Since releasing How To Be A Woman in 2011, Caitlin Moran has helped expand the dialogue on what it means to be a feminist in the 21st century. Moran, along with fellow comediennes Illana Glazer, Abbi Jacobson and Amy Schumer, has not only changed the conversation but also opened it up to a younger generation.
In her debut novel, How To Build A Girl (out now via HarperCollins), Moran is continuing on in that regard. The novel (Moran’s first foray into fiction) tells the story of Johanna and her journey into adulthood, and it’s rife with masturbation, feminism, socialism and rebellion. One can argue that Johanna bears more than a little resemblance to the author herself.
I was lucky enough to get to chat with Moran about all the ingredients that came together to make How To Build A Girl, discuss controversial subjects like her defense of the paywall, and learn how she avoids the burden of the male gaze. Read our interview below.
Abby Sheaffer: I was thinking about it today, I had to go rescue my dog because the construction workers were here and I was still in my pajamas and I was already being looked at and made to feel ashamed of my body. It’s awful that our bodies aren’t our own any more, so much as they belong to the male gaze. Do you think the male gaze will ever fully dissolve away or how can we overcome it with our culture’s obsession with the female body always being linked to sex?
Caitlin Moran: There’s definitely a belief that women’s body’s belong to the group = belong to society = which is why we police them, and feel like we can comment on them, men as well as women, commenting on other women’s bodies. It’s something that can only really change through popular culture—seeing female heroes who, to be frank, look as rough as the men do—but can still be so fascinating, funny, clever etc., that we have a BILLION more important things to discuss about them before we turn to how they look.
It’s why Lena Dunham and Amy Schumer and Melissa McCarthy and Rebel Wilson are so important – some of the funniest, most famous, most powerful, most wealthy women in show business, and they’re happy to look “rough”, or weird. Indeed, it’s what GIVES them a lot of their power, and material. I know whenever I do photo-shoots, I always do my own hair and make-up, and wear my own clothes, because I think it’s important to see a happy, rich, powerful and amusing woman looking a bit rough. It’s why I also never pull a sexy face in a photo-shoot.
CM: I was at the Glamour Awards last month when Amy Schumer gave her AMAZING speech which ended with, “I’m 160lbs and I can catch a dick whenever I want. Whenever. I. Want.” she got a standing ovation. These are the little things that change the world. Basically, the new Ghostbusters will save us all.
AS: I agree! Extrapolating from this, your novel is rife with female masturbation, a very taboo subject. We live in a society that makes women feel shameful about touching themselves, how can we overcome the backwards thinking that female masturbation is “wrong”? It’s just amazing to me people are still in the dark ages about that sort of thing.
CM: Well I’ve written a great deal about wanking—the new book opens with a 14-year old-girl knocking one out, and in my sitcom, Raised By Wolves, episode 5 has the main character—a fat working class girl called Germaine (after Germaine Greer) masturbating for the first time whilst watching the news. it was quite the sensation. the catchphrase “wank away the pain!” trended for a while. I had a girl who came up to me on the train last week who said she’d formed a Wanking Club at school, where all the girls swapped tips and talked about how great it was. It’s not like no one’s doing it, it’s just they’re not talking about it. And that’s my job, and comedians’ jobs—we start the conversation, because we’re shameless attention-seeking filth-campaigners. Then, having taken one for the team—maybe even literally, if we’re horny—other shy-er, nicer people feel they can talk about it too. “Oh my God did you read what Caitlin Moran wrote about it?” That’s very much my role. Abortion, eating disorders, wanking, fantasy love affairs, pubes, periods, sex with men with big penises, socialism, racism, gay rights, making your hair big – I am the one that starts the conversation. I like that responsibility. I’m very chatty
AS: We’re grateful you’re doing it too! It’s refreshing to have a different perspective on abortion and how a woman handles her sexuality. You, Amy Schumer, Lena Dunham, Abbi Jacobson and Illana Glazer have helped change the conversation. Do you think this is a brave new age for feminism we’re in now?
CM: Yeah—because its cultural—not political or academic. The language is democratic—the language is chatty, it’s fun—so you’ve suddenly got 11 and 12 year old girls who understand what the conversation is, and what the topics are, and feel they can join in. My daughter’s in the Feminist Club at school, and she’s 11. That blows my mind. And they learn fast. You just need to make feminism an open door—not a closed club. Feminism is not a set of rules—it’s a set of tools that allow you to understand why you feel bad, why you feel limited, why you feel angry, or vulnerable, and then how you can change things. It doesn’t need to be complex, or bogged down in arcane vocabulary. When I went on tour last year, we made merchandise, including tea towels, with the “Five Rules of Feminism” on them. The rules were “1) women are equal to men 2) don’t be a dick 3) That’s it”. We gave the profits to women refugees, because I’m noble, and also it turns me on to give money to cool things.
