I was not even browsing a feminist website, simply a news site, when I glanced at a sidebar advertisement and was startled by the serene, almost smiling, not quite smirking face of Caitlin Moran peering with a deadlock gaze from the cover of her bestselling book, How to Be a Woman. Beneath the cover image appeared Heller’s simply stated and unequivocal praise.
Caitlin Moran is a feminist heroine for our times. — Zoe Heller
I bit and ordered the book immediately, gobbling it up eagerly over the course of the past week.
Feminist heroine for our times. If it had not been for that little hook, I might not have been near as intrigued. The critics have made their selection and the public has responded. Moran is one of the newest and freshest faces of the feminist movement. I wanted to know why, and furthermore, what this selection reveals about attitudes within and outside of the movement regarding the direction it is (and is perceived to be) taking. Besides, I was curious: would I or would I not agree with her take on the whole thing?
In summary, the emotional effect of the book is something like this:
the raw biological imagery / autobiographical intensity of a Frida Kahlo painting
the witty, caricatured and at times raucous social satire of an SNL skit
Above all, however, the image that supersedes even these in capturing the tone (and, in my view, the importance) of the book is this:
Moran’s face on the cover
Serene and unapologetic, she peers back at you with an equanimity that is, at the least, unsettling.
In terms of logistics, How to Be a Woman is loosely structured as a chronological series of topically focused chapters, each an exploration of a key stage or experience in her life. Beginning with her adolescence and moving onward through its biological hallmarks and into her first jobs, first lovers, her wedding, childbirth and child rearing, and her abortion, she balances raucous anecdotes with related analysis.
Moran begins strong, her storytelling focused, her cultural critiques related and developed. However, mid-way through, she starts to unravel. Although her storytelling retains its raw emotional force, her critiques and arguments are more piece meal, her assertions less developed, her ideas become less coherent.
Essentially, Moran does not bring anything new to the table. We already know that expectations regarding women’s appearance and sexuality are ridiculous, that pornography and strip clubs are damaging, that double standards are a day-to-day reality for women, and that childbirth and child rearing complicate already complicated matters in the life of woman.
What Moran does offer is a fresh approach. She’s not very political, and neither is her approach an impersonal appeal to the intellect. Rather, she assails readers with a blitzkrieg of uncensored biological imagery and forthrightness, made emotionally tolerable only by way of her sharp, self-deprecating wit. She writes, describing the birth of her first child, “And in the end – because I wasn’t magic and couldn’t fly monkeys out of my butt, and I’d spent three days and nights in this place of failure – the doctors had to strap me down and cut me open. Instead of Lizzie coming out of me in a soft, spurting burst of magic and Milky Way, Dr. Jonathan de Rosa pushed by kidneys to one side and hauled her out of me, upside-down by her feet, like a shit-covered rabbit on a butcher’s hook.”
Honesty and openness about actual experiences, biological or otherwise, are aspects that, I think, have been traditionally lacking from feminist discussion. Moran is not only honest, she shocks with disturbing details. At times, she’s hard to swallow, but I imagine the blitzkrieg effect of her memoir is, in the grand scheme, a healthy one. She has opened the door for other women to walk through. She has taken the discussion down new paths and in new directions.
I can’t imagine the personal attacks she has almost certainly received regarding the accounts of her child birth and abortion. However, whether or not anyone agrees with her individual decisions is really beside the point. Whatever side of the argument a woman might be on, it is very important that individual voices be brought to the table in the course of political discussion. Moran has had the courage to be true to her perspective and speak publicly about her experiences in a way that few others have been able to.
In my view, the work itself is incomplete, important as a necessary forerunner for future works, important also as a necessary balance to overly intellectualized/political/impersonal arguments. Moran has added an important human element (and humorous element) to the discussion; however, her discussion is not enough on its own. (Which is not actually a bad thing, in my book, but important to note in case anyone would assume otherwise.)
In the end, after laughing at Moran’s humor and wanting to cry as I read of her disappointments, after feeling that strange weight of unease and uncertainty as I wrestle, myself, with my own viewpoints in response to her decisions, and after scrutinizing her arguments and my own, what has settled in the back of my mind and what I believe will remain for awhile is the image of Moran’s face on the cover: serene, unapologetic, equanimous.
Have you read the book? What did you think of Moran’s approach to feminism?