I was reading a novel by David Lodge when my eye, perhaps due to the libidinous influence of his leading man, began to wander. I took up with some provocative new reading and found myself in the awkward position of juggling two books at the same time. However, as is sometimes the case, my two-timing gave me access to unexpected dovetails and useful, if confusing, lines of inquiry. Upon completing A Man of Parts and Girl Land, the new offering from Caitlin Flanagan, I know that our young girls are in extreme peril: if they are not succored by their families, they will wind up in nude animal ecstasy with H.G. Wells.
I suspect I am not alone in having a love-hate relationship with Caitlin Flanagan that verges on the indecent. Her writing is alluring and memorable. Despite her interest in the traditionally female preoccupations of hearth and home (so much Dior bedding!), she writes with a self-assurance that feels, if we give reign to our troubling gendered taxonomies of thought, masculine. Flanagan does not equivocate, and her style gives her an aesthetic leg up on some of her more mealy-penned critics. I admire her chops, even when she uses them to sound like an unusually well-spoken Rotarian. Caitlin Flanagan is role model of sorts: I sort of think she sucks, but I sort of want to be her.
H.G. Wells, like Flanagan, opined on social matters not as a result of any special training or specific professional insight, but through the confidence that an educated, intelligent, and up-to-date person with access to the press is qualified to weigh in on the questions of the day. The two of them could have had a rousing exchange in the public arena, with Wells combating priggishness and Flanagan pointing out, not inaccurately, that Wells was a pig who elevated his habit of impregnating young virgins by advocating free love. They both take rather a dim view of the most militant women’s libbers, Wells because they are sexless vegetarians; Flanagan because they represent to her a self-destructive moral relativism. Indeed there is no love lost between these two and the traditional Left of their respective days: Wells was too libertine, Flanagan too reactionary.
In Lodge’s well-researched and fantastically engaging novel, Wells, like Flanagan, shows a tendency to put forth his particular preoccupations through literary punditry. Among other things, his writing tried to open the way for his own extremely unorthodox domestic arrangements, which he conducted with difficulty imposed by the prudery of the day. Flanagan’s Girl Land, on the other hand, is a prescriptive meditation on the dangers and mysteries of teen girlhood; it is a strange, sometimes silly document that suggests a working-out of Flanagan’s thoughts about her own adolescence.
Half of Girl Land is a mildly interesting, discursive, and occasionally compelling account of the evolution of the American teenage girl. This evolution is charted by changes in the approach to dating, periods, diaries, sex, and proms in the course of the 20th century. As a quick and dirty social history, Girl Land contains items of interest, even if they are not news. (And sometimes, they might not be history: proms, she says, did not draw inspiration from “the formal dances held at the country’s elite private schools, which were not called proms, and which had little in common with this new kind of event,” an assertion which anyone who has read F. Scott Fitzgerald on the attractions of the Yale Prom knows immediately to be false.)
Using an adult novel by Betty Smith and how-to guides for new brides, Flanagan documents the trauma of marriage for young women with no information about sex and no societal permission to want it. Wells himself encountered trouble in this area, describing his first wife Isabel’s views on sex in his autobiography as “nothing more than an outrage inflicted upon reluctant womankind.” Wells took a somewhat enlightened view about Isabel’s frigidity and, in Lodge’s novelization, when he met her again after marrying a second woman who happened to be uninterested in sex, he asked for another shot: “It was all my fault. I was a clumsy, impatient lover then. It would be different now. I could make up to you for those unhappy nights.” Likewise Flanagan takes aim at the claim that women don’t reach the height of their sexual awakening until their forties: “That a woman’s sexual response has to be ‘learned’ is ridiculous. What has to be ‘learned’ is a male’s sexual technique…The notion of women entering a three-decades-long sexual utopia beginning at the exact year with estrogen begins its steep, irreversible plummet is loony.”
