Review of Caitlin Moran’s ‘How to Build a Girl’

Set in the midst of Thatcher’s England, Caitlin Moran’s How to Build a Girlfollows the development of Johanna Morrigan – a fat, horny girl living on a council estate – throughout her adolescent years; she recounts her transformation from a meek, bookish teen to a rollicking music journalist whose life – under the name Dolly Wilde – is full of sexual escapades. From the slums Wolverhampton to the centre of London, Johanna’s coming of age story is unique as it explores a topic that similar novels tend not to delve into: class. Sustaining themselves predominantly off of council and disability benefits, Johanna’s family – a family of seven – often struggles to meet ends meet. During a time in her early adolescence in which she’s just beginning to explore her body and sexuality, the intersection between sex and class is a recurring motif throughout the book. Considering her lack of privacy, accessibility, and a posh personality, Johanna makes light of the way in which being from a working-class background impedes one’s ability to explore sexuality and sexual pleasure.

From the very first page of the book, there’s a clear conflict between Johanna’s sexual fantasies and working-class reality. When Johanna attempts to masturbate in a shared bedroom, she ”feels wrong” and doesn’t want ”siblings wandering into [her] sexual hinterland.” Under the impression that it will act like a ”little, friendly Berlin wall”, she decides to ”place a pillow” between her and her brother’s side of the bed ”for privacy” (1). Unfortunately for Johanna, her notion of privacy is immensely different than everyone else’s; she lacks the space necessary to explore her own body as – given the economic status of her parents – she can’t afford to have her own room, isolated from her male siblings. When one of her brothers, Krissi, discovers the nature of Johanna’s habits, he tells her to stop ”perioding on [his] bed” and accuses her of being ”too free and easy with [her] bodily fluids” (281). Having to cohabit with six other male siblings, Johanna begins to feel a great deal of unfamiliarity, discomfort, and insecurity whilst exploring her female sexuality. Though she was once accustomed to sharing everything with her brother, Johanna becomes enraged and decides that ”sex is complicated and [Krissi] doesn’t understand it” (282) after he continues to make a number of snide remarks regarding her sex life. Later in the book, when Johanna is losing her virginity to Tony Rich – an affluent co-worker – she is in awe of the fact that she is ”in a room with a closed door, and no one came come through it”; in her newfound version of sex and intimacy, ”no one can come and interrupt [her]” and ”no one will come next to [her] and spoil the conversation [between them]” (226). For Johanna, such privacy and sexual intimacy has been unknown for the majority of her life; she realises she holds a great appreciation for being able to engage in intimacy without having to be crammed into a house with others – an appreciation that results from exposure to greater monetary privilege.

On top on having a lack of privacy, Johanna lacks the resources necessary to make sexual pleasure truly enjoyable and – more importantly – accessible; sex toys and the very men she desires are often too far out of reach for her. Unable to buy a proper dildo or other form of sex toy to mimic phallic pleasure, Johanna decides to remedy the issue by ”by shoplifting a bottle of Mum roll-on deodorant” under the realisation that – ”with its pink domed lid and carefully contoured bottle” – it’s ”shaped…like a cheerful, chunky cock” (39). Resulting from her lack of economic privilege, Johanna coerces herself into engaging in illicit activity in order to acquire what most would argue is a relatively unsafe, unconventional, and unpleasant form of sexual pleasure. Of all the factors that impact her ability to access her sexual partners, the travel and associated costs involved between the vivacious sex life that she wants and the mundane family life she knows is one of the most inhibiting. After having been exposed to the higher-class luxury of commercial flights as a result of her job, she notices that ”all the houses in Wolverhampton seem to have shrunk” (156); she confesses to her dog that she feels ”[she] can’t stay [in the city] anymore” as the ”house is too small and nothing ever happens” (155). But – as she spends her days ”intercepting the post” to see whether ”[the city is] withdrawing [her family’s] benefits” (41) after ”[telling a neighbour] the wrong thing” (34) about the extent of her father’s disability – the chance of her being able to move is very slim. Without having affordable access to London, Johanna lacks the necessary means to have a sex life comparable to everyone else around her. Living in a council housing development in Wolverhampton, every trip she takes involves a train ticket and additional expenses; it’s a costly combination that involves her ”[spunking] nearly fifty quid” (292) and solely affords her the chance to go to London sparingly, not consistently.

Above any other facet of her working-class life, Johanna’s inability to align with the social costs and image associated with the relatively  higher-class men she sleeps with drastically affects her sex life. Unlike many of her partners, Johanna can’t afford to maintain a prim, posh lifestyle, let alone a lifestyle that allows her to sustain her basic needs. When the family’s council benefits are cut by 11%, ”there are no more boxes of fruit and vegetables from the wholesale market…and at least one meal a day consists of chapattis” – a ball of dough that is ”grilled and covered in margarine” (165). In addition to having a poor diet, Johanna describes herself as having a ”round face with a monobrow…eyes that are too small, lank hair the colour of dead mice” and a fat figure – the kind of of ”solid, pale fatness that makes her look like a cheap white fridge freezer” (57). With the right intake of vitamins and a healthier lifestyle, Johanna has the potential to be what she considers beautiful, but – as adopting an unhealthy lifestyle is less expensive – she relies exclusively on greasy foods for sustenance and is incapable of matching the elegant aesthetic that both she and potential sexual partners want as a result. At Tony Rich’s parent’s house, Johanna notices that they have ”a doorstep wide enough to sit her whole family on” (284) and that everything about their way of living ”makes [her] feel scruffy” (285); she notices that – as all of Rich’s posh friends show up – she secretly likes ”slightly foppish Oxbridge graduates” (287) and admits that, if she had the means, ”in another world… [she would] have gone there” too. Under the impression that Rich has chosen her to be his girlfriend, she becomes infuriated when she discovers that Tony has been having an affair with his old partner. Based off of her working-class background and sexual submission, Johanna is humiliated to find that Tony wants to be – and sees himself as – a sadist in the context of their sexual encounters, even though ”she [had] always thought if [she] did have some kind of S&M sex, [she] would be the S, not the M” (277). Eventually, Johanna becomes so fed up with Tony’s perception of her and tells him that ”[she’s] not [his] bit of rough” and claims ”[she] was objectifying [him]” (297) instead of being the one under objectification. Even though Johanna defends herself rampantly, Tony’s prior conceptualisation of Johanna is telling of a reality in which the rich see themselves as elite and dominant, especially in the bedroom; the discord between social classes and Johanna’s lack of elitist mannerisms cause Tony to approach Johanna’s sexuality with a biased power dynamic in mind.

Whilst Johanna’s life seems relatively bleak to most, she is able to overcome it with persistence and a relentless sense of adversity. Defeating the stereotypes associated with her socioeconomic standing and eventually moving to London, Johanna is able to achieve social mobility and fulfil the sexual desires she’d always wanted to fulfil. Though the class structure may be rigid, Moran’s work demonstrates the way in which one can lubricate the social barriers imposed upon mainstream society. In a world in which premature judgements spread faster than planes shoot through the clouds, it’s important to realise to way in which intersectionality affects one’s ability to engage in sexual activity and the exploration of one’s sexuality. Through self-empowerment, mutual respect, and a sense of understanding, an environment can be created in which everyone is able to access the type of sex they both need and deserve.

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