Thursday, January 19, 2012

Caitlin Flanagan's No-Boys Land

I have written quite a bit about Caitlin Flanagan and her opinions in the past, perhaps too much. But to understand her most recent arguments about "girlhood", it really is salutary to know what other things she advocates. Thus, here's a very old post by me on Flanagan's writings at the Atlantic Monthly, and here are a few other posts that might be of interest in this context: The Womanly Art of Self-Defense and Maggot Lace.

She has now written a new book, Girl Land, this time not about how housewifery is the only proper occupation for all women (save her), but on how to bring up girls in this corrupt culture (presumably to prepare them for proper housewifery). Emma Gilbey Keller reviews the book in the New York Times, and concludes:
I wish Flanagan had read less and listened more. Because real girls are absent from “Girl Land.” And so is their energy. Stereotypes don’t exactly bring a book to life. Nor do celebrities from the last century. Notwithstanding Flanagan’s stream of forceful assertions, “Girl Land” is a dusty, empty place, bearing little resemblance to your 21st-century daughter’s colorful, noisy, vibrant life.
Amanda at Pandagon has this to say:
Caitlin Flanagan gets a lot of attention because she's able to write in these elliptical, obtuse ways that seem really profound, which is why it's useful to listen to her on the radio, where she's forced to be more concise, revealing that she's just the same old culture warrior whose veneer of sophistication falls off at a sneeze, revealing the cranky (prematurely) old church lady underneath. That's why I recommend skipping her strange-sounding new book and listening instead to this interview on WBUR, which has the added bonus of Irin Carmon's presence as a sanity check. Listening to it, you realize that for all the puffery about girlhood fascinations and diaries, Flanagan is really only making one argument, one we know really well, that goes like this:
*Boys and men only care about sex, and mainly see girls and women as these tedious obstacles between them and pussy. 
*Girls and women only care about romance---the more princessy, the better---and see sex as this filthy ritual they have to perform in order to get it. 
*Therefore, women should use sex as a bartering chip to get men to pretend to like us. Actual affection from men is clearly impossible to get, but in Flanagan's view, women can get a semblance of self-respect by refusing to have sex with men until they play-act affection by taking us on some dates and letting us call them our boyfriends. According to Flanagan, not having a man hanging around pretending to like you in order to get his dick wet is a major tragedy, probably the worst thing that could happen to a woman. 
And that's about it.
I took Amanda's advice and listened to the radio interview. Flanagan attacks Carmon personally, in a weird interchange which amounts to Flanagan arguing that the measure of a good adolescence for girls is to have a boyfriend. If you didn't have one, then your adolescence was wasted.

She also argues that adolescent boys only want sex and will do whatever it takes to get it. Hence the idea that adolescent girls should require to be taken out to a date a couple of times first, instead of just "servicing" boys with blowjobs. Because the price of sex has just increased, the girls will be happier? They now had a boyfriend? Who only wanted to have sex?

It's hard for me to address Flanagan's theories as they are based on such an odd concept of what adolescent boys and adult men are all about. At the same time, she refuses to even look at the question what the culture might be teaching adolescent boys (this is very evident in the interview, the way she slithers away from any attempt to move the question to both boys and girls).

It is girls she wants to protect from Internet p*rnography, not boys. Presumably boys can learn any weird concept of sex from pron and then go out to the world Flanagan wants for dating, equipped with what ideas about girls? And Flanagan wants girls to base their expectations on the idea of romance only. Imagine the clashes! In what sense is not knowing about p*rnography protective for the girls?

The most interesting part of Flanagan's argument has to do with the absence of boys from it. They don't need protecting at all! It's natural for them to just want sex and to do whatever it takes! And it looks like that definition of sex can even come from pron, as far as Flanagan is concerned.