January 25, 2012–It doesn’t take much to these days to get labeled a “provocateur.” Back in the good old days, you had to really work to cause a sensation — or at the very least, dance on TV with a little too much pop in your pelvis. Once the ante had been upped, you had to get up on stage in Des Moines and bite off the head of a bat in a drug-addled concert haze.
But that was all before the rise of Caitlin Flanagan: mother, Atlantic contributor, and established expert in making certain women’s heads explode. Flanagan’s secret is simple: She says old-fashioned things. Her first book, 2006’s To Hell With All That: Loving and Loathing Our Inner Housewife, infuriated various feminists by suggesting that housewifery and stay-at-home mothering might be an okay idea. With the release of Girl Land, her newest book, Flanagan, no slouch in the controversy department, has already been labeled an “anti-feminist provocateur” (Cha-ching! Thank you, Christian Science Monitor), a “professional pearl-clutcher” (Gawker.com) and a writer who has been “enraging liberal-thinking women since 2001” (New York magazine).
In Girl Land, Flanagan ruminates on the lurid world of today’s adolescent girls, which, she argues, is often nasty, brutish and strewn with land mines. “In the space of a few short decades,” she writes, “the entire landscape of what is possible for a girl has changed dramatically. But on the other hand, at the exact same moment, we have seen the birth of a common culture that is openly contemptuous of girls and young women.” Girls are trained to see themselves as sexual objects, she argues, learn to please men above all else, and are deprived of many of the basic ingredients of a healthy female adolescence — privacy, daydreams, introspection, visions of romance.
And proms. Along with dating, and, oddly, diaries (more on that later), Flanagan devotes a whole chapter to proms, citing them as an essential ingredient in today’s girl-to-woman journey. At first, I found this hilarious. My own prom ended in a bit of a melee, thanks to some earnest, junior-class party planner who decided it would be cute to have goldfish bowls on each table — prom theme: “Under the Sea!” — and forgot that said tables would be populated with high-school boys. The more fortunate fish ended up wiggling down girls’ dresses, or perhaps soaring above the dance floor to their doom, a sorrowful, bug-eyed flight, their last living moments choreographed to “Lady in Red.” The less fortunate met a more grisly end, dangled above an oh-so-romantic “Under the Sea!”-themed prom candle.
But proms of 2012, apparently, are a different ball of melted-goldfish wax. Today, “Girl Land” reports, proms are made up of two parts: a formal, adult-monitored dance; then an unsupervised, liquor-soaked after-party that would make Ozzy Osbourne, bat-biter extraordinaire, shamble over to a corner and shrink into a fetal position. “The bacchanalian after-parties that have become as important as the proms themselves,” Flanagan writes, “are ones in which the manufactured romance of the school-sponsored event is replaced by a frenzied attempt to embrace the most coarse and vulgar aspect of the common culture, in which girls change from prom wear into sleazy clothes and drink to the point of passing out, both of which seem to be inclinations supported wholeheartedly by the boys.”
Well, goody. Assuming one finds this alarming (and apparently that’s a big assumption among some high school parents today) what’s a parent to do? Flanagan makes some modest suggestions: Parents should be more protective of their daughters. Fathers should make sure they meet — and through their presence, covertly telegraph their superior ability to maim and kill — their daughters’ dates. (I’m paraphrasing here, but it’s pretty much in the book). Parents, Flanagan also suggests, should cut off unsupervised Internet access in their daughters’ rooms.
None of this seems too crazy to me. Regardless, Flanagan’s approach and advice, along with her admittedly dated cultural examples and tendency to generalize, have drummed up howls of derision from the usual suspects — self-labeled feminists leery of a paternalistic power structure squelching the “independence” and “sexual equality” of young girls. It’s an equality that is entirely fictional, thanks to biology, but hey, why get hung up on the details?
“As a parent,” Flanagan writes, “I am horrified by the changes that have taken place in the common culture over the past thirty years. I believe that we are raising children in a kind of post-apocalyptic landscape in which no forces beyond individual households — individual mothers and fathers — are protecting children from pornography and violent entertainment.” This sentiment, of course, sells a lot of things short: church communities, extended families, trusted friends. It also highlights one of the main flaws of Flanagan’s book: her willingness to paint with an overly broad, and overly dark, brush.
In nearly every corner of Girl Land — looped through discussions of Judy Blume, Patty Hearst, or tragic drug-soaked runaway girls — there lurks a strange ambiguity towards men. On one hand, Flanagan seems to buy into the “all men are predators” narrative, speaking of the pervy uncle and the drunk father hitting on the babysitter as if they are prototypes, not anomalies. Perhaps this stems from an assault Flanagan endured when she was younger, which she details in the book. But it’s an odd quirk, particularly in a girl culture better represented by the aggressive, love-struck babysitter in “Crazy, Stupid, Love” (in the movie, she harasses her charge’s clueless father, leading to mortifying results) than anything else.
But then, on the other hand, Girl Land exhibits a strange sense of “boys will be boys” that excuses even the crassest behavior. “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,” Flanagan writes. “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.”
Forgive me if I’m not inspired. Like Flanagan, I am the mother of two boys, but unlike Flanagan, I plan to hold them to the same moral standards as I would a girl. Also, I can pretty much guarantee that one of those standards will be no “big pimpin'” in the middle school parking lot.
Again and again, Girl Land reminds us that boys and girls are different, and they certainly are. There’s no denying that today’s girls face a toxic culture. They definitely have more to lose when it comes to sex. But “because I said so,” the reasoning that seems to float behind much of the cautions of Girl Land, is not a lasting moral framework. Neither are the oft-repeated platitudes about “feelings” and “respect.”
It’s a funny thing these days; you say old-fashioned things, you get called a provocateur. Girl Land hands out old-fashioned material in spades, but it falls short when it comes to the big question that all kids ask: “Why?” Why practice self-control in life? Why does how we behave matter? Why should anyone care? The only way both boys and girls will make the right decisions in life, and make them independently, is through a big picture perspective. It’s a framework that provides an understanding of the human spirit and a worldview that goes beyond the material here and now.
Oh, and on the whole diary thing — don’t let any girl bamboozle you into thinking that they’re some essential part of growing up. Diaries are fine, but they’re mostly one more excuse for preteens to gossip about their friends. I know. I, too, have been a resident of Girl Land. And I survived.