The remarkable author of How to Build a Girl wasn’t seeking controversy; she just wanted to change the world.
How to Build a GirlPublisher: Harper
Length: 352 pages
Author: Caitlin Moran
Publication date: 2014-09
From somewhere near the front of a sold-out crowd, applause and cheers break out. I crane my neck toward the blur of movement. But all I see are a bouquet of large – enormously large; human being-sized large – helium balloons. White balloons. They’re the size of those frighteningly strange balls that yoga-practicing office workers occasionally bring in to the office to sit on (presumably because self-flagellation is no longer in fashion).
I’ve never seen such enormously large white balloons before, but they proceed along the front of the crowd. Perhaps they’re intended as a guide for those like me who are caught sitting behind enormously tall ladies, attired in needlessly tall hats. Downright rude hats.
But then the balloon-bearer ascends the steps and I catch my first glimpse of tonight’s star: Caitlin Moran. The award-winning British writer, journalist, and broadcaster is in Toronto to talk about her new book, How to Build a Girl. The crowd clearly adores her. The cheering continues; she feigns modesty (her mastery of facial expressions befits someone who is as much a television star as, these days, a literary figure of towering importance). From the right side of the audience, someone stands and waves a glass of red wine precariously above the seated crowd, emitting in a tremulous, high-pitched voice: “We love you Caitlin Moran!”
The scene is worthy of a Netflix debut.
But the venue is Toronto’s Public Reference Library, and it’s an appropriate one. Libraries were important to Moran when she was growing up. This is made clear in both of her books; her more-or-less autobiographical 2011 release How to Be a Woman, and her 2014, ostensibly fictional (but also partly autobiographical) work How to Build a Girl. The protagonist in the latter, like Moran, educated herself largely in public libraries, absorbing knowledge from the only place a poor working-class girl was free to get it (books are frequently cited by the novel’s protagonist as evidence of worldly truths: from David Niven to Roald Dahl).
How to Build a Girl is the fictional, first-person account of young teenage Johanna Morrigan. Her family is poor, on welfare, two parents and five children crammed into inadequate public housing in the UK. Her unemployed and partially disabled father harbours dreams of making it as a rock star, but his sun has clearly set and he spends more of his time drowning dreams in drink than actually playing. Her harried mother tries to keep the household together, but is mostly occupied with newborn twins. Growing up with hippie parents, it seems, results in a far-from-normal childhood.
But many of the travails Johanna experiences are those experienced by very normal children the western world over: the struggle for recognition, identity, a sense of self-worth. And, since this is the 21st century: cigarettes and cheap beer and abundant sex, as well.
Following a particularly humiliating public incident, Johanna decides her only hope is to reinvent herself – to build a new identity, as it were, from scratch. Well, not entirely from scratch: she draws elements of her new self from all over the place (particularly music magazines from the public library). Under the influence of the resulting Goth-y persona, she quits school to write for a music magazine in London (convincing them to take her is a bit of a challenge at first, the problem being that she’s poor and possesses only those albums she’s been able to rent from the public library).
To make a long and delightful story short (because you really ought to go and read it yourself), things do work out surprisingly well for Johanna, but not without an entertaining and enlightening series of glitches, trauma, and other painful by-products of the process of self-discovery. Oh, and a whole lot of sex and masturbation.
This was my first Moran book, and I have to admit being caught off-guard. Not only was I unable to put the book down once I’d started, but I couldn’t stop laughing my way through large sections of it (aloud, and in public: most embarrassing). Moran is genuinely funny; one of a rare breed who manages to translate her humour across mediums.
Not only is she deliciously funny, and unrelentingly honest (Johanna’s inner dialogues, while frequently hilarious, also ring deeply and sincerely true), but her heart is in the right place, too. With How to Build a Girl, Moran has taken it upon herself to write not just a best-selling book but a desperately needed guide for young people seeking advice and role models in a complicated, confusing and rapidly changing world.
