Wednesday, 20 July 2011

How to be a Woman, Caitlin Moran

This book comes recommended by Nigella Lawson and Jonathan Ross, but it's actually not too bad.

Does my.....?

It is broadly about femininity, but much of it consists of personal memoir, from Moran's adolescence in a working-class family in Wolverhampton to her attempts to make it in music journalism in London to the ordeal of giving birth to her first child.  There is some feminism, some nostalgia for growing up in the 80s and 90s, plenty of anecdote, and quite a lot of musing on modern social trends and fashions.

Moran starts by telling us about turning 13, her hostile relationship with her sister Caz and her strange dog.  She recounts how her periods started and how she discovered masturbation.  At this stage, she appears to have wanted to grow up to be a princess, or possibly Germaine Greer.  In fact, she moved down to London and got a job working on the now defunct Melody Maker.  It was there, she says, that she first discovered sexism, when she started copping off with guys and rapidly found herself on the receiving end of snide and unfunny comments from male colleagues, something which mysteriously never seemed to happen to the guys who pulled her.

She then decides to fall in love with a musician called Courteney, who turns out to be an utter weapon.  Sensing that all is not well, she decides that the problems in their relationship are all her fault and that what she needs to do is to change him.  The experience of secretly reading his diary, in which he slags her off and pines after an ex from 3 years ago, only strengthens her resolve.  Then things begin to turn a bit sinister.  One particularly overheated argument results in a visit from the Metropolitan Police.  She tries to throw him out, but he refuses on the grounds that her flat is really nice.  He then announces that they are not going to have sex any more.  Eventually, buoyed up by her sister Caz, she breaks up with him while on an ectsasy trip in Wales.

Moran's view of relationships and life events is benignly unconventional.  She draws attention, for example, to the widely-held prejudice that it is unacceptable for a woman to be single.  It is, she says, as if female singledom is read as a kind of price signal - the dating market's way of saying that a woman is too unattractive to couple up with.  This prejudice allows no room for the possibility that women are capable of making free choices, and that a woman might not want to be with a male partner at a particular time or at all.  Of course, similar judgements are sometimes made about less appetising single men, but there is still a double standard in play: as Moran points out, the word "bachelor" has rather different overtones from "spinster".

Moran provides a chapter on why a woman should have children, followed immediately by another on why she shouldn't.  She describes the difficult birth of her first child in gruesome detail and says that, having gone through the pain of childbirth, the rest of life takes on a different perspective (but childbirth is not the only way to experience intense pain - should I try to achieve my own epiphany by, say, smashing my testicles with a hammer?).  Some of the pro-children chapter is boilerplate Mumsnet stuff about the joys of loveable little tykes, mixed with more practical observations about how looking after children expands a mother's organisational skills.  She somewhat undercuts these observations in the next chapter by pointing out that having children is no great service to the world and that there is nothing that you can learn from the experience that you can't learn some other way.  She also hates the way that working women are asked when they're going to have children.

Moran is proud to be a feminist, and she appears to have no time for tedious Mars-and-Venus ideas about human gender.  She is impatient with women and men alike, and she has a practical approach to navigating her way through modern gender politics:
I have a rule of thumb that allows me to judge... whether some sexist bullshit is afoot....
And it's asking this question: 'Are the men doing it?  Are the men worrying about this as well?  Is this taking up the men's time?  Are the men told not to do this, as it's "letting the side down"?  Are the men having to write bloody books about this exasperating, retarded, time-wasting bullshit?  Is this making Jeremy Clarkson feel insecure?
She has a lot to say about female dress and grooming.  She's even quite vivid and poignant when talking about how much time, energy and money a modern woman is expected to invest in these things:
And all of this isn't done to look scorchingly hot, or deathlessly beautiful, or ready for a nudey-shoot at the beach.  It's not to look like a model.  It's not to be Pamela Anderson [sic].  It's just to look normal.  To have normal-looking legs, and a normal-looking face, and a crotch you're confident about.  To not be anxiously standing in the toilets with a reel of Sellotape, dabbing at your upper lip and wailing....
She also says that there is too much social pressure on women to get Brazilians and the like, which she attributes to porn.

Speaking of porn, she's not against pornography in general, but she thinks that the output of the modern sex industry is vulgar and artificial.  She suggests, probably rightly, that watching XXX material on the internet is the main method of sex education for children (of both sexes) today, whereas our own generation had to make do with Eurotrash and the occasional scene from The Camomile Lawn.  She is scathing about Jordan, who apparently cuts a somewhat sociopathic figure in real life (her favourite female celebrity appears to be Lady Gaga, who she adores).  She doesn't like stripclubs, though that may be because she was thrown out of a branch of Spearmint Rhino because the bouncers thought that she was a prostitute.  She prefers burlesque, in which - she argues - the atmosphere is healthier and the ethos is more authentically in tune with female sexuality.

Moran's prose style is easy and witty, though this could well be the product of much effort and polishing.  She gets extra points for lapsing into Polari at one point.  It can get a bit much after a while, however - a little too heavy on the stomach, like too many cream buns one after the other.  The book isn't so much a book as a collection of newspaper columns, and it's best read with that in mind, in short bursts.  There isn't really a general theme or idea tying the chapters together other than Moran's own life and what she thinks about modern woman stuff.

What Moran has to say is often interesting, sometimes sensible and sometimes utter bollocks.  She is not above making half-baked generalisations.  The reader will be astonished to learn that men are commitment-phobes who don't care about weddings, and that women and gay men are natural allies (I'd have thought that that last illusion would have been shattered in the course of her years in the London arts scene, but apparently not).  She is capable of straying dangerously close to self-indulgence: the section in which she muses about what to call her and her daughter's vaginas is a long way from A Vindication of the Rights of Woman.  In all, Moran sounds like she would be a great laugh as a friend and something of a nightmare as a girlfriend.  She's not a bad writer, though.  In all, this book is worth the money.