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 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.
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.
Reviewer: Heller McAlpin
Read an Excerpt
How to Be a Woman
By Caitlin Moran
HarperCollins Publishers Copyright © 2012 Caitlin Moran
All rights reserved.
I Start Bleeding!
So, I had assumed it was optional. I know that women bleed every month, but I didn't think it was going to happen to me. I'd presumed I would be able to opt out of it - perhaps from sheer unwillingness. It honestly doesn't look that much use or fun, and I can't see any way I can fit it into my schedule.
I'm just not going to bother! I think to myself, cheerfully, as I do my ten sit ups a night. Captain Moran is opting out! I am taking my "By the Time I'm 18" list very seriously. My "Loose [sic] Weight" campaign has stepped up a gear - not only am I still not eating ginger nuts, but I'm also doing ten sit ups and ten push ups a night. We don't have any full length mirrors in the house, so I've no idea how I'm doing, but I imagine that, at this rate, my boot camp regime will have me as slender as Winona Ryder by Christmas.
I'd only found out about periods four months ago, anyway. My mother never told us about them - "I thought you'd picked it all up from Moonlighting," she said vaguely, when, years later, I asked her about it - and it's only when I came across a Tampax leaflet, stuffed in the hedge outside our house by a passing schoolgirl, that I'd discovered what the whole menstrual deal was.
"I don't want to talk about this," Caz says, when I come into the bedroom with the leaflet and try to show it to her. "But have you seen?" I ask her, sitting on the end of her bed. She moves to the other end of the bed. Caz doesn't like "nearness:" It makes her extremely irascible. In a three bedroom council [subsidized] house with seven people in it, she is almost perpetually furious.
"Look - this is the womb, and this is the vagina, and the Tampax expands width ways, to fill the ... burrow," I say.
I've only skim read the leaflet. To be honest, it has blown my mind quite badly. The cross section of the female reproductive system looks complicated, and impractical - like one of those very expensive Rotastak hamster cages, with tunnels going everywhere. Again, I'm not really sure I want in on all of this. I think I thought I was just made of solid meat - from my pelvis to my neck - with the kidneys wedged in there somewhere. Like a sausage. I dunno. Anatomy isn't my strong point. I like romantic 19th century novels, where girls faint in the rain, and Spike Milligan's war memoirs. There isn't much menstruation in either. This all seems a bit.... unnecessary.
"And it happens every month," I say to Caz. Caz is now actually lying, fully dressed, under her duvet, wearing Wellington boots. "I want you to go away," her voice says from under the duvet. "I'm pretending you're dead. I can't think of anything I want to do less than talk about menstruation with you."
I trail away.
"Nil desperandum!" I say to myself. "There's always someone I can go to for a sympathetic ear and a bowlful of cheery chat!" The stupid new dog is under my bed. She has gotten pregnant by the small dog, Oscar, who lives across the road. None of us can quite work out how this has happened, as Oscar is one of those small yappy type dogs, only slightly bigger than a family size tin of baked beans, and the stupid new dog is a fully grown German shepherd.
"She must have actually dug a hole in the ground, to squat in," Caz says in disgust. "She must have been gagging for it. Your dog is a whore."
"I'm going to become a woman soon, dog," I say. The dog licks her vagina. I have noticed the dog always does this when I talk to her. I have not yet worked out what I think about this, but I think I might be a bit sad about it.
"I found a leaflet, and it says I'll be starting my period soon," I continue. "I'll be honest, dog - I'm a bit worried. I think it's going to hurt."
I look into the dog's eyes. She is as stupid as a barrel of toes. Galaxies of nothing are going on in her eyes.
I get up.
"I'm going to talk to Mum," I explain. The dog remains under my bed, looking, as always, deeply nervous about being a dog. I track Mum down on the toilet. She's now eight months pregnant, and holding the sleeping one-year old Cheryl while trying to do a wee.
I sit on the edge of the bath.
