How to Build a Girl: Chapters 16 – 20 (Read Along)

Posted 4 August, 2014 by April @ The Steadfast Reader in

How To Build a Girl by: Caitlin Moran 
Read Along! Chapters 16 – 20.

Note: As this is a read along spoilers are gonna spoil ladies and gentlefolk. But it’s gonna be hella fun.

If you want to read along later go to Odyssey Books and get yourself a pre-order! Of course I want to extend a giant thanks to Emily at How the Crowe Flies (and Reads!) and the good people at Harper Collins.

Note Two: These posts are going to have all the language. But on the bright side, it’ll be colorful. Clean readers: This book is not for you.

Final Note: This post differs from many of those on The Steadfast Reader. (Of course it’s still fabulous.) But if it’s not your cup of tea, just know, we’ll return to our regularly scheduled programming, tomorrow. Also, a proper review (one less gushy and with fewer fangirl moments) will be published on the blog sometime in October. Read along continues every Monday until August 11, 2014.

In case you missed it!
How to Build a Girl – Part One
How to Build a Girl – Ch. 5 – 10
How to Build a Girl  – Ch. 11 – 15

Mmm. I think that we all knew shit was going to get real this week. And it does. I don’t know if I’m having a harder time with this post because I’m in post-bar decompression mode, but don’t misunderstand that I’m still incredibly excited about this book. Plus, all the Star Wars references in this section made me unreasonably happy.

There are two big themes in these chapters. Feminism and cynicism. Let’s get to it.

Dolly is fully fleshed out now and yes, she is trouble.

Oh, sweetie! Dadda has troubles, addiction troubles. I don’t want that for Johanna – who shares a body with this troublesome persona she has created for herself.  But even at the beginning of chapter 16, where Johanna feels most definitely ‘incontrovertibly real’ – she’s still faking it when it comes to that one thing that teenage girls are taught to obsess over – her virginity.

Not So Side Note: I’m not sure which part of society is worse – the conservative side that treats girls as irredeemable whores for sex outside of marriage or that part that makes them feel unlovable and un-liked because they haven’t had sex yet. It’s also worth nothing that both those sides pull on girls – and it’s total bullshit both ways. There’s no way to win. Back to the story.

Lord. Seventeen, booze, music, and a writing job – and Johanna is still incredibly innocent. I laughed pretty hard at the ensuing discussion on Neil Young owning all the buffalo, Mike Nesmith’s mum inventing Wite-Out (is that true?) and how to get high on office supplies. It made me remember how weird gossip and facts were exchanged before you could just pull up all that shit on Google. “I had no idea. Basically, the WH Smith in the Mander Centre is Wolverhampton’s version of Studio 54. It’s a narcotic goldmine. I’ve only ever used it to buy staples.” (p. 194)

So Johanna procures her first kiss from The Kisser – who’s name she doesn’t know. “He’s a man slag.” (p.193) After nine minutes of kissing – he wanders off – no hard feelings and Johanna feels super about it. Good for her!

Getting home Johanna’s sent out to talk to Dadda in the garden, there’s an incredible feeling of love and bonding that goes on here. Dadda’s recounting of his own childhood and the horrors of post war Britain.

Hit the nail on the head again Moran. I often feel this way about the not so distant past. Women’s suffrage, contraception, World War II. For sure, things aren’t perfect now. But I can’t think of another time in history I would ever want to be a woman.

Drunk and full of family love and feeling Dadda asks the question we’ve all been waiting for: “You’ve got to get me in there, kid. Get me a break. Get me in that paper. And we’ll be millionaires by Christmas.” (p. 200)

Never drunkenly agree to nepotism.

Chapter Seventeen has some levity and I was glad to see Krissi and Johanna make up after “Satanwank-gate” and we get the first peek into a heavy truth that is going to laid upon Johanna by the end of this section. (We’ll get there.) 

Chapter Eighteen we all had our eye on John Kite for the douchebag – but we were wrong! Tony Rich. I’d like to say that Moran has written the best description of sexual tension that I’ve ever read.

So, Tony Rich takes her virginity. Like many girls, Johanna isn’t surprised by the sex itself.
“Here’s the amazing thing about sex: you get a whole person to yourself, for the first time since you were a baby.” (p. 209)

These thoughts and feelings are still incredibly innocent and naive. Yes, at it’s best, that is what sex is, but Tony Rich isn’t having that kind of sex with Johanna. I love Johanna for her innocence, so much. But please, for the love of all things holy. Don’t get pregnant. Also, AIDS – this is the early nineties – AIDS is still a death sentence. Please don’t get AIDS Johanna. I’m so worried.

