Who's Afraid of Caitlin Flanagan?

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The controversial writer isn't scared of being a mean girl.

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Paramount Pictures

I recently received a piece of advice from a mentor: "Your writing," she said, "is stronger and more interesting when you're mean." I doubt Caitlin Flanagan ever needed to be told this. She seems to know instinctively that mean—or at least cutting, withering, sharp-tongued, decidedly not nice—writing is more interesting and enjoyable to read, if not always more socially useful, than writing that is cautious and balanced to the point of insipidity. Flanagan's commitment to playing the role of the mean girl has earned her many enemies. It's also earned her an enviable writing career and a rich, exciting public life. But it's her fearlessness and unexpected (if frequently misguided) compassion for women that makes her a literary hero of mine, even when I think she's wrong.

Flanagan's writing is frequently labeled anti-feminist. A 2004 article in the New York Observer quoted the writer Ann Crittenden on Flanagan: "She's got a shtick: attacking other women. Catfight sells. Nasty, ad hominem, bitchy attacks on other women sell magazines. She's made her name by this stuff." Letters appearing in The Atlantic have accused Flanagan of "mean-girl nastiness" and "reactionary sexual politics." Jezebel dubbed her a "professional pearl-clutcher" and a "delusional nostalgia-peddler in a twinset" with a "fuzzy mind." In Salon, Irin Carmon criticized Flanagan for exhibiting "a Michele Bachmann-esque disregard for facts, only better-read and better-written." On Slate, Ann Hulbert characterized Flanagan as a "bully" "striking the pose of a strident anti-feminist" who often sounds "like a snobbish hypocrite."

These are criticisms Flanagan has, to some extent, brought upon herself, as "feminists" and "the women's movement" are her favorite straw men. But, in spite of her griping about "the women's movement"—a term she never defines, and one that places women she admires in the same category as those she can't stand—her work can't accurately be characterized this way. Her new book, Girl Land, is full of sympathy for girls and women. Page after page is devoted to outlining the many ways in which girls are particularly vulnerable to physical and sexual violence and emotional harm. In Chapter 2, Flanagan reminds her readers that "teens of the opposite sex enter those [romantic] situations on unequal footing: if someone is to be forced into sexual situations, or beaten up, or left with the consequences of pregnancy, if someone is to get the worst of a variety of terrible things that can happen in the privacy and seclusion of a date, it's going to be the girl." Her earnest desire to protect girls' emotional well-being and bodily integrity belies her hostility toward the women's movement; in truth, she's a good deal more sympathetic to the ideals of feminism than many contemporary writers. Many have mistaken her ambivalence about mothers who work outside the home for condemnation. But those who bristled at Flanagan's assertion that women who work rather than staying home with their children "will lose something of incalculable value" ignored the qualifying clause that preceded it: "whichever decision a woman makes." (On the subject of motherhood, Flanagan is a glass-half-empty kind of gal.) As she confesses in her 2006 book To Hell With All That, she is often more drawn to working mothers as friends and is not above mocking overzealous stay-at-home moms.

Flanagan has written that she enjoyed having a mother who stayed home throughout most of her childhood, and that she resented her mother when she briefly returned to paid work. But she also acknowledges that her mother was a great deal happier when working, and characterizes herself as a "wretched little egomaniac" for not having noticed her mother's "glooms and sulks" until, upon her return to work, those unhappy episodes vanished. On balance, Flanagan seems to believe that mothers, herself included, are happier when they have enjoyable paid work to do outside of the home. It's the kids who suffer (or maybe they don't; she isn't sure).

Occasionally, Flanagan acknowledges her own debt to feminism. The daughter of an academic and a frustrated housewife whose depression was cured, according to Flanagan herself, by going back to work, she is too intellectually honest to deny that she has benefitted from the very movement she so often sets herself against. In To Hell With All That, Flanagan writes of "women's lib" and "the women's movement": "To these two forces I owe any number of the rights I take for granted, such as my ability to establish credit in my own name, apply for a business loan, pilot an airplane, get an abortion, work construction, and sue the bejesus out of a male coworker who gooses me in the coffee room." She then adds: "I've never had the occasion or the desire to do any of these things, but if the moment strikes, the way has been made straight for me."

It's hard not to admire her nerve. Flanagan is smart enough not to let her intelligence get in the way of a good sound bite. I find it hard to believe that she has never had occasion to establish credit in her own name. The deliberately cavalier attitude she cultivates towards the extraordinary gains of the women's movement is one shared only by the clueless rich and the willfully ignorant. Flanagan apparently belongs to the former category.

My appreciation for Flanagan has its limits; she is excellent as a personal essayist but absurd as a self-styled authority on curing society's ills. When telling other people what to do, as she does at the end of Girl Land—familiarize yourself with Internet porn! give your daughter a diary and cut off her Internet access! make her introduce her dates to Dad!—she becomes flat-footed, sentimental, nostalgic for an era that never was; in short, a humorless, pinch-mouthed fuddy-duddy.

Another of Girl Land's weaknesses is that Flanagan blurs the line between what girls can and should be shielded from—sexual and physical violence, blatant emotional cruelty—and what is merely a sad but inevitable part of growing up: sexual and romantic disappointment, heartbreak, embarrassment. It is not, after all, her job as a parent to protect America's daughters from the world, one severed Internet connection at a time; it's her job to raise sons who treat other people's daughters with dignity and respect.

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Raina Lipsitz is a Brooklyn-based writer. She writes frequently about race, gender, and popular culture.

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