309 pages, Ebury Press
Review by Pat Black
I’m roughly the same age as Caitlin Moran. The first time I knew of her existence was when she presented a music show called Naked City on the UK’s Channel Four – this must have been about 1994, when she’d have been eighteen or nineteen. She had already published a book. At the same time, I was an awkward student thinking that at some point I’d like to be a published author.
I felt a tiny sting of young male tiny-tears envy. She’s the same age as me, I thought. How do I do that?
How do I get to be Caitlin Moran?
Well, thanks to this book, I’ve got all the answers now. Like the baddie in Silence of the Lambs, with some judicious folding, I will become a woman before your very eyes.
A great alternative title could be How To Be Caitlin Moran, as it’s more of a loose memoir rather than straight-up feminist critical theory. The awful description of this book I keep reading (I imagine it was tossed around at editorial meetings, like dingoes fighting over a baby) is that it’s “The Female Eunuch from a bar stool”.
And to be fair, Caitlin Moran certainly has a matey, boozy persona that makes her almost impossible to dislike. She also references a lot of geeky male things, so she’s boxing clever in order to make the book more appealing to men. Star Wars is one of her favourite things, you might guess, going by the amount of nods she gives it. You certainly won’t look at Chewbacca the Wookiee the same way again; nor the Pit of Sarlaac, longing as it does to be filled with Han Solo, much like the author.
So there is a chance that a knucklehead you know might read How To Be A Woman, but not much of one. The problem with trying to critique feminist theory is that there is no case to answer among balanced, sensitive people. Attempting to do so can be Pythonesque. “Well, there’s the murder, rape, warfare, general violence, bullying, controlling, abuse and workplace inequality. But apart from all that, why do you need feminism?” Any adult who seriously needs to have this pointed out to them probably still won’t get it. And does not, and maybe cannot, love women.
The key thing, for anyone afraid of Virginia Woolf, or anyone with XX chromosomes, is that How To Be A Woman is accessible and very, very funny. This review could easily turn into a big list of some of the first class jokes peppering the prose, so I will try to avoid that to make sure you remain unspoiled (I’ve already blown the ‘Sarlaac’ one, but there are countless others just as good). Another key indication of how good this book is, and how appealing it is to everyone, is that my partner and I both laughed out loud at what turned out to be, upon conference, the exact same bits. It all adds to the idea of Caitlin Moran as being someone who would, without a doubt, be a Terrific Laugh in the Pub.
She starts by talking about sex, and it’s an attention-grabber, of course. Moran, as a hormone crazed teenager, would scan the TV listings in order to see if any of the late-night television potentially had dirty bits in it. I was amazed; I thought that phenomenon was a purely male thing – the lonely night watch of the teenage onanist, standing sentinel like some weird sex lighthouse, unfailingly picking out the movies starring Amanda Donohoe or Jenny Agutter, these drifting lifebelts of lust that hormonal youths can cling onto.
Sometimes – dear god! – you might even see fannies. Never a good long look, of course, and certainly no guidelines as to the complex moving parts – just fleeting glimpses of muffs, flapping around like bats in an Ed Wood movie. Thank you, crazy werewolf lady from The Howling!
This leads us into something I’ve long been troubled by – how pornography and its trappings are gradually bleeding into mainstream culture. Bikini waxings are a bugbear of Moran’s. She conjectures that the Brazilian was invented so that we can see more of what’s going on at the business end of porn performers. Really? I thought they were invented so that the dreaded “spider’s legs” phenomenon was a thing of the past for ladies putting on bathing costumes. You know, hence the term, “bikini wax”.
But I’ll concede – I’m splitting hairs.
She is also wary of how easy it is for young people to access all manner of pornography on the internet, much of it well beyond what anyone would term normal. Back in the day, you either had to rely on the dirty bits that would appear on the TV, whatever flesh appeared in the newspapers or – whisper it – dog-eared copies of Razzle and the like, which were often passed around friends.
But, as Moran points out, those days of opportunism and late night TV wank roulette are completely gone now, and with them, some of the mystique and… do I dare say it? I do, I do! – the romance of love-making. If you’ve watched every type and iteration of penetrative sex, then does this take away from the joy of first-hand discovery? Does it begin to affect how both boys and girls treat reality, as they begin to explore their sexuality? What about in adulthood? With such a carnal carnival available at the touch of a button, will this begin to colour how your typical Saturday Shaggers view each other’s bodies, and what they do with them? I have a horrible feeling it might.
Moran’s point is that she’d be all up for porn if it had a bit of feeling in it. A bit of oomph, you might say, rather than two bored performers. My big problem with it is that even between consensual adults it can be degrading, and Moran’s in agreement there, too.
