[This is one of a series of posts on Caitlin Moran's book How to Be a Woman. Click here for other posts in this series.]
I picked up How To Be A Woman by accident and read it on a dare. Wandering into Barnes & Noble this last September with my daughter one Saturday I picked up what I thought was a Halloween-themed book on the new non-fiction table featuring some witchy-looking lettering on the cover above the picture of a smirking woman sporting a less formal version of the Bride-of-Frankenstein hairdo. The author had the vaguely familiar sounding name of “Caitlin Moran.” Mistaking her for Caitlin Flanagan, a book reviewer I like for The Atlantic Monthly who is known for her fine literary insults, I flipped through it, thinking it a collection of her reviews. My daughter, seeing the cover, dared me to buy it and read it. So, I did. I confess a bit of apprehension dipping my toes into a book like this, but I was immediately engrossed in this smart, amusing and feminist theme-focused memoir. As a man, here’s what I learned.
Feminism can, and should, be explained in a way to men that is not only understandable, but also sympathetic, without making them feel like complicit conspirators in the patriarchal society they inherited, but did not intentionally design. And this requires humor. Moran understands and uses humor as her preferred weapon, showing her acquaintance with Twain’s dictum that “against the assault of laughter, nothing can stand.” Just as Archie Bunker made us laugh away ridiculed prejudices over time, Caitlin Moran’s amusing, even if sometimes a bit too cheeky for some (frequent use of ALL CAPS), personal writing style enables us to not only see, but also laugh away as ridiculous, many of our society’s sexist assumptions.
However, not everything I learned from Moran came through amusing anecdotes. Some lessons are more sobering. Through Moran’s eyes I finally realized that, for a modern woman, her body has become a series of problems to be solved, at least if she pays any attention at all to the body-image messages constantly sent to her by pop culture. If I can just fix this, then that, then this, and finally that, I will be a happy woman, she says, and this really depressed me. Now, at a gut level, I understand what my wife has been putting up with her entire life–how could I not have seen this more clearly before? I thought I had understood this, but I didn’t. And now that my daughter is 14 years old, she will be faced with this as well, my having a teenage daughter perhaps allowing me to better understand the existential dilemma through the eyes of a father, rather than through the eyes of a mate. Moran teaches this to me not by philosophical discussion using academic jargon, arguments I’ve probably heard before but never truly listened to or even understood, but by Moran’s unpretentious autobiographical vignettes, employing the ancient art of a story well told, drawing me in, allowing me to wear her shoes (a lot of funny discussions about those as well!).
In many ways reading this memoir as a man is like being the Mel Gibson character in that movie with Helen Hunt, “What Women Want,” and getting an inside glimpse of more than just pop feminism for the masses, but other inside feminine details at once informative and entertaining. In one of her more interesting revelations, on pages 141-144, Moran explains something I never knew, that (some?) women fantasize about “trying men out” in relationship situations (not sex) in their mind’s eye, even if they don’t necessarily like them and would never, ever date them. Her evolutionary explanation for this kind of daydreaming makes a lot of sense. Is this true? Is this the female equivalent of what men (purportedly) do every seven minutes of the day? When I walk down the hall at work, is someone eyeing me and contemplating how well I might perform … domestic tasks? If so, cool!
She’s right. At least about underpants. And certainly correct about Mormon men and underpants.
Finally, as you might imagine, Moran discusses the controversial topic of abortion. Rather than wade into that debate in this post, I’ll just say that this chapter was personal, brave and more sympathetic than I believed possible. Her confidence and serenity on this subject allowed me to think more deeply than I have before about an issue that will not go away, one for which there is a vast amount of misunderstanding, as several former male members of our legislature have recently learned. Until we are willing to hear stories like Moran’s honest recounting of her experiences here, we will not be ready to understand how to discuss this or any other issue relating to women’s reproductive rights.
So, my male friends, accept my daughter’s dare. Read this book. Better understand a woman’s search for happiness, and it will assist you in your man’s search for happiness. It has mine. Don’t be afraid. This feminist water isn’t cold at all. Jump right in.