God bless Caitlin Flanagan. Without her, who else would give voice to the sorts of anxieties that make upper-middle-class women break out in hives? Whether she’s wringing her hands over the prevalence of sexless marriages, the costs of overscheduled children, the depravity of hookup culture, or the advantages of stay-at-home mothering, Flanagan is never afraid to take a sharpened stick to the hornets’ nest, just to see what trouble she might stir up. Curiously, though, once the hornets are circling, mad as hell, and everyone is shrieking and running for cover, Flanagan is already safe inside, sipping on an ice-cold cosmopolitan and enjoying the show. These problems that she insists belong to all of us? Well, they’re really just your problems, not hers.
In her first book, To Hell with All That (2006), Flanagan rhapsodized about the joys of child rearing and housekeeping, berating feminists who would dare to quibble over housework with their husbands (how unattractive! what a waste of time!). In the same pages, she repeatedly asserted that she had depended on a nanny, a housekeeper, and a professional organizer for years. Even while confessing her own shortcomings, Flanagan was happy to outline precisely how modern women fail their children, their spouses, and themselves in almost everything they do. These themes also dominate her entertaining cultural criticism in The Atlantic and the New Yorker, where she can never seem to resist a dangerous mix of the personal and the prescriptive—and where, conveniently enough, Flanagan is invariably getting it right while the rest of us screw the pooch, big time. It seems that if the author is going to take a stand, that stand must be (a) wildly unpopular (against school gardens! for “the wifely duty” of compulsory, dubiously pleasurable sex!) and (b) festooned with a feminine type of smugness that’s the rhetorical equivalent of petting a cat’s fur in the wrong direction. Making such arguments tends to mean that either you’re a little confused or you’re longing to be slashed across the face by a set of freshly sharpened claws.
All of which makes Flanagan’s Girl Land a much-anticipated read for a certain demographic of similarly masochistic, educated women who will separate the personal from the political just enough to rationalize that see-through nightie in the closet and the Martha Stewart cookbook stashed away on a high shelf in the kitchen. And just as these readers might expect, Flanagan approaches female adolescence armed with many of the same nostalgic views of family life that she embraced in To Hell with All That. Somehow, though, instead of illuminating the particular joys and sorrows of girlhood with her usual sharp, polished prose, the author gets bogged down in a syrupy mire of sentimentality. In this new collection, we find her swooning over the particulars of the preteen years with unabashed passion and pomp. “This is Girl Land,” she writes, conjuring the voice-over of a ’50s sex-education video, “the attenuated leave-taking, the gathering awareness of what is being lost forever.” (Um, what is being lost forever, again?) And later: “Becoming a woman is an act partly of nature and partly of self-invention.” Also: “The work of Girl Land is eternal and unchanging.”
This sounds like ambitious, world-challenging work, yes? Not so fast there, sister! For a “citizen of Girl Land” (as Flanagan so often calls her) is “a creature designed for a richly lived interior life (and for all the things that come with such a life: reading, writing in a diary, listening to music while she stares out the window and dreams) in a way most boys are not.” Ah, yes—now we get it! Girl Land is that mysterious and wonderful realm where one listens to Shaun Cassidy albums, applies purple eye shadow, and writes one’s first name and one’s imaginary boyfriend’s last name over and over and over again, in silver paint pen, with tiny little hearts where the dots should go. What is being lost forever, then, must be one’s supply of paint pens!
The various chapters of Girl Land, which focus on super-important girl stuff like “Dating,” “Diaries,” and “Proms,” continue in this odd vein, which might best be described as one part sweetly smiling midcentury matriarch, one part Darwinian natural-science field guide. It’s particularly difficult not to cringe through the chapter titled “Menstruation,” at first because Flanagan’s prose is so larded with prim generalities that it can’t help but elicit knee-jerk squeamishness and eye rolling. “A girl’s first period is an event that brings with it—both for her and her mother—a wide spectrum of emotions, some of them bittersweet.”
From this feminine perch, Flanagan zooms in rather abruptly for an unnervingly queasy close-up of the big event: “Ghastly. The gore of it, the smell of it.” Soon, her prose starts to take on the absurdity of shock poetry: “My Barbie dolls had half-slips and rollers,” she writes. “They didn’t have bandages of warm, malodorous blood strapped between their legs.” If Flanagan’s aim is to conjure the unsettling experience of that first period, which reveals “the rude, bloody truth of female reproduction” and serves as “the first eviction notice from little girlhood,” she succeeds with flying colors. But to what end, exactly? Instead of examining or questioning our shared assumptions about preteen girls and their reproductive development, Flanagan seems more taken with painting as stark a cultural portrait of this traumatic break from girlhood as possible. “With menstruation, and the sexual unfolding that comes with it, your daughter becomes a sexually appropriate object of male desire long before she becomes a socially appropriate one.” It’s as if Flanagan’s happy homemaker were wrestled to the ground, bound, and gagged by some nefarious pedophilic uncle.
