Ain't I a Woman?

I first heard of Caitlin Moran's How to be a Woman reading British papers online; it was probably The Guardian tipped me off first. At some point I realised she's the woman who wrote that amazing Lady Gaga article (you can’t get to it on The Times unfortunately: pay-wall). The accolades and press for How to be a Woman began mounting, overseas. Yet North America seemed to take no notice. It wasn't even listed on any of the usual online shopping sites, the library didn't show any record either. Finally, I just gave up. In conversation with a friend last month, however, I learned that the Toronto Public Library had come through. (You can't buy a copy in Canada until May, apparently. Score one for the TPL!).

What you need to know about the mood and message of How to be a Woman is summed up pretty well in this quote:
In the same way that you can tell if some sexism is happening to you by asking the question 'Is this polite, or not?', you can tell whether some misogynistic societal pressure is being exerted on women by calmly inquiring, 'And are the men doing this, as well?'
If they aren't chances are you're dealing with what we strident feminists refer to as 'some total fucking bullshit.'
Moran's not shy about being a feminist, she’s a smart, talented writer, and she's funny as hell.
Frankly, more books need to exist that fall under this designation.

If you've spent more than one semester in a Women's Studies class, you won't find anything new or mind-blowing here. And if that's the case, you should approach this book as I did, more like a funny biography of an interesting character — a bit like Bossypants, but far more explicit about its pro-feminist agenda. And there certainly is an agenda here.
What I AM going to urge you to do, however, is say 'I am a feminist.' For preference, I would like you to stand on a chair and shout 'I AM A FEMINIST' — but this is simply because I believe everything is more exciting if you stand on a chair to do it
Moran wants the reader to know that feminism isn't scary, strident is a good word, and that all the shit that society proscribes for women is actually very, very difficult for most to figure out, let alone attain.

I certainly don't agree with everything Moran says, but not in a “this makes me angry” sort of way. More that I can respect and appreciate her approach, but I can’t reconcile it with my life or experience. For the most part, however, she's certainly willing to be more radical and second-wave-y than your average humorist or memoirist, and I really like that. For one, she really, really likes Germaine Greer (I was never able to make it a third of a way through The Female Eunuch though I should try again, probably). By way of another example, she's able to make the distinction between the empowering aspects of burlesque and pole-dancing classes, and strip-clubs which are decidedly the opposite.
But what are strip clubs if not 'light entertainment' versions of the entire history of misogyny?*

At some point I thought we were going to get into a bad area, when I read the chapter entitled "Why You Should Have Children," but Moran smartly follows this with "Why You Shouldn't Have Children." After all this talk of children, Moran bravely recounts her abortion. I say "bravely" because, as Moran notes, a lot of women won't admit to having had one. After writing about it in The Times, Moran received
a wonderful letter from a well-known feminist columnist who said that, although she had written about abortion many, many times, she had never mentioned her own termination.
'I always feared what would happen if I did. I presumed no one would forgive me. I thought it would — somehow — invalidate my argument.'
Moran's abortion was not done when she was a teenager, or a rape-victim, or any of those "acceptable" reasons for having an abortion, but as a mother of two already (mothers being a demographic I suspect are likely a surprising percentage of those seeking abortions).
A raped teenage girl seeking an abortion — or a mother whose life is endangered by the pregnancy is having a 'good' abortion. She still won't discuss it publicly, or expect her friends to be happy for her, but these women get away with barely any stigmatisation. [I suppose that depends on the company you keep.]
She makes no apologies for her decision and doesn't sugar-coat the experience. It's important she do this, she says, because it's the silence around abortion that lets others create the agenda for us, turn it into a "debate" instead of a real, common event that happens to real people. I actually had short email conversation with Katha Pollitt (!) about this once, how incredibly important it is that we be honest about our abortions, how the women who have had them need to speak up, and say that it's not the end of the world, that many of us have no regrets. Moran, too, has never once doubted that she did the right thing.

