Review of How to Build a Girl by Caitlin Moran
How to Build a Girl
by Caitlin Moran
Second review: December 15 to 16, 2016
This was the (viewer-selected!) December book for the Banging Book Club. I read this over two years ago (God, where does the time go?) but decided to re-read it. I do not regret this decision. It’s even better than I remember.
I’m actually pretty happy with my review below, and it is long, so I won’t add much. But as much as this book is about sex (hence its pick for the club), it is also about growing up, about being poor, about being a woman, about finding one’s identity as a person. And it is about getting permission from oneself to make mistakes, to not be perfect, to accept that you will go through life rebuilding yourself time and again.
How to Build a Girl is funny and compassionate and so smart and is exactly what we should look for in our YA, in our books in general. Read on to find out why.
I still want to quote, like, the entirety of this book.
First review: August 3 to 7, 2014
I’m not and never was an adolescent girl; I can’t understand what growing up as an adolescent girl must be like. But for a brief moment, thanks to Caitlin Moran’s writing, I felt like an adolescent girl. Beyond the humour and zaniness, it’s this raw empathy, such a powerful and important emotion, that made me enjoy How to Build a Girl.
Because we could all do well to feel like an adolescent girl once in a while.
We inhabit a society that is still largely built by and for middle-aged white men. It’s tough being an adolescent, tougher still being an adolescent girl. But for those of whose who didn’t grow up as one, it is very difficult to do more than acknowledge this (and some of us don’t even go that far). It’s one thing to say that impossible beauty standards in media damage teenage girls’ self-esteem and body image and another thing to understand what that actually means for how a girl thinks and feels and acts. There are plenty of books and other resources that help people recognize the former; here, Moran manages, at least sometimes, to communicate the latter.
With regards to beauty, Moran has Johanna confess:
… my biggest secret of all—the one I would rather die than tell, the one I wouldn’t even put in my diary—is that I really, truly, in my heart, want to be beautiful. I want to be beautiful so much—because it will keep me safe, and keep me lucky, and it’s too exhausting not to be.
It’s important to note that, being a first person narrator, Johanna is necessarily unreliable—and there are times when her constant rephrasing and hedging indicates she isn’t so willing to be honest with herself. This isn’t one of those times, though. This is brutal honesty, the divulging of a deadly secret. Johanna has already had fourteen years on this Earth to internalize the stricture that her appearance is her primary concern. (Just think about how we are socialized to compliment young girls on their pretty dresses or their hair, to comment on their colour choices and aesthetic preferences; with boys, on the other hand, we commend them more on actions than fashions.) She has, alas, incontrovertibly become part of that beauty myth … but at the same time, there is nothing inherently wrong with wanting to be “beautiful” (whatever that means). It’s possible to be strong, independent, feminist and be beautiful. But there will always be people who will tell Johanna and other women that this is not the case, that these two things are mutually exclusive: you can be a feminist and ugly, or beautiful and a good girl, but you can’t be a beautiful feminist. They are lying, or sadly mistaken, but that makes their voices no softer or easier to ignore.
Moran equips Johanna with an almost unbelievable talent for acting more grown up than she is. At fifteen she has bluffed her way into a job at the Disc & Music Echo. In the guise of her alter ego, Dolly Wilde, she becomes a carefree drinker, smoker, and Lady Sex Adventurer. At times, the story takes on an almost fairytale quality, because bad things happen, but they are always story-appropriate bad things. There are no massive heroin overdoses, arrests and nights spent in jail. In all her enthusiastic sexual experimentation, despite ending up alone in the flats of several (often drunk) men who could take advantage of her should she change her mind and withdraw her consent, Johanna never seems to have a very negative experience. When she does, as in the case of Al, Moran plays it for laughs. Sometimes How to Build a Girl feels like a sugarcoated story of adolescent rebellion.
Moran partially redeems herself by occasionally reminding us that Johanna is, at her core, still a gawky adolescent. She makes numerous errors and slip-ups that remind us of her inexperience:
And within twenty minutes—and then, for the next twenty years of my life—I knew a very important thing: that all I wanted to do was be near John Kite. That things would now divide, very simply, into two categories: things to do with John Kite, and things not to do with John Kite. And that I would abandon anything in the latter in a heartbeat if the chance of the former was on offer.
Boom. Fallen hard. As Dolly, she quickly gains the respect of her fellow staff for her reviews. Then she meets John Kite, and her teenage girlhood reasserts itself in a big way in the form of a crush. She writes a fangirl review of Kite’s album, and that tanks her reputation for a while.
It’s also hard for me to be critical when Moran describes so well the sensation of being poor. Again, I’ve been lucky enough to live above the poverty line my entire life. It’s useful for us to try to understand, then, that when one loses income—whether it’s a job or benefits—for some families the solution is not as simple as “cutting back.” Extreme poverty brings its own set of challenges, such as not being able to make healthy meals:
It’s not just the television. Everything must be cut. There are no more boxes of fruit and vegetables from the wholesale market now. Dadda buys a 50kg sack of wholemeal flour, and at least one meal a day now consists of chapattis—flour, water and salt mixed into a dough, flattened into plate-sized rounds, by hand, girlled, and then covered in margarine.
This is not good for you. This is not healthy. And since this is in England, the cost of healthcare is a burden to the taxpayers. In the United States, the cost of healthcare would drive the family further into debt, in a vicious cycle.
Moran goes on to describe the sense of living hand-to-mouth:
We become experts at finding sell-by-date bargains…. We live on ketchup and salad cream. Without them, there would truly be a riot. The sum contents of our morale comes in 1kg own-brand condiment bottles.
