We seem to worry most about girls when they’re doing best. Today they have more opportunities than ever and outperform boys in college admissions, but live in an “egalitarian” culture that nonetheless bombards them with damaging messages about their sexual and intellectual worth. And so, despite the advances, a certain class of traditional thinker frets: Caitlin Flanagan is merely the latest in a long line (Wendy Shalit, Harvey Mansfield, Laura Sessions Stepp) when she writes, in her new book, that girlhood “has somehow become even more difficult than it ever was.”
A born provocateur, Flanagan has been enraging liberal-thinking women since 2001, when she began defending the pleasures of traditional homemaking in a series of biting essays for The Atlantic. Setting herself up as a modern-day Erma Bombeck, she described her husband as her “head of household,” encouraged working women to stop complaining about sexless marriages and make time for their “wifely duty,” and argued that stay-at-home mothering was best. She lauded the “transcendence that comes only from mothering a small child”—then described herself calling for the nanny to clean up the mess made by her sick son. Flanagan is a gifted satirist, and her stylish eviscerations of her earnest targets delighted readers—including men who loved that her message to working wives boiled down to Less Nagging, More Nooky. But Flanagan’s privilege only made her domestic paeans all the more patently disingenuous. And below that hot contrarian get-up was a pretty familiar and ultimately fusty figure: a sentimental crusader who saw the cultural changes that had empowered women as a threat. What looked at first like a celebration of a placid domestic scene revealed itself, on closer scrutiny, as a tidy diorama of fear.
In Girl Land, Flanagan has shifted her focus from the women running the home to the girls growing up in it. But this time, the erstwhile bomb-thrower has written a book that’s painfully tame. Girl Land promises a cultural history of its subject; instead it’s a scattershot mélange of slipshod research, nostalgic memoir, and potted social analysis. The book is supposed to be about “the great and unchanging questions of Girl Land, as they are asked and answered in the ever-shifting landscape of today’s youth culture.” Rather than face up to that challenging subject, she withdraws into the fifties, sixties, and seventies, when she grew up—so mired in Judy Blume and Patty Hearst that she neglects to fully explore social media, Twilight, Lady Gaga, or, really, anything about how girls live today. Worse, Girl Land is so suffused with Flanagan’s peculiarly haunted sense of sexual vulnerability that it perpetuates a tired picture of girls as victims-in-the-making.
This is a pity, because Girl Land’s ostensible subject is rich material—the awkwardness of coming of age sexually and emotionally while still living under your parents’ roof. At least since the sexual revolution, teenage girls have lived a kind of double life—simultaneously children and adults, they’re stranded in an odd half-in, half-out period of extended girlhood that confuses everyone involved. It’s nervous-making to the girl who retreats upstairs with a boyfriend to make out among her stuffed animals while her parents cook dinner downstairs; and it’s upsetting for the parents who have to figure out where to draw the boundaries (and then argue about it with their frustrated, and maybe secretly relieved, daughters). Sixteen-year-olds: One minute they’re acting like Rizzo from Grease, the next they’re curling up to watch The Little Mermaid for the umpteenth time. It’s the latter part Flanagan relates to most: Girl Land is ripe with her own memories of daydreaming on her four-poster princess bed after school.
There’s the kernel of a useful idea here: Girls do need privacy and free time, an imaginative space where they can draw inward and contemplate the strange matter of growing up. But Flanagan fetishizes the retreat into sentimental girlhood, because sex in her vision of “girl land” isn’t just strange, it’s terrifying. The book is shadowed by the specter of female vulnerability, and variants on the words “terror” and “horror” appear over and over. “If someone is to get the worst of a variety of terrible things that can happen in the privacy and seclusion of a date,” Flanagan writes, “it’s going to be the girl.” She argues that “fatherless girls are always in greater jeopardy,” and darkly implies that date rape is all but certain if a horny boy doesn’t encounter a threatening male parent before taking his date to the movies. (Sorry, Tiger Mothers; you’re no help here.) She equates teen girls’ “strange new preference for unreciprocated oral sex” with cutting, anorexia, and bulimia. And she perpetuates the notion that “the immutable truth” about boys is that they want “most what we keep private.” When they get it, that private thing is “lessened.”