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.”
Emerging into sexual adulthood is a fraught time for everyone (not that anyone bothers to write much about boys’ side of it). And there is indeed something oppressive about our hypersexualized culture, with its trashy winks and nudges, the breasts that seem to bounce endlessly by on HBO, the “upsetting” rape scenes that secretly titillate. It’s hard to be a teenager who’s told to be an organization kid and a girl gone wild at the same time. Yet it’s not obvious that adolescent sexuality is more fraught today just because there’s more porn and sex talk than ever before. In fact—though conservatives rarely mention this—teen-sex rates have declined since 1991.
One waits in vain for Flanagan to get to the most interesting fact about the sex lives of teenage girls: that sexual vulnerability goes hand in hand with their own burgeoning desire—and the means to act on it. Instead, she informs us that “obviously” most adolescent girls would never type the word “porn” into a search engine (has she actually ever met a teenage girl?) and suggests that one reason girls can be so voluble is that they’re afraid of male attention.
But is there any reason to think that girls don’t feel the same electric sexual charges—the same careless, intoxicated desire—boys do? What’s most disheartening about all this alarmist rhetoric about girls is also what’s most predictable: It continues to define them as the objects of their erotic experience rather than as the agents of it.
And it’s this, as much as their new sexual vulnerability, that girls struggle with: They are endowed with powerful desire that is rarely acknowledged outside their own inner lives—or is viewed as frightening. We’ve traded a coercive system of sexual repression for a faux-permissive one that encourages and channels sexual expression but also cries out against it. No wonder some girls are the sexual equivalents of binge eaters, turning on one another, making themselves too readily available as a way of pretending that they are in control. This is a problem, but asking girls to turn back into Sandra Dee is not the solution.
Perhaps it goes without saying that Flanagan never touches on the issues of how class and race affect teen sexuality, perhaps because the problems are most pressing among kids who occupy an almost entirely different sexual and romantic culture than the one Flanagan is focused on. One of the most notable things about teen sexuality is how variable it is across demographics. According to one study, for instance, African-American girls are more than twice as likely as white girls to have sex before they are 13, when they are barely pubescent—a statistic that many can agree is worrying. From this perspective, the fuss over the sexual coming of age among affluent teenagers can seem as much a matter of status anxiety among the well-to-do as one of genuine concern for the well-being of young girls. If your daughter is a relatively engaged teenager with an active academic life, worrying over whether she has sex at 16 or 19 is not unlike fretting over whether the kindergarten serves anything sugary at snack time.
To write a true map of today’s girl land, you need to see not just the vulnerability of girlhood but its performative audacity, the ways that wounds, even sexual ones, can add up to more than pain. Spending too much time in your frilly room hoping to be courted makes you either a creature of fear or a monster of entitlement. In the most carelessly generalizing parts of her work, Flanagan comes across as a little of each, and a bit of a fantasist: The real girl land is far more complex than hers. When I was 15, my mother, obviously worried by the fact that I was dating an older boy, awkwardly pulled me aside. “Sex is beautiful, and it should make you feel good,” she said. It was corny, and I squirmed in discomfort. But it turned out those words were worth much more than any warning.
By Caitlin Flanagan.
Reagan Arthur/Little, Brown. $25.99.