Girl Trouble

What Caitlin Flanagan’s new book Girl Land gets wrong about girls.

There is a book that will be written until the end of the time. The premise is basically this: There is a pressing, current, near-apocalyptic cultural crisis [fill in the blank] that threatens innocent girlhood. And the latest version of this book is Caitlin Flanagan’s Girl Land. (Previous versions have included Naomi Wolf’s Promiscuities, Wendy Shalit’s Return to Modesty, and Mary Pipher’s Reviving Ophelia, to name a few modern examples, without even going into the moral panics that have gripped the Western imagination since the 19th century.)

What’s striking, and possibly disheartening, is that no matter how radical a transformation the culture undergoes, no matter how many advances in sexual politics, it never seems to make any difference. There remains the same overheated narrative in which innocent girls are being ruined and corrupted by our fallen culture; the sentimental, old-fashioned view of young girls as delicate flowers in need of special tending and protecting somehow endures. Flanagan writes, for instance, “a girl’s room needs to be defended as a sanctuary.” She also has to be protected from the “spoken-word, hard-core pornography that is rap music.”  

Though Flanagan does attempt an idiosyncratic and spotty cultural history, she seems to be stuck primarily in her own adolescent years. (We are talking about someone who claims that Are You There God It’s Me Margaret. was the most influential book she ever read in her whole life.) But it is precisely this stuckness, this sentimental cherishing of girls, this looking backward, that defines the larger movement of girlhood romantics who have always framed the conversation about girls and sex.

Flanagan’s Girl Land is drenched in nostalgia for her own girlhood: for cozy sweat suits, locked diaries, and Dior comforter covers with little yellow rosebuds on them. So much so that she can’t be bothered to investigate the things girls might be into today: Justin Bieber, vampires, texts, Facebook etc. She seems to have only the fuzziest, vaguest sense of “the social networking sites that teens love,” and appears to have never met a teenage girl growing up in this century.

With a few minor adjustments of language, Flanagan could easily be writing in the 1920s, or the 1950s. For example she writes that the modern girl should have a father at home to meet her dates: “A father at home is also invaluable to adolescent girls because it makes them far less likely to be targets of the kind of boys who become emotionally, physically, or sexually abusive. Those kinds of teenage boys are punks, and one thing punks can’t stand is coming under the authority and scrutiny of a powerful adult male.” This fantasy of male protection and ravishment, not to mention the term “punks,” is a little out of place in current teenage vernacular. (Where in this picture, we might wonder, are the “powerful adult females” and why are they unable to intimidate the “punks”?) Somewhere around this point in the book, one begins to get the sense that Caitlin Flanagan’s Girl Land has one inhabitant: Caitlin Flanagan.

There is also a revealing moment when she talks about the dangers of pornography on the Internet (a subject Flanagan seems to think you have never heard anything about before). She advises parents to type the word porn into a search engine, and says: “This, obviously, is not a term most young adolescent girls will search for, but it will take you most expeditiously to the places that their innocent search terms will quickly take them to.” One gathers that the 14-year-olds in Flanagan’s imagination are typing in “care bears” and “Anne of Green Gables,” or maybe “Hollywood kiss.”

Flanagan may be more sophisticated than many conservative ideologues, but there is no qualitative difference here from Michele Bachmann trying to protect what she calls “innocent little 12-year-old girls” from the HPV vaccine. There have always been sentimental protectors of American girlhood, and they never add much to the conversation through their visions of canopy beds, gauzy curtains, and moonlight nights, their paradigm of dreamy innocence being preyed upon by lustful men. I think for anyone truly interested in girls a single sentence of Simone de Beauvoir’s Second Sex or Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita or Françoise Sagan’s Bonjour Tristesse will give you more insight than Caitlin Flanagan’s whole book.

Which is not to say that teenagers can’t be confused, anxious, eating disordered, precociously sexual, reckless, flirtatious, promiscuous, exhibitionistic, wild, but simply that coming of age has always been fraught. The overwhelming desire to protect young girls from the corruptions of pornography, or songs, or movies, or pop stars, or the patriarchy, or the pressures of boys, is no different or more pressing than the things conservatives and sentimentalists have been trying to protect girls from for time immemorial: the giant, unspeakable crisis critics have constantly and luridly imagined looming over our young girls is otherwise known as life.