Flanagan sensibly tells us that young women want to have sex, that they feel desire in their teenage years, and that this was in years past made manifest through early, often unhappy marriage. The randiness of women is again borne out by the experience of Wells, who seems to have been surrounded by very young women who went through great lengths and committed all manner of subterfuge to divest themselves of their virtue in his crowded bed. Among these, the affair of Amber Reeves was a scandal which almost had him (and her) hounded out of society. She became pregnant, and he couldn’t marry her on account of being already married to the Christ-like Jane, who spent her time raising her and Wells’ sons and writing kind notes to his young paramours during their confinements. Wells solved the problem by essentially trading the pregnant Amber to a young man who was willing to marry her in spite of her condition. The literary fruit of this union was Ann Veronica, a novel describing a young woman who kicks free of the traces of society and her father by having hot sex with a married man on an Alp.
Lodge, through painstaking use of original correspondence and a careful reading of the man’s innumerable publications, has done a huge service by resurrecting a writer who was also a doer, a social reformer with avenues to foreign and domestic policy at a time when a novelist’s opinion could matter in world affairs. Wells was a leonine figure in English letters, a “comet” now “passed out of sight.” For me he had only vague associations with time machines and a radio scare; shamefully, I’m always forgetting which one it was that was in Citizen Kane. Lodge strikes the perfect balance in his portrait: Wells, as befits a writer, seemed a touchy, insufferable, infuriating, philandering, selfish bastard. And, in spite of it all, a visionary and a regular old charmer.
I was charmed by Lodge’s portrayal, so I read Ann Veronica, and was in turn charmed by its high-flown didacticism written in service of Wells’ libido, and its series of infinitely quotable quotes. Wells was what might crudely be called a poonhound, a characteristic that corresponded nicely with his ideals about free love and the sexual liberation of women. And even though he wrote Ann Veronica in order to justify the patently awful position in which he had placed a young woman of extremely bright prospects, it strikes many palpable hits against the Flanagans of his day (it also caused an uproar).
In common sense and the life of H.G. Wells, the wages of sin are pregnancy or disease, realities that Flanagan notes in her overview of teenage sexuality in previous decades. Bizarrely, when she arrives at the present-day state of affairs in Girl Land, the consequences of untrammeled teen sexuality are less clear. Pregnancy and disease do not enter the equation in Flanagan’s criticisms of our current sexually explicit culture; her one reference to Planned Parenthood, the traditional province of these problems, is a throw-away swipe at their website, upon which it is evidently possible to find information on the art of fellatio. (By the way, H.G. Wells might have learned this from the source — he had sex with Margaret Sanger too.)
Flanagan giggles at what she calls “Moral Panics,” the adult furor fueled by rumors of “rainbow parties,” wherein young girls are said to fellate willy-nilly, leaving unlikely rainbows of lipstick upon a squadron of teenage johnsons. Flanagan debunks the rainbow party, but assures us nonetheless that oral sex has left its previous province of the exotic (exotic, yet the novelist Violet Hunt is reported to have enthusiastically performed it upon H.G. Wells) and become totally commonplace for American teens. Still, it’s not so much of a problem for Flanagan, she writes, because she has sons, less likely to be “wounded, emotionally and spiritually, by early sexual experience, or by sexual experience entered into without romantic commitment, as are women and girls.”
More disturbing to Flanagan are rap and pornography, and their unspecified deleterious effects on the development of young women. One of her major canards is that the left, and feminists, are at great pains to valorize pornography, the same way, she tells us, they valorize “black urban America,” which is represented in Flanagan’s sketchy diorama of cultural decay by rap music. Flanagan is alone in an amoral hellscape:
I believe that we are raising children in a kind of postapocalyptic landscape in which no forces beyond individual households — individual mothers and fathers — are protecting children from pornography and violent entertainment. The ‘it takes a village’ philosophy is a joke, because the village is now so polluted and so desolate of commonly held, child-appropriate moral values that my job as a mother is not to rely on the village but to protect my children from it.
