Tumbling the building blocks: A review of Caitlin Moran’s How to Build a Girl

Cover of How to Build a Girl by Caitlin Moran

“So what do you do when you build yourself—only to realize you built yourself with the wrong things?”

How To Build a Girl by Caitlin Moran

 It is 1990 and Johanna Morrigan is fourteen years old, living in Wolverhampton, a city in the English West Midlands, with her unemployed rock-star-wannabe father, depressed mother, two brothers, and twin babies. Johanna has more childcare duties and financial worries than any teenage girl should have to deal with and she ultimately dreams of finding a way out.

In order to make this happen, Johanna reinvents herself as Dolly Wilde–fast talking, hard drinking Lady Sex Adventurer and freelance music journalist. Johanna is determined to build herself in the best way she knows how: on the fly. As Johanna navigates her way through this adult world as a working class girl, her notes are as follows:

How to Build a Girl

By sixteen, Johanna is living the life of lots of sex, lots of drug, and lots of rock ‘n’ roll all in an attempt to build herself, but she soon wonders if during all these wild adventures whether she has gone about this whole “building herself business” in all the wrong ways, and can she change it?

How to Build a Girl is a fast- paced tale of a working class girl whose brains and way with words ensure that her everyday actions will lead to wild parties and unexpected opportunities that allow her to escape the drudgery that is Wolverhampton and somehow find success in the most round-about manner feasible.

This new book reads very much like Moran’s semi-autobiography; she also grew up in a large working class family and became a successful music journalist at a young age (although Moran declares it is pure fiction). Whatever the truth is, Moran has created an authentic teenage voice through her character Johanna. Moran puts the pubescent roller coaster on full display from the exaggerated emotional response to ANYTHING and EVERYTHING to the self-conscious body image moments in front of the mirror.

While Johanna is often over the top and highly excitable in all that she does, it is a very true-to-life portayal. Everyone as a teenager has had moments of exclaiming that it is the end of the world as he or she knows it because this or that happened etc. I believe I said this more than once while growing up…I sometimes still say it on occasion.

How to Build a Girl is also very frank about sex, specifically female sexuality. Moran does not shy away from the subject, but places it front and centre with a wank (specifically, Johanna masturbating in the dead of night next to her sleeping brother with a pillow between them for privacy, because, yes, young girls have urges too and those urges need to be satisfied). Aside from the occasional wank, Johanna also goes out and has lots of sex with lots of different people because, as Moran puts it, “it is what young teenage girls will do. It’s what I did. It’s what my friends did.” Moran said her intention behind this book and the character Johanna is to reclaim the word “slag” and “slut” from society’s shaming culture and renaming it fun names, such as “lady sex pirate” or “swash fuckler.” It’s not about shaming but experiencing. When I attended Moran’s launch at the Toronto Public Library’s Appel Salon, she described the teenage girl’s life in the perfect fashion: “It is about going out and having amazing experiences and awful experiences, which later turn into amazing anecdotes.” And she’s right, you know. After all, how many of us have gone out for drinks talking about our latest adventure in bed or otherwise, both good and bad? All of us, I would think.

While the reader may not be able to relate to everything Johanna goes through in the book, it is all honest and it is all written in a hilarious fashion that only Caitlin Moran is capable of. You may not always be able to say, “I’ve done that,” but you don’t mind going along for the ride with this fun and easy read.

Essentially, How to Build a Girl is about class, social privilege, feminism, and building yourself and rebuilding yourself as you go through life. Johanna may think she has the right building blocks at first, but she soon learns there is no right or easy way to build yourself. Johanna Morrigan is a beautiful work in progress and Caitlin Moran’s book ends with a promise that we haven’t seen the last of this spunky teenage girl.

5 out of 5 book thumbs up

Image of a green book giving the thumbs upImage of a green book giving the thumbs upImage of a green book giving the thumbs upImage of a green book giving the thumbs upImage of a green book giving the thumbs up

How to Build a Girl by Caitlin Moran, published in Canada by HarperCollins Canada, © 2014

Available at Indigo, Amazon, and independent bookstores everywhere.

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“Let’s all have a good wank”: Caitlin Moran at the Appel Salon

howtobuildagirltour

**Some explicit content**

There aren’t enough words in the dictionary to describe what it is like to actually meet Caitlin Moran. This British columnist, feminist goddess has taken the world by storm. She is a gigantic earthquake that has taken the world between her hands and has shaken it with laughter: laughter that has brought awareness and revitalization to the word “feminist.”

When I heard that Caitlin Moran was coming to Toronto, I was beyond excited. I introduced myself to this courageous, funny woman’s writing when I gave How to Be a Woman, Moran’s first book, to my sister as a random gift of sisterly affection (yes, I am awesome). I never imagined the possibility of Moran coming to Toronto as part of her book tour for her most recent book and first novel How to Build a Girl (I sense a theme…). Apparently, living in Toronto isn’t always bad (just most of the time).

Unfortunately, my sister decided it would be a good idea to leave the province and go work and live out west, so she wasn’t able to attend the Toronto Public Library’s special event  at the Appel Salon. Therefore, I went alone, which in retrospect can be consiered a very feminist action, independence and all that jazz, so I felt perfectly aligned with the evening already.

It was a full house at the Appel Salon (Moran is a very popular woman outside of Britain…something I’m not surprised by). And Moran also made quite the entrance, as was only right, arriving with a bouquet of gigantic balloons. I was already in awe of her. It was going to be a great evening.

And it was.

