The latest release from controversial author Caitlin Flanagan is out—and the subject is YOU. Chrissie gets her reviewin' boots on and breaks the book down, one outdated Seventeen reference at a time.—Sparkitors
Girl Land is a book that's basically for moms, written by a mom—but it's not necessarily about you, even though it says it is. Flanagan writes as though you're an army of precious clones with gentle, fragile souls instead of the smart, capable, vibrant people you are. It's annoying. When I finished reading, I figured I might have to bust some heads in your defense, but then I found out that lots of smarties had taken care of that for me:
Emma Gilbey Keller of The New York Times says, "But rather than illumination, we get old-fashioned archetypes and abstractions. … I wish there were fewer references to Clara Bow, Walt Disney, Enid Haupt and Betty Smith, and more conversations with actual girls."
Irin Carmon at Salon is kinda pissed: "Of the many questions formed while reading Caitlin Flanagan’s 'Girl Land,' most pressing is why it was written at all. … this is not a memoir, or it rarely is, and it’s not clear why. After all, a memoir might conveniently free Flanagan from one of her fiercest hostilities — her resistance to empirical data or any evidence at all."
And New York Magazine's Megan O'Rourke with the final one-two: "The real girl land is far more complex than hers."
After reading Girl Land, we think the most obvious issue with the book was detailed fairly accurately by the author herself: "It is frustrating beyond measure for them when a daughter screams,'You don't understand and you'll never understand!' … in this case, the daughter is right: the mother doesn't understand. She merely remembers and memory is separate from experience."
I'm gonna bold this part: Memory is separate from experience.
Flanagan attempts to chat to your moms about what it's like to be a teenager today (and as such, how to protect—ugh—you feisty young fillies) but she forgot to ask any real, live teens. She only calls upon what she can remember from her own experiences and those of a nameless group of people she calls "every woman I've known."
She comes up with milestones, each of which serve as a chapter in the book. Among them: prom, menstruation, and dating. Ok, we get this. But all each chapter succeeds in doing is deconstructing the history of the milestone, with a bunch of long, winding anecdotes (Flanagan used to wear green sweats and once had a boy in her room) and sweeping generalizations thrown in ("Citizens of Girl Land are strongly attracted to diary keeping"). She never gets into relevant territory, as O'Rourke explains, "Rather than face up to that challenging subject, she withdraws into the fifties, sixties, and seventies, when she grew up—so mired in Judy Blume and Patty Hearst that she neglects to fully explore social media, Twilight, Lady Gaga, or, really, anything about how girls live today." Where's the chapter about Facebook? And maybe can we replace diary-keeping with blogging? Also: Judy Blume is always great but that's besides the point! Also also: You can leave the Twilight part out. Just a suggestion.
Girl Land's odd detours include mentions of the Holocaust, how having a period relates to The Exorcist, and far too many references to 1969 issues of Seventeen magazine. O'Rourke mentions, "The book is shadowed by the specter of female vulnerability, and variants on the words 'terror' and 'horror' appear over and over." Bust out the fainting couches. She relies on old-fashioned and obtuse archetypes of teenage girls (based, we guess, on the one Flanagan herself was). These girls like romance and squeal a lot—but, like, WUT ABOUT OPINIONS? U HAZ THEM.
She completely ignores that not all girls want pink things or yearn for domesticity and boyfriends, and reinforces that a strong male presence (ideally, a father) is required to usher a young woman through her dating life. She says, "A father at home is also invaluable to adolescent girls because it makes them far less likely to be targets of the kind of boy so who become emotionally, physically, or sexually abusive." That's a pretty big statement with zero supporting evidence. It's also terrible to think about on a lot of levels. Do you want your dad all up in your dating business? No.
Carmon also hits on two other points that are entirely neglected: "… it’s worth mentioning that non-heterosexuals do not exist in this book, though they do more than ever in the real Girl Land. Flanagan also has curiously little to say about the boys that might visit Girl Land; her two sons are barely mentioned." The girl land you're living in? It has a lot more variations than the pink-frosted girl land Flanagan describes.
The thing about Girl Land is that it's an interesting topic because YOU are interesting. The lives you lead are interesting. The world you're living in and the opinions you have about that world are interesting. But not because you're scientific specimens or objects of misplaced nostalgia—you're real people. It's your Land, we're just living in it.
Have you read Girl Land? Do you think Caitlin Flanagan did justice to the awesomesauce forces of nature that are YOU? (Is that sentence grammatically correct? BUTTEVER.)
Related post: Stuff Our Inner-Feminist Wants More of in 2012