Caitlin Flanagan may have cancelled her interview with me after seeing my questions about her new book Girl Land, but I’m still curious about a few of her points. So considering that she won’t talk to me, I decided to chat with someone else familiar with her work. Irin Carmon, writer at Salon and formerly of Jezebel, reviewed Girl Land and discussed her own criticisms of the book during an NPR segment with the author. Given Irin’s deep understanding of Girl Land as evidenced by her Salon review, I asked her to weigh in on the book with me and answer the questions that I had originally reserved for Flanagan.
One of the most striking aspects of Girl Land is that it’s uniformly white and heterosexual. It would seem that Flanagan’s Girl Land does not account for girls who aren’t middle- to upper-class, who are of color, and who aren’t entirely straight. Why is that?
This is also a concern I had with the book. Beyond the basic fact that not every girl is dreaming about a boy, the sad truth is that many girls live in realities where the worry is less about whether they have the Internet in their room and more about basic survival and safety. I think Girl Land would be a more honest book if Caitlin Flanagan were open about the fact that she’s only talking about little girls like she was, or like the ones she taught at Harvard Westlake.
Flanagan’s biggest advice to parents raising daughters is that Internet access should be removed from their bedrooms to create more space for personal reflection. How do you respond to the strategy of sheltering girls from online spaces rather than encouraging them to use the Internet constructively and to engage in online discusses?
I went for almost my entire life to a Waldorf School, where media use was strictly discouraged until the very end, so I appreciate the benefits of creatively interacting with the world without a screen in front of you. I also spent so much of my childhood buried in a book that the idea of a girl retreating to a book isn’t entirely foreign. But it’s not all inward retreat — it’s also discovering the world, and part of that venture out of the cocoon includes the Internet, for better or for worse. Why not reorient the discussion to how to arm girls and boys with the tools to be resilient and have integrity as they head out into the world?
Flanagan also makes the point that constant Internet usage prevents girls from keeping diaries, which she asserts is fundamental to the life of a young girl. But plenty of young girls use the online space to blog their thoughts and perceptions which have produced some savvy young ladies like style blogger Tavi Gevinson and the 13-year-old who made a YouTube video denouncing slut-shaming. How do you respond to these young girls using the internet to make their voices heard in an otherwise “vulgar, and highly-crude” space?
I’m so inspired by those girls. The Internet is just a platform; it’s not just full of ugliness or vulgarity, and anyone consigning it to that alone is missing out.
What do you make of Flanagan’s claim that Planned Parenthood encourages oral sex among kids simply by providing information about sex? We recently wrote on a new texting service they have for kids called ICYC — (In Case You’re Curious) which allows kids to text their safe sex questions anonymously and many of our readers responded favorably to the idea.
One of the better things about the Internet is that alongside misinformation is lots of wonderfully reliable information, like Planned Parenthood’s, and hopefully good parenting can help girls distinguish between the two. I don’t know why anyone would conflate sex ed and pornography or encouragement of casual sex — as Flanagan did in our interview — but then again, if you choose to dismiss studies about what abstinence education means for actual unsafe sexual activity, you must not be particularly interested in facts.
She writes towards the end of the book that “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.” Flanagan adds that men and boys are “not as likely to be wounded, emotionally, or spiritually” by sex outside a romantic commitment. She identifies this as “old-fashioned” but not as an ultimately harmful, disadvantageous way to view our daughters. What can you say about this generalization?
I think men and boys are wounded, emotionally and spiritually, by the idea that they are one-sided creatures only able to interact with sex a single way. Certainly girls, boys, or adults of both sexes can be wounded by sex outside of romantic attachments; they can also be wounded by romantic attachments, something so obvious I can’t believe I just said it. The more we make unearned generalizations about how men and women behave, the less space we leave for them to figure out how they really feel and what they really want.
Flanagan writes that many adults today don’t understand the “Internet-driven, pornography-centered pop culture,” which presents a real schism between kids and adults. She writes that the Internet is a “mystery, fathomless, dark.” Yet, if parents don’t recognize the more beneficial corners of the Internet, particularly as they pertain to the very issues in her book like sex, peer pressure, and dating life, why should they ban it? I found it odd that she didn’t account for smart, girl-minded sites like Feministing, Jezebel, or even Rookie mag — which is maintained by one of their fellow peers.
In my years at Jezebel, there were countless girls who showed up for the gossip and, by their own account, stayed to call themselves feminists. You might end up seeing something terrible online, of course, but you also might find a community that will make you feel less alone or help you push past the strictures of your daily life in a positive way.