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.”
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.
The final chapter of “Girl Land” includes advice to parents about protecting their daughters from the dangers of the Internet. But now that Flanagan has finally ventured into the present, she seems lost. For one thing, she mixes her media the way a careless writer mixes metaphors; a significant part of her argument against the Internet is predicated on the sexism of a TV sitcom (a single episode of the admittedly sexist Two and Half Men she happened to catch one night while cooking dinner). Flanagan also shows a poor understanding of how teenage girls use the web. She offers parents a sure-fire way to understand how their teenage daughters spend their time online: type the word “porn” into any search engine, she instructs, and then “take the Fifteen-Minute Tour ... through the eyes of your young daughter.”
This advice is pure fear-mongering on Flanagan’s part, something she professes against earlier in the book. But it also doesn’t make any sense. Teenage boys are the ones typing “porn” into their browsers, not girls. Boys are the ones who “by minute two are far afield of anything that could be considered a mutually satisfying experience.”
“What does a twelve or thirteen or fourteen-year-old girl make of these nonstop images?” Flanagan asks.
She makes nothing of them, because she’s not the one looking. And still, Flanagan uses this argument to implore parents to ban the Internet from their daughter’s bedrooms. This solution isn’t just impractical (Flanagan doesn’t realize that you can’t shut off Wi-Fi in a single room), it's also contrary to the girl-empowerment she is preaching. Shutting down the Internet in a girl’s bedroom only succeeds in shutting her up. It doesn’t encourage her to talk to her parents about what she’s looking at or how she feels about the online content she is consuming. It doesn’t empower her to talk about the pressure she feels to overshare her private life online, which, much more than porn, is a real threat to a young woman’s self-esteem.
Flanagan’s desire to protect girls is admirable. She’s right that the Internet has “made it so there is almost no such thing as a private experience anymore.” But nowhere in “Girl Land” does she show us how 21st century girls feel about the cultural expectations of social media. Nowhere does she tell us what they think, what they want, or what their dreams are. If only she’d pushed aside her nostalgia long enough to ask them.
Jennifer Miller’s debut novel, “The Year of the Gadfly,” will be published in May 2012.