Books

Put Your Hand in Your Underpants: On Caitlin Moran and the Art of Feminism

“I can honestly say that I don’t believe in feminism, bc the second that women are treated equally as men, is the second that we get talked to with disrespect, we don’t get our doors opened for us, or asked if we need help when carrying something heavy. The truth is that women are weaker than men, physically and emotionally, and we need them. That’s how we were created.”

“I don’t need feminism because… I’m tired to be, as a woman, represented by some hysterical hipster whore.”

“I don’t need feminism… I work for what I have. And everyone is not equal. I refuse to be paid the same amount for a job I am less qualified for and I’ll be DAMNED if an overweight, insecure, unhealthy female, tells ME how to respond to the men in my life. I am no fucking victim.”

For decades, feminism has suffered from something of an image problem. The feminist caricature is that of a man-hating, makeup-eschewing, humorless single woman in an unflattering jacket, whose jus ad bellum is broadly defined as the Patriarchy. Nowhere is this straw-woman more despised than at the Women Against Feminism Tumblr, where the above quotes are a recent sampling of hundreds, most paired with pictures of the proud anti-feminists themselves. One photo, of a beaming woman being kissed on the cheek by a man, is captioned: “I DON’T NEED FEMINISM… BECAUSE THIS WAS MY AMBITION AND ALL YOUR LIES ABOUT EMPOWERED SLUTHOOD AND RAPE CULTURE AND EVIL MEN DIDN’T KEEP ME FROM REACHING IT.”

Well!

It’s easy to dismiss this kind of caps-lock soapbox as little more than a public showcase for selfies and grammatical errors. But when someone as pioneering and powerful as Marissa Meyer, the President and CEO of Yahoo!, says, “I don’t think that I would consider myself a feminist… I don’t, I think, have that sort of militant drive, and… the chip on the shoulder that sometimes comes with that,” then it’s time to admit that maybe, some 100 years on, modern feminism is looking a little haggard. Maybe it could stand to have a bit of work done on those deep frown lines.

That’s the work that women in the arts are doing now. Creative talents like Amy Poehler, Lena Dunham, Tina Fey, Jenny Slate, Lady Gaga, Alison Bechdel, Roxane Gay, and Caitlin Moran are embracing the beleaguered Feminist label while redefining what it means to them. Theirs is a confessional, accessible, sexy feminism with a great sense of humor. This feminism is professional, witty, and well-groomed, the kind you can bring home to Mom.

This is not a “rebranding” of feminism, as so many who speak in today’s oily corporate parlance have suggested. Art engages its audience, invites interpretation, and allows a person to see the world from another’s perspective. These women are doing what they do best: making art, of feminism. They’re breathing fresh life into a careworn cause by taking issues usually confined to academic or sociopolitical realms and making them topics of popular culture. By doing so, they’re engaging millions in discussions about no-fun things like the wage gap, reproductive freedom, and violence against women. There’s no question that they’re igniting discussions in a way women like Hillary Clinton and Sonia Sotomayor do not. For many, Tina Fey is a more effective feminist ambassador than Nancy Pelosi.

It’s no coincidence that two of the first quotes at Women Against Feminism are clearly targeting Lena Dunham, current media darling/punching bag. It’s hard to imagine Gloria Steinem or Malala Yousafzi inspiring such splenetic missives from the Tumblr crowd. Dunham’s activism (most recently, she invited Planned Parenthood to participate in events at nine stops on her book tour) is all the more admirable given its personal cost: You don’t see Danny McBride or Louis C.K. being threatened with rape or professionally ridiculed because of their weight. Despite the vitriolic backlash, artistic women persist in proliferating feminist ideas through their respective storytelling mediums, while proudly carrying the feminist flag.

No one is waving that flag with more gusto than Caitlin Moran.

In her 2012 memoir-cum-manifesto, How to Be a Woman, Moran delivered a simple two-part test for sussing out where you land on feminism:

Put your hand in your underpants. A. Do you have a vagina? and B. Do you want to be in charge of it? If you said ‘yes’ to both, then congratulations! You’re a feminist.

How to Be a Woman was a huge hit, and Moran has followed it with a novel, How to Build a Girl (published stateside last month). It’s the funny, didactic coming-of-age story of Johanna Morrigan: a bright, awkward, chubby teenager with four siblings, a depressed Mum, a father on the dole, and a library card. The arc of Johanna’s character, from clueless bookworm to “Dolly Wilde,” a “swashfuckling” London-based rock music critic, closely resembles the life story of Moran herself, as told in How to Be a Woman. Really… very, very closely.

Like Moran, Johanna comes from a large, impoverished family in Wolverhampton. Both have hippie parents—including a failed rocker father on permanent disability—and a gay sibling as their domestic foil and closest confidant. Both were compulsive wankers (masturbators). Both won writing competitions as teens that ignited their careers. Both give themselves new names: Caitlin (pronounced “Cat-lin”) has a given name of Catherine; Johanna invents the abovementioned Dolly Wilde. And both become music critics at age sixteen and leave home soon after. Dolly is held together by lashings of eyeliner, hair-dye and booze: the very tools Moran uses to trademark effect.

So given that Moran has in a way already told this story—her story—why did she feel the need to write this entertaining, uncommon, but somewhat redundant novel?

The answer emerges in the two great fixations of How to Build a Girl (and indeed, humanity): sex and money. Or, less pithily, in female sexuality and class politics. Both are topics that Moran addressed in her memoir, but evidently she had more to say, and this novelization of her life removes the need for any fig leaves the notoriously candid Moran still held, while giving her readers a narrative through which to inhabit a character too-rare in literature: that of a self-made, sexually empowered girl whose modest looks are largely incidental to her exciting destiny.

