“Sometimes you read a book and it fills you with this weird evangelical zeal,”* and you want to give copies to everyone you know, even hand them out like liquidation sale fliers to strangers on the street. This is not one of those books. Kidding, totally kidding. Caitlin Moran absolutely nails it. I read the cover advertisement heralding “How To Be a Woman” as “the British version of Tina Fey’s ‘Bossypants,’” and thought, yeah right, I bet the pages of this book aren’t even worthy of wiping Tina Fey’s ass on a camping trip; Tina’d sooner use poison ivy. My skepticism of the parallel turned out to be warranted: Moran’s book is way better than “Bossypants.”
To start with, Moran is a descriptive genius. A hilarious descriptive genius. In one breath she proclaims “a lifelong affection for camp, waspy men who show their love with increasingly vile insults (‘Hello, Repulsive’)” and with the next describes fingering as “the slightly more grown-up version of a toddler’s implacable desire to jam their fingers into DVD players.” Wrinkles? “Lines and grayness are nature’s way of telling you not to fuck with someone – the equivalent of the yellow-and-black banding on a wasp. . . .” Drugs? When her boyfriend insults and debases Moran in front of others she says, “I’m so embarrassed that I take Ecstasy, just for something to do with my face.” Domesticity? She writes that a husband reacts to his wife splurging on something nice for herself “as if you’ve just stabbed [him] quite violently in the balls with a fork, left the fork there, and then hung your coat on it while you go and have a bath.”
But her real feat, contributing in a meaningful way to the modern feminist cause with wit and mirth, is matched only by Tina Fey on “Saturday Night Live” and “30 Rock” and Mindy Kaling on “The Office” and “The Mindy Show,” AND NEITHER ONE OF THEM PULLED IT OFF IN HER OWN BOOK. (Mindy! Tina! Please, I liked your book. Really, I did. Just not this much.) Here are some of my favorite examples of Moran’s uniquely literary brand of humorous feminism:
- “Women wear heels because they think they make their legs look thinner, end of. They think that by effectively walking on tiptoes, they’re slimming their legs down from a size 14 to a size 10. But they aren’t of course. There is a precedent for a big fat leg dwindling away into a point – and it’s on a pig.”
- “I wholeheartedly believe that, should they wish to, strident feminists are allowed to flirt their way to the top, without compromising their strident feminist principles one smidge. . . . [After all] ”[y]our male peers are flirting with their male bosses constantly.”
- “At 14, I am an experiment. Inside, I am being resurrected. I am in the middle of the kind of explosion of perspective that, in later years, I will pay a great deal of money to emulate in nightclubs, and at parties, in bathrooms – counting out tenners for pills in order to feel a tenth this remorseless, expanded, and inspired.”
- “With female fertility being presented as something limited and due to vanish quite soon, there’s a risk of women panicking and having a baby ‘just in case’ – in much the same way they panic and buy a half-price cashmere cardigan two sizes too small in a sale.”
- “[I]n the real world, we know that women who always blow-dry their hair before leaving the house are freaks: any mother at the school gates with a glossy bob is subject to pitying looks from the other mothers, who can’t believe she wasted 20 minutes, and a lot of upper-arm strength, zazzing her riah for any event less momentous than publicly announcing her engagement to Kiefer Sutherland at Cannes.”
- “When the subject turns to abortion, cosmetic intervention, birth, motherhood, sex, love, work, misogyny, fear, or just how you feel in your own skin, women still won’t often tell the truth to each other unless they are very, very drunk. Perhaps the endlessly reported rise in female binge drinking is simply modern women’s attempt to communicate with each other. Or maybe it is because Sancerre is so very delicious.”
- “I’ve read more about Oprah Winfrey’s arse than I have about the rise of China as an economic superpower. I fear this is no exaggeration. Perhaps China is rising as an economic superpower because its women aren’t spending all their time reading about Oprah Winfrey’s arse.”
- “[T]he reason these instances [of sexism] are so pernicious and damaging is the element of doubt involved. Are they being sexist on purpose or is it just some accidental sexism, due to carelessness and stupidity?”
As a former desk jockey, I both agree (with the flirting and “just some accidental sexism” points) and disagree (Moran, keep your grubby mom-hands off my high heels). I don’t think I buy her “is it polite?” catchline for ferreting out sexism, but one of the very best parts of the book is that I don’t feel like I have to. Moran champions an individualization of feminism in which each woman can make her own judgment calls and feminist policy (like Moran’s “no” to strip clubs and “yes” to burlesque) without apologizing. The Quaker in me likes that. The mom in me also found plenty to feel good about. And the woman in me is dancing on a metaphorical table in my prettiest bra and panties waving the book over my head.
“How To Be a Woman” is the kind of book that makes me want to demote all the others to which I’ve awarded five-stars. Now I know why people devised the 5.0 GPA scale and the generalissimo.
*John Green, “The Fault in Our Stars”