How a novel about a young single mom on OnlyFans asks us what it means to be ‘good’

You’re 20 years old, with no job and a new baby. What would you do?

This is the scenario in which our hero, Margo Millet, finds herself after a brief affair with her English professor, in a new book “Margo’s Got Money Troubles” by Rufi Thorpe. Margo’s answer? She joins OnlyFans and begins creating sexual content to stay afloat.

The novel, out earlier this month and the basis of an upcoming Apple TV+ series, toys with our perceptions of power and morality. What does it mean to be a good person, and who gets to decide? Over the course of the book, readers see Margo desperately trying to survive her situation, contending with the difficult — and sometimes unconventional — choices she makes in order to do so.

“When you can no longer use the opinions of others as a mirror for knowing if you’re okay or not, if you’re a good person or not — because you’ve begun doing something like showing your boobs on the internet, which makes lots of people disapprove of you — then how do you figure out how to be a good person?” Thorpe asks in an interview with CNN. “That’s taking authorship of your own life.”

"Margo's Got Money Troubles" by Rufi Thorpe. - HarperCollins
"Margo's Got Money Troubles" by Rufi Thorpe. - HarperCollins

Does any of this make Margo a bad person? It’s up to readers to decide. CNN spoke to Thorpe about being good, the oddities on OnlyFans — and meeting Elle Fanning.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

There’s a lot of cultural discussion at the moment around internet fame and sex work. What made you want to focus on this topic in a novel?

There’s so much stigma against sex work in our culture, and we put mothers up on such a pedestal that the idea of a mother sex worker character, I was like, how am I ever going to make it work?

And then it was during the pandemic, a number of stand-up comics that I followed on Twitter started OnlyFans accounts because their ability to perform in public kind of went away overnight. And so as I was watching their accounts, and you know — OnlyFans really exploded during the pandemic that first year — I think they went from 20 million users to 120 million. And people were just less judgmental about it.

I could tell that the conversation was different. Even my Mormon mother-in-law was like, “Well, I don’t know, it’s awfully good money for just posting your boobs on the internet.” And I thought, “This is my chance to suss out and have an actual conversation about what this stigma is about in the first place.”

Part of it too is just these things are so accessible, almost clean now. You can post something online without doing anything in person. 

The lack of physical risk is huge. Because so much of the stigma against sex work is related to fear that someone is disrespecting themselves by putting their personal safety at risk. And so when you remove that risk, it becomes much less clear what the stigma is about. But it’s also one of those confusing problems where you’re like, “Well, if you just made it legal and made work safer then that wouldn’t be a problem anymore.”

There’s that part in the book, during a mediation between Margo and the baby’s father, and he is accusing her of being a porn star. And she’s like, “Is that so bad?” Do you feel like this is becoming more normalized or more accepted?

I definitely do think that our culture has become more sexually permissive over time, like, if you say, between 100 years ago and now, have the mores around sexual behavior become more permissive? I think it’s an obvious yes, and I think that permission has really resulted only in greater liberation, safety and freedom for a greater number of people. So it’s hard for me to see it as anything but a net cultural positive.

Mark, the father, is saying, “she will be around the kinds of people who do sex work,” as though there’s this sort of general, very Victorian moral taint, fallen women. That they’re going to have moral problems in other ways. I think that as sex work becomes more accessible and more common, it becomes increasingly clear how ridiculous and just sort of vague those arguments are.

When you think about the number of girls now who have had an OnlyFans, you start to realize, like, what, none of them are ever going to get hired for a real job after this? Is it really going to still be acceptable to not hire someone because 10 years ago they had an OnlyFans account? I think that kind of prejudice is probably going to go away.

There’s such a range now in what’s considered sex work, too. People posting pictures of feet on the internet because they need money, technically that is sex work, but is it really? 

There are people who have OnlyFans accounts that are just really hot workout videos. There’s people who have OnlyFans accounts where they’re naked and making a smoothie. It is not all as simple as, “Oh, this is pornography.”

But there’s also indie porn stars out there who are making porn content where it’s just them and their husband, where they’re really not conforming to any of the stereotypes that we have about what sex work entails. And there’s some weird ones, like all the people who pretend to be Sims, and you feed them little fruits.

Totally shifting gears away from OnlyFans, I felt like at the heart of the book was this idea that people aren’t always who you think they are. There’s more beneath the surface. Anybody can be a good person, and everybody deserves good things. Would you agree with that assessment? 

Yeah. A huge part of the reason that I started writing in the first place was trying to understand moral judgments and how we make them. The ability for people who do bad things to also have really redeeming qualities and people who do good things to also have really problematic flaws — that’s the whole project for me.

One of the messages of the book is taking control and authority of your own narrative. I really wanted to write a book about the mechanics of female empowerment, and Margo realizing that she has more options than she thought, and that choosing between good girl and bad girl, that’s just not enough options. That doesn’t give you enough range to live a life. You got to be able to make moves. You got to protect your baby, your little guy.

