Caitlin Moran does not shake my hand when we meet. She throws her arm around my shoulder, kisses me generously on the cheek, and pulls my face into her distinctive mane of dark, skunk-striped hair. We have barely sat down and Moran, one of Britain’s most beloved writers, is already talking at a dizzyingly fast clip about Marxism and masturbating (“wanking”) to the Muppets when she was 13. “I fancied Gonzo. I probably would have done Fozzie as well. But not Kermit. Too weird.”
This is Caitlin Moran: ebullient and frenetic; passionate about social justice and feminism, without being fanatical; celebrated as much for her intellect as her ribald sense of humor. If ever there was a woman to dismantle the stereotype that feminists are strident, humorless man-haters, it’s Moran. All of this comes across in her writing about cultural politics—and she is staggeringly prolific.
Moran, 39, writes two weekly columns for The Times of London (she has a shelf full of journalism awards, including a 2010 British Press Award for best columnist) and is the author of the best-selling 2012 book How to Be a Woman, which is equal parts polemic, memoir, and book of advice.
The book sold over a million copies, established Moran’s celebrity and positioned her as her generation’s Germaine Greer—the bad girl of the feminist movement. And the BBC recently named her the 10th-most powerful woman in the UK.
Moran is swanning around New York City to promote How to Build a Girl, an autobiographical novel about Joannah Morrigan, a chubby teenage girl who consumes literature and masturbates with equal ferocity. When she isn’t engaged in her two favorite pastimes, Morrigan, a clear stand-in for Moran, is looking after her three younger siblings and plotting to save her family from being taken off benefits by becoming a music journalist at the tender age of 17. It’s rapier wit and blunt sex talk. “I was coming thinking about talking lions in Narnia while you were doing your fucking A-levels,” Morrigan shoots back at a male character.
Those familiar with Moran’s work will recognize novelized elements of her own life scattered through How to Build a Girl. Moran was raised in a working-class family—the eldest of eight children—in a housing project in the industrial English city Wolverhampton. Moran started writing for The Times at 18, after having written for various national music publications since she was 14. She has been married to the music critic Pete Paphides (“the loveliest man who ever lived”) since 1999.
With a husband she describes as “the most instinctive feminist I know,” it’s important to Moran that their two daughters—ages 11 and 13—be brought up like mini Gloria Steinems.
“I taught them whenever they fell over to say, ‘Damn you, patriarchy!’ And they know the difference between men—we love men—and ‘the man.’ Generally, they just think I’m this big hairy idiot. They just want me to put some clothes on when I walk around the house and to stop swearing.”
Despite a difficult upbringing, Moran avoids depressing and Dickensian-ish themes. “If I had written the book another way, it could have so easily been a misery memoir. It could have been fucking Angela’s Ashes,” she says. But she was raised on “cheerful 19th-century women and literature,” listing Anne of Green Gables and Little Women as profound influences.
“Once you realize that life divides into two things—brilliant experiences and awful experiences which will later make amazing anecdotes—then you have the perspective to say, ‘This is the shit I’m going to write about.’ This is the brilliant thing about being a writer: you can just turn it into material instead.”
Moran does so with fearless honesty and bravura, but admits she was wary about oversharing when she wrote How to Be a Woman.
“I wondered if I would fuck up my career as a Times critic by being that honest about abortions and my eating disorder and fantasy love affairs,” she says. “I admit to wanking for the first time ever while watching The Three Amigos! I would have done all of the Amigos, to be honest. All in their fucking sombreros. Still on their donkeys if they wanted it.”
There were to be no adverse effects on her career. How To Be A Woman was a megahit, morphed into a successful one-woman show (during which she talks about “men, women, Sherlock, David Bowie, big hair, feminism, welfare, and the Revolution”) and has been optioned for a feature film. She has since become a cultural celebrity, so much that young women scream and cry when they meet her on tour.
“The idea that an overweight 39-year-old woman with two children who talks about Marxism, socialism, and feminism is provoking the same reaction in teenage girls as One Direction does, it just makes my heart sing,” says Moran.
Even more inspiring were the readers who wanted to share their versions of her Three Amigos story. "A famous female writer told me the first time she wanked she used a copy of Jackie magazine [a teen magazine], which she rolled up and used as a dildo,” she says. “So I’ve become Britain’s repository for wank stories and that makes me quite happy."
