Brain Pickings

How To Be a Woman

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“Pop is the cultural bellwether of social change.”

We seem to have come a long way since the days of anti-Suffragette postcards and lists of don’ts for female cyclists. And yet, in How To Be a Woman (UK; public library), British media personality Caitlin Moran argues that “we still also need a bit of analysis-y, argument-y, ‘this needs to change-y’ stuff. You know. Feminism.” Her sort-of-memoir — witty, honest, feisty without trying too hard, opinionated without being preachy — begins at the beginning:

1) Feminism is too important to be discussed only by academics. And, more pertinently:

2) I’m not a feminist academic, but, by God, feminism is so serious, momentous, and urgent that now is really the time for it to be championed by a lighthearted broadsheet columnist and part-time TV critic who has appalling spelling. If something’s thrilling and fun, I want to join in — not watch from the sidelines. I have stuff to say! Camille Paglia has Lady Gaga ALL WRONG! The feminist organization Object is nuts when it comes to pornography! Germaine Greer, my heroine, is crackers on the subject of transgender issues! And no one is tackling OK! Magazine, £600 handbags, Brazilians, stupid bachelorette parties, or Katie Price.

She turns to social science to draw a compelling analogy between the current occupation of feminism and broken windows theory:

[A]ll those littler, stupider, more obvious day-to-day problems with being a woman are, in many ways, just as deleterious to women’s peace of mind. It is the ‘Broken Windows’ philosophy, transferred to female inequality. In the Broken Windows theory, if a single broken window on an empty building is ignored and not repaired, the tendency is for vandals to break a few more windows. Eventually, they may break into the building and light fires, or become squatters.

Similarly, if we live in a climate where female pubic hair is considered distasteful, or famous and powerful women are constantly pilloried for being too fat or too thin, or badly dressed, then, eventually, people start breaking into women, and lighting fires in them. Women will get squatters. Clearly, this is not a welcome state of affairs.

But rather than sorting out the complexities of the issue in the halls of the academy, Moran argues pop’s inherent qualities make it a perfect arena:

Pop is the cultural bellwether of social change. Because of its immediacy, reach, and power — no two-year turnover, like movies; no three-year writing process, like the novel; no ten-year campaigning process, like politics — any thought or feeling that begins to foment in the collective unconscious can be number one in the charts two months later. And as soon as a pop idea gets out there, it immediately triggers action and reaction in other artists, whose responses are equally rapid — leading to an almost quantum overnight shift in the landscape.

And though touting Lady Gaga as a feminist icon might appear anything from misguided to hackneyed at first glance, Moran makes a well-argued and layered case, looking at how Gaga’s influence might reverberate through the generations:

While it’s always too early to call a career until it’s ten years in, the sheer scope, scale, impact, and intent of Gaga’s first two years as a pop star thrill me more than any female artist to emerge since Madonna. Indeed, much as I acknowledge, as a Western woman, my eternal indebtedness to Madonna — I would never have had the courage to paraglide with my muff hanging out or shag Vanilla Ice if it weren’t for the pioneering work Madonna did in Sex — it should also be noted that Gaga ascended to the world stage wearing an outfit made of raw meat and protesting against the U.S. Army’s homophobia, when she was just 24. At 24, Madonna was still working at a Dunkin’ Donuts in Brooklyn.

[…]

The end point of her songs is not to excite desire in potential lovers, but the thrill of examining her own feelings, then expressing them to her listeners, instead. … For women, finding a sympathetic, nonjudgmental arena is just as important as getting the right to vote. We needed not just the right legislation, but the right atmosphere, too, before we could finally start to found our canons — then, eventually, cities and empires. Ultimately, I think it’s going to be very difficult to oppress a generation of teenage girls who’ve grown up with a liberal, literate, bisexual pop star…

In the rest of How To Be a Woman, Moran goes on to explore everything from the politics of parenting to the bargaining chips of love, using the disarming honesty of her own experience as a broader lens on some of contemporary culture’s most deep-seated, widely resonating biases and frictions.

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