One day a few weeks ago I wandered into Crow Books and asked behind the counter for book in the same way I normally do “can’t remember the author, but I think it’s called Being A Woman or Learning How to Be a Woman. Or maybe it was Not Being a Woman?” Bookshop employees everywhere roll their eyes collectively and tap desperately at the computer. On this occasion the woman behind the counter said she’d put that on the shelf that same day. “It’s about a bar maid with a library card, right?” she said as she headed to the memoir section.
As a matter of fact How to Be a Woman, by Caitlin Moran, is not about a bar maid with a library card. It’s a collection of essays about Moran’s coming of age, I suppose, which is a story we rarely hear about women and girls. Recommended by a commenter on my post about Marieke Hardy’s You’ll Be Sorry When I’m Dead, it is in a similar vein but it holds together better as one story rather than the collection of columns, blog posts and stories Hardy’s book felt like. It is genuinely funny, in the cleverest of ways, feminist and an all round good read.
Like all memoirs it wasn’t without its irritations. For the most part Moran, who is a UK columnist and music critic by the by, struck an easy conversational tone that residents of the blogosphere would be quite comfortable with. But because I am approximately one hundred years old I was irritated by her use of exclamation points. In chapter titles, really? It took me a great deal of effort to not skip the passages about the redemptive nature of motherhood because I could
suffer through read that just about anywhere and I’d much rather read Moran add to the collective wisdom rather than reiterate Hallmark. To her credit, immediately after said passages she launched into a chapter about the pressure on women to become mothers and the fact that it is not exerted similarly on men makes resisting it, or at least analysing it, a feminist act in itself.
It’s light-hearted enough to avoid reading like a treatise but even so I liked the way Moran navigated the often contradictory nature of the women’s rights movement, embracing women’s choice and self-determination. Towards the end, however, I got a sense that she was worried it’d be too dense with the feminist analysis and so threw in a Beauty Myth-light chapter about handbags and modeling shoots most of which I could have lived without. Several times during the novel I wondered if she’d ever heard of roller derby, and if not how that is even possible. The chapter about Lady Gaga is a hoot and I liked her chapter on strip clubs, in which she says this:
Just as pornography isn’t inherently wrong – it’s just some f*cking – so pole dancing, lap dancing, or stripping aren’t inherently wrong – its just some dancing. So long as women are doing it for fun, because they want to, and they are in a place where they won’t be misunderstood, and because it seems ridiculous and amusing, and something that might very well end with you leaning against a wall, crying with laughter as your friends try to mend the crotch-split in your leggings with a safety pin- then its a simple open-and-shut case of carry on girls. Feminism is behind you.
I don’t actually think it’s quite as simple as all that, but I love her turn of phrase and I immediately considered the miserable, joyless atmosphere of strip clubs versus the hilariousness of a burlesque hen’s night I recently attended. Simplistic as it is, she makes a fair point. Besides which, in this passage and throughout the book, she made me laugh. Yes, women can be funny and that counts for a whole lot.
If you’ll excuse me, now I have to go ask a bookshop employee for “the one about a bar maid with a library card”.
How to Be a Woman, Caitlin Moran: three and a half stars.
Read it if: you want something quick, funny and clever.