How to Be a Woman

How funny is Caitlin Moran's neo-feminist manifesto and memoir, How to Be a Woman? Don't read it with a full bladder -- and not just because in Moran's opinion, "100,000 years of male superiority has its origins in the simple basis that men don't get cystitis." Never mind discussion: you could spend a whole book group session flagging favorite lines. And, although it's decidedly female-centric, open-minded men should enjoy the ribald humor and privileged view. Here she is, for example, excoriating high heels, which she thinks are suitable for "only ten people in the world, tops…. And six of those are drag queens": "Women wear heels because they think they make their legs look thinner, end of. They think that by effectively walking on tiptoes, they're slimming their legs down from a size 14 to a size 10. But they aren't, of course. There is a precedent for a big fat leg dwindling away into a point -- and it's on a pig."  

Moran, a wildly entertaining, award-winning, profane, and prolific London Times columnist born in 1975, takes up where one of her heroes, Germaine Greer, left off in The Female Eunuch. While she acknowledges the importance of traditional feminist issues like pay inequality and domestic abuse, her focus is on smaller indignities, including such painful trappings of nouvelle womanhood as skimpy underpants and torturous bikini waxes. Just as New York's Mayor Giuliani once adopted a zero-tolerance policy toward graffiti and broken windows, she argues, we must do the same for these sexist "broken windows." Why? Because "if we live in a climate where female pubic hair is considered distasteful, or famous and powerful women are constantly pilloried for being too fat or too thin, or badly dressed, then, eventually people start breaking into women, and lighting fires in them." Moran's brand of consciousness-raising stresses the importance not just of equality but of politeness and respect.

Like Tina Fey's recent memoir, Bossypants, which also takes on sexism with humor, Moran's book opens with the onset of her period, a rude awakening for which she was woefully ill prepared. Both writers prove that, contrary to bad images of yore, even strident feminists can be funny. But unlike Fey, who had a comfortable American childhood, Moran, the oldest of eight children, grew up poor in a three-bedroom council house in Wolverhampton, England. Her father, barely mentioned except when he shows up at her wedding smelling of whisky in a shoplifted suit and shoes, was a rock musician. Her mother -- well, her mother was busy. When thirteen-year-old Moran follows her into the bathroom to ask whether menstruation will hurt, "Even though she is doing a wee and holding a sleeping baby [and is eight months pregnant!], she is also sorting out a white wash from the washing basket." Her mother has time for just one bewildering answer before they're interrupted by the crying baby: "Yeah…. But it's okay."  

Dry towels, new undies, and privacy were all in equally short supply in the Moran household. The whole family was seriously overweight, which Moran attributes in part to their snack of choice, cheese lollipops -- chunks of cheddar on a fork. Her sisters made it clear how much they were looking forward to her moving out and ceding her space to them. Her formal education stopped at eleven. Still, she not only survived but thrived, with her "boundlessly positive…ebullience" intact. She read vociferously, changing her name from Catherine to Caitlin after becoming obsessed by a Jilly Cooper novel when she was thirteen. She left home permanently at sixteen, writing her way into early jobs covering pop culture at Melody Maker and, not much later, The Times. By twenty-four, she was happily married to a fellow critic at The Times, and by twenty-seven she had two daughters.  

In two dialectic chapters, "Why You Should Have Children" and "Why You Shouldn't Have Children," Moran discusses some of the pros and cons of procreating. Interestingly, even in a later chapter about her decision to terminate a pregnancy that would have resulted in a third child, she doesn't explicitly cite her mother's overly fecund example as a cautionary deterrent. But she does make a strong case for a woman's right to choose, and the paramount importance of a baby being "wanted, desired, and cared for by a reasonably sane, stable mother." She doesn't mince words when describing the pain of childbirth but notes that the joys of motherhood are "like being mugged by Cupid."

There's some comfort in Moran's book coming out so soon after Nora Ephron's death. How to Be a Woman is a welcome successor to such witty classics of female frankness as Ephron's "A Few Words About Breasts," "I Feel Bad About My Neck," and "On Maintenance." Like Ephron's, Moran's default mode is barbed humor and self-deprecation. She's near-maniacally exuberant -- her text is exclamation point-happy -- though less susceptible to the enchantments of fashion and the trappings of femininity than Ephron was.

Not for her the skimpy undies she calls "arse-trinkets," symptomatic of what she calls "pantorexia": "These tight, elasticated partitions across the mid-derrière are, in terms of both comfort and aesthetics, as cruel as the partition between India and Pakistan." And further, because the personal is after all political: "It cannot have gone unnoticed that, as a country, our power has waned in synchronicity with the waning of our undies…. Now that the average British woman could pack a week's worth of underpants into a matchbox, we have little more than dominion over the Bailiwick of Jersey and the Isle of Man."  

The temptation is to just keep quoting. She's got riffs on names for her various body parts and rants on the preponderance of sleeveless dresses, going all-caps to emphasize her vexation: "IF EVERY WOMAN IN THIS COUNTRY WERE ALLOWED TO COVER HER UPPER ARMS, AS GOD INTENDED, PRESCRIPTIONS OF XANAX WOULD HALVE IN A FORTNIGHT." She comments trenchantly that "normal women buy clothes to make them look good; whereas the fashion industry buys models to make the clothes  look good."

Moran is at her most brilliant on Brazilian bikini waxes, an unwelcome result of boys learning about sex from watching Internet porn, where hairlessness rules. These boys grow up to be "as panicked by pubic hair as Victorian art critic John Ruskin apparently was in 1848." Proclaiming herself "vagina retro," she exclaims, "I can't believe we've got to the point where it's basically costing us money to have a vagina. They're making us pay for maintenance and upkeep of our lulus, like they're a communal garden. It's a stealth tax."

But the jokes aside, How to Be a Woman offers plenty to discuss. Sexism, Moran warns, can be hard to scope out these days, "a bit like Meryl Streep in a new film: sometimes you don't recognize it straightaway." Are facelifts and stilettos really signs of deeper societal prejudices or just silly fashions? Is the pressure for women (but not men) to have children external or internal? How restrictive is the so-called glass ceiling? Moran claims that it's hard to see precisely because it's made of glass: "What we need is for more birds to fly above it and shit all over it, so we can see it properly." A clarion call to soar unimpeded in feminist skies.

Further reading: If you're up for more feminist-inflected humor, Tina Fey's aforementioned Bossypants includes plenty of sparkling discussion of balancing children and work and making it in the formerly predominantly male world of stand-up comics and television. Nora Ephron's Crazy Salad: Some Things About Women, published in 1975, the year Moran was born, and I Feel Bad About My Neck (2006) are joyously snappy reads. Crazy Salad includes not just Ephron's classic essay about breasts but "Dealing with the, uh, Problem" -- in which she took on feminine hygiene sprays, an earlier attempt to make women self-conscious about their vaginas. In a more academic vein, Germaine Greer's The Female Eunuch (1970) will take you back to Moran's inspirational source. Like Simone de Beauvoir's The Second Sex (1949), reading it now underscores how far we've come. But, as Moran comes to realize, the goal isn't to learn how to be a woman but something much more important: how to be human.

About the Columnist
Heller McAlpin is a New York-based critic who reviews books for NPR.org, The Los Angeles Times, Washington Post, San Francisco Chronicle, Christian Science Monitor, and other publications.

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