Caitlin Moran is rallying women for a fifth wave of feminism, apparently. The third and fourth waves - not over yet; and just begun - can both get lost and be damned. And this fifth wave of feminism won't be about marching, or protesting, or theory. All that is, like, so 20th century. Instead:
We just need to look it [by which Moran means 'All The Patriarchal Bullshit'] in the eye, squarely, for a minute, and then start laughing at it. We look hot when we laugh. People fancy us when they observe us giving out relaxed, earthy chuckles.
Phew, what a relief - being a fifth-wave feminist will make people fancy us! Feminism and hotness will finally be combined as we throw our heads back and have a good giggle about domestic violence, rape and female genital mutilation, and all the other pressing women's issues of the day.
Because How to Be A Woman isn't a book about any of those things, and I'm being (slightly, but seriously) facetious. These aren't the feminist issues Moran is encouraging us to solve by 'simply pointing at it, and going 'HA!'', thank goodness. They, and many other subjects high on the feminist agenda, don't feature here, in a book much publicised as The Female Eunuch for a new generation (unfairly I think, because it raises false expectations). This is strictly pop-culture feminism: it's all about body hair, plastic surgery, celebrity culture and the size of your handbag or your underwear. It is the ridiculous social norms surrounding such subjects that Moran is encouraging us to laugh at. And laugh I did, all the way through her sweet, funny, knowing, infuriating and sometimes just plain wrong book.
Moran is a columnist for The Times, and has worked as a journalist for nearly 20 years, making her debut in Melody Maker when she was just 16 years old. How to Be A Woman is a typical columnists' book, comprised of a dozen or so bite-size chapters, each one a balanced dose of personal anecdote, hyperbole and invective, with some jokes thrown in. Her jokes are good; and the invective is often funny too, not to mention insightful. For example, I particularly appreciated the chapter about body hair, and her paean to 'a proper muff. A big, hairy minge. A lovely, furry moof that looks - when she sits, naked - as if she has a marmoset sitting in her lap.' The tirade against the fashion for waxing, and strange, hairless, sore 'lulus' is spot on, tracing its origin to the practicalities of porn and teasing out why the issue is a feminist one and shouldn't be dismissed as a hygeine or fashion choice. Namely because, as pubic hair is increasingly seen as unfeminine and unnatural, it leads to intense pressure on women to conform to a stereotype, with real financial (not to mention psychological) implications:
I can't believe we've got to a point where it's basically costing us money to have a fanny. They're making us pay for maintenance and upkeep of our lulus, like their a communal garden. It's a stealth tax. Fanny VAT.
Of course Moran is right: all feminine body-norms, which require intensive upkeep, force women to engage in an endless, and pointless, cycle of expensive 'treatments' and 'product applications'. Even the vocabulary suggests a sort of medical intervention, which women have to undergo just to remain recognisably female. You can't help but smile when Moran suggests that, on the contrary to current distaste, one of life's great pleasures is:
Lying in a hammock, gently finger-combing your Wookiee whilst staring at the sky... By the end of a grooming session, your little minge-fro should be even, and bouffy - you can gently bounce the palm of your hand off it, as if it were a tiny hair trampoline.
Shame that she goes on to say that her pro-pube position doesn't extend to other sites of female body hair: legs, eyebrows, upper-lip, armpits. All of these are 'of aesthetic concern - and not really part of The Struggle' as a consequence. Wrong wrong wrong. Since when was feminism not about aesthetic concerns? Moran seems to have forgotten her own arguments about the negative impact of arbitrary aesthetic norms a few paragraphs earlier. Later in the book she uses a simple test to identify sexism. Basically, it's sexism if only women are being asked to modify their behaviour to conform to a societal norm. Armpit hair, or lack thereof, falls into this category methinks. Signs of such frustratingly inconsistent thinking pervade the book.