Okay. So. Aside from the mom-like worrying we have to have: 

Feminist Stop #1
I’m going to take things out of order because I want to highlight just how much importance Johanna is placing on feeling useful during sex and how little she values her own pleasure.

Yes, I’m really happy that Johanna is enjoying herself and seems to be gaining confidence. However, this section is brilliant commentary on what’s societally expected with women and sex, what we (read: me) somehow believe and still struggle to overcome.  She talks again and again about wanting to be useful, she wants to help these men… Often at the sacrifice of her own enjoyment of the act.  This rang so true for me. I can’t say it better than Caitlin Moran, so get ready for the best of: (the bold is all mine)

  • “…I still didn’t come, but when he came, I felt enormously … useful. Men need to come – and I made it happen. I had a simple purpose.” (p. 210)
  • (Blow jobs) “Like sucking your thumb, but whilst making someone else very, very happy.” (p. 221)
  • “Keep on pretending you’re Al. Think about how amazing it must be for him to have sex with you! […] Yes – this is a good day for Al. Lucky, happy Al.” (p. 229)
  • “I am being a generous lover!” (p.228)
  • “And also, no one yet has made me come. I am still the greatest lover of me. I’m still the best I ever had.” (p. 223) 
  • “How long should you take to come? Do I take too long? Should you not even ask it of a man if you take more than, say, four minutes? Is that simply unreasonable? I don’t want to be a difficult case…” (p. 223)

Look me in the eye (or right into your webcam) ladies, and tell me you’ve never worried about being a ‘difficult case’. If you can, I think I hate you a little. In the nicest possible way. Moran points out that there are no examples of female orgasm at this time outside of When Harry Met Sally, and let’s face it, even today we’re sadly lacking in realistic discussions on female pleasure, at least in mainstream media. Especially when you stop to consider all the examples of male pleasure we have. 

Shit man. You can’t sit in front of the television for fifteen seconds without a Viagra or Cialis commercial coming up, but when Trojan ran a relatively discreet commercial – late at night, might I add – for a vibrator – the whole frickin’ internet was up in arms. Nope. Even in 2014, the idea of women getting pleasure from sex is somehow weird and shameful and should be hidden in the back of your dresser.

In case you’re curious here it is: 

Racy, huh? 

Big Cock Al. More variations on the theme. She takes it like a champ, he then falls asleep and what does she do? She cleans his flat. To be useful. Again, this resonated with me. I’ve actually done this.

So despite poor Johanna’s aggravated cystitis, “I need codeine and cranberry juice, please.” I say. “These are the medicines of cystitis.” (p. 235) I still found this section to be pretty hilarious. On how to deal with an unfeasibly large penis, I think my favorite was number four “Think of Han Solo.”

I thought that the party at Big Cock Al’s with Johanna sitting in the bathtub, tending to her lady parts was an interesting juxtaposition with the last time Johanna found herself in a bath with rockstars in the room – with John Kite. I’m not sure what it means, but I’m pretty sure it’s deep and important.

Feminist Stop #2 

Yep. Right there y’all. Remember earlier when I was talking about which part of society was worse? It’s all bullshit because it comes around from the ridiculous idea that a woman is nothing more than her virginity or her sexuality. Fuck that noise. Preach on Sister Moran.

Before we get to the cynicism I need to talk about how Johanna describes her deflowering to Krissi.

Did anyone else dissolve into giggles when Johanna decides to describe her deflowering to Krissi using different names? “”Why don’t we give the protagonists different names?” I suggest, “Not me and Tony Rich. Say, Peter Venkmann and Dana Barrett?”” (p. 213)

So, Krissi lays it on Johanna in Chapter Seventeen that he likes music, so he doesn’t read her work, because all she ever does is tear bands apart. She doesn’t seem to get it at first – but by the end of Chapter Twenty she starts to. I basically have the entirety of pages 244 – 246 underlined, I hate playing favorites – but I’ll only make you suffer through two short quotes that don’t need any explanation. 

And then we’re left with another cliffhanger. Please don’t make it be AIDS. But the title to Part Three “Rip it Up and Start Again” gives me hope.

