Wednesday, 12 September 2012

I read a book!

            About eighteen months back, when I lived in the Staircase of Feminine Awesomeness*, a friend of mine- in fact, let’s stop coyly referring to “friends” every time I have to speak about someone, affect a silly Victorian letter-writing convention and call her H.- had a birthday tea party and invited a bunch of people around. Being a totally hardcore Feminist Fitty herself, H. had received several Books About Women as presents, including a book called “How to be a Woman”, by Caitlin Moran, from fellow staircase denizen E. . Now, at the time my familiarity with Caitlin Moran was entirely through a story about her once appearing in a BBC English textbook which I had to teach from in China, so I was highly amused to discover a work of feminism written by this extraordinary TEFL superstar. As we sat on H.’s sloping floor stuffing ourselves with various baked goods and herbal brews, somebody got the bright idea to read a bit of an extract out of this new female instruction manual.

            I don’t really remember what bit we read, although we probably didn’t get past the first few pages, where she’s being chased across a council estate by yobs and communing with a stupid dog whose vagina is more integral to the plot for the first ten pages than Moran’s own. The point is, at some point very early on, we stopped reading, looked at each other, went ‘I don’t think this is really a feminist book,’ and got on with our lives. And by ‘got on with our lives’, I mean ‘started reading extracts from “The Sex Diaries” instead’. Great party book, that one. And that was the end of the feminist importance of Caitlin Moran.

            Except, alas, it wasn’t. Fast forward to this summer, and S., another coolkid of my acquaintance, sends me a link to an article about the US launch of “How to be a Woman”, along with the words ‘a compatriot of yours, perhaps?’ Yes, it turned out that Caitlin Moran, TEFL superstar, had apparently written a very influential book back in those heady days in the Staircase of Awesome, and we had been so preoccupied with the bit about dog vaginas that we hadn’t noticed that this magnificent being had single-handedly re-energised our movement! I disguised this earth shattering moment in my existence with some highly intellectual musings on Birmingham City Centre, and promptly resolved to discover more about this mysterious tome. My very maturity as an organism was apparently at stake.

            A stroke of luck was upon us that day. S. had unwittingly chosen to enlighten me about the movement of feminism (not to be confused with the feminist movement) on a day when, not only was I in London, hangout of most of my awesome British acquaintances, but H. had also just come back from her bohemian Vienna lifestyle to grace said hangout. I purchased some patriotic M&S snacks and went to talk to my fellow expat about the magic of our lives and the fate of our ideology. Many were the insights had on that day over a therapeutic cat-petting session**- we compared linguistic abilities, leg hair***, awesome foreign lifestyles and how best to pet a cat. On Caitlin Moran, however, H. had only one thing to say: ‘If she’s going to write a book saying “here’s the facts”, it would have been really nice if she’d looked up some actual facts first.’

            So then I stopped faffing around and actually read the book. And there’s an interesting habit I’ve picked up recently when reading books about feminism, where I cannot help but make corresponding facial expressions when I’m reading along. Sometimes, like with the bits of The Female Eunuch I dipped into**** a couple of weeks back, this involves wearing a smug smile and nodding slowly along for several hours; when making my way through Catharine MacKinnon the effect is more of a full-face twitch as her reasoning lurches (in my indoctrinated mind, anyway) from brilliant to deranged and back again in the space of a paragraph. I was going to see if I could emulate some of the faces I pulled during “How to be a Woman”, but then I Google image searched Moran and I discovered that the faces I pulled whilst reading it were probably very similar to the faces she wore whilst writing it. So, at first it was like this:

And then it went a bit like this:

And once or twice this:

And by the end, I was like this:

No, wait, that’s Benedict Cumberbatch. Let’s try again:

That’s quite unfair, of course. This was a pretty hilarious book, and the memoir parts of it (which is in fact most of it) were fascinating. See, it turns out that the textbook-approved story about the plucky teenager who wrote a book about her homeschooling experiences was actually a slightly desperate, lonely teenager who wrote a book about being very poor in a huge family in Wolverhampton. Having done so, she proceeded to create one of the biggest life turnarounds ever managed by an impoverished teenager in Wolverhampton, moved to London where all the awesome people are, and went on to write hilarious newspaper columns and throw drinks on members of Blur, or something along those lines. It’s all very heartwarming. But my goodness, whoever thought you could write a book on feminism in a five month blaze of glory needs a punch in the gonads.

Because, you see, for me the deal breaker wasn’t the bits where the existence of facts was casually ignored in favour of a sort of Edgy Modern Feminist reinventing of the wheel. I raised my eyebrows (figuratively and literally, see above) when Moran starts musing on whether we are in the fifth wave of feminism by now- show your working at least, Caitlin!- and again when I was co-opted into the Edgy Modern Feminist movement of “strident feminism”, but “How to be a Woman” is pretty unapologetic about not being an academic text of any sort so I figured I’d let this kind of postulating slide. Similarly, I am not so far gone into my little bubble of feminist theory that I don’t recognise that for some women, it may be new and exciting to be told that waxing your “foof” and wearing high heels every day despite the pain are not an inalienable part of the female condition. Full disclosure: I even quite liked some of the things she said which fell well outside what passes in feminism for a Party Line- so hey, don’t feel guilty for being bitchy or flirting at work because men don’t have to feel guilty about being bitchy or flirting at work! Obviously, being Manly Hunter Mans means that men never do anything as feminised as bitch or flirt anyway, but if they did, they sure wouldn’t feel as guilty about it as you probably did before Caitlin Moran told you feminists shouldn’t tell you not to. I was even in favour of the moral of the book, which is that we’re all just trying to be one of “the Guys”; a bit linguistically unfortunate that, seeing as “guy” is definitely not as gender neutral as I’d like it to be, but sure. Feminist bestseller, whatever.

