Hail Caitlin Flanagan

Confession: I love Caitlin Flanagan‘s writing.

I say confession because apparently some feminists despise her. Screw ’em. Flanagan’s essays and reviews are consistently very funny and insightful. Here’s the best profile of her and her latest book.

I’ve linked to her stuff before. Her piece on oral sex, her masterful review of a new Katie Couric book, her hilarious indictment of MySpace fear-mongers, her tear-down of Hillary Clinton and the humorlessness of idealists.

Her latest piece in the December 2008 Atlantic explores the complicated issues arising from the sexualization of teenage girls. Her case study is the Twilight vampire novels phenomenon. I’ve actually never heard of these books but I guess that means I’m not a tween/teen girl. In any event, even if you know nothing about the books, there are some still great paragraphs to excerpt.

On the teen girl’s need for reading:

The salient fact of an adolescent girl’s existence is her need for a secret emotional life—one that she slips into 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. This means that she is a creature designed for reading in a way no boy or man, or even grown woman, could ever be so exactly designed, because she is a creature whose most elemental psychological needs—to be undisturbed while she works out the big questions of her life, to be hidden from view while still in plain sight, to enter profoundly into the emotional lives of others—are met precisely by the act of reading.

On the interesting idea that today’s generation of young women feel pressure to break through the glass ceiling but might also yearn for aspects of a more old fashioned domestic life:

Bella is an old-fashioned heroine: bookish, smart, brave, considerate of others’ emotions, and naturally competent in the domestic arts (she immediately takes over the grocery shopping and cooking in her father’s household, and there are countless, weirdly compelling accounts of her putting dinner together—wrapping two potatoes in foil and popping them into a hot oven, marinating a steak, making a green salad—that are reminiscent of the equally alluring domestic scenes in Rosemary’s Baby). Indeed, the book, which is set in contemporary America and centers on teenage life and culture, carries a strange—and I imagine deeply comforting to its teenage-girl readers—aura of an earlier time in American life and girlhood.

On the snobbiness of New York City prep school kids, particularly those that come from the all-girls schools:

Notoriously set in an Upper East Side girls school that seems to combine elements of Nightingale-Bamford with those of a women’s correctional facility after lights-out, the book gives us a cast of young girls whose desire for luxury goods (from Kate Spade purses to Ivy League–college admissions) is so nakedly hollow that the displacement of their true needs is pathetic.

On the fundamental emotional needs of girls:

In Prep, the heroine wants something so fundamental to the emotional needs of girls that I find it almost heartbreaking: she wants to know that the boy she loves, and with whom she has shared her body, loves her and will put no other girl in her place.

How often is this emotional need expressed to the boy in terms he can understand? Not very often. The expectation is he ought to feel this need and respond to it proactively. Or something. I think.

On how much harder it must be to raise a girl than a boy:

One of the signal differences between adolescent girls and boys is that while a boy quickly puts away childish things in his race to initiate a sexual life for himself, a girl will continue to cherish, almost to fetishize, the tokens of her little-girlhood. She wants to be both places at once—in the safety of girl land, with the pandas and jump ropes, and in the arms of a lover, whose sole desire is to take her completely. And most of all, as girls work all of this out with considerable anguish, they want to be in their rooms, with the doors closed and the declarations posted. The biggest problem for parents of teenage girls is that they never know who is going to come barreling out of that sacred space: the adorable little girl who wants to cuddle, or the hard-eyed young woman who has left it all behind.

2 comments on “Hail Caitlin Flanagan
  • I’m a fan of her stuff as well and just read this essay the other day. It’s the first description of teenage girlhood that I can really grok. If only I’d known this when I was a teenager…

  • Ben, I think you misread Flanagan’s ‘Babes in the Woods’. It’s written with some wit and a certain mistress of the new plantation brio, but there’s nothing hilarious about it– it was intended to be every bit as cautionary as her ‘Are You There, God?’ piece on teenage cum-guzzling sluts in exurbia.

    I do like the way she nails that insufferably corny Dr. Phil and his calculated pandering to the zombie cult Oprah Winfrey crowd, but I wonder why she’s so sure an adolescent girl couldn’t possibly get any sexual satisfaction from giving a blowjob.

    I detect a subliminal imprint in Flanagan’s writing of that fussy 1950’s June Cleaver horror of gravy stains on the tablecloth in her sterile dining room.

    It’s true that no male of whatever age, with however much accumulated wisdom, could possibly understand the mysterious female psyche– after all, Flanagan read Judy Blume on her flowered sheets– we guys played stud poker with pornographic cards and masturbated with Playboys in our treehouses.

    She asserts that the term “train parties” wasn’t seen in print till the ’90s, but I remember clearly how young long-haired satyrs boasted of pulling trains in the ’70s.

    Personally, my only regrets about the sexual wonder and adventure of the psychedelic days was that Tim Leary was full of shit when he advertised the tantric joys of sex with a thousand orgasms on LSD.;-)

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