Few people are as experienced at generating controversy as US essayist Caitlin Flanagan, who has previously incited female ire with her takes on everything from housewives (“Women have a deeply felt emotional connection to housekeeping”) and working mothers (“At a certain point a mother must choose between her work and her child”) to the flaws of Joan Didion.
Last week, Flanagan’s new book Girl Land, which argues that the Internet has a destabilizing effect on teenage girls, was published in the US, and promptly kickstarted an Internet war.
“The current culture, with its driving imperatives of exhibitionism, of presenting oneself to the world in the most forward and blasting way possible, has made the experience of Girl Land especially charged and difficult,” Flanagan writes. “There is no such thing as a private experience any more ... I would contend that [this] is most punishing to girls.”
US critics have been swift to disagree. In the New York Times, Emma Gilbey Keller accused Flanagan of “old-fashioned archetypes and abstractions;” at New York magazine, Meghan O’Rourke accused her of perpetuating “a tired picture of girls as victims-in-the-making;” while in a detailed takedown on Salon.com, Irin Carmon concluded: “Flanagan is too lacking in empathy and too interested in imposing the contours of her own life and her own conservative counter-rebellion to shed much light on them.”
That last piece led to an intense debate between the two women on National Public Radio’s On Point, culminating in Flanagan asking a stunned Carmon: “What could we adults have done to help you with your dating relationships [at high school]?”
The subsequent Twitter storm saw prominent US writers from the New York Times’ Rebecca Traister to the New Yorker’s Emily Nussbaum weigh in.
“I’m not sure why having a boyfriend is a measure of your health as a young woman,” tweeted Traister while Jessica Valenti, author of The Purity Myth, adding: “Wow, I’m really glad you have someone like her looking out for [...] your high-school dating life.”
The 28-year-old Carmon admits she was surprised by Flanagan’s attack.
“I didn’t expect her to try and psychoanalyze me or fix my childhood,” she says. “I feel that she spoke to me ... with contempt and profound condescension.”
For Carmon, the bigger issue remains Flanagan’s failure to place female adolescent experience in a wider context.
“Most of the e-mails I got after that interview were from fathers,” she says. “A lot of men disliked the way that she places all the responsibility on girls and women to make sure that boys and men treat them right.”
Flanagan, a self-described “pro-abortion, pro-gay rights Democrat,” is unrepentant.
“She brought her personal life into the discussion. She said: ‘I was on the Internet as a teenager and I’m fine,’” she said of Carmon. “She’s young and she’s of that sexting, hooking-up culture. And I felt it was fair enough to ask: ‘How did it go for you with boys at high school?’ I wasn’t surprised that it didn’t go well.”
Flanagan argues that her book is only divisive because people are afraid to confront the reality of the Internet.
“I think people my age — I’m 50 — are anxious not to seem fuddy duddy and so they become huge advocates of Internet use,” she said. “Girls need a time when they’re not constantly assailed by what everyone thinks about them or about what they wore to school.”