A gas bill lands, then an electric bill. Mum arranges a second overdraft, to pay them: so now we’re going backwards, twice as fast.
It’s heartwrenching, and it’s a potent challenge to people who succumb to the notion that the majority of those on welfare are somehow gaming the system and living luxuriously on the taxpayer’s dime.
So it’s no wonder, given this situation, that Johanna chooses to handle it in the way she does. She creates an entire alternative life for herself. When she is being Dolly, Slayer of Musicians, Lady Sex Adventuress Extraordinaire, she does not have to face that gnawing fear that her family is going to lose the house—and that it’s her fault. Gradually Johanna gives herself over to this life, allows the character of Dolly to subsume her own. She constructs Dolly as a life preserver, building a girl (hence the title) who can be successful in the society that she perceives.
How to Build a Girl also addresses the related problem, both in its very existence and explicitly in the plot, that there is a dearth of narratives built for girls. Even much of the popular YA fiction targeted at girls, by women authors, tends to reinforce or is co-opted by the patriarchical narratives of our day. In a passage where it feels like Moran is blatantly talking to the audience through Johanna:
In later years, I find this is called ‘physical disconnect’, and is all part and parcel of women having their sexuality mediated through men’s gaze. There is very little female narrative of what it’s like to fuck, and be fucked. I will realise that, as a seventeen-year-old girl, I couldn’t really hear my own voice during this sex. I had no idea what my voice was at all.
Yeah, the language is couched as coming from the narrator-Johanna’s older perspective, but it still feels out of place in the book. Nevertheless, it’s still true and so maddening. We’ve made great strides when it comes to acknowledging, embracing, and portraying sexuality in media … but it’s still complicated, this portrayal of women as sexual beings. It’s all wrapped up in thorny issues of autonomy and agency and voice. And Moran explores these from a teenager’s perspective. Dolly is quite sexually active, and she is eager to learn as much about sex as she possibly can:
I feel, urgently, that I want to be knowledgeable about fucking. It’s an attribute I wish to have. I want to be respected and admired for what a legendary piece of ass I am … but the only way of doing that is by going out and having a lot of sex. And that has repercussions.
For in a way that feels quite unfair, the only way I can gain any qualifications at this thing—sex—that is seen as so societally important and desirable, is by being a massive slag—which is not seen as societally important and desirable. This often makes me furious.
I just love these two paragraphs. Moran so succinctly sums up one of the most harmful paradoxes about modern sex education and the way we police women’s sexuality. First, notice how she exclusively frames her sexual experience in terms of the male gaze: “a legendary piece of ass”. She doesn’t necessarily want to become more knowledgeable about sex for her own benefit but so that she can be better-regarded—straight women will want to be her, straight men will want to fuck her. Second, Johanna, through Dolly’s exploration, is quite sex-positive. But she has quickly stumbled onto the sexual double-standard: (1) straight men generally want women to sleep with them, and (2) it’s OK for a man to sleep with lots of women, but (3) if a woman sleeps with a lot of men, somehow that’s bad (even though, in her interactions with other men, there is always a latent expectation that if she is single she must also be sexually available, see (1)). I’m not a woman, and I find this all baffling and infuriating, so I can only imagine how the women who actually have to deal with this shit must feel.
Some otherwise-civilized countries (cough America cough) are still debating about teaching contraception in sexual education classes. Countries like Canada and the UK have, for the most part, moved beyond this stumbling block, but our sex ed. curriculum is still woefully inadequate to the point of being laughable. Occasionally someone will propose, quietly and calmly, that we reform the curriculum so as to create a safe environment in which young people could, you know, ask questions about sex and get accurate, straightforward answers without a whole lot of moralizing or even intentionally inaccurate information. And then others flip out, because it’s unthinkable that young people could possibly be having sex, and we totally shouldn’t give them that kind of information, because we have to think of the children, don’t you know? (I assume they are referring to the children who are the result of unwanted teenage pregnancy because of improper contraception use?) Because, as a society, we have mistaken the fact that our attitudes towards sex are more permissive than Victorian times as evidence of our own maturity, when in fact when it comes to sex, we are still a bunch of squabbling infants. And so our sex ed. in schools remains a rubber-stamp of anatomical details forgotten the moment students leave the classroom, and teens learn what they need to know from the Internet and each other.
But I digress. I digress because that’s the kind of book How to Build a Girl is: it makes you think about all these latent assumptions we have about our society. For me, a slightly-no-longer-young-adult man, it helps me better empathize with the challenges that women face as they navigate adolescence into adulthood. Moran does this with a kind of zany, occasionally insincere sort of whimsical glee that threatens to make you not want to take the book seriously. But I think this is because, ultimately, she wants the book to be a very positive and not all that harrowing story.
This isn’t the story of Johanna Morrigan, who came from a council estate, fell in with hard people, did drugs and got drunk and had sex and got really fucked up. It’s the story of Johanna Morrigan, teenage girl, who came from a council estate, built herself into someone else, and realized along the way that she needed to start over—to keep some aspects of her new self, and jettison others. That is, essentially, the experience we all go through during adolescence, whether we are as aware of it as Johanna or not. Some of us, though, owing to our economic background, our race, our sexual and gender identities, have an easier time of it than others.
And I’m really glad that Moran has tried to produce such a thoughtful and authentic narrative for girls. It’s not perfect. But it is a worthy attempt, and it is notable, and I hope we see more like it. Because I would really rather live in a society where our stories tell girls and women that they are awesome people, that they can grow up and continue to be awesome people. How cool a world would that be? Let’s make it happen.