Fifty shades of girl
Inspired by the Riot Grrrl movement of the 1990s, British journalist Caitlin Moran’s best-selling book, “How To Be A Woman,” brought feminism back into popular culture, with added jokes to boot. Moran’s new novel, “How To Build A Girl,” was inspired by the modern pressures facing her teenage daughters
If the pen is mightier than the sword, Caitlin Moran is Zorro. In 2011, the prolific journalist — who has been writing since the age of 17 — released “How To Be A Woman,” which captured the zeitgeist. Part-memoir, part (wo)manifesto, it took feminism out of the dusty confines of academia and added a high joke quotient. At it times, it felt like Germaine Greer with gags or a kind of Mary LOL-stonecraft, a Facebook personality.
It quickly became a bestseller, inspired a legion of teenage girls to set up feminist blogs and gave Moran a new, international level of fame. The kind where she’s turned down offers such as going to dinner with Meryl Streep — “because it was the semi-finals of the X-Factor and I really like sitting on the sofa with my kids tweeting sarcastic remarks,” she laughs — and going on tour with childhood hero Paul McCartney.
“I’ll tell you exactly how famous I am,” Moran said. “When I won Elle magazine’s Writer of the Year award and I did the red carpet. I was doing all the poses like you’re taught by Victoria Beckham. And I was feeling really good. And then the paps started shouting: ‘Paloma! Paloma! Over here!’ They thought I was [British singer-songwriter] Paloma Faith.
“So that’s how famous I am: famous enough to be writer of the year but not so famous the paparazzi ever have a fucking clue who I am. It’s the perfect level.”
“How To Be A Woman” has been published in 25 countries and translated into multiple languages. “When they started selling the rights worldwide, the first offers from South America were like ‘we’ll give you a huge amount of money to publish the book here but we’ll have to take the chapter about abortion out’ and I refused. That’s one of the things I’m happiest about. The book’s been banned in Bahrain and a couple of Arab countries, and I get tweets from girls who have smuggled it into the country and are doing secret reading sessions.”
Three years later and Moran has penned a new novel, “How To Build A Girl.” Set in the 1990s, the plot concerns Johanna Morrigan, a fat teenage girl who desperately wants to get laid. She is growing up in a council house [public housing] in Wolverhampton, as part of a large, chaotic but loving family reliant on the sickness benefits of their father, an ex-rock star. Feeling her only escape route is to become a celebrated writer, she moves to London, reinvents herself as Dolly Wilde and becomes a bitchy writer in the music press, but at what cost?
Moran talks incredibly fast, as if someone is playing her back at the wrong speed, peppering her sentences with the emphasis and jokes that appear in her prose as CAPITAL LETTERS and MULTIPLE EXCLAMATION MARKS!!!! Now 39, with two young daughters, she says that the book was partly a protective reflex against them growing up in a who-bares-wins porn culture and also out of “fury” against “50 Shades of Grey.”
“When you think about how many teenage girls there are in fiction, there’s very few unless they’re being bitten by a vampire or, in the case of “50 Shades Of Grey,” they’re hooking up with some weird pervert freaky multimillionaire who says: ‘If you let me beat you on the clitoris with a hairbrush, I will give you an iPad.’
“I became horrified by the idea of all these teenage girls reading it and going: ‘I want to marry Christian Grey. I lurrve him.’ I wanted to get in there first, like your dirty auntie used to do at the bottom of the garden, beckoning you over on your thirteenth birthday going: ‘Do you want to know all the grown up stuff?’”
Accordingly, the sex in “How To Build A Girl” feels like the product of a post-Lena Dunham society, made possible by the young creator of the HBO series “Girls.”
“My daughter’s 13 and growing up in a porn culture. It’s all so horrible. I’m pro-porn but the majority of porn out there is really unpleasant. I was like: I don’t want her to see this. What’s the cure for this? What will make her feel better?”
