Book Reviews
10:40 am
Thu July 19, 2012

A Little Advice On 'How To Be A Woman'

Originally published on Thu July 19, 2012 12:03 pm

Funny feminists should never die; there are too few of them who've gained any cultural prominence in the first place. That's why Nora Ephron's death earlier this summer flattened me, even though I hadn't read her in a while and had mixed feelings about the whole "I Feel Bad About My Neck," self-flagellation routine. Still, she made me laugh at the same time she often made me think: I wanted her playing on Team Feminist forever.

I don't mean to give the impression that Caitlin Moran is some midgame replacement, but it is bracing in this season of losing Ephron to discover a younger feminist writer who scrimmages with the patriarchy and drop-kicks zingers with comic flair. Moran is a 30-something-year-old columnist for the London Times, and her book, newly published here, was a best-seller when it came out in Britain last year. Called How to Be a Woman, it's a collection of essays that constitutes a rough memoir.

Moran was the oldest of eight children raised in subsidized housing in Wolverhampton, which seems to be one of those places the queen dutifully visits and then skedaddles out of before nightfall. Moran was indifferently home-schooled from the age of 11, and, like many a lonely misfit before her, turned to books for company. Germaine Greer became her guiding feminist divinity, and, in fact, Moran says that when she started writing this book, she wanted it to be like "The Female Eunuch — but with jokes about my knickers!" Roseanne Barr, at her sassy prime, is probably the closest American analog to Moran. Like Barr, Moran is salty — I can't quote vast swathes of her language. But, more importantly, like Barr used to do, Moran invests her consciousness-raising confessions with an all-too-rare working-class worldview.

The image Moran presents of herself in the opening essay is one that's not easily forgotten: It's the spring of 1988 and it's Moran's birthday. She has just turned 13 and is an aficionado of the gender-bending style of Chrissie Hynde of The Pretenders. Moran is wearing Wellington boots and a man's army coat; she weighs in at 182 pounds, and is running because she's being chased by a pack of boys hurling stones at her. She does not think the "Yobs," as she calls them, are interested in her emerging femininity.

"I do not ... " Moran says, "look very feminine. Diana, Princess of Wales is feminine ... I am ... femi-none." That scene sets the tone for what follows, as Moran races through the milestones of womanhood, hilariously hurling back challenges to traditional gender expectations. In a hoot of an essay called, "I Become Furry!" Moran recalls the momentous sprouting of her pubic hair; she then uses that memory as an occasion to ruminate on what she calls contemporary "pube disapproval," as evidenced by the pressure to wax away all offending hair. Moran snorts:

"I can't believe we've got to a point where it's basically costing us money to have a vagina. They're making us pay for maintenance and upkeep of our lulus, like they're a communal garden. It's a stealth tax. ... This is money we should be spending on THE ELECTRICITY BILL and CHEESE and BERETS ..."

Current trends in personal grooming aside, most of the other topics Moran tackles in How to Be a Woman constitute a hit parade from the past 40 or so years of feminist writing: sexuality, marriage, division of housework, female body fat, abortion, and sexism in the workplace. As Moran notes, however, feminism seems to be in remission among the young: all the more reason to revisit — with gusto — some of the familiar battleground issues.

Moran, who proudly cops to being a "strident feminist," offers this challenge to those female readers on the fence about feminism: "Here," Moran says, "is the quick way of working out if you're a feminist. Put your hand in your underpants. a) Do you have a vagina? And b) Do you want to be in charge of it?"

If you said "yes" to both questions, Moran says, "then congratulations! You're a feminist."

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

Caitlin Moran has swept up a bunch of awards in her native England, for her work as a newspaper columnist, interviewer, and author. Her book "How to Be a Woman" is out in America this week and book critic Maureen Corrigan says that Moran's book is a must-read for anyone curious to find out just how very funny a self-proclaimed, strident feminist can be.

MAUREEN CORRIGAN: Funny feminists should never die. There are too few of them who've gained any cultural prominence in the first place. That's why Nora Ephron's death earlier this summer flattened me, even though I hadn't read her in a while and had mixed feelings about the whole "I Feel Bad About My Neck" self-flagellation routine.

Still, she made me laugh at the same time she often made me think. I wanted her playing on Team Feminist forever. I don't mean to give the impression that Caitlin Moran is some mid-game replacement, but it is bracing in this season of losing Ephron to discover a younger feminist writer who scrimmages with the patriarchy and drop-kicks zingers with comic flair.

Moran is a 30-something-year-old columnist for the London Times and her book, newly published here, was a best-seller when it came out in Britain last year. Called "How to Be a Woman," it's a collection of essays that constitutes a rough memoir.

Moran was the oldest of eight children raised in subsidized housing in Wolverhampton, which seems to be one of those places the Queen dutifully visits and then skedaddles out of before nightfall. Moran was indifferently home-schooled from the age of 11 and, like many a lonely misfit before her, turned to books for company.

Germaine Greer became her guiding feminist divinity, and, in fact, Moran says that when she started writing this book she wanted it to be like "The Female Eunuch," but with jokes about my knickers. Roseanne Barr at her sassy prime is probably the closest American analogue to Moran.

Like Roseanne, Caitlin Moran is salty. I can't quote vast swaths of her language, but more importantly like Roseanne used to do, Moran invests her consciousness-raising confessions with an all-too-rare working-class worldview.

The image Moran presents of herself in the opening essay is one that's not easily forgotten. It's the spring of 1988 and it's Moran's birthday. She's just turned 13 and is an aficionado of the gender-bending style of Chrissie Hynde of The Pretenders.

Moran is wearing Wellington boots and a man's army coat. She weighs in at 182 pounds and is running because she's being chased by a pack of boys hurling stones at her. She does not think the yobs, as she calls them, are interested in her emerging femininity. I do not, Moran says, look very feminine. Diana, Princess of Wales, is feminine. I am femi-none.

That scene sets the tone for what follows as Moran races through the milestones of womanhood hilariously hurling back challenges to traditional gender expectations. In a hoot of an essay called "I Become Furry," Moran recalls the momentous sprouting of her pubic hair. She then uses that memory as an occasion to ruminate on what she calls contemporary pube disapproval as evidenced by the pressure to wax away all offending hair.

Moran snorts, I can't believe we've got to a point where it's basically costing us money to have a vagina. They're making us pay for maintenance and upkeep of our lulus like they're a communal garden. It's a stealth tax. This is money we should be spending on the electricity bill. And cheese. And berets.

Current trends in personal grooming aside, most of the other topics Moran tackles in "How to Be a Woman" constitute a hit parade from the last 40 or so years of feminist writing: sexuality, marriage, division of housework, female body fat, abortion, and sexism in the workplace. As Moran notes, however, feminism seems to be in remission among the young.

All the more reason to revisit, with gusto, some of the familiar battleground issues. Moran, who proudly cops to being a strident feminist, offers this challenge to those women readers on the fence about feminism. Here, Moran says, is the quick way of working out if you're a feminist. A: Do you have a vagina? And, B: Do you want to be in charge of it? If you said yes to both questions, Moran says, then congratulations. You're a feminist.

GROSS: Maureen Corrigan teaches literature at Georgetown University. She reviewed "How to Be a Woman" by Caitlin Moran. You can download podcasts of our show on our website freshair.npr.org. and you can follow us on Twitter at nprfreshair and on Tumblr at nprfreshair.tumblr.com. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.

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