I can't remember when I heard the word "feminism" so many times in a single week since I was in the student union in 1987. What with Slutwalks in city centres and the Object demonstration outside the Playboy casino, you'd think we were on the brink of a latter-day women's lib movement – and that's before all the discussion of Caitlin Moran's new polemic.
Suddenly, feminists were being offered the chance not to burn our bras but get out and show them off in a display of female self-empowerment. And if like me you weren't keen on having your midriff (or your cellulite) displayed on the lunchtime news, you could always stay in and read Moran's How to Be a Woman.
Her discomfort about the new norms of female behaviour struck an immediate chord with me. We both grew up in an age where despite women having apparently fewer options available to them, their behaviour in many areas of their lives was far less constrained by convention than it is today. In a world before Sex and the City and internet porn, the received wisdom about what you could and couldn't do as a young woman was much less rigidly codified. I don't think it's just nostalgia for my teenage years that makes part of me want to return there. I loved Moran's descriptions of the age when the sexists were figures of fun handily signposted by comic music and cartoon Benny Hill grins. But what I still don't know is how we're supposed to get from where we are now to where we want to be.
Feminists seem to have more options now than ever before, but I fear this may be an illusion. The promise of capitalism has always been to present us with proliferating options, while flattering us into believing that our choices are meaningful – that opting for the ethically sourced and the tailor made will give you the power to effect real social change and express your true self.
Caitlin Moran appears as convinced as any savvy consumer about the revolutionary potential of personal choice. How to Be a Woman offers readers an alluring range of alternatives to uncool patriarchal "options".
Those women sickened by the exploitation, violence and degradation of the porn industry, for instance, could opt to film themselves shagging instead and share the videos with their friends. For Moran, the problem with porn lies with the commercialisation of the transaction – the industry – rather than the voyeuristic impulse itself or the objectification of the female form. She just wants men and women who like having sex to film themselves for pleasure rather than profit.
On Newsnight this week, Moran was asked if she thought extreme depilation was wrong. She wouldn't go that far; it just wasn't for her. But the decision isn't politically neutral, a matter of personal taste. The pervasive fashion for porn-star depilation (and vaginal cosmetic surgery) is not the same as a fashion for floral prints or gladiator sandals. It is not that they are merely inconvenient or costly; they are symptoms of a deep social and political malaise. The rampant commodification of the female body and interpersonal relationships has become the defining feature of modern British popular culture. You can't just opt out of it, unfortunately.
Voyeurs who wouldn't be seen dead in Spearmint Rhino should take heart. It's OK to ogle at a burlesque club, as long as the performer has an ironically amusing moniker with a hint of pre-war Berlin. Moran's rule of thumb is that if gay men like it, it's probably good for women, too. Going for Moran's "healthy" options will alter how you feel on a personal level – it'll be FUN – and you will feel more comfortable, but I fear the world will otherwise remain unaltered. The real problems Moran identifies remain largely unchallenged, their causes mystified by the propaganda of personal choice.
Moran's options are better styled than patriarchal originals but not that different. In the chapter about role models, Moran advises opting for Lady Gaga over Katie Price. Far from being chalk and cheese, they are pecorino and manchego. Both women believe they were born to rule. They share a faith in the power of self-transformation and are poker-faced in their foolish get-ups. Gaga has cleverly convinced my six-year-old and Stephen Fry that signing up to be one of her "monsters" is a leftfield rather than a mainstream option. Yet there she is on the prime-time Paul O'Grady Show earnestly gyrating with backing dancers, like Madonna in her prime. Like a good politician, Gaga makes everyone feel comfortable opting for her, whatever their creed or value system.
Second-wave feminism didn't succumb to the allure of options. Germaine Greer wanted a revolution and would have settled for nothing less, certainly not Moran's funky utopia with Gaga and the gays in charge. Moran's contemporary belief that we are all free to "make our fate" communicates powerfully to the reader. One feminist critic praised her for not producing "another boring list of timid complaints". There are no gloomy statistics, just confident exhortations. I felt cheerful and powerful while reading it and am sorry to report that this sensation didn't last.
For most women, free choice remains as unattainable as an investment handbag. The way Moran tells it, everyone is equally empowered to make the right decisions. You go girl! But this is to misunderstand the options available to us. On a superficial level, it's true that being well off and successful in a job and relationship does confer on a woman the ability to make her own fate. But in a society in which some individuals are commodified and exploited, we are all confined to commodified social relations – and that goes for women and (in some different ways) men too. Until we are actively challenging the terms of our own status as commodified selves and redefining those, all our choices are chimerical.
Even the choice of how we write as women seems to have been narrowed down until only confessionalism is acceptable, reproducing as it does the very mode of expression of the culture it seeks to critique. Self-revelation has become the only form of address acceptable for a mainstream feminist writer. Is this really our only option?
There are no feverish accounts of pre-teen masturbation in The Female Eunuch. In those days it was OK to make an argument that wasn't filtered through the prism of personal experience. Today's feminist writers have to flash their muffs and celebrity mates to get noticed.
At the end of the book, Moran relates how an evening out with Lady Gaga culminated with her head in the singer's lap. From her position of deference to popular culture, Moran can't see the feminist wood for the trees. The broader analysis of causes and effect is lacking. How to Be a Woman is brilliant but ultimately insular – a note to self rather than a call to arms.Reuse content