Loving the body in all its forms and feeling comfortable in our clothes is another fine source of wrath and comedy in Moran, and I applaud that. In particular, she targets the tyranny of shoes – this modern fetish where women are coerced into a strange footwear death cult, costing thousands of pounds. Like me, she feels that it must be overthrown, possibly by Luke Skywalker taking his X-wing into a Death Star turret… which could be construed as a young man’s quest to lose his virginity, it suddenly strikes me.
Anyway, I remember an ex who once actually hurt herself with her footwear. Like, badly. She had wounds. The type you wouldn’t want to put TCP on. It was partly because she couldn’t accept the fact that she had really big feet for a girl – male size eleven or twelve, a pair of flippers on the end of her legs – and kept trying to cram them into these dainty little shoes. One day she took her shoes off and she had perfect, open, bleeding crescents around her insteps, like sharkbites. And I exclaimed, “Jesus Christ – why are you doing this to yourself? Who cares if these shoes are ‘must-have’? You’ll get tetanus!”
Still stinging from her rebuttal that I was a sexist bore who wants to control women, coercing them into sensible footwear for my own cruel intentions, I’m glad to have Caitlin Moran on my side. I feel kind of vindicated. What the hell is that all about?
Moran hits 180 on some big targets. Lapdancing is near-impossible to defend in any way – it is the objectification of women writ large in society, and a sidestep away from paying for sex. It’s a poor facsimile of the eternal joy of a woman taking her clothes off in front of you because she wants to. And the men who visit such places aren’t just pitiable cases who can’t get girlfriends trying to take a step closer to the real thing for once – that you can surely understand, if not forgive. It’s about ownership, too. There are a lot of men out there who quite like the idea of: “Here’s some money. Do things for me.” No amount of well-meaning articles in broadsheet newspapers alluding to how it’s a legitimate way for comely young students to pay their way through higher education can take away from what is a seedy business, no matter how normalised it might have become.
I have been in a lapdancing bar. It was part of a stag party. No-one put a gun to my head to force me to go in. And I’ll admit –the girls soliciting me for a dance were absolutely stunning, I was tempted, and my heart was thumping. However, I didn’t want to go into the booths for “a dance”. Two of the girls, among the many who hung around the group, kept asking me if I wanted to go, and finally I said: “I don’t want to – I’ve got too much respect for my girlfriend.”
The instant reaction I got was like that bit in The Fellowship of the Ring where Ian Holm’s Bilbo Baggins catches sight of the Ring of Power hanging from Frodo’s neck, and lunges for it. “What are you doing in here, then?” one of them snarled. “Respect for your girlfriend? This is a lapdancing bar! Who are you trying to kid?”
And they were right, of course. But that sudden fury upheld Caitlin Moran’s contention that the dancers hate the men, and that their occupation is simply a loathsome practice that puts women in a subordinate, even supine roles, no matter how much they earn or what house rules are in play.
Moran has two key tests for any feminist. The first: is what you’re experiencing impolite? And the second: is what you’re experiencing acceptable for men? And I agree with those – but how about when the positions are reversed, Caitlin? After all, when she describes how she went to a recording studio with a band as a teenager and poured booze over the control console, shorting the electrics, or when she sluiced a bottle of red wine over the white walls, furniture and textiles of a rich couple’s room, well, I’d say she was being pretty impolite. In fact, I don’t think a guy doing the same thing would have been given the same carte blanche to get away with it. “Oops! Aren’t I silly?” Yes.
The tyranny of weddings is another spot-on chapter. As I get older – paunchy, frowning and mildly peeved, like a bear caught rooting around in some bins – I find the sheer amount of money which goes into this industry appalling, especially in cases where people are spending beyond their means for one single day in their lives.
I hate to sound unromantic, but when it’s costing you an arm and a leg and, in roughly 50% of cases in the western world, it does not work, then something is wrong. I know of people remortgaging their houses in order to pay for lavish ceremonies and honeymoons, only for the union to dissolve a matter of months later. I also know of a couple who had decided to split up before their wedding, but went through with the charade (paid for in full by their parents) in any case so that they could ask guests to provide them with cash and cheques rather than wedding presents. Basically, it was a scam. Moran is on the ball with this ugly, cash-grabbing spectacle, gleefully eviscerating this unseemly jockeying for social status and “I’m a princess” wish-fulfilment.
One side-issue I have, though. She mentions that the best man at her own silly wedding was a gay man wearing a cape. Her spectacular and outrageous “gay best friend”. Like a costumed superhero and a disco diva all wrapped up in one.
Can someone explain to me exactly what the significance of a “gay best friend” is? Aren’t they just your “best friend”? Why does their sexuality come into it? I don’t get it – and it’s dangerously close to paradigmatic thinking. “Great – a gay man! You can be my gay best friend!”
