Monday, October 8, 2012

review: How To Be A Woman

Newsflash! Feminism is not fusty, fussy and frowny.  It’s fun, funny and frivolous. After all, ‘it’s a good time to be a woman: we have the vote and the Pill and we haven’t been burnt as witches since 1727.’ But, as Caitlin Moran, concedes ‘a few nagging questions do remain.’


If the blurb on the back of the book is to be believed, Moran has the answers to the questions that every modern woman is asking. 

After finishing it, I’m not quite so sure. Some of the questions about botox and brazilians seem less like the concerns of ‘every modern woman’ and more like the kind of things you might find posited as ‘issues’ in Cosmo

Having said that, I do think it’s great that this book has struck a chord with many girls and women, who have found something of value in it, and have, hopefully, taken up Moran’s call to re-define themselves as ‘strident feminists.’ And if it then encourages them to take a deeper look at the serious, momentous and urgent stuff rather than simply guffawing at an anecdote about getting really drunk with Lady Gaga, then Moran will have achieved a great deal. Several reviews have already welcomed the book in this way, and I think it’s difficult to argue with the positive impact a best-selling book about feminism can have. I myself was interested in her insider's take on how the media construct representations of female celebrities as 'everywomen' (basically, by asking when they're going to have a baby all the time).

Other reviewers have, however, criticised this book because of what they perceive as its inherent snobbery and focus on the mores of a particular social set, likening it to a Victorian etiquette book in the process. More broadly, I think the book reveals the limits of individual memoir as a ground for political action. Memoir gives a writer license to retreat into the authority of subjectivity, so, in Moran’s case, one could be forgiven for thinking that brazilians appear to rate more highly than rape as a feminist issue (although I realise it’s not a zero-sum game and there is a relationship between the two). I found myself torn between interest in Moran’s memoirs - she’s lived an interesting life and spins many a funny yarn about it - frustration at her wanting to make a joke of everything all the time, and exasperation at some of the supposedly empowering solutions she trumpets (burlesque and female-centric porn will set us free apparently. Um, really?) 

Yes, the personal is  political, and (paraphrasing bell hooks) ‘there is no joy in appropriating someone else’s oppression’. The power of consciousness-raising rooted in personal experience is then to elevate it to the structural: ‘I’m only earning half as much as that doofus of guy doing the same job as me’ - ‘me too’ - ‘let’s start a revolution!’ The idea is that even those not directly affected will recognise that ‘there but for the grace of God ...’ 

All the amusing anecdotes and hilarious romps involving lots of booze, Lady Gaga and so on got a bit wearing after a while. I couldn’t help but think that while there was a lot of strategic mileage to be had out of the ‘feminism is fun, dontcha know’ schtick that there was also a disavowal of some righteous anger as well. Women aren’t meant to be angry, so it was disappointing to see Moran, in interviews promoting the book, quickly pointing out that she’s a funny feminist not a scary or awful one. 

Sure, pioneering feminists like the suffragettes might’ve shared some laughs over a gin or three, but they went on hunger strikes, chained themselves to railings, lobbied politicians, and even threw themselves under horses because they were bloody well PISSED OFF at not having the vote and not having the right to own property. Similarly, second wave feminists probably had a rollicking good time at consciousness-raising sessions, protest marches, and speculum parties. But they were also pretty incensed at being poorly paid for their work, being stuck at home with small kids all day while being treated as little more than children themselves, needing male relatives to sign documents for them, being subject to overt sexual harassment as part of daily working life, being unable to decide their own reproductive futures, and, in some cases, being legally raped by their husbands. 

Pretty hilarious stuff, when you get down to it.

And yet, there are other moments when Moran drops the quips that have a quiet power. In the book’s postscript she poses herself the rhetorical question ‘so do I know how to be a woman now?’  Instead of the expected self-deprecation, she writes ‘I distrust this female habit of reflexively flagging up your own shortcomings ... I’m talking abut the common attitudinal habit in women that we’re kind of ... failing if we’re not a bit neurotic.’ Her response to the question instead? ‘Kind of yes, really, to be honest (pp 297-8).’ Not exactly strident, maybe still a little neurotic, but progress nonetheless. 

Where the book is most powerful - and given its theme - most pertinent to this blog, is in the chapters on birth, mothering, not-mothering, and abortion. These chapters are the strongest because the amusing anecdotes and wry asides retreated - but, you’ll be relieved to know, didn’t disappear entirely - to include moments where, to put it bluntly, shit gets real. Particularly confronting was her chapter on abortion, which aimed to show that deciding one’s own reproductive fate is about more than what happens in cases of rape and incest. 

Here are a couple of selections from these chapters:

(on birth): of course, I haven’t told you the half of it. I haven’t told you about Pete crying, or the shit, or vomiting three feet up a wall, or gasping ‘mouth!’ for the gas and air, as I’d forgotten all the words. Or the nerve that Lizzie damaged with her face and how, ten years later, my right leg is still numb and cold. Of the four failed epidurals, which left each vertebra smashed and bruised, and the fluid between them feeling like hot, rotting vinegar. And the most important thing - the shock, the shock that Lizzie’s birth would hurt me so much; would make me an animal with my leg caught in a trap of my own bones, and leave me begging for the doctors to take a knife and cut me free. // For the next year, every Monday at 7.48am, I would look at the clock and remember the birth, and tremble and give thanks it was all over, and marvel that we both survived. (pp 221-2)

(on deciding to have an abortion) This isn’t who I’m going to be again: another three years of being life support to someone who weeps for me, and rages against me, and who knows, when they’re ill, can only be relieved by resting their head on my belly, and dreaming they’re back inside. My two girls ... are all I want .. I’ll do anything for those girls. // But I will only do one thing for this baby - as quickly as I can before it goes any further (p 271)

To me, these stories offer a much more powerful version of the personal is political than the chapters which preceded it. By putting herself out there in this way, Moran really has the potential to speak to other women’s experience and effect change. But that's all a bit po-faced and serious, innit?