Caitlin Flanagan Addresses “Hysteria,” Says Teen Girls “Need More Protection”

Conservative lady-splainer Caitlin Flanagan is handwringing over the teen girls again. No, not only in her new book, Girl Land, which frets about “eighth-grade girls who know how to roll on condoms because they’ve learned that in school.” She’s also fretting in last weekend’s New York Times op-ed page regarding the teen girls in LeRoy, New York, who came down with Tourette’s-like symptoms like tics and barking. Flanagan, who writes for The Atlantic Monthly and The New Yorker, tied it to other cases of female mass hysteria — emphasis on the word female here — including “the Salem witch trials” and “poltergeist hauntings.”

Her diagnosis of this hysterical outbreak? Teen girls “deserve more protection.” Flanagan is the Lifetime Original Movie of New Yorker writers: she exploits the anxiety that middle-class, suburban, white women have — about themselves and about their daughters’ sexuality and safety. Flanagan, in a nutshell, addresses modern conundrums regarding gender and family life  by calling for a return to both the real and imagined paternalism of 1950s-era The Way Things Never Were.

Her book To Hell With All That: Loving and Loathing Our Inner Housewife, which I read when it came out, glorified the benefits of kids being raised by stay-at-home moms. (There is nothing wrong with being a SAHM — I was raised by one and hope to be one someday — but guess what Flanagan herself is?) Critics bopped the book for prescribing SAHM-hood while at the same time flaunting the Flanagan family’s nanny and maid.  

Girl Land (which I myself have not read yet, as Amelia snatched the review copy it off my desk immediately [Sorry, I needed a doorstop. — Editor]) addresses all the different ways that girls are less, as she phrases it, “protected” than ever before. Hmm, interesting that the decline in girls’ “protection” should correlate to the upswing in girls’ and young womens’ freedom! What sort of “protection” do you suppose these fragile flowers need? As writer Irin Carmon elucidated in a scathing review of Girl Land:

… Flanagan has a retrograde vision of the safe home, guarded by a male protector, that seems utterly ignorant of how lives are more often lived. The most bafflingly terrible portion of the book is a series of tips at the end on how to preserve the endangered Girl Land. Tip No. 3 is “Get her father involved in her dating life,” because that renders adolescent girls “far less likely to be targets of the kinds of boys who become emotionally, physically or sexually abusive.” Really? What if her father, or equivalent thereof, is also any of those things, a sad truth of many girls’ (and boys’) lives?

So it’s no surprise that Caitlin Flanagan is associating the recent New York “hysteria” outbreak with the lack of protections for young girls. (Never mind that boys have “hysterical” outbreaks, too.)  Girls must be “hysterical” because their parents and society aren’t looking out for them anymore, like they did in The Good Old Days. (Also never mind how that fails to explain why young girls at so many other historical periods in time — take her own example, the Salem witch trials — have dealt with hysteria.) Flanagan doesn’t stipulate exactly what protections girls need, instead calling more generally for protection. She writes: 

What girls need during [adolescence] is a stable and supportive space in which to work out all of this drama. In many respects a teenage girl’s home is more important to her than at any time since she was a small child. She also needs emotional support and protection from the most corrosive cultural forces that seek to exploit her when she is least able to resist. Most of all she needs some privacy to work to make a way for herself as a strong and confident young woman. The emotional swings of normal female adolescence attest to its intensity, and they are also the reason girls need and deserve more protection during this time of their lives.

A supportive home is certainly important for any child; yes, privacy has become all too precious in the Facebook age. These intangibles, however, are hardly tantamount to the Lifetime Original Movie crisis that Caitlin Flanagan makes it sound like. (Regarding “privacy,” which I assume means the de-Facebook-ification of adolescence, well, it’s not quite as awful as scaremongerers make it look.As recently as this December, researchers from the journal Pediatrics found only one percent of kids age 10 to 17 in a study had sent naked pictures of themselves. And it was a co-ed study, which means girls accounted for less than one percent.) Scaremongering aside, Flanagan doesn’t provide any concrete suggestions to help girls address these intangibles. To me, this piece just screams that she was trying to promote her book in the pages of the New York Times op-ed page and seized on the first teen girl-related news item to do it.

I don’t disagree that adolescence is a difficult time for teenage girls. (Who would?) It is difficult for teen boys as well, of course, but teen girls are saddled with the added burdens of realizing society gets very funny about our bodies and our sexuality. But as I see it, the problem is that girls need less so-called “protection” — from slutshaming over the way they dress and behave, from reproductive health laws, from paternalistic fathers and brothers — to acceptance, encouragement, and empowerment. In a recent essay, I suggested that parents or extended family teach teen girls how to know their limits when drinking, so that they are less susceptible to bad stuff happening if they overdrink.  That’s something tangible we can do to empower (and yes, protect!) growing young women. 

Rather than handwringing that girls need more “protection” in regards to their sexual coming-of-age, it seems most helpful to me to build up girls to be strong, adult women by teaching them skills to deal with adulthood. And that goes double for girls living in poverty, girls whose sexuality or appearance deviate are not reflected in mainstream pop culture, and girls whose families are struggling with illness or substance abuse. Those girls are likely not to be receiving much “protection” in their home of any sort. 

Oh well. Caitlin Flanagan probably means well deep down. Right?

[New York Times]

[Chicago Tribune]



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