An Essay Comparing Caitlin Moran’s How To Be A Woman & Lena Dunham’s Not That Kind of Girl – No Spoilers, Just Discussion!
Despite being a “staunch feminist” (as Caitlin Moran would love for everyone to call themselves) I have never really dabbled in feminist writings before. Aside from online articles, blog posts, and some academic articles/chapters in books (most of the time for university assignments rather than for just educating myself) I have never read a book about feminism from the first review laden page, to the many-paged acknowledgements at the very back. I am ashamed. I became mildly infatuated with both Caitlin Moran and Lena Dunham when I listened to the podcast “When Lena Met Caitlin.” (Disclaimer: it might not actually be called that.) Afterwards, when I realised feminism did not have to be densely worded essays that needed rereading and decoding, I needed to know more of these two magical women who had suddenly made feminism relatable, easy to understand, and funny?! (Just while we’re at this point, I am aware of the arguments made regarding their lack of concern/attention towards intersectionality, and I will get into this later.)
From the titles of the two books alone we can gather how we are supposed to read them. Caitlin Moran with How to Be a Woman tells us about the problems of becoming and ultimately being a woman. Lena Dunham in Not That Kind of Girl speaks of her childhood experiences, her teenage years, and rarely of her adult life. Because of this, while I found Dunham’s (I want to keep calling her Lena and have to remind myself I don’t actually know this person I have technically spent a few, very personal – on her behalf - hours with) more absorbing and profound, Moran’s was more entertaining, light-hearted and relatable.
Dunham is far more self-aware and reflects on not just what happened during her formative years, but why, and her involvement or relation to those events, and how it formed her as a person, and how it came into play later in her life, and why the other person did that or reacted like that, and why it was an important part of her life, etc, etc. Writing about her younger years is not just an act of whimsical self-indulgence but an insightful, in depth emotional ride that is informative and enjoyable. Dunham never tries to create a perfect version of herself, never shies away from revealing her innermost secrets and exposing some of her experiences that most would consider too embarrassing or personal to reveal to the world. Some of these incidents have become areas of controversy – for example, paying her sister to kiss her and examining her vagina – but in context of the book she is, in her defence, a very physical, open person and she was a young child when it happened. But of course it has been blown up massively by the media - and therefore the keyboard warriors that have not read the book - and Dunham has been portrayed as a rampant paedophile. I, for one, applaud her book’s complete honesty and the fact she does not bow down to the usual pressure women feel to be perfect in every way. She accepts her “flaws” and owns them. However, the feminist issues at play in Dunham’s book are less obvious, which can partially be explained by the fact it is focused on her childhood, a time when assumedly she didn’t know too much about the subject and how it impacted her life. She does manage to retrospectively frame her stories through a feminist lens so it’s interesting to read her adult interpretation of her childhood experiences.
Moran, on the other hand, is arguably more about womankind as a whole. Each chapter usually begins with an anecdote or concern that is then related to society as a whole. This may be reductionist because actually she too gets personal, but not in such an emotional way. It seems to me she sees things as a series of consequential events, rather than experiences that have shaped her very being. I felt I learned much, much more from How to be a Woman because she talks of what it means to be a feminist, how much bullshit is actually prevalent in society that we might ignore or not realise, like fashion (discussed later), motherhood being more detrimental to women than men, misconceptions of feminists (as she rightly states, we firmly do not want to burn our bras because where would we be without them?!), the stigma of abortions, the shallowness of celebrity, debates of whether to shave or not to shave and self-perception issues I think it’s safe to say most of us have, male or female. I loved her brashness and upfront opinions of everything, and the fact she does not tone down or mince her words. She touches upon a wide range of female issues that I had never even seen attention being brought to before, and I absolutely loved every minute... Even the many uncomfortable, wincing minutes of reading about Moran’s extremely difficult childbirth.