On Language and Activism
Moran’s style of engaging with the world has played a big role in attracting her following. She’s thoughtful and reflective in style, from the everyday Tweet to more ambitious literary undertakings.
“I try and… make anybody who reads it feel that they can write too. I see a lot of writers who use their talent and power to kind of make themselves separate or to give themselves power. The way that I try and write is I try and share,” she explains at her public appearance in Toronto.
She crafts her words thoughtfully, indeed: her latest book is full of creative words and phrases crafted perfectly to slip into whatever moment is at hand. The colloquial tone is part of what makes the read so engaging: even for a North American reader, the British slang helps more than hinders the reader’s engagement. “I’m a Lady Sex Adventuress! I’m a Pirate of Privates! I’m a swashfuckler!” the protagonist proclaims, reflecting on her sexual adventures. But these aren’t just funny words: Moran explains that she was trying, through the teenage Johanna, to develop ways to describe the sexual activity of teenage girls that didn’t fall into the disapproving (or alternately salacious) tropes of a sexist and patriarchal language that denigrates young female sexuality.
When it comes to her unabashedly progressive stance on issues, Moran balances fearless and unapologetic attitude with a fundamentally down-to-earth kindness. She uses her columns and media presence to champion progressive and feminist issues, but where other activists sometimes turn to rage to make a point, her chosen weapon is humour.
“If you write about these things emotionally or angrily, people will not listen to what you’re saying,” she explains to the audience, “They will just respond to the anger and emotion in your voice. And this is something I’ve really noticed about online activists. If there’s any advice I’d want to give anyone here if you’re an online activist… you are communicating these things because you are angry. If you want to change the world, if you’re arguing against racism or sexism or transphobia, it’s because you’re angry and you’re scared because you’ve experienced all of these horrible things.
"But if you turn into therapy, if you become angry and you become emotional, people nine times out of ten will not hear what you’re saying -- the actual facts that you’re saying, the changes that you’re suggesting. They will just hear your anger and emotion and they will argue back with you, and they will become emotional as well. And there’s so many times I’ve seen so many conversations that could have been incredibly valuable which just ended up being two groups of very hurt angry people being very hurt and angry at each other.
"And that’s why humour’s so important. And that’s why generally I won’t take part in a debate that you can’t bring humour into. Because humour instantly calms everything down.”
But that doesn’t mean she tempers her opinions, or steers clear of controversy. Her books go where few other writers dare. And challenging taboos has become her forté.
“I never want anyone to say I’m being controversial. I don’t want to cause trouble. I simply want to change the world,” she quips matter-of-factly.
“Whenever you see a taboo, that’s a whole world that nobody’s talking about, and we shouldn’t be afraid of it,” she says.
“I’ve never seen a taboo that I didn’t want to just go in there... and just kind of hit with spoons… whenever there’s anything you’re not supposed to talk about, that’s the shit that you need to pull out into the light, you need to shine searchlights on it…”
And so she does. Masturbation, menstruation, a range of sexual activity, cystitis – she covers a lot of ground in the book, and all of it in the punchy, witty and no-holds-barred narrative style of her irrepressible teenage protagonist. But all this spoon-bashing of taboos is not without purpose. In fact, she had a very deliberate purpose in writing the book. She has two young daughters, and has become increasingly aware how little positive, honest, confidence-building literature is out there for young girls. And so she set out to write such a book, drawing perceptively and intuitively from her own experience.
“One of the things I wanted to do was write about female teenage sexuality quite frankly… I wanted to write a book that would hopefully get there before porn… This generation is being really brutalized in their sexuality by some of the very explicit pornography that’s out there,” she said, “Let them have a book with some role models and some advice they can have in their head.”
Sex, Lives and Politics
Moran tackles the topic from many angles. After her first sexual experience about halfway through the book, Johanna rapidly accelerates her sexual exploration. She struggles with the conflicting feelings this produces: excitement on the one hand, tempered with an awareness that society tends to denigrate young girls who are sexually self-empowered. As a ‘shame-busting’ exercise, she appropriates the term ‘massive slag’ – normally an insult – “in order that it not seem as hurtful as I find it.”
