5 Things You Should Know Before Reading How To Be A Woman

This month’s selection had all sorts of Our Shared Shelf-ers up in arms. Maybe folks expected something different from a book with the words “how to” in the title. Maybe they were not ready for her language. Whatever the case may be, folks railed against her exclusivity (she wrote from an exclusively white cis female pov) and words she used like “fat” and “tranny.”

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Emma Watson started a feminist book club on GoodReads. This month, we read Caitlin Moran’s How to be a woman.

(You can check out the books from the last couple of months here and here)

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Caitlin Moran is raw, funny, open, and nothing if not controversial.

(Though I try to be as family friendly as possible, due to the nature of this particular book, this post is not for young eyes. You have been warned.)

This month’s selection had all sorts of Our Shared Shelf-ers up in arms. Maybe folks expected something different from a book with the words “how to” in the title. Maybe they were not ready for her language. Whatever the case may be, folks railed against her exclusivity (she wrote from an exclusively white cisgender female pov) and words she used like “fat” and “tranny.”

So, in lieu of a review of sorts, I decided to go with a warning of sorts this month. Just in case you are thinking of grabbing this book off the shelf to take a gander…

  1. This book is not ok for young young ladies. Moran talks about– and thereby IMG_9485normalizes– things that are typically off limits (especially for us ladies). Things like masturbation, menstruation, drug use, miscarriage, and abortion. If these are things you have not talked about with your little lady, you may want to do that first. On the other hand, because of how raw and open Moran is, I think this could be used as a discussion starter with older teens. Mom and daughter book club, anyone?
  2. This is totally NOT a “how to” book. Before I started reading it, my eight year old saw it on the counter and said, “How to be a woman?! But, there is no RIGHT way to be a woman, mom!” to which I replied, “I am thinking that might be kinda the point.” It is, on the other hand, a memoir about her adolescence and young adulthood. One Our Shared Shelfer put it really well, “…the whole thing reads like a love letter to her younger self, like advice she wishes she could’ve sent back into the past… Like she’s teaching herself how to be a woman.” She opens each chapter with a personal memory, an experience. Then she takes us through lessons learned and her thoughts on those experiences now. So, if you are thinking you might want to see what all the fuss is about, remember, you will not actually learn how to be a woman. You might, however, learn about another woman’s life. And thereby learn a thing or two about yourself.
  3. Keeping the fact that this is a MEMOIR in mind, Caitlin is a WHITE, CIS FEMALE. She is now upper-middle class, though some of the stories about her youth strongly suggests she grew up downright poor. And she writes from this white, cisgender female, middle class point of view. Though this seems obvious, I add it to the warnings, because folks over at Our Shared Shelf were super upset about her ignoring the experiences of non-white, non-middle class, non-cis gendered females in her book. I might be totally missing the point of their argument, but I feel like I would have been pretty offended if she tried to include the experiences she had not herself experienced.
  4. She is not formally educated and writes in a very raw way. According to some book club members, she was homeschooled, and then started working as a pop culture and music critic when she was 16. She writes in a very readable manner-I like she is writing to a friend. She uses ALL CAPS and lots of exclamation marks!!!! So if you are looking for a scholarly discussion of the female experience, this ain’t it.
  5. She is not angry. She is a feminist, sure. But you will not find angry rants here. In fact, she talks about things like laughing at the patriarchal crap, encourages us to look at everyone as “one of the guys,” suggests replacing terms like “pro-women” with “thumbs up for the 6 billion,” and asking if things are “polite” rather than “sexist” or “misogynistic.” One group member put it this way:

I think one of the main things I am going to take from this book is that it’s time to laugh at the patriarchal crap that is said in my presence. Laugh at it and give it no power. Oh I will still fight for the things that need a strong and perhaps angry voice. But in my day to day life, it’s time to laugh as if what has been said is just too stupid to be taken seriously.

