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English department

How to Be A Woman by Caitlin Moran

“How to Be a Woman” is a raw exploration of what it is to be a woman in today’s world. Rather than creating an instruction manual, however, author Caitlin Moran has created a sort of guidebook. By telling her own story of growing up in the 80s and 90s in Wolverhampton, she explores what it means to be a girl in a 21st century first-world country. Hers is an almost anthropological study (admittedly more crass than most).

She is fiercely opinionated about what sorts of words women should use to refer to their anatomy, what the effects of the porn industry are on sex and masturbation, and how liberally women should use their “shavers.” By telling her own story, the story of an awkward girl waxing her legs, reading erotica and becoming a mother, she attempts to teach us all a little bit more about the perils and triumphs of contemporary womanhood.

I am first attracted to the book on a Sunday in Barnes and Noble. I’m fascinated by the title, and I’m fascinated by the cover photo of the author: a middle-aged woman who looks punky, modern, and a little bit witchy.

Two paragraphs into the book, and the witchy woman has a voice; her wit and pop-cultural references are unusual and instantly attractive. “Here I am, on my 13th birthday. I’m running. I’m running from the Yobs.”

This woman is funny. A well-known British columnist, broadcaster and TV critic, Moran’s intelligence and humor have clearly propelled her success. At times, her use of angry capital letters and biting sarcasm is laugh inducing. “Strident feminism NEEDS big pants… I’m currently wearing a pair that could have been used as a fire blanket to put out the Great Fire of London at any point during the first 48 hours or so.”

There are two things that give me pause before tearing apart the rest of the book: first, my fear that this will be no more than an anti-male rant, second, that I will need to buy a British slang dictionary.

I needn’t have worried about anti-man ranting; this is a critique of culture as a whole, rather than a tirade. In one chapter Moran actually says, somewhat tongue in cheek, that she misses “old-fashioned sexism.” “I’m neither ‘pro-women’ nor ‘anti-men’.” Moran says, “I’m just ‘Thumbs up for the six billion.”

My fear of incomprehension was also unwarranted; Moran uses footnotes to catch readers up to speed on British culture, and any other blanks can be filled in by the imagination.

While Moran’s cultural literacy offers her story a rich color, her language is not always polite. She asks women: “a) do you have a vagina and b) do you want to be in charge of it?” The subject matter broaches topics that range from human anatomy to gender roles to the industry of sexuality. Moran doesn’t pull any punches; her blunt manner becomes synonymous with her voice and also allows her to engage frankly with difficult and often taboo topics.

Her narrative style is honest to a fault, leaving no stone unturned in her past. She uses original spellings from her diary entries, offering humor and sincerity. She tells stories of sexual discovery at a young age. She describes her own abortion in detail and without regret. Moran engages modern culture with a varied structure, throwing in bullet points and sentence fragments willy-nilly.

All of the crass, bold cultural engagement would have fallen flat for me however, had it not been for Chapter 12, “Why You Should Have Children.” Moran paints a beautiful picture of motherhood that at first glance seems strictly un-feminist. But this is precisely why it works; she is simply a woman telling a story about her experience. Her experience includes motherhood and an intense love for her children. This chapter gives the novel gravity. Moran is a new voice in feminism, saying something new altogether, that this is more than just following or breaking rules. It’s about being human beings. Thumbs up for the six billion.

This book will be educational for most readers, male or female, young or old, though this may not be the sort of education that younger readers are ready for. But this is a book worth buying. Moran’s frank life story is a tale of style, sex and stoners that holds up a mirror to our society. While, for some, it might seem like an immersion in depravity, there is redemption in telling the truth, and that is certainly what Moran does here.