“You wouldn’t denigrate a plumber with a lot of experience in fitting bathrooms!” I rage to myself whenever I see the phrase "massive slag,” and remember it applies to me. “You wouldn’t hiss about a vet who’d saved the lives of over three hundred guinea pigs!”
Body image is a prevalent theme as well. The protagonist of How to Build a Girl is an overweight teenage girl. She doesn’t dwell obsessively on the matter, nor does it impede her life or sexual proclivities in any way. She proceeds through life in pursuit of fun, fulfillment and sex; acknowledging the way society portrays her body with humour at times, but rarely with anything approaching the sort of self-loathing which is a too-common mainstream trope.
While the book centres around Johanna’s effort to build a new image and personality for herself, what stays constant throughout this process is her witty, powerful, analytical sense of self. Moran has achieved an incredible balance in the character of Johanna. If Moran has taken the mantle of a modern-day Judy Blume, she’s unerringly adapted it to the 21st century: full of sex, drugs and profanity.
And it’s political. The politics are fearlessly overt, and in this too it’s an ideal book for a generation growing up in troubled times. The political critique is searing. Johanna’s father is on welfare and disability benefits – and constant fear pervades the household that somebody might see him during a healthy period and report them. Poverty is inextricable from the challenges of daily life, and Johanna’s description of it is eerily, damningly accurate. When government cuts back her family’s benefits by 11 percent, at first she thinks it’s not as bad as they’d feared. Until she reflects on the reality of poverty.
“What I’m failing, momentarily, to consider is that we are already on the very edge. There are no investments to cash in, to tide us over this 11 percent dip – no bonds, savings, or shares. There are no “little luxuries” to cut back on, like going to the hairdressers, or a subscription to a magazine. We cut our own hair, and read magazines in the library. There are no grand plans we can temporarily shelve, during this cash lull – like replacing our car, or decorating the front room. We were never going to replace our car, or decorate our front room.
“And there’s no one we can borrow from – for one of the truths about the poor is that they tend only to know other poor people, who also can’t afford an 11 percent dip, and can’t subsidize ours.
“The truth is, when you are very poor, that 11 percent bites into the very bones of your existence. Eleven percent less means choosing between electricity, or food – electricity and food that is already rationed, and fretted over. Eleven percent is not very much – but, when you are very poor, it may form the bedrock of your survival.”
While the novel delves into class politics, it’s also very much a feminist novel. Moran proudly identifies as a feminist, and flags the importance of continuing to cultivate feminism as a key part of young women’s identity. The topic arises repeatedly during her talk in Toronto.
“We must always keep using the word feminism. It’s very important. Don’t ever go 'girl power' or 'equalism' or anything like that. By all means enjoy the wordplay and the fun with semantics, but feminism is still the only word that we’ve ever had that means making women equal to men.”
When asked where her own feminism comes from, she finds it easy to pinpoint: growing up, she quickly realized that “the girls were given the bullshit jobs”. Yet her optimism is refreshing: she’s not daunted by the challenge of change. She notes that women’s equality is a recent phenomenon, and so it’s only natural, she says, that “we’re only at the beginning of working out what women are… If women truly are equal to men, how will that change men?” In a world that’s been dominated by men for millennia, she says, we can’t expect feminism to come up with all the solutions in a few decades.
But that’s no excuse for complacency, she’s quick to point out. It’s society’s responsibility to put this issue on the front burner. She levels criticism at the media, noting that they need to stop referring to things like childcare as ‘women’s issues’ or ‘feminist issues’. And men need to take on the task of fighting for, and writing about, these things too. “Never let anyone say this is a problem for women, or a problem for feminism,” she says.
And when people call her a feminazi? “You just have to ignore it, these are just silly boys. You’re going to be having so much more fun being a cool feminazi than they’re going to have sitting there shouting ‘feminazis’! You’re going to be off with a bunch of girlfriends planning the revolution. They’re sitting there at home kind of cry-wanking and typing with one hand. You’ve already won, baby.”