The response to this book was VERY mixed, and lots of members decided not to read it at all. One member, however, could not get enough. She wrote:

Can we appreciate this book for what it is? I also have a deep appreciation for her very graphic depictions of pivotal moments in a woman’s life, often considered taboo to discuss publicly in too much detail. While she still employs humor in those sections, the tone definitely shifts; the material is darker, heavier, and simply disgusting. I love it! I’m referring specifically to her graphic discussions of menstruation, masturbation, and drug use, but especially her first childbirth and later abortion. I know she is not the first or only writer to do this, but this is one thing that, in my opinion, we can’t get enough of. These issues need constant exposure to be normalized and to erase the stigma!

Personally, I enjoyed the book. I thought she used humor and blatant honesty to discuss things I had never seen anyone write about before. Yes, she was  insensitive about some issues that are on the fore-front of everyone’s minds right now, and I will not defend her for it. Nevertheless, I was able to take some nuggets of wisdom away from the book, and I thought it was intriguing to read about a coming-of-age experience that was so different from mine (or was it??).

If you are not at all familiar with Caitlin Moran (I had never heard of her before reading this book) here are a couple of clips to give you a feel for her style…

The first clip is an open letter to teenage girls. I dare you not to tear up.

In the second clip, she kinda sorta addresses a comment she made on Twitter. See, apparently she and Lena Dunham chatted and Twitter user lizzie c was not happy that Moran did not address the lack of women of color in Dunham’s show “Girls.” When Lizzie expressed her concern, Moran replied that she “literally couldn’t give a shit about it.” This obviously made quite an impression on folks. Though she doesn’t apologize (I have a feeling that’s not really her style), she does touch on it a bit at the end of the second clip. She talks about ‘Girls’ as being mostly about spoiled white girls in New York because Lena Dunham was a spoiled white girl in New York. Dunham is most comfortable making jokes about her experiences because they are her experiences. Moran mentions that she looks forward to more and more people sharing their own experiences, perhaps by using the template Dunham has laid out.

 

 

 

April

 

Emma Watson’s Book Club: What you’re missing

In January Emma Watson started a virtual feminist book club. And it is kind of a big deal. With over 100,000 members, it is undoubtedly the largest group on Goodreads. So far the group has explored Gloria Steinem’s My Life on the Road (in January) and Alice Walker’s The Color Purple (February’s book). For those of you who are curious, but just don’t have the time, here is a synopsis of what is happening in the club:

The Color Purple

In January Emma Watson started a virtual feminist book club. And it is kind of a big deal. With over 100,000 members, it is undoubtedly the largest group on Goodreads. So far the group has explored Gloria Steinem’s My Life on the Road (in January) and Alice Walker’s The Color Purple (February’s book). For those of you who are curious, but just don’t have the time, here is a synopsis of what is happening in the club:

goodreads

The Discussion Topics range from the super popular and super broad “Finished the Book” to the virtually ignored “Shrinking Evil.” There are a few of my favorite threads:

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The book for February was The Color Purple

Discussion Topic: Finished the Book

The most popular discussion is “Finished the Book” which was started by over-achiever Amy, who read the entire book in one night and opened up a thread for other speed readers to discuss their thoughts without having to worry about us slow-pokes getting upset about spoilers. Most commenters loved the format of the book, and pretty much everyone struggled at first with the dialect in which the book is written, but got used to it. One commenter mentioned that the subject matter, especially in the beginning, was like a “punch in the face.” I have to agree. I had no idea what I was getting into, and the first couple of pages had me reeling. I was hooked, though, by what another commenter described as a “horrific and beautiful” novel.

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Discussion Topic: Book vs Film

This discussion opens with a link to a review of the film adaptation of The Color Purple. Apparently when the movie was released in 1985, there was a backlash from males in the black community who resented that the film depicted them in a negative light. Commenters in this thread largely found that to be a bit short-sighted and thought such views kind of missed the point of the book/movie. As commenter Jackie put it, “I’ve always read it as the story of an undereducated, abused woman coming into her own with the help of other strong and supportive women.” And group member Iluminada agrees, “To me, it seemed the book was trying to convey the loss in a man’s life, white or black, when he can’t see women as human beings.”

