How to Be a Woman, by Caitlin Moran

10600242You might disagree with her from time to time, but think everyone should read Caitlin Moran’s How to Be a Woman, even the guys–perhaps, especially the guys. One thing I’ve noticed about being a woman myself is that you constantly run into “shoulds,” sometimes unspoken, that push you into being a certain kind of woman. They can be as obvious as the pressure to be hairless from the scalp and eyebrows down, to professions that are still hard for women to break into, to subtle sexism, to reproduction. I’m not suggesting that men don’t have similar pressures. But I would argue that there are far fewer pressures. There are so many ways for men to be men, but, as Moran points out, woman are so often pushed to be wives and mothers. If we don’t become wives and mothers, there is the implication that there’s something wrong with us. Moran concludes in her postscript:

But as the years went on, I realized that what I really want to be, all told, is a human. Just a productive, honest, courteously treated human. One of “the Guys.” But with really amazing hair. (301*)

That’s what I think it should be about, too.

Moran frames her essays about being a woman with a biography of her best and worst moments of being female. I love hearing from people who have a talent for turning their most embarrassing moments into eye-wateringly funny stories. There were several times I had to put the book down because I was laughing so hard I couldn’t see the pages. She starts at age 13, an age of significant change for a lot of girls. Moran sums this time up by writing at the end of the book:

When I think of everything about womanhood that had hamstrung me with fear when I was 13, it all came down, rally, to princesses. I didn’t think I had to work hard to be a woman–which is scary but, obviously achievable. I though I had to somehow, magically, through superhuman psychic effort, transform into a princess instead. That’s how I’d get fallen in love with. That’s how I’d get along. That’s how the world would welcome me. (292)

I’ve felt that, too. All through the book there were little pings of recognition. While I haven’t gotten up to nearly the kind of shenanigans that Moran has, I had more than a little affinity for her stories about menarche, trying to get kissed for the first time, and trying to learn how to flirt (which I still suck at, but there you go). I’d come to a lot of the same conclusions about how to a woman (namely to figure out who you are as a person), but it’s so refreshing to hear it from another woman.

The best lessons in this book revolve around the idea of feminism. It bothers me no end when certain conservatives deride feminism as an attempt to do away with men or other such nonsense. Moran boils it down to:

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. (75)

I would add that men can qualify if they agree that women should be in charge of themselves without any interference from others or from the law. That’s really all feminism is: a desire for equality without being limited by biology. Moran does a great job of arguing back against anti-feminists, and has some great theories about the psychology of women after centuries of living under the pressures of what women should be.

I really loved this book. I read it in one sitting yesterday. When I put it down, I was a little sad to be leaving Moran’s company. Reading this book was like sitting down to talk with a best friend, one who is willing to say outrageous things to make you laugh while talking about serious things. If you have any doubts about whether you’re being a woman the right way, Moran will reassure you.

* Quotes are from the 2011 Harper Perennial trade paperback edition.

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2 thoughts on “How to Be a Woman, by Caitlin Moran

  1. I loved this book so much!!! I had to parse it out so I wouldn't be done with it in one sitting, and I'm still sad I'm done with it. I think one of the most refreshing things is finding someone who isn't a paragon of womanly virtue or whatever else women are supposed to be paragons of, but a flawed, dazed, normal human person.

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  2. Moran did such a good job of exploring the idea of what a “normal” woman is. I think intellectually we recognize that there's no such thing, but it's a very hard less to internalize. It takes more than a little courage to break the mold; we all could use a little more encouragement there.

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