That’s a wrap this week, Readers. How are we feeling? Anxious? Scared? Like Caitlin Moran is an AMAZING FEMINIST WUNDERAUTHOR? And yes… Pats is my favorite character in Ab Fab. 

April @ The Steadfast Reader


  • Emily@ As the CroweFlies

    Wow. I don’t watch much TV and don’t have my fingers on the pulse of the interwebz, so I missed both the vibrator commercial and the brouhaha it produced. But it makes me angry all over again. You beautifully elaborate on all of the feelings I had and didn’t take the time to hash out in my post. I was all, Arrgrrgh, why do people think feminism is bad and Arrrrrghgh, why aren’t their real books about sexual experiences for teens?

    • I think people somehow just don’t get feminism. …and I hate that. I had a friend suggest that feminism needs a PR campaign, and possibly new branding, because the ignorants out there still think of feminists as bra-burning, man hating hippies — which to me, is not at ALL accurate of what feminism is about.

      I know this book isn’t really billed as YA, and there’s NO WAY it will make it into a high school library/curriculum without major backlash — but I really hope that teenage girls find their way to it.

      Also, I just wanted you to know that I’d already finished the book, so you didn’t spoil anything for me last week. ๐Ÿ˜‰

  • amycrea

    I think you hit on what made me uncomfortable with this section. I’m all for Johanna coming into her own sexually, but I don’t really see that happening here, and it kind of skeeved me out. I felt like she was really setting herself up for being hurt in far worse ways than big dick guy did.

    • Agreed – she’s trying in the best way that she knows how, but I remember my own coming of age sexuality — and there were some creeps and creep factor, which I think is ANOTHER reason this book is so important. Imagine the impact this could have on teenage girls! (In a good way.)

  • Alley

    Oh Johanna, I worry about her and her drinking and sexy times, but I’m also happy she isn’t (or hasn’t yet been) demonized for this behavior. Though like you pointed out, I am worried about her preoccupation with being useful to the guys and making them happy. Especially when she cleans the guys apartment. STOP THAT, JOHANNA!

    I’m sort of not too worried for Johanna, just because this book so far has been SO autobiographical for Moran that I figure it might be more of that. BUT WHO KNOWS. I guess I just want it to not be anything bad.

    PS Nesmith’s mom totally did invent White-Out, which is one of those few trivia bits I know

    • Yes, the fact that she hasn’t (yet) been demonized for it I think is an exceptional message.

      I didn’t Google the White-Out thing because I was paying homage to life before the internet. ๐Ÿ˜€ Thanks for verifying. ๐Ÿ™‚

  • Jennifer Smeth

    I agree that there are some good messages in here for teens — but mostly around what not to do ie don’t turn to outside sources for love etc. I’m sure some very close minded people will make sure this book doesn’t get read because of the subject matter

    • I think that we agree that Johanna’s actions are risky and she’s not engaging in casual sex with precisely the right attitude – but I do like that casual sex is portrayed well.. casually. NOT that every 16/17 year old is ready for it (especially with older men) but I do think it’s a good to commentary that casual sex is only for men… am I making any sense?

      I think what I’m trying to say, that sex without love can be satisfying for men and women – and society generally doesn’t like that idea.

      • Jennifer Smeth

        Yes I do agree with that. Where I take issue is that as a mom I’m teaching E that there’s more to sex — ie feelings, emotions, commitment, etc — which I think is appropriate to teach at that age. It wasn’t until I was much older that I learned causal (but safe) could be ok. So as a mom I felt uncomfortable and cringed. Make sense?

  • kayleigh M

    Holy crap this is a great post April! You managed to say everything I thought about during my reading of the section which I then couldn’t put into words.

    I think one of the best things about this book is it puts forth issues and then doesn’t judge. Last week it was poverty/benefits and this week it’s sex. I’m happy that we’re getting a depiction of casual sex, but I also think enough info has been provided that we do understand that Johanna turned to sex as a way to be noticed and accepted and useful. Which all ties in to the feminist issues you’ve mentioned above but are also completely caught up in her family and general life situation. She sort of latched on to the idea of sex as some kind of escape pod out of her life, or maybe she just sees it as proof of adulthood so she feels like she’s finally free to make her own choices or leave her family.

    • YES! The lack of judgment is exactly what makes this book so great – I haven’t been able to verbalize it properly, but you’re right!

