Caitlin Moran’s outdated feminism of ‘big knickers and girl power’ falls flat in this rags-to-riches-and-back-again adaptation
Like many, I was over the moon at the news that one of my favourite teenage novels, Caitlin Moran’s How to Build a Girl, was to be adapted into a film with the luminous Beanie Feldstein in the starring role. But with no attempts made to interrogate ideas of class, mental health or feminism, nor to make us laugh, the film fails to find its feet – and makes me re-evaluate my own thoughts on the story I once loved.
Johanna Morrigan (Beanie Feldstein) is an academic, charming sixteen-year-old who loves to write. After embarrassing herself on local TV with an unfortunate Scooby-Doo impression, she applies to become a rock critic with the magazine DM&E despite knowing nothing about the genre and instantly becomes a regular writer (as a critic myself, I can only wish it were this easy, but I’ll suspend my belief for the purposes on this review. Me, bitter?). After writing a gushing review about musician John Kite (Alfie Allen), she’s told she needs to start being more hateful in order to reel in readers. And thus begins her transformation into an ersatz Camilla Long. Many predictable arcs ensue until she realises she has Become A Bad Person and decides to go back to school.
Feminism, like many contested topics, admittedly has a short shelf life. Ideas previously thought of as the pantheon of wokeness at the time have gone on to be revised and updated, from the suffragettes to Germaine Greer. Just in recent news, we’ve seen how self-appointed ‘feminists’ have excluded trans voices from their supposed activism. I had a sudden realization during How To Build A Girl that felt a bit like someone had just poured a bucket of cold water over my head. When I read the book as a young teenager I thought that I was reading something utterly radical, that Caitlin Moran was here to save us all. But Moran’s outdated feminism of “I have big knickers!” “Skinny girls are mean!” and “I love wanking!” completely falls flat here, nor does the film possess the comedy or charm of, say, Bridget Jones’ Diary to save its half-arsed feminism. Caitlin Moran herself has gone on to say some pretty Karen-y things in her Times column in recent years vis-à-vis cancel culture, her refusal to condemn TERFs and Kim Kardashian (“is Kim Kardashian a feminist? She’s a billionaire whose greatest asset is her bottom. I’m confused”), so although her salt-of-the-earth, well-meaning feminism is still welcome and sparked an interest in feminism in many young girls (including me), it just doesn’t feel like enough anymore.
It’s not just feminism that is brushed with broad strokes in this formulaic book-to-film adaptation. A quip about post-natal depression turns into a joke about what happens when you have kids aged 38. There are Sylvia Plath suicide jokes, and an opportunity to explore the topic of self-harm turns into a gag about U2. As How To Build A Girl posits men and well-off people as the devil, it loses all lack of nuance and makes glib statements disguised as comedy (“I made a man who went to the University of Cambridge ejaculate into my comprehensively educated genitals”) instead of attempting to actually explore class or feminism. Black comedy is wondrous when done well, but the film is just not funny, at all. Caitlin Moran’s screenplay takes isolated moments from her book that simply don’t translate well on-screen; one of the book’s hilarious sections about Johanna crawling away from an enormous penis is zoomed past in a montage attempting to cram all the book’s various events into the 1hr 44m runtime. And yes, teenage girls are dramatic, but Johanna’s constant wails of “I’m not cool, I should just die!” begin to grate after the fifth or sixth time.
It should be pointed out that the cast here are trying their absolute best. Despite her hit-and-miss Wolverhampton accent, Beanie Feldstein is a shining light that you can’t help but love, even when the script forces her to be all “I’m a mental Lady Sex Pirate!” to make us think she is, like, quirky or something. Alfie Allen steals every scene he’s in as the tender and kind musician John Kite. Laurie Kynaston’s sardonically funny Krissi is under-used, and there’s the start of a lovely scene with Johanna’s mum played by Sarah Solemani in the hospital – though the script stops it going anywhere. Johanna and John’s friendship is sweet but given barely three scenes to develop, which is followed by an utterly unearned and undeserved “Lover, You Should Have Come Over” needle-drop.
It’s hard to believe that a book which begins with a girl wanking next to her sleeping sibling with a hairbrush handle could be adapted into such an insipid film by the very woman who wrote it. The film is set in the 90s – but if we’re stuck in a period with neutered feminism and no new slant to the conversation, what’s the point? If you want to watch a show about a curvy, funny, female rock music fan in the 90s that is actually funny and profound, just watch My Mad Fat Diary. How To Build A Girl is not a film that excites, entertains or moves us in 2020.
Words by Steph Green
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