Also, throughout there runs a general disdain of academic and theoretical feminism. This disdain is generally directed, as far as I can tell, at anyone writing about feminism and *not* laughing about it. But there is very little evidence that Moran has read much in the way of feminist discourse. The only name-dropped feminist is Germaine Greer, who pops up repeatedly to be venerated or refuted; otherwise it's just Moran against 'those feminists'. You know, the ones that aren't telling it like it is. Amongst these feminists are all feminist historians. Moran has some particularly strong views about the non-contribution of women to history, and how this has brought us to a pube-waxing, hand-bag toting pass. She says 'most sexism is down to men being accustomed to us being the losers. That's what the problem is. We just have bad status. Men are accustomed to us being runners-up or being disqualified entirely.' Which is all well and good. But our views diverge on why this might be: Moran says it is because women have been losers. In fact, we've been pretty rubbish all along:
For even the most ardent feminist historian, male or female - citing Amazons and tribal matriarchies and Cleopatra - can't conceal that women have basically done fuck all for the last 100,000 years. Come on - let's admit it. Let's stop exhaustingly pretending that there is a parallel history of women being victorious and creative, on an equal with men, that's just been comprehensively covered up by The Man. There isn't. Our empires, armies, cities, artworks, philosophers, philanthropists, inventors, scientists, astronauts, explorers, politicians and icons could all fit, comfortably, into one the private karaoke booths in SingStar. We have no Mozart; no Einstein; no Galileo; no Gandhi. No Beatles, no Churchill, no Hawking, no Columbus. It just didn't happen.
All of which makes me think that she doesn't understand a) the concept of feminist history, b) the basics of feminist theory, and c) the patriarchy. I can't remember ever seeing a feminist historian cite the Amazons as paragons of feminine achievement, or making claims for a 'parallel history' or a massive conspiritorial cover-up of women's achievements. The point, again and again and again, is the limitation of women's sphere of influence, agency or power structures and access to education. Feminist history is, most often, about understanding the ways in which women lived and operated within these bounds, and negotiated their place in the world. Sometimes this means highlighting their previously unrecognised achievements; other times in highlighting their chronic lack of creative, political or intellectual outlet.
Moran follows this utter lack of understanding with a strange, prolonged anecdote about how, when she was at Melody Maker, they could never find enough female musicians to feature; and maybe that was because there weren't any good ones until Lady Gaga. It's all very silly, and slightly offensive, and definitely an unfair dismissal of the incredibly creative work of feminist historians (and female musicians) in exploring gender over the last 30 years.
The real strengths of Moran's book - aside from the parts where she makes you roll about laughing about thongs, or botox, or the word 'boobs' - are often in her stories about herself, and particularly her relationship with her sisters. These make the feminist idea of 'sisterhood' flesh, as Moran and her closest sister, Caz, talk through their shared experiences of womanhood, puzzling out such difficult questions as what to call their breasts and how to insert tampons. The most powerful section of the book though, where Moran shows why it is that she is a writer at all, is the part about the births of her two children. The first is 48 hours of pure trauma; the second is a quasi-spiritual experience, which she recounts quite beautifully:
I've been told to walk, and I do - I pace miles and miles, like I'm on my way to Bethlehem. I use the hospital corridors like the world's slowest, fattest race track. I walk for four hours, non-stop. Oh Nancy! I walk from St Paul's to Hammersmith for you, barefoot, quietly sighing, from Angel to Oval, the Palace to the Heath. Your head is like a stone against bone - a quiet pressure I can't stop now, and neither can you. Gravity is the magic I couldn't find before, strapped to the bed, two years ago. Gravity is the spell I should have invoked.
So, yes, a book to read definitely, but this jury is still out on it's value to the 'fifth wave of feminism'. I think I prefer riding out the third and embarking on the fourth because, while it is good to laugh at the silly fashions of 21st century life that niggle at women all day everyday of their lives, it is not enough. No, not nearly enough. If you choose to walk a few chapters in Caitlin Moran's shoes, I recommend a dose of Kat Banyard's The Equality Illusion soon afterwards to balance out.