Anti-feminist provacateur Caitlin Flanagan takes us into the world of adolescent girls – but, unfortunately, fails to bring us into the 21st century.
If you were ever a teenage girl, and especially if you are the parent of one now, you will likely be lured to Caitlin Flanagan’s Girl Land the way a 13-year-old is enticed toward Twilight. The known provocateur, widely criticized as an anti-feminist, dangles insight like bait: She knows of the timeless struggle to understand our daughters’ private worlds and the fears of watching an unfamiliar generation grow up too fast. She promises to examine “the passage into womanhood and out of childhood ... in the ever-shifting landscape of today’s youth culture.”Skip to next paragraph
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To be sure, the passage part is informative, especially her discussion of dating norms in the 1920’s and the teenage etiquette books of the ‘50s and ‘60s. But Flanagan reveals herself to be an amateur sociologist of the worst sort: the kind who relies on her personal yesterday as the sole basis of comparison for today. She appears only vaguely aware of the modern girl’s life – taking no pains to quote any young women or tell any of their tales, and opining on things like “what it is like for a girl to get her first period, now that the event is no longer a harbinger of a process – reproduction – that might be gravely dangerous to her.”
Now? The landscape of adolescence that Flanagan captures in “Girl Land” is so distant that, in some cases, not even our grandmothers are old enough to remember it. In this, she presents the true risks of talking about girls: When they are absent from the discussion, marginalized even by their self-professed champions, they become even less understood than they were before, though now surrounded by adults whose opinions have hardened.
Flanagan’s fixation with the past and her cursory exploration of the present is a disappointment, because “Girl Land” is premised around an important observation. “Never in history have girls had so many opportunities, or shared so fully in the kind of power that was only recently reserved for boys,” Flanagan writes. “But on the other hand, at the exact same cultural moment, we have seen the birth of a common culture that is openly contemptuous of girls and young women.”
She is right that a great deal of visual media (television shows like Gossip Girl, Facebook photo albums) and rap music compel girls to “think of themselves as sexually disposable creatures.” She is also right that our culture refuses to acknowledge “that female sexuality is intrinsically connected to kindness and trust as it is to gratification and pleasure.”
What should follow these arguments, of course, is a nuanced examination of how today’s teenage girls feel about the music they hear, the online exhibitionism their social lives demand, and the pressure put on them to succeed. What follows instead are discussions of academic studies, books from her own childhood such as “Little House on the Prairie” and “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn,” and accounts of wayward young women like Patty Hearst and Tammy Bellah. Her chapters, titled “Dating,” “Diaries,” and “Proms,” barely follow the evolution of their subjects past the 1970s; even the words themselves – Diaries, Dating – feel anachronistic, like relics of a distant past. The same is true of Flanagan’s own stories. The retelling of her near date rape at 16 is affecting on its own but feels extraneous here, because Flanagan doesn’t use her experience to illuminate anything about how teenage girls date (or don’t) today.