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English department

How to Be A Woman by Caitlin Moran

From the pages of How To Be A Woman, Caitlin Moran leaps as a character so vivid, readers may feel as if they met the author for coffee just last week to discuss pop culture and the patriarchy. Her writing is candid and riotously funny as she recounts the more outrageous experiences of her life, from growing up poor and overweight to prowling the clubs of London as a successful journalist. The author crafts this memoir-with-a-cause by connecting each scene with a bigger social issue, to be addressed as she recalls her lifelong quest: to understand just what it means to be a woman.

As the memoir begins, young Caitlin is introduced as an excitable, slightly clueless girl on the threshold of adolescence. “My 13th birthday!!!! I feel like I can do ANYTHING,” she writes in her diary, with “all the joyful ebullience of an idiot.” We are given a graphic account of the girl’s sexual awakening as she navigates puberty in a home overflowing with siblings, where privacy is a commodity and guidance nonexistent. By day Caitlin’s bodily changes are announced to the living room; by night she is educated by cable-television smut. She dreams of losing weight and making friends, but these wishes are heard only by the disturbed family dog.

At eighteen, Caitlin moves out and meets a deadbeat musician she’s convinced is The One. “I am so in love. Admittedly I feel terrible, and he’s a total arsehole, but I am in love. Finally.” They ingest a myriad of drugs to better cope with their mutual dislike until Caitlin, inspired by maracas and high on ecstasy, throws his possessions to the curb.

Miraculously, the naïve teenager grows to be a confident feminist wife and mother. But like many of the memories she describes, these accounts take a backseat to the book’s true function – a biting commentary on what it means to be a woman in society. Why must we wax? The author demands to know. Why must our value come from having children, and why are handbags so overpriced? Her expressive passion is reminiscent of her preteen diary entries as she relates her experience in high heels and wild strip clubs while proclaiming the evils of both. She rants, not as someone rejecting culture altogether, but as one who has participated in its absurdity and is completely fed up.

Each chapter combines memoir and shrewd observation to tackle a separate social concern, but the scattered format comes together as an argument to why feminism will never lose its importance as a counter to sexism. Caitlin admits that the battle isn’t always easy. “Fighting [sexist attitudes] feels like trying to combat a moldy mildew smell in the hallway, using only a bread knife…Modern sexism has become cunning. Sly.” But for Caitlin, a good start is to simply acknowledge the problem. “We…need to look [sexism] in the eye, squarely, for a minute, and then start laughing at it,” the author advises women, before adding, “We look hot when we laugh.”

Such tongue-in-cheek asides are characteristic in a narrative where the tone easily fluctuates between side-splitting and serious. At times the humor can seem forced, but the author’s wit gives the book its singularity in a day when feminist discourse is “only discussed at 11 p.m. on BBC4.” Pop culture references permeate Caitlin’s writing along with slang and even chatspeak, which can be at both grating and amusing. Shock value is another strategy the author tends to overuse; however, its effect on the reader ensures that her statements will not be easily forgotten.

Despite her informality, Caitlin is not a one-note writer; the memoir simmers with pointed observations on body image, love, and family. In one chapter, the author reflects on motherhood with a tenderness previously unseen; in another, she describes getting an abortion. The experience is laid out with signature honesty through which her beliefs are carefully conveyed. I found, surprisingly, that I was able to understand and respect her point of view while vehemently disagreeing with the argument.

Here, then, can be seen the most impressive aspect of Caitlin’s writing: while her lack of inhibitions or traditional values may seem alien, she is still relatable, even likeable. I found her perspective enlightening and her insights well-articulated. Readers may be startled by Caitlin’s casual vulgarity, but I believe they can learn a lot from How To Be A Woman if they can step out of their comfort zone to walk a mile in the sneakers (not heels!) of Caitlin Moran.