How To Build A Girl By Caitlin Moran
‘Masturbation and writing are two things all teens can do. Regardless of their socioeconomic status.’
– Jessica Knight
They say do not judge a book by its cover, but, I did and do quite often. The cover of Caitlin Moran’s second novel hit me twice as I browsed in my favorite independent book store. First it hit me right in my enthusiastic love of the writer herself. Because I had no idea she had written another novel to follow up her first and very successful effort, How To Be A Woman. I was thrilled at this discovery. I grinned in excitement. Her writing makes me feel good. Giddy- type-good. It makes me feel giddy type good about simply being me. That is no mean feat.
When I got How To Be A women for Christmas (because I asked for it) It was read with the verocity of a hungry brained zombie girl. My large family spoke loudly around me. On my completion of the book. I stood on a chair and announced to my family that I was a feminist. My youngest sister had retorted to the Knight clan all gathered around in various stages of post gluttony stupors.
‘’Oh great, she is a lesbian.’’
It did little to derail my enthusiasm. I had also received the Miranda July collection of short stories. It was a well read Christmas that year.
So when I saw that Ms Moran had written something else for me to devour with my near sighted peepers, there was no question of if I was going to buy it with what little money I had. But, rather, when. I justify it by thinking that as a writer myself. As a writer, who has her own ABN. An ABN that should have been free to get. But, because I did a search on the internet, and had no patience for searching through and finding the free way of obtaining an ABN. I ended up paying 98$ for an accounting firm to do it for me.
My housemate came home to find me at my desk crying hysterically in front of my laptop, in horror at the amount of money I needlessly wasted on something that should be free.
But, regardless, I have one now and it adds a certain amount of emotional legitimacy to my dreams. Also it means I can buy books and stationary supplies and keep the dockets for tax deductions!
The front cover of her second novel is green with a white border and shows a pair of legs side on. The legs are in torn black tights with ladders and running from thigh and over the knees. These tights run into a pair of black Doc Martens with the laces loose. It is for these legs simply hanging over a brick wall in waiting, that I buy the book.
Those legs that so strongly remind me of my own. They are the legs of a girl figuring things out in her own time. What is the rest of her doing? I imagine that it is me in a way. My tights often have holes and ladders in them. I continue to wear them and quite enjoy the how cool my pale skin looks against the black or red or purple of my torn tights. There is something comforting in that book cover. The book designer is a genius because they did not just create a well designed book, they also created an idea an immediate snapshot what this book will be to you if you buy it. I thought as I held that book in my hand and stared at the cover, that I could be a friend to that girl who owned those legs.
I purchased the book and used the docket as a book mark so as not to throw it away like I have done so many times. The book gets finished in two days. Moran has created a character that is immediately identifiable. She is passionate and has dreams that, reach past her predicament of existence. That of which, consists of living in the council flats in the British midlands, specifically, Wolverhampton. Johanna is busting to be in the world out there. She is busting in the way so many girls from lower class families are busting. She is busting to be out and so much more than she feels she is, like I was. And she goes about it in all the wrong ways. That is why this book speaks to me and why it moved me so much. To be moved by literature is one of the best experiences to experience, as far I am concerned. What makes this book so important for teenage girls to read, is that it makes making mistakes an ok thing. A thing that can be overcome.
I wish I had had this book when I was a timid and scared 14 year old with no friends save for the books I read and my younger siblings that I looked after. This friend of a book would have really helped me out of my shell. Instead this books simply makes me appreciate my smashed shell and bask in the wonder of all the things I did to get to where I am now. A wine drinker, just like Johanna hopes to become as a grown women.
This is a book about class and gender and sex. It is the sexual content that makes this book important it is the type of sex that happens in real life and I found myself smiling and cringing in empathy and recognition at the situations Johanna gets herself in and out of.