Finally, Moran talks about aging. The woman on the cover of How to be a Woman is, I suspect, a woman who said "no" to having all her wrinkles Photoshopped away. There are lines on that face, lines befitting a 35-year-old woman; no more no less. Being a down-to-earth saucy feminist, she is pretty much against — and somewhat confused by — plastic surgery (as she is against high-heels and other seemingly strange feminine frippery). In theory, of course, I agree with her. But she's also got a husband who, after one miscarriage, two kids, and one abortion, said to her "It seems wildly unfair that, for us to reproduce, you have to go through all this ... shit." (Did you swoon a little bit? Because I did when I read it.) I mean, for all she rightly rails against the Princess myth, hasn't she got a Prince Charming right there? For those of us who feel more insecure about relationships, or our ability to sustain them (as a child-free person, I always have a small patch of anxiety that says he'll leave me for a younger, bouncier breeder one day**), aging is fucking terrifying. It's all well and good in theory to say that "[l]ines are your weapons against idiots. Lines are your 'KEEP AWAY FROM THE WISE INTOLERANT WOMAN' sign." But for a good many of us, having anything on our face that says "Keep Away" can lead to a scary life alone. Or maybe that's just me. (I don't think it's just me.) This final chapter is really a show of how confident Caitlin Moran is, in her relationship and her life in general. No, she says, she doesn't have everything figured out, she's not perfect, but she's come a long way, and exists in an emotional place that is worth fighting for. This, of course, is what feminism should be doing for us; giving us the nerve to go with the wrinkles, to have control over our reproductive destiny, and to stand on the chair and say "I'm a feminist." For all that, I still want my Restylane.

*I have always felt uneasy when female friends have gone to strip clubs targeted at men, feeling like they're inherently supporting the objectification we're trying to get away from. I struggle with my thoughts about sex work a lot, but I usually boil it down to: I am pro sex-worker, but I can't be pro sex-work. It's always going to feel like commodified misogyny to me. While there are women, lots of women, who "willingly" enter into sex work, I always wonder if there were other options available, ones that paid as well or better, how many would still choose it? As Moran says
Recently, it has behooved modish magazines to print interviews with young women, who explain that their career as strippers is paying their way through university... If women are having to strip to get an education — in a way that male teenage students are really notably not — then that's a gigantic political issue, not a reason to keep strip clubs going
Having never been in the sex-work industry, I could be totally talking out my ass here, and I don't presume to speak for any sex-worker. I absolutely welcome opinions more formed and educated than mine on this matter.

**Trust me, I get that thinking is just as crap as the people who think I'll regret getting my tubes tied "one day." It's irrational and insecure and I cop to that. Doesn't mean it doesn't live in my head like a low-grade hum.

In the Telling

Open City feels like a collection of vignettes, rather than a novel. Narrator Julius wanders New York and Brussels and while doing so is given the stories of those he meets. These interactions are not limited to people you’d think would share stories: those you have a relationship with, the guests at your dinner table, your family finally telling you their secrets. To make this concept work, complete strangers are somehow compelled to tell Julius intimate details and life-stories. It makes for wonderful reading — new points of view and fresh narratives abound — though it strains credulity a bit. Further, Julius never seems comfortable with all this telling. For all that this book is set up as almost micro-fictions, told by the characters he meets, Julius often tries to avoid hearing their stories, or at least seems unhappily resigned that he is (unusually) someone people feel compelled to talk at, for lengthy periods of time. Julius doesn't usually say much in response, and seems so interior of a person. I can picture his face not being scowling or openly condescending, but not particularly friendly; not someone I would approach and tell my life story. Perhaps though, it is his profession. Julius is a psychiatrist; he is paid to hear people talk, and perhaps there is something in this that he carries outside, so that people everywhere talk to him.