As she acknowledges in the book’s preface, there are multiple similarities to her own life. Moran grew up in government housing in Wolverhampton in the 1990s, as part of a large, chaotic but loving family reliant on the sickness benefits of their father, a one-time “drummer and psychedelic rock pioneer.” In “How To Build A Girl,” the fear of having money revoked by the state hangs over Johanna like a halo of dread. When a neighbor spots her father mending his car, she assumes he’s faking his illness.
“I never thought the vilification and hatred of the poor and the working class would get worse than it was under Thatcher but it has,” Moran sighs. “It’s one of the reasons why I wanted to write again about benefits and having a disabled dad. When I’ve been doing interviews, middle class journalists have said: ‘On that day, the neighbor saw him fixing his car, so maybe he would be fit for some kind of employment.’ And you know, this is what Atos [which assesses whether UK welfare recipients are fit to work] are doing: if you see someone having a good day, you’re conflating that they would be able to do this for the rest of their lives. What you’re missing out on is that he can’t afford to send his car to the garage, and so in agony he’s going to go out there and mend it, medicated to the tits.
“The people who are in charge of us at the moment have absolutely no experience about the terror, the fear, that you are reliant on mercy that could be withdrawn at any moment. You’re two weeks away from being fucked. If our benefits were stopped, we would have been on the streets. And now people’s humanity is being crushed even more. The poor are being made to feel like they’re servants again.”
In her own words “fat, friendless, and desperate for a shag” Moran changed her name to “Caitlin,” published a children’s novel, “The Chronicles Of Narmo,” at the age of 16, and became a bitchy writer at Melody Maker.
“Ninety-eight per cent of it I can’t remember because I was extremely drunk,” she laughs. “When I walked in there, I was a virgin. I’d never had a drink or [smoke]. I only owned 26 albums, so I kept quiet. But then you’d end up on these big adventures. When I interviewed Courtney Love, we got into a fight with a redneck who was wearing a Queen T-shirt but kept calling members of the band ‘faggot’. The next day, there were messages left saying: ‘Come over to the house, meet Kurt [Cobain], I want to hook you up with the nanny.’”
Just like her character, Dolly Wilde, Moran was a “cunt” to gain attention: a sheepish girl in wolf’s clothing.
“If you’re the youngest cub in the pack and you see the grown-ups being cynical and savaging people, you think: ‘Well, I’ll savage much bigger. I will prove my place like a wolf cub.’ And because you don’t really know about humanity or feeling or have any kind of social responsibility, you go much further in a bid to impress. Suddenly I had that moment where I was standing there with blood and feathers around my mouth going: ‘I’ve killed Ned’s Atomic Dustbin for you.’ And all the other grown-ups were going: ‘That was really horrible. You wished that man dead. You imagined him dead of AIDS.’”
Whereas before, if you wanted to blacken someone’s name, you had to become a published writer or scrawl it on a toilet wall, thanks to the internet, everybody can have their 15 minutes of defame.
“Because I was presenting that horrible music show on TV [The Naked City], people would constantly write me letters going: ‘You horrible fat goth, you know nothing.’ All brutal things to deal with when you’re a teenager. I was a fat, shy, socially-awkward teenage girl pretending to be an arsehole, so naturally people treated me as if I was an arsehole.
“That tone of snark has invaded all of our public discourse at the moment. Young people get hurt the most by that sort of cynicism because every time someone comes up with a new idea, there’s 50 wannabe shit Charlie Brookers going: ‘Nah, don’t think that’s going to work. Here, I’m going to swear at you.’”
With its eulogies to the likes of Bikini Kill and Hole, “How To Build A Girl” can, at times, feel like an estrogen equivalent of Nick Hornby. When she was writing “How To Be A Woman,” Moran sought inspiration from Riot Grrrl, after feeling that feminism had, for many women, turned into an exclusive golf club with a strict set of rules.
“I don’t trust any political movement that you’re supposed to watch as a spectator sport. My feminism is predicated on being something that I could join in on and try and change the world to how I want it. The idea that I would be watching other people — who are supposed to speak for me, even though they’ve never met me and don’t know what I think — is insane.