No, all of those things were just fine. But there are a few glaring moments of “excuse me, what?” which possibly moulded my face into whole new shapes with their depressing badness, mostly because none of them needed to happen. The first major one of these was the moment the “what should we call vaginas” chapter descended into a prescriptive list of things we should and should not call our vaginas. There I was, smirking along at the thought of a teenage vagina called “Rolf Harris”, doing a little fistpump of recognition as “Birmingham City Centre” entered the story for real, putting on my sceptical face for the whole sequence involving babies… and then Caitlin Moran told me not to call my vag “vag”. It sounds like a middle aged woman, apparently (which is fitting, because so does my vag*****). Not “here are names which make me cringe”, which would have been functionally equivalent given the whole book is based on one woman’s personal adventure, and allowed all the same jokes. Just, ‘I know what feminism is, don’t call your vag “vag”’. I may have in fact said “Piss off, Caitlin” out loud.

And this happens a couple more times. These occasional jarring moments where, in the name of being funny and down to earth and feminist at a bar and we’re all friends here it’s just a laugh innit mate, these things just burst out of what could otherwise be a pretty darn amazing book. The real killer for me was the chapter on strip clubs (I think it is aptly titled “I go to a strip club!”) in which Moran, in the heady days of the early noughties when apparently going to strip clubs was a Thing (even the Spice Girls did it! The Spice Girls went to strip clubs! My childhood is ruined!), goes to a strip club, doesn’t think much of it and then gets kicked out by a bouncer who mistakes her for an ugly Russian prostitute. This prompts a long discussion about how awful strip clubs are, because everyone in them is a bit serious and angry, and then the assertion that strippers are letting the rest of women down. No, sorry Caitlin, you don’t get to make that claim. You got to leave home at 16 with an enormous vocabulary and a published book and become a magazine-person-and-TEFL-superstar; other women leave home with just their bodies and also do what they can.

This bit I almost forgave, however, after the following bit about burlesque, which as we all know is Good Stripping: turns out that the real clincher in favour of Good Stripping is that it is stripping frequented by gay men, and women should pay close attention to the things that gay men like as gay men are effectively a better version of women. Now, I’m not in the habit of filming myself whilst reading (yet) but I’m fairly convinced that my eyebrows actually left my head, anime-style, after I discovered this little gem in the Feminist Manual of the Century. I know gay men who are experts in linguistics, a capella, being amazing boyfriends, hipster fashion, misanthropy, the music of the Final Fantasy video game series and taxidermy, among other things, but perhaps I don’t know the Right Sort of gay man because none of them have been even slightly good at being women. In fact, it is possible that suggesting that the best type of woman is in fact a type of man with their own set of societal prejudices to tackle might be incredibly obnoxious to both parties involved! Yes, it’s just one little part of your book, that you made as a bit of a wry joke, and you did basically get your point across about burlesque, but now this thing you have written is being read by people around the world who are taking it exactly as seriously as “hey women, you don’t need to shave your pubes into the shape of Sicily!” i.e. very seriously. I’m afraid I can’t see this as progress.

And it’s sad, because it’s unnecessary. Proudly writing your feminist magnum opus in five frantic months, like a modern lady Kerouac with less substance abuse, is only a good thing if you’ve got enough people in those five months to read the thing over and, on occasions, point out that you don’t need to say that. It’s not censoring your edginess to suggest you don’t slut shame just to have a wham line at the end of your tragic strip club experience. It’s making your book better, so that maybe next time we can have a New Awesome Feminist Book that actually makes me grin like an idiot all the way through (then buy a hundred copies and give them to everyone I know). Also, you would really save my poor aching face muscles. Think about it.


*I’m not sure whether “staircases” as a university living arrangement is self explanatory or not? It’s basically a small group (5-15) of vertically arranged rooms. The Staircase of Feminine Awesomeness was actually a couple of old townhouses converted into student rooms, and there were 6 of us altogether, although only 4 on the officially Awesome bit.

**I know this entry is about a book where that would be a euphemism but honestly, here it’s not. There really was a cat. It bit me.

***Yes, my best feminist sis had not seen me with fully grown-out leg hair until this summer. This fact is going to come as quite a surprise to some people and that is probably my own fault.

****Not a euphemism!

*****This is possibly the opposite of the kind of content I should be populating my serious feminist blog with, but it’s impossible to discuss the sounds of vaginas without including the opinion of a different Moran:

Misandry! And misogyny! Together! Comedy!