I read this book back in the spring after hearing it mentioned on all my favourite podcasts. I listen to a lot of podcasts. Book podcasts, feminist podcasts… This book crossed into both. Sara Pascoe seemed instantly likeable and I liked the idea of a feminist polemic with a scientific angle, whilst still being readable and entertaining.
I’ve read a few of these sorts of books – autobiographical in nature whilst still trying to tell us something wider about what it means to be female in the modern whirlwind of changing sexual identities, gender fluidity, everyday sexism and all manner of feminist campaigns and hashtags. Lena Dunham’s books, Not That Kind Of Girl, is brilliant. It’s raw and beautifully written. I’m a big fan of Girls and Dunham’s book offers more of that special quirky energy, weirdness and arresting honesty. I love that Dunham is brave enough to be so openly weird. We all pretty strange individuals with our own neuroses, health quirks and awkward sexual histories, but Lena just puts it all out there. And she’s such a good writer. Her voice is a compelling read.
Then there’s Caitlin Moran. When I read How to be a Woman when it was first published in 2011; five years ago, it felt so fresh and new. People weren’t calling themselves feminists then – at least not in my everyday internet wanderings and conversations with friends. Fourth wave feminism existed, but I wasn’t aware of it. How to be a Woman was an approachable read, a funny read, one that widened the consciousness of why feminism is important. I did a women’s life writing course at university, and yet I don’t think I’d ever read about periods, breasts and abortion before. I was 25 at the time, and as Caitlin Moran was ten years older than me, it felt like getting advice from a very honest, very funny big sister. I loved it. It genuinely changed the way I thought. It was when I started thinking of myself as a feminist.
So I read Animal by Sara Pascoe with these two great books in mind. Two books I loved. If I’d read Animal first, when I was about fifteen, I think I would have loved it a whole lot more than I did as a married thirty year old who already read a lot about this subject matter. Not that this is a bad book: it definitely isn’t. I just wasn’t sure I was the intended audience.
Reading it, I definitely learned interesting things about new discoveries in science regarding gender and sexuality: Pascoe has definitely done her research, and in that respect, this book possibly had more weight than Moran’s. I learned that a lot of preconceptions about female sexuality are Victorian constructs; evolutionary principles were established by male scientists in a very conservative age, and thus their theories on women and even female animals were shaped by deeply embedded societal views. Women are delicate, nurturing and not as sexual as men, for instance. These Victorian ideas are still floating around right now in the media, in films, in the books we read. And yet there’s so much evidence that these ‘gender norms’ are a load of rubbish. But we knew that, right? Even if I didn’t know all the science, I still felt like I already knew the principles of this book. Having said that, the science of hormones was really interesting, and something I felt I should have found out about earlier.
Maybe I’ll pass the book to my teenage niece. Maybe this is what this book is about… passing the torch. She’s a typical sixteen year old, interested stalking minor celebrities on Twitter, pouting for Instagram selfies and collecting Mac lipsticks. Just as I felt at her age, her peer group is everything. She might well be very happy in performing this particular internet-age brand of femininity, but what if she’s not? She’s just left school, she’s going to college and thinking about university. This is a crucial age for deciding your own identity, and experimenting with it. Perhaps this book would be a helpful voice in helping her understand her own hormones, her first relationships. Sara Pascoe writes so honestly about her own difficult teenage years: an eating disorder, an abortion at 16. It’s not sensationalist or extreme, because everything feels pretty extreme when you’re 16. Yes, I wish I’d read this book earlier. I would have learned a lot.