To write about everything would make this blog post extravagantly long, so I won’t indulge myself in recounting every detail of that spectacular program. However, I will highlight a couple of really great moments.

Moran lived up to her reputation with her funny, outspoken, matter-of-fact-don’t-give-a-fuck manner of talking about life, drugs, feminism, and being a girl in general. It was refreshing and liberating. I have also never laughed so much in my life nor felt so inspired by one woman’s words, who, up until that point, I only knew through words on a page.

Interviewed by Globe and Mail‘s Johanna Schneller, Caitlin Moran lit up the room with her banter. She is definitely not one to sugarcoat anything. She admitted to taking drugs in her youth and making silly mistakes in interviews she’s conducted as a journalist (her comment of how Benedict Cumberbatch is “big everywhere” certainly brought the house down).

Moran and How to Build a GirlBesides talking about basically everything, Moran did discuss her new book How to Build a Girl, and how she wanted to write a book about being a girl and figuring out what being a girl is all about. Basically, she wanted to beat the “porn industry,” as she put it, by writing an insanely explicit book that wrote about female sexuality in a frank and open manner. It is about self-discovery in all its forms, and masturbation. Yes, Moran is an advocate of female masturbation and for good reason. As she says, “I can simply make myself happy, and it hasn’t got any calories in it, and I can do it pretty much anywhere!” Sound advice, I think. I mean, when we think of masturbation, we often think of men with their hands on their dicks vigorously pumping away, but that is one gender and one way. Moran brings female sexuality and exploration out of the shadow in this book and places it front and centre. What movies have always left in the dark or demonized (remember Carrie’s period?), Moran cleanses in a new and enlightened way by saying it’s okay, it’s normal, it’s healthy.

The book is also about sex, and having lots of it. “That is what teenage girls do,” Moran says. Therefore, she is not encouraging girls to be promiscuous and have lots of sex. It is already HAPPENING, and she is simply bringing it to the forefront as a conversation that should happen and that there should be no shame in sexual self-discovery. This is a philosophy I also truly believe in. Many people I know squirm at the idea of talking about sex. During my undergraduate degree, I volunteered for my school newspaper as a copy editor and I had the most funny and amazing conversations with the group of girls I worked with. These conversations earned me the nickname “Dana After Dark,” but sex was an active and fun anecdotal topic we all tossed around into the wee hours of the night (that newspaper was never done on time!). So I completely support Moran’s intentions for writing this book, which leads me to her lovely reading and accompanied acting of a section in her book regarding her main character Johanna and her advice for future women who are caught having sex with a largely endowed man or as Moran described it: “Having sex with a man whose penis is ‘medically inadvisable.'” Tip #1: Place your hands flat on his chest and BRACE, BRACE, BRACE with your arms. Tip #2: In doggie, you can keep subtly but essentially crawling away from the penis, making it possible to only get the first 5 inches inside. Moran demonstrated both the missionary and doggie position on stage in a hilarious fashion while telling us these tips, which is a sight I will not soon forget (a demonstration that she also at her family Christmas during charades that mortified her brothers, she later told us).

Well, I have already wrote more than I intended (Can you tell I enjoyed myself yet?), but I must mention one more moment that has stuck with me since the event. A lot of people tell you not to care what other’s think. Of course, we all do anyway. The media bombards us with images of perfection, so we naturally don’t think we are good enough. I know I have looked at my body image and wondered: “Am I skinny enough?” It is a terrible question to ask yourself, because you are basing the answer on what society thinks and that is something you should never do! Moran set the record straight that evening in the most unexpected way possible when she was discussing the idea she had for How to Be a Woman‘s book cover that she pitched to her publishers. She called it Her Feminist Smile, and then Moran proceeded to not just tell but SHOW us what she meant by this. She wanted to draw eyes on her tits, or rather her bra, draw a nose above her belly button, and then manipulate her belly fat into a big smiley mouth.

Caitlin MoranThe room erupted with laughter. Moran, in front of this huge crowd, lifted her shirt and jiggled her belly fat for everyone to see. Reconciled with her body, Caitlin Moran literally does not give a fuck! And I admire her so much for that. There is no “circle of shame” and Moran makes that perfectly clear.

After the talk was over, I was completely thrown and I had never felt more womanly or more of a feminist in all my life. Gushing about it on my phone to my boyfriend later, I called the entire experience a “femaganza.” I had to make up a word to even begin to describe how I felt about it!

Caitlin Moran and IBefore I left, I did stand in line to meet this awe-inspiring woman, who I could listen to all day. Moran gave me one of her infamous free hugs, which is nothing like hugging a stranger. Immediately you feel known and loved by this woman who doesn’t even know your name. She left me feeling like a rock star. Her final words to me: “Go change the world.” I only hope I can change it as much as she changed me in one evening.

 

She also said she loved my blazer. I was thrilled!

 

To finish, I will leave you with Caitlin Moran’s 5 rules of feminism (this woman is, after all, a genius in her own right):

Rule #1: Women are equal to men.
Rule #2: don’t be a dick.
And Rule #3: there are no more rules.

If you feel particularly inspired by how enraptured I was by Moran then you can watch her entire laughter-inducing, life-changing talk below (the Toronto Public Library did us all a favour by filming it thereby allowing us to experience it over and over again—all glorious 1 hour and 24 minutes of it!!! It’s worth the invested time if I haven’t already convinced you by now)

For more Appel Salon programs you can visit the Toronto Public Library’s website here.

To keep up with Caitlin Moran and all her hilarity you can find her personal website here and follow her on Twitter at @caitlinmoran

Caitlin Moran