There’s too much misogyny baked into the culture to ever be able to be truly empowered as a woman if you are completely controlled by trying to stay within the narrow box of “Good Girl.” Because if there’s one thing that being a mother has taught me, everyone has an opinion on how you’re doing it, and you’re always doing it wrong.

Breastfeeding is the only way, but then you’re doing it too long. You should sleep train. You should not sleep train. The whole Mommy Wars are insane and ridiculous. You can’t please everybody. You can’t stay always in this reactive place. You have to decide what you want and who you want to be. Then there’s going to be people who disapprove, and you have to accept that as part of reality. But you can’t be helpless to it.

Before the book was even out, it sparked this huge bidding war. It’s now going to be on Apple TV+, with Elle Fanning and Nicole Kidman starring. Your other books didn’t have that type of process — what was that like for you? 

Yeah, this doesn’t happen to any book, this is insane. It was wild, to an extent that I was like, “I’m not sure I understand what’s happening.”

“Knockout Queen” had been optioned in a very normal way, by one company who wanted to try and make it into a movie, and is still trying to make it into a movie. And so this was like me being thrown into the deep end. I kept getting sidetracked in the meetings, I’m like, “How did you get this job? What did you major in in college? How do you make a TV show?” I really knew nothing about the industry, and yet I, the person who knows the least about any of this, has to pick who’s going to make it and who the Dream Team is going to be?

I loved Elle for the role. I can’t believe she did the audiobook. She did such an amazing job. I’m just blown away by her. And it’s funny, because I was such a huge fan of “The Great,” and there’s actually a scene from the first season that was key to my thinking as I was first drafting this novel. Fanning’s character, Catherine the Great, has been trying to escape from the Russian court, and then she has given up. And she’s like, well, there’s nothing left to do but kill myself. And her maid walks on her about to kill herself, and she’s like, well, “you could do that, or you could just kill him.” And it just had never occurred to her that she had more options. It was that moment of like, “Oh, I actually have a whole range of agency that I had been unaware that I had,” and so that was in the back of my mind.

So I got to be in a Zoom meeting with Elle Fanning. I had a huge lip zit that I was just hoping she couldn’t see because my camera was blurry. And I got to tell her, watching you was part of the reason that I had the idea for this book in the first place. It was such a dream come true.

What do you think it is about this story that is so attractive in this moment?

One thing that I did notice that people kept bringing up was about how the book was kind to the characters. And I think we’ve had a lot of stories about rich people behaving grotesquely or being kind of depraved, like a “White Lotus” vibe. And I love that kind of thing. But I think sometimes, people respond to how heartwarming this story is even though it’s also not sanitized. But I think that there is a real way in which people enjoy rooting for Margo. They come away liking her and admiring her, and it makes the book fun.

As a culture, we sometimes have this perverse obsession with watching rich people do bad things, like “White Lotus” obviously, but also shows like “Succession,” which become these giant phenomenons. Your book stands a little bit in contradiction to that.

Rich people behaving badly, tale as old as time right? It’s not like that’s some sort of new thing. I think people get tired of watching the rich people behave badly, and they want an underdog to root for. And so then that comes in fashion, and probably the pendulum just swings back and forth.

Instead of watching the ultra rich behave badly, we’re now rooting for the single mom with money problems?

Exactly, the plucky underdog.

What were you hoping people take away from the novel?

I have two answers. One is really simple. There were certain movies that I watched growing up that made me feel excited about being a woman. I’m thinking specifically of a movie that played only on cable, but over and over, called “Wild Hearts Can’t Be Broken,” about this girl that jumps a horse into barrels of water as a sideshow act. I was obsessed with this movie as a girl, or also the movie “Bad Girls” with Drew Barrymore — that was a female cowgirl movie. You feel like a badass at the end of it, where you’re like, “I am going to grow up to be like a badass girl who has power and is brave.” I wanted the reader to just leave feeling excited to be brave.

The other answer, I don’t have any answers about how people or society should be. I just have increasing questions about, how do we judge each other? How do we be good to each other? Punishment in general seems like it doesn’t work very well. What do we do instead? What do we do with people who are addicted to drugs? I think that the (opioid) epidemic has kind of changed the cultural narrative of, instead of “Trainspotting,” where junkies are far away and in a totally different social class or something.

Instead, it’s your aunt or whatever, who’s addicted to her shoulder surgery medication. It becomes near, and it becomes every day. Suddenly, it’s not as convenient to have the same narratives about addiction and whether those people deserve to be punished for being addicted or not. In general, those are always my questions. How do we really deal with these problems? So I would hope that the reader would leave wondering for themselves, freshly, what ought we do? Maybe it’s not as simple as just judgment or punishment. Maybe there’s more to be explored there.

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