous cover, sometimes to our detriment, but for me it was really all about that hand lettering. For about six months straight How to Be a Woman was featured almost daily in my Waterstones email and I seriously clicked the link every time to admire the lettering. What I wouldn't give to be able to do hand lettering, but sadly it's not in my wheelhouse. Despite my insane case of cover lust I didn't feel compelled to buy the book. I'm not into nonfiction, I'm not into books that explore feminism, so I wrote off this book as not for me. Then all of a sudden within the last few weeks Caitlin Moran got on my radar again. One of my friends was reading another of her books, Moranthology, I have an e-galley of How to Build a Girl languishing on my Kindle, and Caitlin and her sister Caroline wrote a show based loosely on their childhood, Raised by Wolves, which has been airing on the BBC. It was really this last one that got me interested in reading more of her work. In twenty minutes I was able to gauge her humor and realize, that while uneven, it might just be for me.

How to Be a Woman was a great companion piece to Raised by Wolves, I got deeper insight into what might be a funny throw away line on the show by hearing the full story. It was like spending a little holiday in Caitlin's brain, which was oddly restful, relatable, and fun; and like all holidays, had it's crappy moments too. While I've seen many reviews saying how she is the British Tina Fey, I'd actually compare her writing style, and also her upbringing, more to David Sedaris. I had the same feelings reading this book as I did when I first read Me Talk Pretty One Day. The insights are something I've thought of but never really been able to verbalize. Their writing style makes me wish that I was more polished, that I could write like this. Because the truth of the matter is, while yes, I might have a book in me, I know in my heart of hearts that it would never be fiction. My book would be more memoir or a Roman à clef, and I would hope it would be like this. More even... but still, like this. 

What I admire most about this book is how she simplifies the definition of feminism. Feminism has almost become a loaded word. Even women like me think of the strident feminist burning bras, not half the population just looking to be treated equally. So to simplify, here are Caitlin's instructions. "Put you 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." So simple and so true. I think Caitlin would probably now encourage me to stand on my hair and shout it, but due to wobbly chair and lack of coordination, this could end badly, so I will just say it here I AM A FEMINIST! But what saddens me is to look at this hopefulness in this book, this idea that we are all humans living together and hopefully we'll be bros and be just one of the guys and pal around in a world of equality and to see the reality of what has happened in the few short years since Caitlin wrote this book.

The truth is that this book is sadly dated. There's hope and progressive thought and in just four years so much progress has been undone. Rights of women are flowing out of our hands faster then water. How can we women be "one of the guys" when not only the government is turning against us but more and more vitriol is being spewed on the web against us? Look to Gamergate and all that has wrought! Gamergate is the newest horror in the ongoing culture war of men and women. What started as backlash for supposed preferment for a woman game designer has descended into sheer madness. Death threats, doxing, hate mail, threats of physical violence, in particular rape. This has created a culture of fear and hate, where even me writing about it gives me pause, because anyone who takes a stand and speaks out against Gamergate could be their next target. Caitlin Moran has even tweeted about this, but sadly the movement hasn't failed and is just as strong as ever, so maybe it's time to switch the conversation? I can't do it on a global scale, but I can in this review.

How to Be a Woman is the best when it's relatable, when Caitlin's experiences are shared by her fellow women, obviously me included. Her tackling what it's like to get your first period, which for me also happened on my thirteenth birthday, to dealing with the emergence of hair all over our bodies, I wanted to scream YES, but from my comfy chair (remember, bad balance, so no standing up on said chair here). Though I haven't experienced everything she has, no marriage and kids for me, these are such universally feminine issues that as a woman you get it, you understand. But the truth is Caitlin had a very interesting foray out of Wolverhampton and into the greater world at large, writing for Melody Maker at the age of sixteen. It's when she starts to dwell on specific events that happened to her that couldn't ever in a million years happen to you when the book loses that relatablity and starts to lose your interest. In particular I am thinking about Caitlin going to a very German bar with Lady Gaga. Yes, Caitlin's extrapolation of Gaga as a feminist icon works, but it's almost too specific and too much relating to her sitting in a banquette with Gaga falling asleep in her lap. Yes, it's an interesting if odd story, but I don't think it works in the context of the book.

But even if it's uneven and occasionally meandering, it's a book that every woman and every man should read. Seriously, I think guys would understand us a lot more just from a few key scenes in this book. And she's not afraid to tackle the big issues, like abortion, and she's not afraid of making herself look bad, she tells it like it is. Sometimes it can be preachy, and it is definitely NOT for everyone, ie abortion, but I feel somehow more connected after reading How to Be a Woman. It's not about "Girl Power" or anything so trite. It's about knowing that what I feel is somehow universal. That even if we are totally different people, and that my and Caitlin's life are so different you can barely compare us, there is literally an ocean that divides us, but underneath everything we are the same. If nothing else, this book will truly make you think. And laugh. A lot. Out loud.


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