'Girl Land': Caitlin Flanagan, Feminist Agitator, Takes On Adolescent Girls

Prep-school teacher turned Atlantic writer Caitlin Flanagan has sparked national debates with her essays on modern women and domestic life. But her latest, a book about adolescent girls, is anything but controversial. Has Flanagan lost her touch?

Caitlin Flanagan has been called many things: Provocateur. Hypocrite. Antiwoman. The prep-school-teacher-turned-cultural critic drives working mothers to fits with contrarian essays on modern domestic life. Married women, she has argued, should call their husbands the head of the household, stay at home with the kids (“when a woman works something is lost,” she infamously said) and, of course, put out. (Gotta keep those husbands happy.)

I’m simplifying, of course, but while Flanagan may be a child of 1970s counterculture—her father was a professor at Berkeley—she sure knows how to push feminist buttons. The Internet burned with ire back in 2006, when Flanagan revealed, in her essay-turned-bestselling book, To Hell With All That, that despite being a stay-at-home mom (though many would quibble with that point) she had never changed a bedsheet. (“Why?” critics roared. “Because she paid people to do it for her!”)

But whether you love to hate her, or hate to love her, what’s indisputable about Flanagan is that she’s built an empire on playing, as she tells me, “America’s square.” With her soft, feminine voice, pressed pink cardigans, and feathered bob, she has been compared to Phyllis Schlafly: a privileged high achiever, as Barbara Ehrenreich once put it, who preaches domesticity for the rest of us. She’s also witty, wry, and breezily entertaining—you find yourself nodding along to her essays even if they make you want to scream. As her editor at The Atlantic, Benjamin Schwarz, has put it: “She’s a smart enough writer that she knows she has to create a persona.”

All of this makes Flanagan’s newest book, Girl Land, a surprising read. It’s a topic rife for analysis—about those angsty and confusing years between girlhood and womanhood, and the milestones (both physical and emotional) young women must overcome to reach the other side. It’s got a catchy title, and a compelling cover. And with chapter titles like “Dating,” “Sexual Initiation,” and “Moral Panics,” we expect we’re in for at least a few Flanagan zingers. You remember being a 12-year-old girl, don’t you? First periods, first kisses, Go Ask Alice, rock music, seemingly endless hours locked inside your bedroom. How could this be anything but fascinating?

But Girl Land somehow manages the impossible. Despite a jacket cover that promises to reveal what girls have “gained and lost in the 21st century,” the 224-page book is a trip down memory lane, a well-researched social history, but tells us little about the present. There is a compelling history of dating, and 20 pages devoted to menstruation; a brief discussion of Los Angeles prom culture, and an ode to Judy Blume. The writing flows easily, and Flanagan’s personal stories are peppered throughout.

But as for a sharp analysis of today’s girls? Of the impact of Facebook, cyberbullying, and modern-day pop culture, as the book’s marketing materials suggest? Not so much. Save for a few arguments about the perils of pornography—and the toxicity of rap music—we learn virtually nothing about the unique struggles, or accomplishments, of today’s young women.

“I wanted to give Girl Land a larger historical and societal context,” Flanagan explains. “I think that the choices and emotions of contemporary girls are very well reported—I wanted to give them a book that placed these feelings and impulses into the context of the experience of modern American girl land.”

As is common with Flanagan, there’s a kind of 1950s nostalgia to it all: she laments that girls today are maturing too soon, forced to face the sexual advances of older men, going on dates alone, no longer forcibly chaperoned. It’s a kind of romantic, earnest notion, and to keep it going, Flanagan weaves in her own youthful triumphs, and challenges—including a raw but unresolved story about a teenage boy who tried to force himself on her when she was 16 years old.

Flanagan is an essayist, not a journalist by training—so perhaps expecting groundbreaking revelations in Girl Land is too much. But the more we read, the more we realize these essays sound familiar: they are pieced together from the articles she’s published over the years in The Atlantic, under a catchy title. And wait, does Flanagan even have daughters?

“I have two sons,” she reminds me. “But in a right-thinking culture, girls should be everybody’s business.”

She’s right. But far beyond advising parents to make their daughter’s bedroom an Internet-free zone—no, this is not an easy task—and typing “porn” into Google just to see what’s out there, readers will learn little about what they can do to protect our girls.

I ask Flanagan what she hopes parents take away from this book. “This is not a book to change minds,” she says. Rather, she explains, it’s a kind of guide—for any parent who doesn’t want their daughter to fall into the trap of Girls Gone Wild, rampant online pornography, and sexual degradation.

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“If you’re the sort of person who wants your daughter to have indiscriminate physical contact, shaped by pornography, often without commitment and affection, you’re set. You don’t need to read any books. The culture is here to support you,” she tells me. “If you’re looking at your 5-year-old and saying, ‘Boy, I really hope she knows how to give oral sex at sleepovers,’ that job is done. You can just put in DVDs of The Wire and chill out.

“But if you want your daughter to be treated with respect by boys, her first physical experiences to be shaped by support and affection, then you’ve got work to do.”

Extreme? Sure. But that’s the Flanagan we know and love.