Each person, must, on some level, take himself as the calibration point for normalcy.
Cole forces the reader to examine how they approach stories and the biases they bring along with them. For example, there were several instances in which I assumed a character was white. First, a friend of Julius outlines his family’s situation: His father is "out there in South Caroline somewhere right this minute, looking to score blow. That's what he lives for"; Mom had "six children from five different men"; he has an older brother "who's doing time for dealing"; and his Uncle Raymond "was a mechanic in the Atlanta area. He had a wife and three kids. [...] He went into the backyard and shot his brains out." For whatever reason, I had a white-trash hillbilly family in mind, but another in the group, Moji, says to The Friend Not Named "black* people [...] like you, who have been here for generations." A similar thing happened a little bit later when Julius is with a patient, and it's only when the patient says "Doctor, I just want to tell you how proud I am to come here and see a young black man like yourself in that white coat, because things haven't ever been easy for us" that I realise the patient is black. I feel this is deliberate on Cole's part. He knows that whoever is reading this book will default somewhere, and he lets them. For some readers, their biases will be totally wrong. Moji later wonders if Julius is asking her leading questions about her relationship in order to ascertain if her boyfriend is black; Julius carries bias as well. I don't think this unconscious assuming is just me, but it does make me wonder how other people would default with these pieces of the text. Without information otherwise, do we all default to what we are, because it is the most comfortable and familiar? Julius, as a kind of Mischling (with a German mother and African father, he grew up in Nigeria and seems to identify as black for the most part [and this reminds me of the erroneous notion that Africa is a country, that North Americans often have]), lives every day knowing difference, never quite fitting one category or another. He recoils at the notion of instant brotherhood based on nothing but religion or skin-colour, knowing that the inbuilt bias can lead to surprising revelation later; he’d rather just avoid getting close. (Julius is also set upon by black youth, beaten and robbed. The ties that bind us to race or religion vanish easily in the face of violence.)

Following the idea of bias and prejudice, there is a subtle yet real examination of xenophobia here. It’s not just in the obvious conversations people have about people from other nations, but in the way people speak everyday about their environment. I began to notice that the invasive "Chinese" species of trees and insects are a topic of conversation. I wondered if this was significant, somehow, and dwelt a bit on how news stories on invasive species are always careful to name where these plants/insects/fish etc come from. Moji articulates what I’d been thinking:
The name Africanized killed bees is a piece of racist bullshit. Africanized killers: as if we don't have enough to deal with without African becoming shorthand for murderous.

Anecdotally, the differences tend not to be exaggerated—for important social reasons, people like to think that other people are totally unlike them—but these differences are, in reality, for most functions, rather small.
A major point happens about half-way through, and it's not until you finish the book you realise this is a lot of what Cole's on about. That in trying to eradicate the hatred of difference, we've attempted to subsume everyone into one category. In order not to offend we've forgotten that difference can be exciting, interesting, and glorious. A man who works the cash register at an internet café in Brussels becomes somewhat of a friend. As he begins to talk, his education comes out (in this passage we are also confronted with how we default into categorization not only by race, but by class).
You are different, okay, but that difference is never seen as containing its own value. Difference as orientalist entertainment is allowed, but difference with its own intrinsic value, no. [...] Let me tell you something that happened to me in class. [...] We were supposed to choose between Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, and I was the only person who chose Malcolm X. Everyone in class was in disagreement with me, and they said, Oh, you chose him because he is a Muslim and you are a Muslim. Yes, fine, I am a Muslim, but that is not why. I chose him because I agree with him, philosophically, and I disagree with Martin Luther King. Malcolm X recognized that difference contains its own value, and that the struggle must be to advance that value.

The city in Open City is the world. I know this sounds a bit wide-eyed and peacenik, but it’s quite real. Immigration makes cultural identities of place extremely fluid. Julius is an immigrant to New York, as are many of his friends. Like North America, Europe has always had immigrant populations, and he spends time not only with the current wave of Arab immigrants, but a symbol of the old guard, a rich, white woman. People move, and because of movement, experience is necessarily individual. With an open ear and open mind, the “global village” becomes not an economic concept, but a humane one.

Further reading, which doesn't fit into my post anywhere, but is interesting:

Julius goes to a photography show in NY on Martin Munkacsi. At it, he contemplates a famous image of "three African boys running into the surf in Liberia.” There is some controversy surrounding the setting of this portrait.

There's a lot of description in the book about the physical environment of Manhattan. Early on:
The strangest of islands, I thought, as I looked out to the sea, this island that turned in on itself, and from which water had been banished. The shore was a carapace, permeable only at certain selected points. Where in this riverine city could one fully sense a riverbank? Everything was built up, in the concrete and stone, and the millions who lived on the tiny interior had scant sense about what flowed around them. The water was a kind of embarrassing secret, the unloved daughter, neglected, while the parks were doted on, fussed over, overused.
I had read this Paris Review article just a couple days before about Minetta Brook

Donna Bailey Nurse's piece in the National Post today, while focused on Canadian black literature, is easy applied to Open City.

*I tend to capitalize “Black” when writing about race, but Cole doesn’t, so I’ve kept that format throughout this piece.