How to Build a Girl’s first order of business is to firmly establish its young protagonist’s ownership of her sexuality. The book opens on Johanna masturbating in bed, and not many pages later she is bemoaning the unsuitability of her hairbrush as a dildo, despite its incidental usefulness in “being able to lovingly brush my bush, so that it looks posh, like we were going to a wedding.” Her promiscuity, a jubilatory phase after years of sexual frustration, is something she decides to celebrate rather than repent: “‘I am a massive slag!’ I think to myself, in a motivational way. ‘I’m a Lady Sex Adventuress!’”

All of which is a direct response to the literary offense of Fifty Shades of Grey, the erotic phenomenon that’s sold 100 million copies and counting. “Fifty Shades of Grey: that was where I lost my rag,” Moran said in an interview for Kirkus Reviews. The series, whose film adaptation comes out next Valentine’s Day, is (in)famously about a young woman whose sexual awakening is brought about by a wealthy, powerful man, in the service of his own needs. Anastasia Steele’s fate is made for her, but Johanna is the sole architect of her alter-ego Dolly Wilde.

Moran writes the teenage girl very well, and with a great deal of love. From Anne of Green Gables; to the hours and hours of dim, humid solitude spent “pupating” in her bedroom; to the satisfaction derived from a male partner’s pleasure instead of her own; to the truly noble amounts of love and understanding required from parents; the book will strike more than a few bells of adolescent recognition in its lady readers. It’s a warm account of a passage over turbulent seas, from someone who’s made the voyage and has the hollow leg to show for it.

The book plays for a lot of laughs, some big and a few cheap, but it’s grounded in the compassionate but unromanticized portrayal of a working class family struggling to get by on Social Services benefits. Moran, a vocal proponent of the working classes (of which she still considers herself a member), writes effectively about not the stress of poverty but the “terror” of it, and how “children raised on cortisol” are able to recognize each other even in adulthood. The book’s socioeconomic and feminist themes are intertwined: Johanna is forced to shoplift luxuries like tampons, and her mother is a ghostly, depressed figure, overwhelmed by the unplanned addition of twins to her family of five.

But How to Build a Girl’s greatest strength lies its unapologetic portrayal of Johanna’s joyful sexual awakening. At the age of seventeen, Johanna—drunk more often than not—pursues casual sex with adult men: men who would be criminals if this story were a true account set in America.

There are more than enough Cautionary Tales in the coming-of-age canon. Young girls are too well-versed in the risk their sexuality poses to themselves and others: Don’t get pregnant, don’t drink too much, don’t walk by yourself late at night, don’t wear anything too revealing, don’t “use” your sexuality, don’t be a tease, don’t be a slut, don’t text anyone sexy pictures, don’t get an STD, don’t skip annual pap smears, don’t get your heart broken, don’t get used… Until we graduate to: Don’t wait too long, tick tock, and so on and so forth. Female sexuality is a lot of responsibility at best, a danger at worst, and a commodity all of the time. What it usually isn’t allowed to be is fun. Thrilling, openhearted, skin-tingling fun. Moran does allow us that, and then some.

This is not to say that Johanna exists in a fairytale-London where she traipses around with her skirt over her head and nothing bad happens. She does get a bit used, and a bit bruised, and a UTI (aka cystitis, as the scourge is known in England). But she isn’t shattered, she isn’t tainted. The worst harm that comes to her is the harm she does herself, when the sheer velocity of her growth sends her into a tailspin of self-recrimination. After realizing that she’s lost her way as a music writer and has become something of a critical hatchet woman, Johanna experiments with cutting, a practice she immediately dismisses as counterproductive: “I’m just being sort of… stupid and angry at my limbs.”

Johanna/Dolly’s inevitable mistakes are essential to her growing up, and she uses what she’s learned to improve the next version of herself: Dolly Wilde 2.0, who now knows who she isn’t, in addition to who she is. Crucially, she’s figuring that out for herself.

In some lines you can almost hear Moran writing to her own daughters, aged eleven and thirteen, and occasionally the novel squelches too far into the mushy bog of self-help (“TO REJECT: … Self harm—the world will come at you with knives anyway. You do not need to beat them to it”). Some of the writing can be repetitive, in part because of the intentionally girlish, stream-of-consciousness tone, and it’s the rare success story that begins with dropping out of school at age sixteen. But Moran is someone who writes with natural ease and insight, and there are endless clever turns of phrase.

So yes, How to Build a Girl is rather a lot like How to Be a Woman. But as Women Against Feminism helpfully illustrates for us, there is a lot of confused thinking about what feminism actually is, and what feminists actually look like (although to be sure, there are likely as many definitions as there are feminists). And we need a lot of great books and shows and movies and comedians to balance that out and invite people in. We need women like Caitlin Moran and Johanna Morrigan to carry the banner for this kind of feminist: a clever, sexy, man-loving, woman-loving, family-oriented and self-actualizing kind of girl.

It’s a book I’d recommend to any young woman, and not a few Women Against Feminism. Take a look at this novel, and the cost of your contraceptives, and your elected representatives (81% of Congress is male), and the creep pressing up against you on the subway, and try it again.

“I don’t need feminism because…”

Because…

A.C. DeLashmutt is a Virginian living in New York. Her writing has appeared in McSweeney's, The Washington Post, theNewerYork, Flash magazine, and elsewhere. She also writes plays. Follow her on Twitter @acdelashmutt.