The thread goes on to discuss some of the differences, good bad or indifferent, between the book and the movie:

  • The relationship between Shug and Celie: though some thought it was not as well portrayed in the movie as it was in the book, commenter Jackie argued, “I actually thought that the Celie/Shug relationship and the Celie/Nettie Relationships were the only ones that transferred well in the film.”
  • The character of Mary Agnes/Squeak is not explored enough in the film.
  • The redemption of Mr ____ is left out of the movie version.
  • The time sequence (sooooo many readers had an issue with the time sequence) is different in the film.
  • Shug singing is a powerful addition to the movie that we were not able to get in the book.

Another important point that this thread brought up was the incredible jobs Oprah Winfrey, Whoopi Goldberg, and Danny Glover did in the film. Group member Kressel noted, “Wow. IMBD says 11 nominations and not one win. It makes me think differently about the boycott on the Oscars this year, which I was skeptical about until now.” This is just one of the ways that this book seems to transcend time (more about that below).

Discussion Thread: Indifference

This thread was largely and woefully overlooked. It touched on the indifference that the native tribe in Africa, the Olinka, had towards missionaries in the book. Though the thread was started out of what seems to be a super personal experience, I think it touched on a very important issue. As one group moderator noted: “Missionaries are often unwelcome, and native populations are under no obligation to welcome their teachings.” The Color Purple touches on so frickin’ many issues it is unreal. And, as I mentioned above, it completely transcends time as every issue is still being discussed today.

I hadn’t given much thought to missionaries until I was an Anthropology minor in college. Let me be clear that I am speaking to religious missions, not humanitarian aid. The two are very different, though I know that modern missionaries have endeavored to meet both the physical and spiritual needs of the people they are traveling so far to help. The problem for me is the underlying idea that these people need spiritual help in the first place. Generally, a missionary’s understanding is that the group to whom they are proselytizing have an inherently WRONG understanding of the world and must therefore be saved. Missionaries tend to go into their mission field with the understanding that their own story is correct and worth sharing, while the stories of the people whose homes they are entering is wrong and needs to be changed. This is tragic to me because it misses the beauty and richness that has lived and thrived in the native culture. The so-obvious-it-really-shouldn’t-need-to-be-said-but-I-will-say-it-anyway exception to this is any tradition or custom that infringes on basic human rights, like child brides and female genital mutilation. That shiz needs to be changed.

Discussion Thread: Other Aspects of the Book

Being a feminist book club, this thread was started in order to touch on other issues (besides the growth and empowerment of the female characters) the book brings up, like colonialism/missionaries and sexuality. These issues are what make Purple so timeless. The book was written in the 1980s, but these issues are nowhere near outdated. Some issues that were not mentioned in this thread, but are also vital to the book are the concept of faith (this is touched on in another thread, though) and how the image of god changes through the course of the book, and the human relationship factor– the growth of each individual character and how that personal “coming of age” impacts the relationships the characters foster.


 

This is my first time being involved in a book club of any sort, and I have absolutely loved it so far. A couple of things I especially love about this group is the sense of community that has already grown within it. For example, last month the book was VERY difficult to get a hold of. For some, it was a money thing– $16 for the e-book just wasn’t in the budget. For others, the book was simply not yet available in their part of the world or in their language. One member responded by putting the entire book on her OneDrive and then sharing it with the whole group!

Another awesome thing that is happening is meet-ups. From Belgium to Los Angeles folks are getting together and talking about these books, which I think is pretty darn cool.

I also love the diversity of this group. There are entire discussion boards in Spanish and French. I just wish I spoke those languages!

And one more thing I love about the group– Emma has been great about interacting with authors. Shortly after we started reading Gloria Steinem’s book, she announced that she was going to have the pleasure of interviewing the author at an event in London and opened up a discussion thread for members to suggest questions for Ms Steinem. For The Color Purple, Emma talked to Alice Walker over the phone and shared some insights from the author herself. And Emma just announced the book for March, All About Love: New Visions by bell hooks. Again, Emma has a connection with bell, as bell recently interviewed Emma for Paper Magazine.

I love that this group is a thing. And I love that I get to share it with you!

 


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