Witty, eye-opening and extremely readable, Sara Pascoe’s Animal is an ingenious insight into what it means to be a woman in the world today. Using humour as both a lens and weapon, Pascoe scours through biological, evolutionary and feminist theory to make some revelatory claims about the way in which women have been built and socialised to respond to the world around us.
Growing up in the twenty-first century isn’t easy. Sara Pascoe’s book Animal is an attempt to make that journey slightly easier. Light and funny, Pascoe explores some of the inner tensions within what it means to be a woman, why we are the way we are, looking at the science and cultural dynamics that have shaped our human selves. Ever found yourself staring at your bum for hours on end, or, getting angry that a boy you don’t really like isn’t messaging you? Well it turns out it’s because of good old science and hormones and our bloody body. It’s normal, natural and nothing to do with you personally – it’s out of our control.
This may sound extremely depressing to you, but to Pascoe it is liberating. It offers an explanation for some of the supposedly ridiculous things we feel, and that knowledge is meaningful, in assuring us it’s not our fault and we’re all at the beck and call of our DNA.
The book weaves through three key issues in every woman’s life: love, body and consent. In a comedic conversational style Pascoe informs us of the most up to date research into these areas like the facts of human pair-bonding, cheating, body image, periods, pubes, and ‘clever old fat’. However, the genius of the book is that she pairs the science and social commentary with her own experiences. Some of the most crippling topics for women are dealt with complete and unapologetic honesty. In doing so Pascoe erodes the embarrassment, judgement and horror that plague the conversations that surround more mundane issues, or the more serious like rape, abortion and female genital mutilation. With an equal amount of mock and anguish, Pascoe’s honesty hits home for the readers by allowing them to laugh at the warped way in which 51% of the world are made to feel for just being who they are.
Indeed, Pascoe discusses how to be woman is so often to be misunderstood and defined by others. For example, she discusses the pitfalls and contradictions that exists within female sexuality. Historically labelled as sexually passive and without lust, female desire has been demonised for centuries. Today, women are hit by the idea that to be overtly sexual is wrong, but on every billboard and social media platform female sexuality is everywhere. This paradox leave us feeling like we cannot actually express or talk about our sexual desires, but we should look like we are up for sex all the time. To be women, Pascoe tells us, is to be consistently coached into feeling that sexiness is external to us, is not something that is an inbuilt part of our biology, but something that has facilitated the survival of human life for thousands of years!
Animal lies on a knife-edge, it was a risky thing to write. Jokes are made about some truly harrowing topics and important issues for young women, and that can be dangerous. She is unequivocally honest and leaves everything on the table. The discussion of her teenage abortion in particular demonstrates that Pascoe is not only talking about these issues; she, like so many women, has lived them. Her inner most vulnerabilities our exposed on the page, with no shame or regret, leaving us to question: why it is society so often leaves us feeling this way? Pascoe’s ability to embrace the reader as her ally and friend, inviting us into her own experiences, is extremely powerful. By encouraging us not to judge her own decisions, and explain the cultural and scientific reasons behind our insecurities and self-doubts, we are allowed to slowly relinquish our judgements of ourselves.
The truth is, fat has saved our lives for millennia, so we shouldn’t be fighting so hard to get rid of it. Periods are not dirty or shameful. What you do with your pubic hair doesn’t really matter. Falling in love with a few ‘waste of spaces’ is normal, and partly your body’s fault for expressly being made for having a baby (boo body!! BOOOO). And as Sara tells us, ‘if women were passive and unsexual, human beings wouldn’t be here anymore’, our lust enabled humanity to survive. You’re welcome, humanity!
As someone who has occupied a female body for twenty-one years now, I thought I was already an expert in this area. However, Animal proved me wrong! There are so many things about myself and my body that have completely eluded me – and I cannot thank Sara Pascoe enough for opening up my eyes and showing me that really we’re all just animals in the end.
– Sarah Hough