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Book Review: How to be a Woman by Caitlin Moran

Throughout Caitlin Moran’s humorous memoir, she interweaves observations about women’s lives today with anecdotes about her own experiences in becoming a woman.  Nothing is taboo or out of bounds for Moran, who covers issues such as Brazilian waxes, abortion, pregnancy, weddings, and popular entertainment without even pausing to catch her breath.  Equal parts funny and thought-provoking, Moran’s memoir is sure to delight while it also inspires.

Except that Moran spends too much time trying to delight, and not enough time actually thinking about her arguments and the kind of message they send.  It isn’t that Moran hasn’t done her homework–because it’s clear that she has–it’s more that she seems to subscribe too often to the classic white-feminist viewpoint and completely ignores intersectionality.

This is too bad, because Moran has some good stuff present in her humor-memoir-manifesto.  She doesn’t shy away from any topics, and her honesty is refreshing.  There are whole chapters that are particularly effective, including the one on abortion, which is searingly honest.  Her anecdotes about her childhood growing up in a poor, large family also lend humor and color to the book.

But there are so many moments where Moran goes off the rails that it’s hard to remain on her side throughout the book’s pages.  Moran tries so hard to hit all the marks of feminism while also remaining pithy and cool, and while this in and of itself gets a little grating, it’s her blind spots when it comes to intersectional feminism, transgenderism, and cissexism that are the most jarring in a book that’s supposedly a call to arms for all women.

Moran tends to see issues in a very black-or-white way.  While this is partially put into place to add to the humor of Moran’s book (and she is very funny), it’s also quite polarizing.  Of course, reader sensitivity will play a role in how all of her statements are taken, but the fact remains that her humorous tone often comes off as a little too dismissive:

Even the most ardent feminist historian…can’t conceal that women have basically done fuck-all for the last 100,000 years. Come on — let’s admit it. Lest stop exhaustively pretending that there is a parallel history of women being victorious and creative, on an equal with men, that’s just been comprehensively covered up by The Man. There isn’t.

It seems odd that Moran is making the argument that women have done nothing in the history of humankind.  While she is clearly exaggerating, it is this same kind of dismissive attitude that is so often applied to the histories of people of color by white people.  It is a slippery slope, and it’s also kind of offensive.

Unfortunately, that isn’t the end of Moran’s lack of empathy for marginalized groups.  Take, for example, Moran’s distinction between stripping and burlesque dancing:

With burlesque, not only does the power balance rest with the person taking her clothes off…but it also anchors its heart in freaky, late-night, libertine self expression: it has a campy, tranny, fetish element to it.

There’s a lot to unpack there, and whether or not the reader agrees with Moran about burlesque being so different from stripping is beside the point when one unpacks the offensive, loaded terms she uses to describe burlesque.  This sort of language is rife with cissexism connotations and feels particularly insensitive, given what Moran is trying to accomplish.

Not all readers will have the same reading experience, and many will enjoy Moran’s very British take on the current state of women’s issues.  However, anyone who is interested in a dialogue about intersectional feminism will have to look elsewhere, as Moran turns a complete blind eye to it in her memoir (and hasn’t been great about it on Twitter, either).

How to Be a Woman by Caitlin Moran. Ebury Press: 2011. Library copy.

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