With her acerbic wit and indie sensibility, Moran is often compared to Lena Dunham, whom she met on the set of Girls during its first season. When she tweeted about meeting the budding young actress-screenwriter, one Twitter user asked if she was going to address Girls’ “complete and utter lack of color” in her subsequent profile for The Times. Moran’s response: “Nope, I literally couldn’t give a shit.”
The offhand remark ignited a debate about modern feminism’s diversity problem (Moran has a half-million Twitter followers) and prompted accusations of bigotry from some of her fans. “I was having a very bad day and I was angry that someone was telling me how to do my job,” she says. “We live in a really dangerous world where someone is called a racist by omission, by not writing about black issues. Let’s be careful about how we use that word.”
Anger and confrontation have never been part of Moran’s shtick, but she is proud to “stand on the achievements of angry women” who ignited the feminist revolution. But she is quick to point out that expressions of unbridled rage, whether in disputes between feminists or politicians, do more harm than good to developing social movements. “It turns off people you need to align with,” she says. “You can get so much more wisdom in a joke than you can in a hurt rant.”
Still, Moran understands well where that anger comes from (“It’s astonishing how untruthful the mirror of pop culture is, how few people’s faces you see reflected in it”), but thinks it’s too often directed at the wrong people. “Be angry at the commissioners who don’t find new talent, not the one person [Dunham] who got through the power system and has been making herself so vulnerable.”
Moran’s own background may be uncommon in the world of journalism—raised in a firmly working-class family, home-schooled, and never having attended university—but it has provided material. Indeed, there is so much crossover between Moran’s early life and that of Joannah Morrigan (“It’s about a fat girl who becomes a music journalist, so I know that terrain”) that one wonders why she didn’t just write a memoir, particularly since she is so skilled at writing non-fiction.
“There are only so many people who will read a nonfiction book or a memoir that’s full of polemic,” she says. So she has chosen the path as her literary heroes, Charles Dickens and George Orwell: the entertaining but didactic novel. “I know so many people who just watch TV and read novels, and these are the girls I want to reach—the ones who don’t know enough about feminism to buy a non-fiction book about it. Plus, it’s fun to make things up!”
And in traditional journalism you can’t make things up, though she longed to do so when profiling outlandish rock stars as a teenager. When interviewing Marilyn Manson for Select magazine, he confessed that his favorite film was Willy Wonka and The Chocolate Factory. “I thought, God, it’s a brilliant quote, but it would be even funnier if he had ended it by describing the bit where Augustus Gloop gets stuck in the chocolate tube.”
So she added that bit, prompting Manson to call her editor in a rage. “I realized you can’t make things up in the real world, but you can make your pop stars say the things you wanted them to say in a novel.”
In How to Build a Girl, she finally constructs her ideal pop star in John Kite, Joannah Morrigan’s love interest, a man who embodies everything Moran admired in 1990s Britpop bands. “They were all sharply dressed, working-class boys who were complete autodidacts, and we’d sit in the pub all day and have these brilliant, whimsical conversations.”
Kite, she confesses, is based on “nearly every single member of Teenage Fanclub and the Boo Radleys, Guy Garvey from Elbow, and Richard Burton, another working-class boy whose turn of phrase was fabulous. He’s got that brilliant pimp style and is so fucking funny and horny.”
How to Build a Girl is part one of a planned trilogy (the second book, How to Be Famous, takes place six months after Girl left off when Britpop kicks off.) “I want to find working-class culture—Tracey Emin, Irvine Welsh, Trainspotting, Oasis—and mid-’90s Britpop was the last time there was a big flaring of that in our country.”
Moran still fetishizes working-class culture, despite having transcended it. When I point this out, she is defensive. “It’s based on the presumption that middle classes co-opt you when you’re successful. But that means that the only character traits of the working class are to be unsuccessful and poor--basically a culture entirely predicated on failure. And that’s so wrong. Working-class culture is sharing your influences. You never draw the drawbridge up. It’s a communal thing.”
And her mission—sex, feminism, and socialism—is pure working-class Wolverhampton: “So this is my plan: to teach 13-year-old girls how to form a sexual revolution while having a big wank. It’s important you do both.”