What this all means for children is unclear, because Flanagan does not tell us. She points out that women in pornography often come from abusive childhoods, and yet she does not suggest that all of the young blowjob queens, their spirits warped by songs “in which [they are] urged to suck dick and get fucked” will venture down this path. Likewise she mentions the problems of eating disorders and cutting, yet fails to properly correlate these with her concerns about the culture at large. Rather than provide real documentation of the consequences of lewd and sexist music, she reports on the Pimps and Hos prom after-party, on the well-bred Los Angeles girls who “jostle off the party buses and onto the sidewalk, where they are regarded with surprised delight by whatever men happen to be there — homeless guys, street thugs, the club’s bouncers, wanderers — and who had not expected to get an eyeful of very young, upper-middle-class girls dressed in panties and boots.” Here Flanagan forgets her earlier chapters, echoing the spirit if not the letter of racial panic she described in the 1960s, during which time it was feared that (white) runaways would be preyed upon by men “some black, some white.”
Even as she fails to quantify in a meaningful way the consequences of a culture harmful to young girls, Flanagan exercises the nuclear option of parental judgment, arguing that the wages of permissive parenting is no less than death. In Girl Land, she supplies the example of Melanie Bellah, a 1970s liberal mother who allowed her daughter the freedom to kill herself with drugs and sex. In a recent review cum retrospective of Joan Didion that is as compelling as it is cruel, Flanagan names that author an accomplice in the death of her child. These women presumably invited Flanagan’s judgment by putting the details of their lax parenting in writing, which Flanagan herself does not do. And as her children have the virtue of being alive, there is no obvious route via which the distant reader might criticize her parental choices. Her house is of the most opaque glass.
And yet, if we are to glean what we can from the details she includes in her book, we might see how Girl Land is a working-out of something deep and personal, offering parental guidance for the daughter she doesn’t have based on her own remembered girlhood. Her early experience with the dangers of dating occurred when she was “emotionally troubled” and her parents were away, “meeting with [her] father’s publisher in the city.” Later she tells us, “At the time of my adolescence my mother was too distracted to give me everything I needed to turn out well. But 20 percent of her attention was enough, because the whole culture was supporting her.” Her melancholy epilogue describes how she left home as a young woman: “convulsively and competely, with a kind of scorched-earth finality that was the product of the particular times we grew up in and of the intensity of the family drama we were desperate to escape.” It’s as if Flanagan examines her own teenage close calls in an age where the lewdest thing she could get her hands on was Judy Blume’s Forever, compares them to a Rihanna song, and concludes that the sky is falling. This would explain why she doesn’t explore the real and particular dangers of our current moment, or introduce us to any teenagers living in it. I think a memoir would have made better sense, and better reading.
Flanagan, like any person ever to be alive, believes that she is living in unprecedented times: “…the culture, as always, presses forward, and the dream has become more fraught with ugliness and threat…” It’s true that you can say things now in music that are the absolute height of vulgarity (and violence). But I’m also struck by the parallels between her censure of our moment and that of Ann Veronica père, who receives his daughter’s request to go to a dance with her neighbors, the Widgetts, with unbridled horror.
She seemed to think he was merely the paymaster, handing over the means of her freedom. And now she insisted that she MUST leave the chastened security of the Tredgold Women’s College for Russell’s unbridled classes, and wanted to go to fancy dress dances in pirate costume and spend the residue of the night with Widgett’s ramshackle girls in some indescribable hotel in Soho!
The Lord alone knows what they might do in that indescribable hotel — it’s the prom after-party with a vengeance. When Ann Veronica rebels against her father and runs off to live alone in a furnished bedsit, he reflects, “A man’s children nowadays are not his own. That’s the fact of the matter. Their minds are turned against him … Rubbishy novels and pernicious rascals. We can’t even protect them from themselves.” In a conversation with an acquaintance, he talks of the corrupting influence of the culture at large: “There ought to be a Censorship of Books. We want it badly at the present time. Even WITH the Censorship of Plays there’s hardly a decent thing to which a man can take his wife and daughters, a creeping taint of suggestion everywhere. What would it be without that safeguard?”
