Saturday, January 26, 2013

How to Be a Woman by Caitlin Moran

I don't want men to go away  I don't want men to stop what they're doing.  What I want, instead, are some radical market forces.  I want CHOICE.  I want VARIETY.  I want MORE.  I want WOMEN.  I want women to have more of the world, not just because it would be fairer, but because it would be better.  More exciting.  Reordered.  Reinvented.  We should have the lady-balls to say, "Yeah - I like the look of this world.  And I've been here for a good while, watching.  Now - here's how I'd tweak it.  Because we're all in this together.

As Randy declared his theme for this iteration of 50 Books to be crime, I think mine will be feminism.  I made this decision for several reasons: first, I am a feminist.  Let me repeat, I AM A FEMINIST! (this is my version of shouting it from the rooftops, as Moran would have feminists, especially male feminists, do).  There are a lot of important feminist issues being debated today with major policy implications, so I thought it would be edifying to strengthen my base of knowledge and thought on the topic.  Second, I was so surprised and pleased by the relatively sophisticated feminist themes in Gone Girl that I figured it'd be a good topic to follow up on, and I had read good reviews of How to Be a Woman, so I thought it'd be a good next step.  Moran's part memoir, part manifesto isn't exactly the deepest exploration of feminism, but it hits the high points, so it's a good place to start.  Finally, I decided to explore feminism because I find it fascinating.  Two people can come from identical backgrounds and have very similar experiences but still have very different perspectives because one is a man and one is a woman.  This dynamic is particularly relevant for me because as a male feminist, I have a different perspective and am somewhat an outsider to the feminist movement, while still, I think/hope, being an important and useful part.

In How to Be a Woman, Moran gives voice to a number of concerns and issues that I found interesting, important, disturbing, and that probably make a lot of my female friends say, "no shit.  the fact that this is news to you shows you how strong the patriarchy is."  Her test to determine whether "some sexist bullshit is afoot" is
asking this question: 'Are the men doing it?  Are the men worrying about this as well?  Is this taking up the men's time?  Are the men told not to do this, as it's "letting our side down"? Are the men having to write bloody books about this exasperating, retarded, time-wasting bullshit?  Is this making Jon Stewart insecure?"
Almost always, the answer is: "No, the boys are not being told they have to be a certain way.  They're just getting on with stuff." 
This sentiment is particularly relevant today, I believe.  Fortunately, for the most part (though unfortunately this isn't 100% true), 21st century misogyny doesn't manifest itself in blatantly sexist ways, like a boss smacking his secretary on the ass and calling her sweetheart, or a woman being told she's too pretty to go to law school.  Instead, and perhaps even more insidiously, 21st century misogyny bares its teeth through implied and internalized expectations put on women that men aren't subjected to.  Moran addresses one example in her chapter on having children.  She tells about how, when she was a music journalist, she was always instructed to ask the female artists about their child rearing plans, but was never instructed to ask the same of the men she interviewed.  There is, according to Moran, a pervasive belief that a childless woman somehow doesn't fulfill her true potential as a woman and has less value than mothers.  Another example of these societal pressures/indications that some sexist bullshit is afoot is how a woman's value is tied to her appearance.  Real world example: last week during the lead up to the inauguration, the vast majority of words said and ink spilled about Michelle Obama dealt with her new bangs and her inauguration dresses.  The woman went to Princeton and Harvard Law School!!  Is that really the most interesting thing about her!?  Can't you find anything else to talk about?  Infuriating.

Another thing that Moran touches on that I find fascinating is how destructive feminism can be to feminism, and how we haven't quite figured it out yet.  She writes,
In the most ironic twist of all, feminism is often used as the stick - actually, a stick is inappropriately phallocentric, maybe a "furry cup" - to stop women behaving as freely, normally, and unselfconsciously as men.  Even ... suggesting that acting as freely, normally, and unsefconsciously as men is destroying other women. ... The idea that there are inherently wrong and inherently right "types" of women is what's screwed feminism for so long.
This is what the thesis of How to Be a Woman boils down to: that women should be free to be and do what they want.  You don't have to hate men, you don't have to be promiscuous, you don't have to be a mother, you don't have to be childless, you don't have to be anything but yourself and a contributing member of society.  I liked this book because that happens to be my preferred conception of feminism, and it was interesting to see how that goal is thwarted in ways that a man can easily be oblivious to.

Still, How to Be a Woman isn't perfect.  First, I was a little disappointed that it wasn't funnier.  I had read that it was a riot and, though it made me chuckle a couple of times, it was merely well written and interesting (of course, if that's the strongest condemnation someone directed at a book I wrote I'd be pretty content.  Also, it's definitely not that I don't think women are less funny than men...another example of the oppressive fist of the patriarchy!).  Second, there are times when Moran loses track of general truths and lets her own experience unduly cloud her analysis.  For example, she rails against weddings as terribly un-feminist.  As a strident feminist who is about to get married himself, I found all of her condemnations possible, but not universal.  The basis for her opinions becomes a lot clearer when she tells the story of her shitty wedding, however.  Of course, this ties back in to what I find so fascinating about feminism: men aren't the only ones whose opinions are influenced by their perspectives and personal experiences.  It reinforces the fact that we should all try to be compassionate, considerate, and empathetic when we deal with others and try to reach grand conclusions.

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