On Activism and Social Media
Moran pokes fun at herself, saying of her own activism that “when I say campaigning, I mean Tweeting”, but you can tell this is someone who lives their politics more viscerally than many professional activists. During the question period, a young woman breaks down in tears in front of the microphone while raising the issue of sex work laws. Before the camera crew realizes what’s happening, Moran has leapt out of her chair, vaulted off the stage, flown across the stretch of auditorium separating her from the microphone and wrapped her arms around the young woman.
And when it does come to Tweeting – and social media use more broadly – all jokes aside, Moran invests a great deal of hope in its potential, particularly for feminism. (And she would know: this is the woman whose Twitter feed was, controversially, the first ever Twitter feed added to the reading list for British A-level high school exams.)
“That’s why I love Twitter and that’s why online activism is my baby and I love it so much… you just can pass on information so quickly, in a way we’ve never been able to before in history, and it means cycling very fast through a lot of ideas and sorting out a lot of stuff that we’ve needed to sort out for tens of thousands of years. I mean my main thing is women, but anyone who comes from an oppressed minority – all we’ve ever needed is a space. Just somewhere where no one else is telling us what to do and no one’s built anything around us, we just need a space where we can talk and communicate with each other and we can sort things out.
"And that’s what the internet is for the first time ever. This infinite space on the internet, that’s our new found land, that’s our new planet, that’s our new galaxy that we’ve found. That’s why it’s very important to not get scared of it, to keep maintaining your rules on there and keep doing what you want on there.”
Moran’s combination of experience and insight, and her uniquely talented writing provides the perfect voice for today’s generation. Her book is a paean to youthful possibility. Pubs, she writes, “are the palaces of the proletariat”. Music gigs are places where things “can be said and shouted and sung; people get pissed; people get kissed – there is a communal agenda of joyous wilding. These are the boardroom meetings of young people, where we establish our vibe. By way of contrast, everything else I am doing is just sitting, and waiting. God, I want to go out again.”
Changing the World
Back at the library, the discussion returns to Moran’s activism once more. How is it that we change the world, again?
“We’ve got to stop waiting for superheroes to come along,” says Moran, critical of the way contemporary activists are quick to criticize other activists. One of the things that derails activism, she says, is when people shoot down an idea or an activist because their ideas aren’t perfect, because they’ve left something out of their analysis, and they’re not solving all the world’s problems at once. No one can be expected to represent all women, she says; no one expects that of male leaders. She likens feminism to a patchwork quilt, in which people contribute their own little bits to the whole. “We all do it collectively,” she says.
In this struggle, her own chosen battleground is pop culture and social media.
“I believe in marching… but culture just works so much quicker,” she says. “You can go on one march, and that will last a couple of hours, but culture marches forever. You make a film, you make a movie, you make a book, you write a poem, you have a blog, and it’s out there marching every day for you.”
And she repeats her advice: by and large, people don’t respond to anger. Humour, and kindness, are her chosen weapons. And a little bit of style doesn’t hurt, either.
“Sometimes you don’t want to argue what’s right and what’s wrong,” she says. “You just make it cool instead. That is the shortcut.”
Moran is an unlikely yet badly needed hero for a generation whose historical certitudes are slipping: from middle class aspirations to progressive political ideologies. In an era when activists spend more time fighting each other than the system, in which feminism is under attack by those whose lives were shaped by its gains, and in which governments still don’t seem to have realized the destructive threat neoliberal austerity poses to their own communities, Moran provides unexpected solace. Her optimism offers hope; her confidence is infectious; and her humour seems to put everything aright, even if just for a little while. Most importantly, it provides the strength to soldier on.
How to Build a Girl is a defining feminist novel that spans generations in its appeal. I sincerely doubt it’s the last we’ll hear from Moran, and let us hope that it's not. The world sorely needs her.
Splash image: Photo by © Mark Harrison @ Lucid Representation, courtesy of HarperCollins