"Mum?" I say.
For some reason, I think I am allowed only one question about this. One shot at the "menstrual cycle conversation."
"Yes?" she answers. Even though she is doing a wee and holding a sleeping baby, she is also sorting out a whites wash from the washing basket.
"You know - my period?" I whisper.
"Yes?" she says.
"Will it hurt?" I ask.
Mum thinks for a minute.
"Yeah," she says, in the end. "But it's okay."
The baby then starts crying, so she never explains why it's okay. It remains unexplained.
Three weeks later, my period starts. I find it to be a deeply cheerful event. It starts in the car on the way to Central Library in town, and I have to walk all around the nonfiction section for half an hour, desperately hoping it won't show, before Dad takes us all home again.
"My first period started: yuk," I write in my diary.
"I don't think Judy Garland ever had a period," I tell the dog, unhappily, later that night. I am watching myself cry in a small hand mirror. "Or Cd Charisma. Or Gene Kelly."
The bag of Pennywise sanitary napkins my mum keeps on the back of the bathroom door has become my business now, too. I feel a sad jealousy of all my younger siblings who are still "outside the bag." The napkins are thick and cheap - stuck into my knickers, they feel like a mattress between my legs.
"It feels like a mattress between my legs," I tell Caz.
We're playing one of our Sindy games. Four hours in and Caz's Sindy, Bonnie, is secretly murdering everyone on a luxury cruise ship.
My Sindy, Layla, is trying to solve the mystery. The one-legged Action Man, Bernard, is dating both of them simultaneously.
We argue constantly over the ownership of Bernard, even though he actually belongs to Eddie. Neither of us want our Sindy to be single.
"A horrible, thick mattress," I continue. "Like in The Princess and the Pea."
"How long are they?" Caz asks.
Ten minutes later, and six Pennywise sanitary napkins are laid out, like a dormitory, with Sindys sleeping on them.
"Well, this is lucky!" I say. "Like when we found out that a Brussels sprout looks exactly like a Sindy cabbage. See, Caz - this is the bright side of menstruation!"
Because the sanitary napkins are cheap, they shred between my thighs when I walk, and become ineffective and leaky. I give up walking for the duration of my period. My first period lasts three months. I think this is perfectly normal. I faint quite regularly. I become so anemic my finger and toenails become very pale blue. I don't tell Mum, because I've asked my question about periods. Now I just have to get on with them.
The blood on the sheets is depressing - not dramatic and red, like a murder, but brown and tedious, like an accident. It looks like I am rusty inside and am now breaking. In an effort to avoid hand washing stains out every morning, I take to stuffing huge bundles of toilet paper in my knickers, along with the useless sanitary napkins, and lying very, very still all night. Sometimes there are huge blood clots, which look like raw liver. I presume this is the lining of my womb, coming off in inch-thick slices, and that this is just how visceral menstruation is. It all adds to a dreary sense that something terribly wrong is going on, but that it is against the rules of the game to ever mention it. Frequently, I think about all the women through history who've had to deal with this ferocious bullshit with just rags and cold water.
No wonder women have been oppressed by men for so long, I think, scouring my knickers with a nail brush and coal-tar soap in the bathroom. Getting dried blood out of cotton is a bitch. We were all too busy scrubbing to agitate for the vote until the twin sink was invented.
Even though she's two years younger than me, Caz starts her period six months after me - just as I'm starting my second one. She comes crying into my bedroom when everyone else is asleep and whispers the awful words, "My period's started."
I show her the bag of sanitary napkins on the back of the bath bathroom door and tell her what to do.
"Put them in your knickers, and don't walk for three months," I say. "It's easy."
"Will it hurt?" she asks, eyes wide.
"Yes," I say in an adult and noble manner. "But it's okay."
"Why is it okay?" she asks.
"I don't know," I say.
"Well, why are you saying it, then?" she asks.
"I don't know."
"Jesus. Why do you bother talking? The stuff that comes out of your mouth."
