Literary Review, August 2011
How to Be a Woman by Caitlin Moran
Ebury Press £11.99
Caitlin Moran sounds like a nice woman. She writes prolifically for The Times, where she reviews TV and chronicles the solipsistic world of celebrities in one of the paper’s most popular features. Now she has written a book that has been compared by her publisher to two historic events, the death of the suffragette Emily Davison under the hooves of the king’s horse in 1913 and feminists protesting against Miss World in 1970. The blurb continues: ‘NOW Caitlin Moran rewrites The Female Eunuch from a bar stool and demands to know why pants are getting smaller.’
Here are many of the anxieties of contemporary publishing exposed in a single sentence: the craving for a link with past success; the recourse to the breathless language of popular journalism; the reassurance that readers won’t be troubled with anything too weighty. It’s a pretty fair summary of what Moran provides, namely a volume that’s part autobiography and part reflections on feminism. On second thoughts, there is little time for reflection in a style that’s so hectic, contrarian and instantaneous. In that sense, mention of The Female Eunuch does Moran no favours because it compares a text that’s essentially smart journalism with a book that fizzed with intellectual energy.
The most vivid passages in Moran’s book are about growing up in a small house in Wolverhampton with seven younger siblings. Moran likes lists, snappy dialogue and BLOCK CAPITALS, all of which contribute to the creation of a persona with an almost cartoonish resilience. So she’s overweight, oddly dressed and chased by yobs on her thirteenth birthday. But hey, her pursuers don’t look as though they’ve ‘dabbled much in either a) the iconography of the counter-culture or b) the inspirational imagery of radical gender-benders’. Her escape leads to a sprightly observation about lack of space in the family home: ‘I get home, and cry on the doorstep. It’s honestly too crowded to cry in the house.’ Soon the family dog is enlisted in what’s rapidly turning into a comic routine. ‘I look at the dog. If you were a good and faithful hound, you’d drink the tears off my face, I think. Saffron noisily licks her vagina instead.’
The dog’s appearances in the book tend to end with her licking her vagina, introducing a theme which engages Moran further into the book. What is a modern woman to call her vagina? Moran doesn’t like the anatomical word and a request for synonyms via Twitter doesn’t produce anything satisfactory. So here’s her alternative: ‘I, personally, have a cunt. Sometimes it’s “flaps” or “twat”, but, most of the time, it’s my cunt. Cunt is a proper, old, historic, strong word.’ This is true and it’s why feminists reclaimed it a very long time ago, prompting fierce debates about whether it was possible to remove its negative connotations. The earliest example I can think of is Caroline Coon’s painting ‘My Beautiful Cunt’, which she produced back in 1966.
Moran’s technique throughout the book is to move from the personal to the political, a technique that is problematic because it’s also a shift from original material to well-worn arguments. On pornography, she doesn’t seem to know that her view is pretty much identical to that of pro-sex feminists who rejected Andrea Dworkin’s hard line in the 1980s and pointed out that the problem with porn was that it was too male-centred. Allegations about the use of trafficked women in the making of commercial pornography have complicated the argument in recent years but Moran’s take is typically lacking in nuance: ‘I AM NOW A 35-YEAR-OLD WOMAN, AND I JUST WANT A MULTI-BILLION-DOLLAR INTERNATIONAL PORN INDUSTRY WHERE I CAN SEE A WOMAN COME.’
Moran progressed from the Midlands to London and a job on Melody Maker, where she met her future husband Pete Paphides. After a brief stint presenting ‘Naked City’ on Channel 4, she moved to The Times and has won numerous press awards. She clearly works hard and her journalistic career is very modern, based on endless jokes, self-deprecation and a willingness to expose private matters to the public gaze. Her book follows the formula faithfully, spraying around generalisations and sometimes getting things wrong: the ‘30 per cent pay gap’ between men and women is actually 20 per cent, according to recent figures, and Moran misquotes a famous line from The Female Eunuch. She thinks Germaine Greer told women they had a long way to go if they hadn’t tasted their menstrual blood, when Greer actually suggested something more subtle: ‘If you think you are emancipated, you might consider the idea of tasting your menstrual blood – if it makes you sick, you’ve a long way to go, baby.’
I’m glad Moran is a feminist, even if she’s characteristically hyperbolic about it. ‘Personally, I don’t think the word “feminist” on its own is enough. I want to go all the way. I want to bring it back in conjunction with the word “strident”. It looks hotter like that,’ she assures readers. Being hot, in this context, seems to involve an absolute terror of appearing serious, grown-up or genuinely controversial. I’m sure Caitlin Moran could have written a much more intelligent book but I don’t think it would have been published with such a fanfare, assuming it got published at all.