Do any gay men ever think to themselves: “You know what? I’m happy to be friends, but I don’t like this stereotyping at all. I’m not an accessory for someone else. I don’t feel ‘fabulous’ tonight, thank you very much. I am an individual, so please treat me like one.”
Because the reverse would be weird, and crass - wouldn’t it?
“Where are you off to tonight, Pat?”
“Well, I’m going to hook up with my lesbian best friend. We’re going to compare plaid shirts, buzz cuts and beer bellies, flick through classic Neil Young albums at Fopp, give passing women marks out of 10, watch team sports, drink ales by the pint and belch.”
Moran is also spot-on about trashy gossip magazines and how damaging they are to feminism – muckraking rubbish fed to the masses by horrid publishing companies. And that’s true, but Moran misses the target somewhat. Who’s reading these magazines? Who buys them? I don’t think it’s men.
This leads us to Katie Price. For US readers who may be unfamiliar with Price, she began life in the public eye as “Jordan”, a glamour model on the grubbier end of the scale. After having a number of cosmetic procedures carried out, she established herself on a couple of reality TV shows and, inexplicably, became one of Britain’s most famous women. She then went mainstream, bringing out lingerie lines, perfumes, cosmetics, even novels. She has made millions of pounds. When Katie Price makes personal appearances at book signings, the people who queue up aren’t awkward, spotty teens or sad-eyed perverts in bottle-frame glasses, but young women and girls who fawn over her like a pop star. She is a role model. People want to be her.
I was gratified to note that Caitlin Moran is equally dumbstruck by this, and she unleashes a torrent of poison on Price. Moran picks out a horrifying moment from when she interviewed the woman, revealing that the only time she betrayed a true moment of humanity and talked about something other than what products she had coming out, was when she revealed that for years she had walked around wearing the wrong-sized bra. It wasn’t until she was properly measured that she could actually feel comfortable. And there it was: common humanity. Something removed from her usual “basilisk-eyed” state, some warmth.
Price’s PR team called up Moran later to ask that she pull the “wrong bra” comments from her article for the Times. Moran, unhappily, confesses to having given way.
So much for Price, you would think. But Moran makes a mistake, when she contrasts a supposedly bad role model in Price with someone whom she thinks is a brilliant template for women, a true artist who is changing the world with her work.
Now, when it comes to music, I am a fierce anti-snobbery campaigner. Music is a sound that is transmitted to your ears; you either like that sound or you don’t. I quite like some of Lady GaGa’s singles – they are catchy, memorable hits that will signpost the age. But Moran suddenly goes off on a near panegyric when she interviews GaGa. Moran is dazzled by the woman and her seemingly outrageous lifestyle. GaGa takes Moran to a sex club in Germany. GaGa swishes around in fabulous clothes.
There’s a crisis of perception there, I think. Katie Price models her new lingerie range on a catwalk, with flashbulbs going off around about her; Lady GaGa jiggles around in her underwear in the video for “Born This Way”. What’s the difference? If you take away the music, there is none. In her casual dismissal of GaGa’s use of sexuality (“oh, this is just for the girls – this isn’t what men masturbate to at home”, GaGa says, perhaps knowing something that we don’t) and her assessment of GaGa as some sort of rallying post for “freaks” in society (how many records has she sold, exactly? Sounds like mainstream numbers to me, not “freak” sales), Moran reminded me of an essay I wrote at the age of 15 about how heavy metal is the best musical sub-genre. “It’s great because… it’s brilliant because… it’s amazing because… well, I just like it!”
Moran compounds her mistake by making a rather more telling comparison. She explains how GaGa had done something awesome at the MTV awards or similar by pretending to be killed by a chandelier during her on-stage performance. “A year beforehand, they had Katy Perry jumping out of a cake,” Moran sneers.
GaGa… musical performer… catchy song… wearing very little… performs stunt at awards show... Perry… musical performer… catchy song… wearing very little… performs stunt at awards show…
We’re on safer grounds with Moran’s chapters on children, and going into the reasons why you should and shouldn’t have them. In recounting her traumatic first pregnancy, what also shines through is how lovely her husband is, how completely invested the guy is in every moment of his family’s life. She explains that she has this picture of herself and her two youngsters, all in the bath, shrieking with laughter, a photo which could simply be labelled “happiness”. Perhaps there, then, is the key. Togetherness and warmth.
In her final chapter, “Abortion”, Moran goes into far more detail than is necessary. It should have been the shortest chapter in the book. “I fell pregnant. I didn’t want the baby. So I had an abortion.” End of chapter. She made a choice, stuck with it, and doesn’t regret it. Others may judge as they see fit. There is freedom.
We’ve come to the end of the process, now. I’m ready to emerge from my cocoon. It’s been a long, difficult journey, but I’m ready to drop the robe.
What do you think?