For this is the grit of it. In How To Build A Girl, Moran illustrates through Johanna a way to regain control when you feel you have lost it, or, how to take control even when you are not sure of what it is you are doing. Moran has provided a literary tailsmen for the yet to be fully forms women of Britain. It is a literary talisman that stretches over to the Antipides. Johanna comes from an incredibly loving but hapless family. Her father is on disability benefits. Johanna lives in fear that these benefits will be cut due to her talking about it to the old lady down the street. A women who gives the young Johanna the cold shoulder after discovering the girl’s family are on benefits from the government.
The book provides a window into the lives of families living on benefits in the early 90s, in Britain. There is no money for anything fun or decadent. Johanna’s siblings and parents all live on boiled cabbage and chappatis with tomato sauce and salad cream. Her father is an alcoholic, Marxist and a heart-breaking dreamer, who just wants to be a pop star and make an easy million. Her mother is a ‘sad ghost’ of a woman whose life would have made an amazing novel as well. The relationship she has with her big brother is one of the most rounded and believable. It is also touching and through this relationship you get an idea of how incredibly blind to the obvious we can be when it comes to those closest to us.
Johanna wants out the way I wanted out at her age. Her ticket was writing. Mine was writing and education. As Johanna says herself .
‘. . . writing_ unlike choreography, architecture or conquering kingdoms _ is a thing you can do when you’re lonely and poor.’
How my heart just ballooned with happy identification at these sentiments and more so at the following, ‘Poor people can write. It’s one of the few things poverty and lack of connections, cannot stop you doing.’
Through these words I am 13 again huddled over a notebook that my mother got me from the supermarket, using my bed as a desk and writing furiously. The dogs bark and the cows are mooing as they slowly make their way into the dairy to be milked. My younger siblings appeased for the moment by ABC after school programs. Soon I will have to start dinner and escape from all this seems so so far away…
I want to be 16 and hanging at the chemist with Johanna as she steals eyeliner. I want to sit under a dreary greay Wolverhampton sky and watch her smoke as we laugh till the tears run down our faces. The 16 year old me needed a friend like Johanna. She may not have wanted to be my friend though. I mean what would I have had to offer with my Mormon back round? A faith that I was yet to disrobe from around myself and trip over as I stumbled from the folds of god fearing and variouse rules that do not really lend themselves to creative growth and characterization. This is why this book is so important, it shows that sex is not something to feel bad about doing.
Your worth does not decrease with the number of penises you allow to inside. Consentual sex can actually teach you a great deal about yourself. Sometimes it takes a lot of experience to make you appreciate certain aspects of yourself. But, sex is not the only way through which self-actualization grows. No, not at all. That comes from masturbation and this book is in parts an ode to the wonder of self-pleasuring. It is not evil and bad and will send you to hell. It is the best way to learn about what you like sexually.
It has always baffled me why Mormon youth are told not to masturbate. I mean, it is risk free and hurts nobody. You cannot get pregnant from it and teaches you about your own pleasure principles. I was emotionally stunted by this information that I did not discover the joys of masturbation until I was 23! Which is again why this book is important as it shows a teenage girl who is ever so happy to masturbate. Masturbation and writing are two things a teen can enjoy regardless of their low socioeconomic status is the world.
Moran’s novel shows just what a young girl can do as she realizes that what her parents have taught her is not enough. Sometimes it is difficult to ‘honour thy father and thy mother’. The road is rocky when one is on the path less travelled. Sometimes there is no path at all and you have to use your whole body and might of mind to bash through the prickly bushes of gender inequality and innate sexism that comes at you from all directions, as you try and make it in the rather laddish culture of music journalism in the early 90’s. Through Johanna’s eyes we see the world and it is hilarious and touching and nerve wracking and euphoric.
When you have finished this book, you do not want to put it down. You do not want to add it to your bookshelf and walk away from it. Like the cover promises, the girl is your friend. So, as with all good friends who make you feel good and entertained, you simply want to walk around with them beside you all the time. You want to drink coffee and chat till it starts to get dark and the people who work in said coffee shop are starting to take the trays of cakes away and put chairs up on tables. You want to go see a gig and get drunk and annoy boys with them as your partner in trouble.