Monday, February 23, 2004

Rara Avis, Part V: The Life and Times of Caitlin Flanagan

She's the newest staff writer of the venerable New Yorker, one of such literary talents that her fuzzy thinking and careless ways with evidence are quite forgiven by the East Coast Literary Establishment. What would they not forgive for a brilliant writer who is a woman (a definite boost for the affirmative action lefties) and a feminist-basher (an equal bonus for the life-is-a-jungle-and-home-its-refuge righties)? Now the intelligentsia can have their very own Dr. Laura, a woman who tells how it is, puts the blame squarely where it belongs, and suffers no emotional nonsense. Flanagan sees her role at the New Yorker as the insightful critic of the modern family life, a sort of hybrid of Mary McCarthy and Erma Bombeck. That this family life will only belong to the upper classes and that the insightfully critical eye will only focus on the women in these families goes without saying, at least to anyone who has read her columns during the last two years in the Atlantic Monthly.

Which I have done, one of those small things that I like to do to make a life worth living for others. Just as Flanagan believes in the importance of using real napkins as opposed to paper tissues at home dinners, I believe that her writing deserves real scrutiny rather than merely superficial murmurs of "You go, girl."

Her Atlantic Monthly columns, all book reviews, are wonderful little mini sermons on the importance of being a housewife and on the nastiness of educated career-minded women, and I'm using the word 'housewife' quite advisedly here. Flanagan doesn't like stay-at-home-mothers; she likes women who revel in ironing their husband's shirts, planning dust ruffles, darning socks and telling their children to get out of their hair. You might think that she'd therefore be very fond of me, for example, as I'm excellent at all those tasks. You would be wrong. I'm one of the nasties in her books as I'm also highly educated and career-minded. Women must be one-or-the-other in Flanagan's world, and one side must wear the white hats (the good), the other one the black hats (the bad).

I was initially quite shocked to find how deeply Flanagan hates the uppity women of our times. To explain what I mean, here are some examples of her opinions on them:*

"De-cluttering a household is a task that appeals strongly to today's professional woman. It's different from actual housework, because it doesn't have to be done every day...Scrubbing the toilet bowl is a bit of nastiness that can be fobbed off on anyone poor and luckless enough to qualify for no better employment..." (March 2002)

"...this is a book from the perspective of "high-achieving women", and the main impression we get of the type is that they are going to get exactly what they want, and damn the expense or the human toll. These are women who have roared through the highest echelons of the country's blue-chip law firms, investment banks, and high tech companies....

Hewlett does her best to make us sympathetic toward such fiercely driven women, but the comments of a young male New Yorker—meant to reveal what cads high-achieving single men can be—backfire on her. He observes, "There's a whole bunch of them where I work. They're armed to the teeth with degrees—MBAs and the like—they're real aggressive, they love to take control, and they have this fierce hunger for success and for stuff. Everything they do and everything they want is expensive.
""(June 2002)

"the hotshot career women who can't manage to coax eligible men into the honeymoon suite."(November 2002)

Take that, you selfish investment bankers, physicians, lawyers, scientists and - dare I even say this? - journalists. You must choose: either stay on the course, and you will be punished with eternal singlehood or a loveless, sexless marriage in a messy, uninviting house, or repent and join the new Future Housewives of America with Caitlin Flanagan. If you do the latter, your life will be good, she vows:

What's missing from so many affluent American households is the one thing you can't buy—the presence of someone who cares deeply and principally about that home and the people who live in it; who is willing to spend a significant portion of each day thinking about what those people are going to eat and what clothes they will need for which occasions; who knows when it's time to turn the mattresses and when the baby needs to be taken out for a bit of fresh air and sunshine. Because I have no desire to be burned in effigy by the National Organization for Women, I am impelled to say that this is work Mom or Dad could do, but in my experience women seem more willing to do it. Feminists are dogged in their belief that liberated, right-on men will gladly share equally in domestic concerns, but legions of eligible men who enjoy nothing more than an industrious morning spent tidying the living room and laundering the dust ruffle have yet to materialize. (March 2002)

It turns out that the "traditional" marriage, which we've all been so happy to annihilate, had some pretty good provisions for many of today's most stubborn marital problems, such as how to combine work and parenthood, and how to keep the springs of the marriage bed in good working order. What's interesting about the sex advice given to married women of earlier generations is that it proceeds from the assumption that in a marriage a happy sex life depends upon orderly and successful housekeeping. (Jan/Feb 2003)

Of course, you might not agree with Flanagan that it is pointless to expect men to carry out any household chores or childrearing, or that sex indeed is a wifely duty (as she argues in the column from which the second quote is taken). If these trouble you or if you wonder what evidence she might have for the argument that people in traditional marriages had better sex, well, then you're probably one of the black hats and not intended to read the Atlantic Monthly or the New Yorker in the first place. You are not in their desired readership profile.

Flanagan is a stubbornly dualistic thinker. That housewives equal 'good' and professional women equal 'bad' is only one example of this pattern. Another one is her habit of seeing the world as consisting of only two classes: the upper class where women have nannies for their children and the class of the poor immigrants from which these nannies come. There is something innocently childlike about this vision of the world, as there is also in her fictional dream of a housewife's life, but the truth is that her treatment totally omits all the women whose lives fit none of these descriptions, and these women are numerically the majority.