“That’s a very modern view of politics. One hundred years ago, Welsh miners were setting up collections and sending the first Labour MPs to the Houses of Parliament, charged specifically with making the lives of Welsh miners better.”
Speaking in early May, she adds: “In an odd way, that’s why I find Ukip [UK Independence Party] really inspiring at the moment. We’re taught that it will never happen again — there’ll never be another labour movement that represents the people — that we just have professional politicians now. But this bunch of fucking racist, misogynist, homophobic ass-hats with no media training, no money, no establishment contacts, who are car crashes in interviews, who are going to win at least 15 percent in the European elections — that makes me think: ‘You could have something exactly like Ukip, but full of clever, good people who want to change the world.’
“I wanted someone to read ‘How To Be A Woman’ and go: ‘I can have a go at this.’ It’s like being taught programming on a computer or something.”
Although widely praised, with fans ranging from Nigella Lawson to Simon Pegg, “How To Be A Woman” proved divisive among some circles. Was she saying anything radically new? Was it simply comedy masquerading as credo?
“You know, I don’t want to win feminism,” she snorts. “So many feminists get sort of caught up in feminist wars and they think the only way you can win is by killing the primary feminist. What will be gained by attacking another feminist on Newsnight? Fucking nothing. Every time you smash something down, you’re still some woman standing on rubble going: ‘Well, we haven’t created the future!’ Walk away from the fight. Create something new.”
You might say it’s some kind of karma that just as Moran targeted Ned’s Atomic Dustbin in a bid for notoriety, she has ended up in the cross-hairs of young, privilege-checking feminist bloggers on the make.
The only time this has upset her, she says, was in 2012 when she trailed her interview with Dunham on Twitter, and someone named @lizziecoan tweeted: “did you address the complete and utter lack of people of colour in girls in your interview? i sure hope so!” Moran’s response: “Nope. I literally couldn’t give a shit about it.”
Blogs were written about the exchange, and Moran was served up as the pariah of the day.
“If they want to use me as their starter argument, that’s fine. But what they have to understand is that when they do that, I was at the other end crying my fucking eyes out with my kids at two o’clock in the morning, going: ‘I’ve just had 400 people say that they want to kill me for being a racist bitch because I didn’t ask Lena Dunham if she was racist.’
“It broke my heart having some black chick in Alabama tweet me going: ‘I really enjoyed your book but I’ve just read this blog saying you’re racist and I don’t know what to think of you.’ I followed all of those girls back and explained: ‘Seriously dudes, that’s not what’s going on here.’
“What upset me even more was loads of teenage girls who, for the year before, had been saying ‘Feminism is fun,’ saw what happened and suddenly went: ‘I’m not going to go round telling people I’m a feminist anymore, because I’m 16 and I can’t handle these kind of arguments. I’m scared I might say the wrong thing, be the wrong kind of feminist, use the wrong kind of language, and just get torn apart.’”
Currently, Moran writes a weekly column in The Times, and she is working on the first series of her childhood-mining Channel 4 sitcom “Raised By Wolves,” after a successful pilot last year, as well as a film adaptation of “How To Be A Woman.”
“I keep telling my sister [Caz Moran, her co-writer on the screenplay] I want Dustin Hoffman to play me because Tootsie deals with the majority of problems of being a woman in the 20th century. If Dustin can play a 16-year-old fat girl from Wolverhampton, he truly is the greatest actor of his generation.”
“How To Build A Girl” represents the first of a trilogy, with follow-ups “How To Be Famous” and “How To Change The World” due in the future.
“I’m basically doing a Woody Allen on this. I will always write about fat teenage gobby girls from Wolverhampton in the same way he always writes about neurotic Jewish boys from New York.
“At this point, you might be thinking: ‘She’s simply fucked up and has no imagination.’ But it’s actually part of a grand masterplan.”
Headline: Redesigning women: Riot Grrrls enter the millennial world
CommentsI prefer nice young Jewish actors like Logan Lerman, Natalie Portman, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Mila Kunis, Andrew Garfield, James Wolk, etc.
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