Who's Afraid of Caitlin Flanagan?

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


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.

The impulse to protect girls is a noble one, but it's almost always resented by the girls deemed in need of protection. At 29, I'm no girl, but I'm also close enough to "Girl Land" to remember, perhaps more clearly than the 51-year-old Flanagan, what it was like. I can report with confidence that, despite my exposure to what Flanagan feels is our newly toxic culture, my preadolescence was not the terrifying, unnavigable hellscape Girl Land conjures. I grew up with an Internet connection, listened enthusiastically though not exclusively to misogynistic rap (Snoop Dogg and Eminem were staples of every high school party I attended), and only once introduced a date to my father (my father is a lawyer, and my date was in need of legal advice about a contested speeding ticket).

Would I have been better off growing up with a diary instead of the Internet, listening to Doris Day, and introducing all my dates to Dad? It's impossible to say. One of the reasons I have few regrets about my upbringing is that I, like Flanagan, was lucky enough to grow up with two devoted parents who loved their children deeply. My mother was at home for much of my childhood, but she also worked part-time and wrote. I don't remember feeling particularly bereft when she wasn't there—quite possibly because she almost always was there—but I do remember feeling intensely cared for, by both of my parents, whether or not they were on hand to interrogate my dates. My dates didn't need to be intimidated by my father because my parents raised me to demand kindness and respect for myself.

Even at her most unappealingly prescriptive, Flanagan is smart, candid, and confident to a fault. For such a determinedly feminine woman, she is possessed of a most unfeminine trait: she is absolutely unafraid of offending. And few people, feminists not excluded, feel entirely comfortable with a woman who doesn't care whether or not she is liked. Not only does Flanagan appear unconcerned with the opinions of others; she seems to enjoy provoking their anger. Paradoxically, this antagonistic streak has always endeared her to me. Nothing is more boring than a woman who would rather be liked than say something interesting.

What upsets people most about her writing is not what she actually says—most of which is reasonable and even rather obvious—but the manner in which she says it. According to the New York Times' review of Girl Land, "Adolescence is a fitting subject for Flanagan, who over the years has developed something of a middle-school persona as a critic and essayist." Flanagan is "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 . . ." The reviewer takes issue with Girl Land's "bulldozer rhetoric" and "'I dare you to tell me I'm wrong' declarations." In the same paper's review of To Hell With All That, Pamela Paul wrote, "She can come across as a self-satisfied classroom prankster, grinning at her own impolitic gibes and daring her targets to cry."

Is Flanagan the nasty schoolyard bully her Times reviewers make her out to be? I don't think so. Her specific targets (Alix Kates Shulman, Susan Chira, Naomi Wolf) are not defenseless girls but grown women with books and careers of their own. To the extent one could argue that she is, this is a deliberate pose, assumed for professional purposes. This is what so many people, often other women, don't like about her: it isn't that she's wrong, although she sometimes is, and it certainly isn't that she is stupid or a poor writer (though as a book-length work, Girl Land is far weaker and less coherent than To Hell With All That). It isn't even that she is inconsistent: Isn't the test of a first-rate intelligence the ability to hold two opposing ideas in mind at the same time? What really rankles is that she's sharp, authoritative, and gleefully, unapologetically mean.

Flanagan is a polemicist. She writes first and asks questions later—this is what lends her writing its piquancy. Her books would not otherwise command our attention; if she were timid and equivocating rather than brash and provocative, she would never have been able to reinvent herself as a writer in her early 40s. It's part of her job to generate controversy. Adult women who are wounded to the core by the sly put-downs of professional flamethrowers like Flanagan need to toughen up. The firmer one's convictions and the stronger one's sense of self, the easier it is to read (and enjoy!) writers like Flanagan and the late, great Christopher Hitchens, whom I read with gusto, even when he was espousing positions I found absurd or abhorrent. Humor and style cover a multitude of sins.

As Flanagan wrote in the preface of To Hell With All That, "when a woman works outside the home, she uses the best of her mind and education, exerting her authority and power on the world beyond her doorstep." If you lay claim to a public persona, you risk having your ideas and the way you express them scrutinized and potentially misinterpreted. You risk offending, and you risk being ridiculed. If you want to participate in the world of big ideas, you must say things that may not be popular. Caitlin Flanagan does not care if people think she's mean. What could be more feminist than that?