AS: That is fantastic! And yes, I agree. I feel like due to the fact that it’s a cultural movement the horrible past stigma about it is becoming obsolete, especially due to the existence of blogs like Jezebel. I’m just hoping we can re-educate the public on how socialism is just as important. Do you also feel socialism is slowly becoming less stigmatized and part of a progressive conversation to fix the global economy as well?
CM: It’s starting to happen over here –some teenage girls started a Twitter campaign about how much they fancied the Labour leader here, and would Tweet about him like he was Harry Styles. Unfortunately we’ve just had a disastrous election here in which the Tories won, unexpectedly, so the left’s a bit in disarray—but that means, in a time of chaos, new people and new leads will come through. I’m very excited about the future of socialism in this country, as I think we’re about to invent a new kind. Well, I am, anyway—that’s what my next book, Moranifesto, is about. I’m writing my own political manifesto. I think everyone should. the “demo” in democracy, the “poli” in politics – they mean “people.” These things are about people, and their ideas – not very small cliques of people, who all went to the same universities, and had the same tutors, and go to the same private members’ clubs, treating it like some abstract game of Risk.
Equality isn’t some fabulous luxury we can gift ourselves when we’re feeling morally flush. Equality is not…humanity’s cashmere bed socks. It’s not a present, like champagne. It’s a necessity, like water. For if we look at a map of the world—where every nation struggling with poverty, child mortality and political instability is marked in red—it’s notable its bright, red, shaming rash coincides almost identically with the most unequal countries in the world. Deny your women education? Imprison your gays, lesbians and transsexuals? Treat your working classes like expendable factory parts? Chances are, your country is in trouble.
Because the winning point in favour of equality—which I didn’t know at 13, but I do now—is that we don’t treat ourselves to it. We need it. In the 21st century, humanity’s greatest resource isn’t oil, or titanium, or water, or gold: it’s brains. It’s people’s brains. Tot up all the “minorities” of the world—the gays and disableds and women and working classes, all those ‘people of colour’—and they are, together, in the majority. They are most of this world. And so while we keep these billions of tons of brains—a million ideas, a billion inventions, a trillion ways for the world to be better. An untapped reserve of intellectual oil, big enough to power us into our next 100,000 year—offline, we put humanity in an illogically difficult position. By believing some people are naturally superior, we make our species, as a whole, inferior. Weaker. To be frank: stupider.
AS: I agree, and it’s amazing to me as an entrepreneur and editor how alternative media sites and journals are being founded everyday but we can’t afford to pay our writers because we can’t even afford to pay ourselves, and we’re on the edge of a completely different breakthrough, of a new matrix of thought, but corporate fat cats who do nothing all day have drained the economy while the artists and writers of the world, the ones always seeking truth and justice and creativity, can barely survive on the wages they make.
CM: Hahah yes I wrote a column on this: “Controversy With The Next Column”, in which I defended the paywall – which is the sexy, medieval-sounding phrase that we use instead of “subscription”, or “fee” at The Times. You have to pay to read The Times online. It is one of the few newspapers in the world to attempt such a thing.
I feel many people who hated the paywall were confusing “the idea of paying for stuff, like we used to” with “personal and long-standing animosity towards Rupert Murdoch”, which is unhelpful in an industry in crisis, in which previously lucrative newspapers lose money hand over fist, thousands of journalists have been made unemployed, and ad revenue is tanking – all since the rush to put everything online, for free.
I feel my clarion-call of “bitch gotta make rent” could be useful for many now-free newspapers to bear in mind, as they fire a third of their staff, and supplements disappear overnight, like sugar in tea.
AS: I find it awful too, for all the start-ups that are run by women trying to make them lucrative, it seems there’s almost a bias against women who take out loans or apply for funding to help make their business a financial success.
CM: You see, we really need banks just for women, to prevent this. women who’ve made millions starting up banks, to lend other women money to start up their businesses. It’s nuts that they have these in India and Africa, as part of charitable micro-loan companies, but not in the western world.
AS: Banks for women sounds like a dream! What was your favorite scene to write in How To Build A Girl?
CM: Oh, several—the sex scene with Big Cock Al—that felt like it was important information. All of chapter 24, “so what do you do when you build a girl…” Everything with John Kite in.
Women & Children First present Caitlin Moran at the Swedish American Museum on July 10th. More info about that event is provided here.