Like a concise, thoughtful Flanagan essay gone wild, Girl Land meanders aimlessly through a bevy of adolescent influences, from The Diary of Anne Frank to Seventeen magazine, from A Tree Grows in Brooklyn to the Milton Bradley game Mystery Date, plucking out little lessons and sad commentaries on the state of things along the way. As we dabble in The Exorcist and Judy Blume’s oeuvre and the kidnapping of Patty Hearst, we’re treated to the usual array of poignant anecdotes about Flanagan’s upbringing, yet the author’s central point doesn’t reveal itself until the very end—and when it does, it’s not exactly controversial: Adolescent girls today need time alone in their rooms, Flanagan asserts, in order to write in their diaries, to reflect, and to process their emotions. They need a little protection from the crass sexuality that can be found on every single available TV channel, in every corner of the Interwebs. They need a safe space where they can daydream about boyfriends, as opposed to, say, posting seminude photos on their Facebook pages and shopping at Victoria’s Secret for the right bra and panties to wear to their prom’s “Pimps and Ho’s” after-party. Girls today are confused about their sexual power and how to use it, in other words, and instead of helping and protecting these girls from a world gone mad, well-meaning and overwhelmed parents simply feed them straight to the dogs, as if they have no other choice.
Although she takes quite a while along an uneven, pothole-strewn path to get here, conjuring the voices of Betty Draper, Nurse Ratched, Marlin Perkins, and RuPaul along the way, Flanagan’s central premise is not only worthwhile, it’s exactly the sort of argument that so few in media dare to make, butting up against both liberal notions about freedom of speech and pornography and the free-to-be-you-and-me universe that most middle-class feminists of a certain age grew up in. And that makes it all the more disappointing—and bizarre—when Flanagan lets herself off the hook, yet again.
If I were to learn that my children had engaged in oral sex—outside a romantic relationship, and as young adolescents—I would be sad. But I wouldn’t think that they had been damaged by the experience; I wouldn’t think I had failed catastrophically as a mother, or that they would need therapy. Because I don’t have daughters, I have sons.
That’s right, folks: Mothers fretting over the sexual precocity of their sons can just sit back and relax. Yes, sure, Flanagan urges the parents of girls to make their daughters’ bedrooms “Internet-free” zones (so they can feel safe from the hostile world and develop their identities in private) and to make sure there’s a strong male in the house (to scare off boys with bad intentions). But the parents of boys should presumably feel free to fire up a doobie and watch Californication on cable.
Even though encouraging Internet-free space for both boys and girls makes loads of pragmatic sense, and although having frank discussions with the citizens of “Boy Land” about their participation in the current cultural quagmire would seem to follow, Flanagan doesn’t even pay lip service to these ideas. Indeed, it’s downright unnerving how strenuously Flanagan, in all of her work, avoids calling men to the carpet for anything they’ve ever done or will ever do, into perpetuity. In To Hell with All That, Flanagan asserted that husbands shouldn’t be harassed about housework (they have so little interest or affinity for it, you know?) and explained that those feminist killjoys who demand their participation are risking their sex lives and their marriages in the bargain. And now, in Girl Land, we find Flanagan wringing her hands over the fate of the little girls out there, without giving the least thought to how we might better raise the little boys who could end up taking sexual advantage of all of those dreamy hours with the paint pen, once the pen-wielding dreamers have laid their colored tools aside and begun menstruating in earnest. We’re told how to keep girls safe from the big bad wolves of the world (mostly by making sure woodcutter Daddy shows off his sharpened ax when the wolves come calling for a date) with almost no talk of why these wolves got to be so big and bad in the first place.
So while today’s hookup culture may ruin your girl, doom her to low self-esteem and years of expensive therapy, the boys in this picture will remain unscathed. Instead of urging the mothers of boys to take equal responsibility, coaching their little charges not to become insensitive tools, Flanagan once again places all of the burden on the ladies.
But then, in Girl Land—or in the dark recesses of Flanagan’s mind—women determine everything and nothing. They will either bring ecstasy or misery to their families, they will either sacrifice themselves or behave selfishly, they will either have loving husbands and children or demand too much—and in so doing, they will end up loveless. They will either give soft kisses at nap time (aided by housekeepers and nannies, funded by husbands) or scurry around in their tall professional shoes, distracted and neglectful. And as they move from childhood to womanhood, they will either be safe (protected by men) or in peril (preyed upon by men). Again and again in the world of Flanagan’s imagination, women are the passive daydreamers—always acted upon, their fates largely determined by patriarchal forces beyond their control. Those ladies better get it right, though, because it’s all up to them, nonetheless. The men and the boys are merely shadows, looming just outside the frame. We can’t ask them for much, beyond occasionally intimidating gentlemen callers; it just wouldn’t be proper.
Flanagan weaves quite a compelling tale. But once you recognize the severely lopsided perspective in play, reading Flanagan’s work can make you feel a little dirty, as if you’ve pried open the lock on her diary with a Phillips-head screwdriver, and it opened up a portal to a mystical world where some malevolent and deeply personal forces clash in the darkness. Take heart, though; these things have very little to do with you or me. Girl Land is a country of one, and her cocktail needs a refill.
Heather Havrilesky is a regular contributor to the New York Times Magazine and the author of the memoir Disaster Preparedness (Riverhead, 2011).