Caitlin Flanagan‘s new book Girl Land has been received with quite a lot of skepticism from girl enthusiasts all over the web. The sophomore author fanned those controversial flames with a recent NPR radio segment and has kept the fight going as she does the promotional circuit for her hybrid of both parenting advice and memoir. It was precisely because of her controversial claims about girls that I was so excited to be approached by her PR team for an interview.
But after viewing my questions, she cancelled on me. Indefinitely.
I write about the sexualization of young girls often, but Flanagan and I have vastly differing opinions on the subject which is why I was excited to ask for more details on a few points.
In the book, Flanagan vilifies Planned Parenthood for giving kids detailed instructions on sex rather than information, dismissed the reaches of the Internet as “vulgar, and highly-crude” and insisted that what prevented girls from truly enjoying “Girl Land” — adolescence — was that they no longer kept old-fashioned diaries. But it seems that if your daughter is of color, not middle- to upper-class, or even not completely heterosexual, she doesn’t have a “Girl Land” according to Caitlin Flanagan, as her examples and tales of girlhood all draw from white, heterosexual girls of privilege. From Patty Hearst to the author’s own teenage years, I planned to ask her why she had omitted so many girls from her book on modern girlhood.
Generalizations about the roles and interests of girls sprawled the pages and I was most eager to ask why she had sanctioned the Internet a uniformly awful place for teenage girls. There are plenty of girl-minded, smart, savvy places where teenage girls can occupy their time online without being confronted with hardcore pornography — one of the assertions in Flanagan’s book. Jezebel, Feministing, and Rookie are just a few sites that address current events, lady dilemmas, dating, cultural quandaries, and maybe even a little advice about makeup without talking to girls like they’re stupid porn stars. Written by young women for other young women, mind you. “Common knowledge,” I noted in the margins of Flanagan’s Girl Land.
But let’s say you do have an 11-year-old daughter who is just retreating into her room to post sexy pictures for her Facebook so that she can accrue lots of comments that read “SO HOT!,” I don’t see the need to yank the computer from her room. Why should our daughters be sheltered from the Internet instead of being encouraged to use that WiFi connection constructively? Such was my biggest question to the author as she described how little girls everywhere are just placing themselves under further scrutiny by crafting sexy profiles and Twitter feeds replete with their every move. While I concur with this observation, I have more faith in the capabilities of girls than to simply deem them too inept to find other uses for those social media accounts — such as discussion, campaigns, and other happenings about the world. Because as “crude” as the Internet may be to those who don’t spend much time on it, there is still much to offer girls — from political activism to fashion to literary conversations to equestrianism — should they have the guidance, the interests, and the resources. And instead of telling our kids that they can’t be trusted to use this powerful tool, I advocate telling that vanity-stricken tween obsessed with documenting her cleavage on Facebook that she could be using that same space for other pursuits.
The Internet may in fact be porn-ridden, but this same platform has brought some very enterprising young ladies to the surface like young Tavi Gevinson, the 15-year-old founder of Rookie who started her popular style blog at only 11 years old. Or most recently, young Sarah who brought her concerns about slut-shaming and rape culture to YouTube and was consequently praised by countless viewers for her articulate delivery and maturity on a phenomenon so common in young girls. She was then invited to speak with Anderson Cooper on national television addressing purity balls, her observations coupled with that of celebrated author and feminist Jessica Valenti.
These young ladies aren’t anomalies; they simply used that Internet in their bedrooms for something more than making pouty faces into their laptop camera and made their voices, opinions, and thoughts heard — and now they have followings. Grownups and peers alike who are taking note of them not because they got a nose job, made a sex tape, married a much older man, or appeared in a highly sexualized pictorial. Fans are dedicated to these girls because they have an eloquent point of view which was broadcasted from no where but their tiny childhood bedrooms. And in age where women are becoming famous simply for appearing on The Real Housewives, the aforementioned feminist YouTube sensation and outspoken fashion writer are strong examples to hold before girls in these Internet-driven times: start a blog. Say something smart. People notice.
Girls like Tavi and Sarah are absent in Flanagan’s survey of contemporary online girlhood, another question I was much looking forward to posing to her. Not long after I sent these inquiries, along with others, to Flanagan, I was denied comment. Her publicist told me that she had a “personal matter” that had come up and that she would not be available for the interview.
“Personal matters” are commonplace around this mommy blog. Our editorial team knows that kids get sick, spouses can’t get off work, you need to get to that doctor appointment, and deadlines get pushed. I told the publicist that I was very sorry to hear about Caitlin’s “matter” and I hoped everything was all right; I also said that we could accommodate her in any way that we could and would certainly reschedule the interview to fit her schedule. I offered multiple time slots but I was refused — twice. I was offered “comment” from Caitlin regarding “a specific angle,” but my questions were denied.
In many ways, it’s disappointing to me that Flanagan didn’t take this opportunity to defend her book on Mommyish, especially considering the mass criticism Girl Land has received elsewhere. I would have gladly emailed and chatted with her for days as she justified her suggestion that only a man, not a woman, can be the gatekeeper to girl’s romantic life and that although girls can be “wounded, emotionally or physically” by casual oral sex, a boy is innately immune. I was and still am curious how Flanagan could have spent an entire book lecturing parents on how to raise their daughters as more than depraved sex addicts, and then tout her sons as the parental free space, writing, “If I were to learn that my children had engaged in oral sex…I wouldn’t think I had failed catastrophically as a mother, or that they would need therapy. Because I don’t have daughters. I have sons.”
Now I’ll never know how someone who wrote a book specifically on parenting daughters managed to short change them as nothing more than vapid, blow-job happy invalids incapable of smart navigation of both themselves and their culture. I was planning to publish her answers in a Q&A format, to give her the space to defend the fundamental arguments in Girl Land that have clearly touched a nerve elsewhere. But Flanagan didn’t want to do that as her reputation for being hostile towards criticism, as evidenced by her personal attack on Salon writer Irin Carmon, has preceded her. She has produced a book brimming with conversation starters, but at least on Mommyish, it doesn’t look like she wants that conversation going anywhere at all.
(photo: barnesandnoble.com )