Caz gets horrific cramps - she spends her periods in the bedroom with the curtains drawn, covered in hot water bottles, shouting "Fuck off" at anyone who tries to come into the room. As part of being a hippie, my mother doesn't "believe" in painkillers and urges us to research herbal remedies. We read that sage is supposed to help and sitting in bed eating handfuls of sage and onion stuffing, crying. Neither of us can believe that we're going to have to put up with this for the next 30 years.
"I don't want children anyway," Caz says. "So I am getting nothing out of this whatsoever. I want my entire reproductive system taken out and replaced with spare lungs, for when I start smoking. I want that option. This is pointless."
At this juncture, it seems there is absolutely nothing to recommend being a woman. Sex hormones are a bitch that have turned me from a blithe child into a bleeding, weeping, fainting washer-woman. These hormones do not make me feel feminine: every night, I lie in bed feeling wretched, and the bulge of my sanitary napkin in my knickers looks like a cock.
I take everything off, sadly, while I get my nightie out of the drawer. When I turn around again, the dog has slunk out from under the bed and started to eat my bloody sanitary napkin. There are bits of shredded, red cotton all over the floor, and my knickers are hanging out of her mouth. She stares at me, desperately.
"Oh, God - your dog's a lesbian vampire," Caz says from her bed, turning over to sleep.
I go to retrieve my knickers, and faint.
In the midst of this hormonal gloom, however, the cavalry finally arrives, over the hill, jangling its spurs, with epaulettes shining in the sun: my green library card. Now I'm 13, I can get adult books out of the library, without having to borrow my parents' cards. And that means I can get secret books out. Dirty books. Books with sex in them.
"I've been having these dreams," I tell the dog as we walk to the library. The library is on the other side of the Green - a gigantic, desolate stretch of grass, where one must be constantly on the lookout for the Yobs. It doesn't do to boldly walk in the middle of it - this leaves one exposed. You must stick to the outer edges, near the houses, so that if you get attacked the people who live in the houses can get a good view of you getting your head kicked in without having to fetch their binoculars.
"Dreams about ... men," I continue. I look at the dog. The dog looks back at me. I think the dog deserves to know the whole truth of what is going on here. I owe her that much, at least. "I'm in love with Chevy Chase," I tell the dog, in a sudden, joyful burst. "I saw him in the video to Paul Simon's 'You Can Call Me Al,' from the 1986 Graceland album, on Warner Bros., and I just can't stop thinking about him. I had this dream where he kissed me, and his mouth felt exciting. I'm going to ask Dad if we can get The Three Amigos out of the video shop on Friday."
Requesting The Three Amigos from the video shop will be a bold move - the next video for rental has already been earmarked as Howard the Duck. I will have to pull a lot of fancy footwork but it will be worth it. I have not told the dog yet but the thought of kissing Chevy Chase has made me so excited that yesterday I listened to "You Can Call Me Al" 16 times on repeat, imagining him touching my face while Paul Simon plays the bass solo. I am so hot for Chevy. I have even imagined what my first line to him will be - the one that will capture his heart.
"Chevy Chase?" I will say, at a party very closely modeled on the ones I've seen on Dynasty. "Any relation to Cannock Chase?" Cannock Chase is just off the A5 to Stafford. LA born movie star and comedian Chevy is going to both get, and love, this joke. Of course, I have had crushes before. Well, one. It didn't go very well. When I was seven, I saw an episode of Buck Rogers and fell in love with that dumb American space cowboy, so obviously based on Han Solo they might as well have called him San Holo and had him ride around in the Fillennium Malcon with Bewchacca. As the new love chemicals rushed through me - Bucknesium and Rogerstonin - I discovered what love is and found that it's just feeling very ... interested. More interested than I had been about anything before.
Excerpted from How to Be a Woman by Caitlin Moran. Copyright © 2012 by Caitlin Moran. Excerpted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.