Caitlin Flanagan gets a lot of attention because she’s able to write in these elliptical, obtuse ways that seem really profound, which is why it’s useful to listen to her on the radio, where she’s forced to be more concise, revealing that she’s just the same old culture warrior whose veneer of sophistication falls off at a sneeze, revealing the cranky (prematurely) old church lady underneath. That’s why I recommend skipping her strange-sounding new book and listening instead to this interview on WBUR, which has the added bonus of Irin Carmon’s presence as a sanity check. Listening to it, you realize that for all the puffery about girlhood fascinations and diaries, Flanagan is really only making one argument, one we know really well, that goes like this:
*Boys and men only care about sex, and mainly see girls and women as these tedious obstacles between them and pussy.
*Girls and women only care about romance—the more princessy, the better—and see sex as this filthy ritual they have to perform in order to get it.
*Therefore, women should use sex as a bartering chip to get men to pretend to like us. Actual affection from men is clearly impossible to get, but in Flanagan’s view, women can get a semblance of self-respect by refusing to have sex with men until they play-act affection by taking us on some dates and letting us call them our boyfriends. According to Flanagan, not having a man hanging around pretending to like you in order to get his dick wet is a major tragedy, probably the worst thing that could happen to a woman.
And that’s about it. A lot of attention is paid to Flanagan’s strange descriptions of what she calls “girlhood”, which the rest of us tend to think of more as “adolescence”, but Flanagan does really collapse the two in significant ways, imagining the typical teenage girl as horrified at her burgeoning sexuality and desperate to return to the comfortable world of childhood. (You can read Irin’s review here.) Pretty much all of her descriptions of the life of teenage girls is in support of the above argument. For instance, she’s bizarrely insistent that nostalgia for childhood toys is both universal to young women and not something young men care for at all. This has confused quite a few people who live in reality, because, if anything, it’s men who are more likely to keep their childhood toys. How many guys not only have a collection of action figures and comic books from their youth, but continue to buy new things that have a connection to childhood playthings? Nor is this a new phenomenon; think of older generations of men with toy train collections or baseball cards. Not that Flanagan is wrong that a number of college girls still have their dollies or teddy bears. That’s the point: her continued insistence that men and women are basically opposite in every way is just wrong.
But it’s clear to me why she paints a picture of young men forging into adulthood while young women lean back, clutching teddy bears. It’s about S-E-X; everything Flanagan says is in service of her belief that women want Disney princess romances, and sex is this filthy price that men extract from us in exchange for the Prince Charming act. (Seriously, few things are more grim than conservatives’ view of heterosexuality.) Thus, she has to insist that girls are innocent and boys are not.
Flanagan’s call to action is for parents to be excessively “protective” of their daughters’ innocence. Listening to this program, you get the creeping feeling that Flanagan feels that you’re not a successful parent of a daughter unless your child is a social reject because she acts childish throughout her high school years. She gets positively giddy when some overbearing parent calls and brags that her kids aren’t allowed to use Facebook. She proposes sheltering girls (and only girls, apparently) in two very important ways: by disallowing them to have their own internet in their rooms and by insisting that cross-gender socializing only occur in traditional date-like situations, probably involving the boy picking the girl up (which conveniently shuts off any dating before 16, soon 18 in places with graduated driving licenses). The excuse she gives for the internet lockdown is that girls shouldn’t see pornography, though I suspect that, due to Flanagan’s over-excited response to the Facebook ban, the real reason is that she fears girls having a social life outside of the view of adults. (As the mother of only boys, Flanagan conveniently doesn’t have to live by her own rules.) As for the porn thing, well, I don’t disagree that it’s not awesome for young kids to see so much hardcore porn before they even start to think of being sexual themselves, but I also think the results of Flanagan’s actions aren’t so great, either. I mean, how would you prefer a girl to first see porn: in her bedroom by herself, or because a boyfriend in college shows it to her?
And that is the fundamental problem with Flanagan’s wingnutty attitude towards adolescent girls; she has no interest in helping girls make the transition from girlhood to adulthood. She just wants girlhood to last as long as possible. She’s deliberately vague on what happens after the sheltered girl is released into the “wild”, as it were. She did slip at one point in the show and say that we shouldn’t “let” college women “hook up”, which suggests that Flanagan is far more radical than she lets on, and personally fantasizes about young women staying virginal and generally unaware of sex well into adulthood and probably until marriage, by force if necessary. But she won’t be up front about it, because she knows showing her cards will end her career as “provocative” writer and expose her as the same old boring wingnut as every other abstinence hysteric. (Seriously, how do we avoid “letting” grown ass adult women—even if they look like young kids to us—not make their own sexual choices?) The problem is that even though Flanagan is right and sheltering a high school girl is possible, there’s not much you can do when they move out of the house. So the question is, then what? Is the college freshman better off having learned a little about men and sex in her adolescence before she’s dumped into the waters and asked to swim, or does knowledge give you power? Interestingly, Flanagan really wants high school girls to have boyfriends (she’s wrong that they don’t; what research I’ve read suggests that high schoolers drift into committed relationships and college kids are more like to hook up), but her proposal of sheltering them is exactly how to keep girls from having that. What normal boy wants to date the religious weirdo whose parents forbid her from having internet access? I’m guessing that a lot high school relationships are conducted online, in fact, so keeping a girl offline probably removes her flirting and getting-to-know-you opportunities.
But realizing that requires thinking, and Flanagan, for all that she’s a talented prose stylist, isn’t a thinking person. She’s just a reactionary, and one with a particular obsession with young women.