Among the Adolescents

Posted on 15 January 2012



By Caitlin Flanagan
209 pp. A Reagan Arthur Book/Little, Brown & Company. $25.99.

Andrew Zinn
Caitlin Flanagan

Gather around, ladies, Caitlin Flanagan is back. And this time she’s after your daughters.

Having belittled the lifestyle and career aspirations of her peer group in the 2006 book “To Hell With All That: Loving and Loathing Our Inner Housewife,” Flanagan now trains her eye on the younger generation. In “Hell” she glanced its way only briefly, arguing against “the notion that girls should be pushed toward competition and professional life rather than homemaking.” This time, in “Girl Land,” she takes a more sustained look at girls as they leave childhood and head into the treacherous passage of adolescence.

The typical inhabitant of “Girl Land,” as Flanagan describes her, is the girl anticipating her first period, nursing her first crush, brooding and withdrawing. She’s “coming to terms with her emergence as a sexual creature, with everything good and everything frightening that accompanies this transformation.”

Adolescence is a fitting subject for Flanagan, who over the years has developed something of a middle-school persona as a critic and essayist. Since the appearance of her attention-grabbing essay on mothers and nannies, “How Serfdom Saved the Women’s Movement,” published in The Atlantic in 2004, she has been the middle-class mom’s Alpha Girl, the clever queen of the devastating put-down. She’s no B.F.F. to the feminist, but she doesn’t care, and so she goes on writing about the joys of homemaking while Ms. magazine vilifies her “retrograde prose.”

In “Girl Land” her tone has lost none of its edge. (“The first time I heard a mother of girls talk about the teenage oral-sex craze, I made her cry,” she boasts in a chapter titled “Moral Panics.”) Like a typical adolescent, the book is hyperbolic, incoherent, sometimes smart and occasionally maddening. “Tidy up!” you long to tell it. Also: “Calm down!”

“Girl Land” begins with the kind of sweeping statement you’d think a former English teacher like Flanagan would have drawn a line through: “Every woman I’ve known describes her adolescence as the most psychologically intense period of her life.” Oh? She asked them all? Impressive. And to a woman they agreed? I find that hard to accept. Adolescence may be intense, but it’s hard to say it trumps the birth of a child, chronic illness, divorce or death in the realm of powerful emotions.

I’m afraid there’s a fair amount of this bulldozer rhetoric. “Prom today is a $3 billion business and the genesis of more hysterical episodes . . . than almost every other aspect of high school life combined,” Flanagan announces, before confiding she can’t remember the theme of her own. (Not to worry, she can tell you the plot of “Carrie” in detail.)

For all these “I dare you to tell me I’m wrong” declarations, Flanagan often proceeds uncertainly. The girls of “Girl Land” are an amorphous lot whom she never quite manages to get her arms around. Who does she claim they are? Well, for starters, there’s the young Caitlin Flanagan. We get a few firsthand accounts of her unremarkable 1970s adolescence — sleepovers, Judy Blume, embarrassing sex chats with Mom and a nasty, unwanted grope in the car. These, presumably, represent some of the “cultural milestones” the book promises to elucidate.

But rather than illumination, we get old-fashioned archetypes and abstractions. Flanagan likes to keep her womenfolk isolated and at home. So there’s the idealized girl who “slips into that private place during her sulks and silences, during her endless hours alone in her room, or even just when she’s gazing out the classroom window while all of modern European history, or the niceties of the passé composé, sluice past her.”

The enemy of such treasured isolation is the Internet. “Taking away the Internet connection in her bedroom is one of the greatest gifts a parent can give a daughter,” Flanagan proclaims (providing no advice about how to block it in an era of iPads, smartphones and municipal Wi-Fi). Why is this such a gift? Because girls without bedroom access to the Internet are free from pornography. They can dream and write in their diaries.

Diaries! There’s a whole chapter on them. If you’re an Anne Frank fan (and according to Flanagan that’s a given), this is the chapter for you. Flanagan has a thing for locked-up girls from the past, and Frank may be the ultimate. Then again, there’s Patty Hearst — whom Flanagan chooses as an example of the “Every Girl.” In a chapter called “Sexual Initiation,” she devotes several pages to the 1974 kidnapping and rape of Hearst, never mind that Hearst, while a woman of intense psychological issues, was neither a virgin nor an adolescent when she was abducted. (And what’s this about connecting rape with “sexual initiation”?) I honestly have no idea how this relates to anything other than an essay Flanagan published on the same subject in 2008 in The Atlantic.

I wish Flanagan (or her editor) had cut this part. I wish she had leafed through fewer old copies of Seventeen magazine and the Girl Scout handbook. I wish there were fewer references to Clara Bow, Walt Disney, Enid Haupt and Betty Smith, and more conversations with actual girls. 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.

Emma Gilbey Keller is a contributor to the American edition of The Guardian. Her latest book is “The Comeback: Seven Stories of Women Who Went From Career to Family and Back Again.” she takes a more sustained look at girls as they leave childhood and head into the treacherous passage of adolescence.

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