Funny with a capital F


MEMOIR: How to Be a WomanBy Caitlin Moran, Ebury, 313pp. £11.99

THE PHRASE “women’s liberation” may sound slightly dated to today’s feminists, but in a way that’s just what the British journalist Caitlin Moran is calling for in her hugely entertaining and exhilarating book. In it, she offers women a simple method for figuring out whether some “sexist bullshit is afoot”: just ask yourself, “Are the men doing it? Are the men worrying about this as well? Is this taking up the men’s time?” If the answer is no, well, chances are you shouldn’t have to be caught up in it either.

How to Be a Womanis a feminist polemic, but Moran doesn’t examine the big socioeconomic issues, such as political representation or equal pay. In the opening chapter, she declares her intention to instead examine the seemingly small things that, put together, exert a subtle but persistent and eventually crushing pressure on women to behave in a certain way.

And she does so brilliantly. The book is billed as “part memoir, part rant”, and Moran uses her life to illustrate the issues facing today’s women, from body hair to childbirth, from plastic surgery to pornography. It’s not often I read a book that makes me say “yes!” aloud every few pages, but this is one of them. Moran highlights both the sheer effort – waxing, grooming, shopping, dieting, having the right number of children at the right time – and the financial outlay required of women in order to live up to society’s expectations of how they should look and behave.

She perfectly captures the pointless little demands that weigh us down and stop us being truly, well, liberated, whether that’s the pressure to look young and scarily perfect at all times (“We’re all dying. We’re all crumbling into the void, one cell at a time . . . But only women have to pretend it isn’t happening”), the pressure to be nice to each other all the time lest we let the side down (“When did feminism become confused with Buddhism?”) or the pressure to look like a porn star – the hilarious, spot-on chapter on female body hair should be given to every teenager in the country. And she rightly challenges the idea that women bitching about each other is what’s really holding back womankind; as she says, “tens of thousands of years of ingrained social, political and economic misogyny . . . [has] slightly more leverage than a gag about someone’s bad trousers”.

And whether she’s talking about disastrous weddings or terrible first periods, Moran is very, very funny. Her description of her sexual awakening, complete with fantasies about being kissed by her celebrity crush, Chevy Chase, while Paul Simon plays the bass solo in You Can Call Me Al, left me weak with laughter. But the book is also surprisingly poignant; I expected it to make me laugh, but I didn’t expect it to make me cry, and it did.

Her unsentimental account of her eccentric childhood is both funny and moving (when we meet her 13-year-old self at the start of the book she is friendless and being pelted with stones by local yobs). Her description of the traumatic birth of her first child is deeply upsetting. And she writes powerfully, beautifully and without regret about the abortion she had after the birth of her second daughter.

In fact, what is sometimes lost amid the hilarious jokes and the overexcited ALL CAPS is how gifted a writer Moran is; throughout the book are passages written with an unforced lyricism that sings from the page.

It’s not all good, of course. Her description of her 13-year-old self as possessing “the ebullience of a retard” is ill advised, to say to the least (though she has since said she regrets using the word). And then there’s her claim that since the age of Greer, feminism has stalled and is now purely the province of a few squabbling academics. The only modern feminists she mentions are members of an antiporn group, and she claims that “ no oneis tackling OK!magazine, £600 handbags, tiny pants, Brazilians, stupid hen nights and Katie Price”.

Well, no one apart from, say, the hugely popular, an irreverent and glossy feminist website that regularly discusses all of these things. Or Natasha Walter, whose bestselling 2010 book, Living Dolls, examined gender stereotypes, female body image and pop culture. From riot grrrl, Bustmagazine and Cordelia Fine to Ariel Levy, Tina Fey and myriad high-profile feminist blogs, there have been plenty of lively, witty and well-publicised English-speaking feminist voices over the past few decades. Moran’s view of feminism is unique and important, but in presenting herself as a lone voice in the wilderness, as opposed to a part of a vibrant 21st-century feminist movement, she does her readers a disservice.

And yet, even though I didn’t agree with everything in it, How to Be a Womanis still one of the most entertaining and exhilarating feminist books I’ve read – and it’s certainly the funniest. It’s a book with the power to amuse, inspire and even enrage readers of any age and gender, but it should be compulsory reading for teenagers. I have a feeling it’ll have the same effect on the teenage girls who read it that Huggy Bear’s Her Jazzand Susan Faludi’s Backlashhad on me when I was 17: it’ll get them all fired up, it’ll make them think and, ultimately, it’ll change their lives. Best of all, it’ll make them laugh at the same time.

Anna Carey is a freelance journalist. Her debut novel for young adults, The Real Rebecca,was recently published by the O’Brien Press