And what about men in Flanagan's writings? Here are some of her views on the male sex:

The national Boy Project may have taught America's young men to treat women with new respect in the classroom and the boardroom, and it has certainly prepared them for an unprecedented amount of no-strings nooky; what it has not impelled them to do is to make a bride of every hard-charging woman who suddenly—and fleetingly—wants to play fifties girl with a diamond solitaire and a box full of Tiffany invitations. (December 2002)

What we've learned during this thirty-year grand experiment is that men can be cajoled into doing all sorts of household tasks, but they will not do them the way a woman would. They will bathe the children, but they will not straighten the bath mat and wring out the washcloths; they will drop a toddler off at nursery school, but they won't spend ten minutes chatting with the teacher and collecting the art projects. They will, in other words, do what men have always done: reduce a job to its simplest essentials and utterly ignore the fillips and niceties that women tend to regard as equally essential. And a lot of women feel cheated and angry and even—bless their hearts—surprised about this. In the old days, of course, men's inability to perform women's work competently was a source of satisfaction and pride to countless housewives. A reliable sitcom premise involved Father's staying home for a day while Mother handled things at his office; chastened and newly admiring of the other's abilities, each ran gratefully back to familiar terrain.
Under these conditions, pity the poor married man hoping to get a bit of comfort from the wife at day's end. He must somehow seduce a woman who is economically independent of him, bone tired, philosophically disinclined to have sex unless she is jolly well in the mood, numbingly familiar with his every sexual maneuver, and still doing a slow burn over his failure to wipe down the countertops and fold the dish towel after cooking the kids' dinner. He can hardly be blamed for opting instead to check his e-mail, catch a few minutes of SportsCenter, and call it a night .
(Jan/Feb 2003)

The Between Boyfriends Book describes men in a manner so dismissive and callous that had a man written such a book about women, the cries of misogyny would be deafening. But upper-middle-class women hold a lot of power in our culture these days. Still, though, there's one bit of power women will never wrest from men: the decision to deem one group of women candidates for marriage and another group candidates for quick and quasi-anonymous sex. (December 2003)

It's a long time since I last read something similar to these ideas. In fact, it was in the 1950's. Flanagan's men are 1950's men, unchanged and unchangeable. Do they wear white or black hats in her tales about life? This is difficult to decide: on the one hand men are given the freedom and liberty not to have any nonfinancial responsibilities towards their wives and children, on the other hand men are treated as genetically incapable of learning the simplest household chore if it hasn't always been labeled a guys' job.

Given Flanagan's tendency towards rigid, dualistic thinking, there must be one Wicked Witch orchestrating all these breakdowns in the family lives of the comfortable classes. And there is! It's feminism, as is pretty evident from the quotes I have included here. Feminism is all wrong, thinks Flanagan, because men will always be 1950's men and women will always have higher housekeeping standards than men. For Caitlin Flanagan feminism was and is nothing but an upper class white woman's ego trip. Her view of feminism pays no attention to feminist-sponsored legislation that now guarantees equal treatment of women and men at work or in education or to the feminist-initiated changes in societal views on rape and domestic violence. That it might actually be a good thing for the society to have women who are physicians or lawyers or politicians or managers or even journalists doesn't seem to occur to her either. Instead, her latest book review takes a step even further and accuses feminism (i.e. uppity women's ego trips) of surviving only due to serfdom (i.e. the use of nannies from poor, developing countries). In fact, it's titled "How Serfdom Saved the Women's Movement".

This article contains revelations about Flanagan's own life that stunned me. It turns out that she hired a nanny to help her in the house while she was trying to be a good housewife, and it turns out that neither she nor her husband have ever changed the sheets in their beds. Either they have the filthiest house imaginable, or - is this too mean to say? - a form of serfdom must be taking place in their household: someone else is changing the sheets.

It is now very hard for me to take anything she writes seriously. Yet she does talk about topics which are important, and she does have a point, though not the one she thinks she has. If she could only drop her obsession about the uppity feminists, she might notice that what she's really writing about is class, and class is one of the few things that are non-mentionable in the mainstream media. That's why it is quite acceptable to blame professional women who employ nannies under poor working conditions, as this is a problem caused by selfish, ambitious women (and the job of child-rearing, in any case, is seen as not a job at all, but something women are supposed to do for nothing), but not acceptable to ask about the wages and benefits of the person who bags your groceries at the supermarket or cleans your windshield at the gas station or vacuums and dusts your office at work.

She also has a second unintended point, and that is the tremendous demands of work that are now seen as expected. Most professionals think nothing about sixty hour workweeks, and much longer weeks than that are not unheard of. What is homelife like for someone with such hours? Never mind if the worker is male or female, there is something deeply disturbing in expecting someone to work so hard that no meaningful time can be spared for ones nearest and dearest. And Flanagan is right to state that those in the upper classes can refuse such hours; it doesn't make them or their families starve. Indeed, I'd like to see a major strike amongst the well-heeled, with a general renewed emphasis on the goal of an eight-hour day for all workers, and Barbara Ehrenreich, at least, agrees with me.

Flanagan is even partly right in goading feminists to work harder on behalf of the poorest women, though her total refusal to acknowledge that any such work is already being done makes it tricky to find the arguments where her accusations are valid.

I suspect that Caitlin Flanagan will not try to adjust her writing so as to properly address these issues. Why not continue with the recipe that has proven so successful: the general bashing of uppity women? In this she's not really a rare bird, of course, but rather a participant in a female growth industry with such luminosities as Camilla Paglia, Ann Coulter, Wendy McElroy and Laura Schlessinger: the anti-feminist movement. The more I think about this series, the more convinced I become that I'm a poor human-watcher, that my copybook is full of jottings about the most ordinary of all sparrows: people in the service of the prevailing powers.

Now, if I could find the male equivalent of Caitlin Flanagan, a man who consistently and mercilessly bashes other men as men rather than as individuals, now that would be a find! A true rara avis for my collections. Can anybody help me here?
*You can link to the articles from which these quotes were taken by going to the back issues of the Atlantic Monthly . They are ordered by year and month, and Flanagan is always under the Book Reviews in the lists of contents.