Moran and Dunham both directly confront their financial situations at various points during their books. Dunham admittedly less so than Moran who speaks frankly of her poor upbringing, being one of eight children, and how it affected her life until she was in her mid twenties. She speaks of having to dry off in front of the fire after baths, of living in a rough area, of having her mother’s hand me down knickers, of eating crackers for tea... but then, of always having a pack of fags to hand, of having her own place and working for a magazine that is big enough to rival NME by the time she is sixteen, of always having a bottle of booze ready and waiting in her bag. I don’t know what should be made of this and really, in the grand scheme of things, it is inconsequential. But it did have me wondering. Dunham, on the other hand, was considerably more privileged. She lived in a nice area, in a lovely house, with affluent parents, educated in a liberal arts school that encouraged individualism and basically cultivated an army of hipsters. Her assumptions of the reader’s white, straight, financial privilege at times infuriated me no end. No, not all of us were able to go to summer camp so we do not relate to those memories, and no, not all of us were writing essays about social inequality before we’d even been to university and knew what true social inequality even is. It’s at times distancing and polarising, but the anecdotes she shares from within these experiences are still astute and significant.
From two varying experiences of having, or not having, money comes two different takes on fashion and clothing. Dunham talks of dressing exactly how she wanted to, or how she wanted to in order to be perceived a certain way. She dressed to not impress. To make herself different and forcefully, unashamedly individual, like her school had taught her to be. Moran talks of fashion as something unknown, understood and unwanted. I have to agree with her. She hates high heels and sees them as punishment for being a woman. Handbags are overpriced and “the one” (preferably more) designer bag we’re all supposed to own is £600 that could be better spent anywhere else. Moran states she only owned about five pieces of clothing until she was 24 and doesn’t seem too bothered about being Britain’s next Katie Price (understatement of the decade), or even dressed in something other than pyjamas. Power to her.
So now onto the main issue. The one gaping flaw everyone uses as a big, nuclear excuse to write these books off as useless and too narrow minded to be of use to most people. In Dunham’s book I have the feeling because of the uproar (deservedly so) about how white Girls is, especially as its set in a particularly diverse area of New York, instead of facing the lack of diversity in her TV show head on she has pushes it to one side and ignores it completely. Even in the podcast when Moran brings up the issue, however sensitively, Dunham blames the big money directors and producers of not allowing WOC (Women of Colour) to tell their own stories in their own words. And I mean that is debatable. Surely in Girls, which is partially based on her own life, she has come into contact with numerous POC? Also, I know that she cannot be expected to tell the stories of everyone. There are plenty of other shows where the cast and crew are definitely not diverse enough but it seems because Dunham is a powerful, successful lady she seems a very easy target for critics.
Moran, similarly, seems to live in a bubble of whiteness where she seems comfortable enough to compare sexism to racism. Nope. Nope. Do not do that. You cannot compare the reappropriation of the word “feminist”, which has bad connotations but is a publically acceptable self-identifying term, to black people’s reappropriation of the word “N*****” a firmly unacceptable term for any white person to use in any circumstance. Numerous times she compares the struggles of ethnic minorities to those of women. No! Women have NEVER had it as bad as POC, sorry, but it’s true. Particularly because of the blaringly obvious fact that you can be black and – shock – also female! Intersectionality is such an important issue because WOC are oppressed twofold due to their race and their gender. So yes, both texts have issues, major issues, but they do highlight issues with being a woman that otherwise would have gone ignored. And, to put a positive spin on it all, there are now discussions being had about intersectionality that might not have otherwise. I doubt this was intentional, obviously, but still anything that creates a dialogue about social issues is beneficial to society as a whole because it helps people to understand those issues actually do exist whether they are being written about in popular books or not. Never have I seen so many mentions of intersectionality in popular media than I have recently. (WOC like actress Amandla Stenberg are becoming louder voices. She has co-written a comic bookthat promotes intersectional feminism. She has spoken out about culturalappropriation and the issues surrounding black bodies. She is an all round bad ass.)
After finishing reading these two books (and feeling like I feel after finishing every book which is a bit empty and lost) I tried to fill the void by watching Girls, various interviews containing either woman, following Lenny (Lena’s biweekly feminist newsletter), and writing this review/comparison/analysis/whatever you want to call it. Dunham’s book, while a worthy read and enjoyable while it lasted, I probably won’t ever go back to it and I feel I’ve learnt everything it had to teach me. Moran’s book, however, had me laughing out loud so many times, nodding in understanding, or wide-eyed with new understanding that I know already it’s a book I will return to many times as a biblical guide on how to survive as a firmly non stereotypical woman. Just the humble opinions of another staunch feminist who is now two books closer to understanding the social issues we all need to work through together. Now, on to the next one.