      I think you’re also right that she sort of sees sex as a rite-of-passage that will allow her to escape her family life (I mean, Big Cock Al vs. charades – I’d have gone with the charades, personally.)

      • kayleigh M

        considering the hell she finds herself in the next day I definitely would have gone with charades!

  • Sarah Says Read

    Awesome post.

    Johanna… geez. Okay, HONESTLY… I can’t remember a time when I was worried about being a “difficult case”. I’ve been nervous, but never like that… and Johanna is SO focused on the having of the sex that I’m confused why she isn’t making it a point to get hers, you know? But she’s young, and naive, and etc.

    And I’m REALLY concerned that she has AIDS or an STD, because cystitis is basically a bladder infection and I don’t think it’s supposed to affect her lady parts in such a bad way that she needs codeine and to constantly be in water…

    • I hate you, just a little. ๐Ÿ˜‰ Perhaps it’s because I’ve ALWAYS been a ‘hard case’ sometimes even with myself. I’ve been a little self conscious, but it’s never been nerves, per se.

      I think you’re right that the fact that she’s young has her confused on where her pleasure fits into sex – there’s a point where she says that she’s not sure where the female orgasm would fit in. I’m super scared of the AIDS too, but I have had UTIs that have made me feel the need to sit in the bath all day and need ‘the medicines of cystitis’ ๐Ÿ™‚

    • Tikabelle

      AIDS doesn’t present for at least 6 months if at all and most STDs will just cause an uncomfortable itch, but acute cystitis is just incredibly awful. The only thing you can do is take drugs and sit in water because that’s exactly the amount of pressure you can handle on your bits, and then you just… wait it out. The only thing that keeps it from being The Actual Worst is that 1) it’s not deadly and 2) it’ll be over after a god-awful 16-ish hours. The difference is in the “acute” vs. “regular;” the acute kind is what Johanna had, and the regular kind is the “on antibiotics for a week because it kind of stings when I pee.”

  • Tikabelle

    Yes. To all of this. I think we’re nervous for Johanna for a myriad of reasons – some of which are legitimate (don’t get pregnant, don’t get any STDs!) and some are more reflective of our own cultural indoctrination, as it were (how much sex can a girl have before she’s a slut, etc.).

    Even though this is set in 1993-ish, it’s pretty much “Are You There God, It’s Me Margaret” for this generation, and I love Moran for that.

    • ABSOLUTELY. I think how each of us is seeing Johanna is reflective of deep seated personal feelings about sex that society, or our parents, or who ever have ingrained in us, it’s fascinating.

  • “Even today we’re sadly lacking in realistic discussions on female pleasure, at least in mainstream media.” I just keep thinking of that whole kerfuffle with Blue Valentine almost (or actually?) getting an NC-17 rating because it depicts a woman climaxing during oral sex FOR A CHANGE.

    Good POINT comparing the rock star/bathtub parallel. You’re so thorough and observant!

    I did find it interesting that Johanna hasn’t villainized any of the men she’s slept with. I don’t know if this is because they’ve all been essentially decent guys or if it’s because she’s using the Johanna Filter. But they seem…fairly decent overall? Aside from the fact that none of them seems to know the first thing about making a woman orgasm.

    • Interesting point about the Johanna filter – I just kind of felt like she was doing her thing, since there is obviously no emotional attachment – that makes them decent (enough?) guys?

      Something to think about, definitely.

  • Terrific discussion and quotes. I’d like all young women to memorize the one on page 219 and recognize the impossible place that creates.

  • I was feeling a little too old for this book, when I saw it in my local bookshop, but your amazing review has got me thinking otherwise.

    No woman is too old (or too young) to be reminded of how fraught being a teenage girl is.

    Although it makes me feel sad too – your review shows how absolutely nothing has changed since I was a teen in the 80’s, except for the hair-do’s & fluro shirts that is!

  • Great discussion! I also completely agreed with the feminist commentary in this section. I really, really love how Caitlin Moran says things that are so obviously true but which I’ve never thought about clearly. On the other hand, I can’t say I support Johanna’s decision to have sex with everyone. It seems like it will be a miracle if she doesn’t end up with an STD or sleep with a perv or something else terrible.

  • I am not reading this until I am at the part because of spoilers, but this book had me cracking the eff up last night. And. I am sorry but I love the f-bombs in this book. Johanna and I are f-bomb soulmates.