The trouble with girls

In ’Girl Land,’ author Caitlin Flanagan reflects on timeless notions of girlhood, for better or for worse.

What does it feel like to be a girl on the cusp of adolescence, too young to be considered a woman yet old enough to think twice about hugging your dad? The question keeps both songwriters and screenwriters busy, wracking their brains for words that rhyme with crying, as they desperately seek out fresh takes on those eternal storylines: first period, first crush, first heartbreak.

The significance of those ‘firsts’ is the focus of American essayist Caitlin Flanagan’s latest work, Girl Land, which is the name the author gives to the stage between childhood and adolescence. One part memoir, and remaining parts slight cultural history and flimsy parenting guide, the book travels light, offering up the reader a candy-striped weekend bag brimming with the private complexities of the girlish mind as she makes the journey from kid to teenager.

Flanagan, a regular contributor to The Atlantic and author of 2006’s To Hell With All That: Loving and Loathing our Inner Housewife, is a controversial figure in media circles. She is considered radical for being a traditionalist, which is to say that Flanagan feels there are some things about the female human heart and mind that don’t change. In Girl Land, Flanagan argues that sexuality is one of those constants; that it is “as intricately connected to kindness and trust as it is to gratification and pleasure.”

Today, however, girls are forced to view sexuality in TV, film, music and the Internet solely from the male perspective, and those industries are guilty of rampant misogyny directed against all that Girl Land holds dear, including privacy and romance. I’ll wager there’s not a lot of “kindness and trust” happening in Jersey’s Shore’s ‘smush room’, the communal hook-up space of the cast—or gratification, either. Flanagan acknowledges the irony that “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,” but that this power-sharing comes at the same time that “we have seen the birth of a common culture that is openly contemptuous of girls and young women.”

In the final chapter of Girl Land, Flanagan’s concerns are made manifest: they are compiled into a manifesto that calls on parents to martial their forces against  “a popular culture that exhorts [girls] to think of themselves as sexually disposable creatures.” Make your daughter’s bedroom an Internet-free zone, advises Flanagan. Set limits on personal freedoms, and get Dad or a well-meaning adult male involved in her dating life in order to preserve her emotional, psychological and physical health.

There’s nothing new or original here; Flanagan’s suggestions are pale, obvious and not very compelling, which results in the book ending on a weak and consumptive note. And what a shame: because the author can be such a subtle and creative thinker, I was hoping for a stronger, more vital rejection of much of the crude and pervasive stupidity that passes not just for entertainment, but also masquerades as cultural criticism—even news.

Yet these relatively inconsequential and highly conventional parenting tips have inspired declarations of war from many critics. New York magazine’s Megan O’Rourke accused Flanagan of presenting a view of young girls as “victims-in-the-making.” To Flanagan’s notion that girls need the luxury of privacy and a kind of undisturbed cocoon time in which to develop, O’Rourke charges, “Spending too much time in your frilly room hoping to be courted makes you either a creature of fear or a monster of entitlement.”

Maybe. But these activities also make you a teenager, a.k.a, a monster of entitlement. Sometimes they make you a writer.

Others have been less kind: “Gather around, ladies, Caitlin Flanagan is back. And this time she’s after your daughters,” wrote Emma Gilbey Keller in The New York Times, as if Flanagan were an untoward uncle or eagle-eyed Mother Superior with questionable intentions toward her charges. Keller also takes Flanagan to task for not including any real girls (other than a vintage Flanagan, anyway). But Girl Land isn’t a conventional journalistic enterprise. It’s a short meditation on girlhood written for women from the perspective of an adult. Keller is also disparaging of Flanagan’s “amorphous” girl, claiming the author never gets her “arms around” the subject. It’s a criticism that doesn’t quite ring true. Flanagan’s view of girls is specific—romantic, imaginative, sullen, obstinate, sensitive and cruel. For the author, girls are complex creatures shouldering the burden of a peculiar birthright. Love dreams and menstrual cramps make strange bedfellows.

Keller’s real issue is that she just doesn’t care for the dreamy, diary-keeping type that Flanagan puts forth. I never kept a diary either, which put me in the minority among my peers. But that doesn’t cancel out the reality of Flanagan’s girl and neither does it negate her cultural critique.

You can legitimately discuss whether or not Flanagan’s personal experience of girlhood is a sturdy enough foundation to support her take on what it means to be a girl. But the same could be said of any writer who chooses to mine their own experience as a means of discussing the culture at large. To Flanagan’s credit, at least she gives it a shot.

“Every woman I’ve known describes her adolescence as the most psychologically intense period of her life,” writes Flanagan in Girl Land’s opening pages. In the end, she serves that thesis, and often well. That a 50-year-old woman can give such authentic voice to the emotional life of an adolescent—teenage girls, stuck in the slough of despond that is puberty, couldn’t begin to achieve the same clarity—and that so many women are riled by her perspective points to a larger truth.

To recast Flanagan’s phrase: Every phase of a woman’s life is psychologically intense. Period.