Flanagan writes about playing Milton Bradley’s Mystery Date, how girls of her generation secretly hoped for the sexy “dud,” “a grease monkey with a five o’clock shadow dressed in a mechanic’s uniform.” A friend of Ann Veronica’s father opines “What a girl of sixteen cares for is hair and a high color and moonlight and a tenor voice. I suppose most of our daughters would marry organ-grinders if they had a chance — at that age,” and suggests, much like Flanagan, “I think we ought to teach them more or restrain them more. One or the other. They’re too free for their innocence or too innocent for their freedom.”
Like the adults who surround and censor Ann Veronica, Flanagan seems less concerned with all the fragile residents of Girl Land, than with the girls of a certain class and upbringing. Like Wells, Flanagan runs in rarified circles. The young women with whom Wells dallied were intelligent young women with parents of means, either in the form of social or real hard capital. Rebecca West, Amber Reeves, Rosamund Bland — these are young women for whom early sexual experience was less likely to lead to ruin. Flanagan’s examples of teen or tween excursions into promiscuity are in every instance from class backgrounds where young women have the greatest prospects, even the Canoga prom-goers of the “impressive but nonheady eighty thousand dollars a year family incomes.” Yes, there are the young women who were lost in the permissive 1970s, but they are presented as extreme cautionary tales precisely because their they were from wealthy and educated families. If it can happen here, and all that.
Misogyny still reigns, and obviously there are connections to be made between wounding sexual experiences, for girls of any class, and a variety of troubles. Flanagan does not make them. If we look again to the young women of Wells’ acquaintance, we concede that an affair with the premier man of letters of the day is not experientially equivalent to giving an unreciprocated blowjob to a be-khakied stranger at a Pimps and Hos party. Still, Wells presents us with some real consequences of naive young ladies’ liberation: they might be lent money under the pretense of friendship and lured into cabinets particuliers for an almost-rape. In real life, Wells’ youngest conquests ended up with babies (and, apparently, a surprising lack of resentment). For Flanagan, the act of listening to lewd music, being ogled by street toughs while wearing fancy dress, is as much as you need to know. Vulgarity is as appalling in its own right for her as it was for Ann Veronica’s father.
(A brief digression: My high school girlfriends and I knew every last word to the song “Put it in Your Mouth,” a song that makes me blush today, a song that would have sent our parents into conniptions. We sang it in our rooms with enormous gusto. That was more than 10 years ago, and today we all appear, on the surface at least, to have muddled through, to good schools and jobs and fulfilling relationships. This was a boarding school, a fortress of privilege, and this will always have more to do with outcomes than a song about blowjobs.)
It seems like Flanagan has written two books — one book is a quiet look at her own young womanhood, set against a brief history of the rearing of young women. I found her sympathetic portrait of Patty Hearst moving, and I love that Flanagan, she of the Dior bedspreads, talks blood puddles and clots as she describes the carnage of menarche. But the second part of this book is polemical and inchoate. Flanagan is good at talking about the times, just not the times we’re in, and when she turns her eye on the current scene, such as it is, and particularly when she offers her prescriptions for preserving the emotional and physical health of young women, she sounds not only hopelessly out of touch, but lacking the critical faculties her readers know her to possess.
Her recommendations for reader-parents are “Take the fifteen-minute tour,” “Make her bedroom an Internet-free zone,” “Get her father involved in her dating life,” “Remember: giving a girl limits doesn’t limit the girl,” and she ends with the half-hopeful, half-sinister promise that “Girl Land ends.” In the first of these, she instructs parents to Google “porn” and see what happens, in a manner that suggests they won’t believe what they find. This is by far the dumbest moment in Girl Land, and the fact that it represents one of the biggest bees in Flanagan’s bonnet is not good news for the book. I know that the Internet is scary, and indeed the few quick keystrokes it takes to access hardcore pornograpy is a far cry from my own painstaking teen journeys through Clan of the Cave Bear to find the nasty parts. But you don’t have to be a porn apologist to know that if Flanagan thinks her adult readers, thousands of whom read her solely on the Internet, don’t know the kinds of things they can find in its darkest recesses, she has broken with reality. At the very least, someone likely to buy a book by Caitlin Flanagan is also likely to read a newspaper, from which they will hear such tidings as the Supreme Court’s ruling on “crush videos.”
The Internet is not an artifact that struck the earth out of a clear blue sky; it is an ever-enlarging cabinet of human curiosities — awful, trivial, delightful, aspirational — built over time by people who are mostly alive today. Flanagan’s 15-minute tour is so weirdly limited, imagining her readers as a cadre of people just like her, who’ve never poked around the Internet or indeed spent vast swathes of their daily life thereon. Most adults with an Internet connection have already taken the 15-minute tour, and then some — the same dad who is meant to involve himself in his daughter’s dating life probably doesn’t need to Google “porn” to know where to find it.
Speaking of dads, H.G. Wells knew all about them — to them he was a Svengali. Boundaries and glowering fathers with well-oiled shotguns are well and good, but teenagers live to defy them. And the more unreasonable the parental stricture seems, the more likely the teens, like the dinosaurs in Jurassic Park, will find a way. Ann Veronica’s father says to her:
What nonsense is this?…You have this home. You have friends, acquaintances, social standing, brothers and sisters, every advantage! Instead of which, you want to go to some mixed classes or other and cut up rabbits and dance about at nights in wild costumes with casual art student friends and God knows who. That — that isn’t living! You are beside yourself. You don’t know what you ask nor what you say. You have neither reason nor logic. I am sorry to seem to hurt you, but all I say is for your good. You MUST not, you SHALL not go. On this I am resolved. I put my foot down like—like adamant. And a time will come, Veronica, mark my words, a time will come when you will bless me for my firmness to-night. It goes to my heart to disappoint you, but this thing must not be.
When dad sets limits, what does Ann Veronica (and her real-life inspiration) do but run off in an even greater display of rebellion than was already planned. I don’t suggest that parents, knowing the extent of teenage willfulness, should avoid imposing rules altogether. I also know that Flanagan’s panic about blowjobs has more to do with very young teenagers, and not college-aged women like Ann Veronica. The parallels here are by no means exact — Ann Veronica was written 100 years before Flanagan began her fretting. But I think it is useful to consider the way that Flanagan’s rhetoric so closely echoes the hysteria that has always surrounded girls’ sexuality, hysteria she herself describes in the early chapters of her book.
Teenage girls are not insensible to the world around them. They know that they are the object of speculation and worry. They want to know things about themselves, and as Flanagan herself did in adolescence, they look for any and all information. Some of them will read her book — I took Reviving Ophelia off my mother’s shelf and from it learned all about the contemporary perils by which I was alleged to be threatened. Books like these often end up being important to young women, and while Flanagan makes some very sound points on the way that spending part of your social life online can extend the pressures and anxieties of the high school day, her clear unfamiliarity with the specific nature of the online universe will make her sound ludicrous to the young people who are the subject of her concern. The Internet is full of stupidity and bullying and horrors, it is true. But it is also full of camaraderie and comfort, information and inspiration. There are unprecedented avenues to empathy in the vast digital web. But this is a luddites’ book, in which no actual teenage girls appear, and all the material seems to be taken from at least 10 years ago. (Additionally, the alarmist tone of the last pages of Girl Land belies some of Flanagan’s previous writing, in which she identifies a self-protective strain of traditionalism in girls’ enthusiasm for Glee or High School Musical.)
There is work to be done on Flanagan’s topic, but she doesn’t do it in Girl Land. And the women who do write about rape culture and get into it with virulently misogynist apes (usually online), are the kind of capital-F feminists Flanagan typically has no time for. Because Flanagan is careless with her arguments, because she assumes that it is bad enough to quote a grotesque lyric from a song, or vaguely refer to the “millions of Facebook pages” to prove that “some of the best and brightest girls have come to believe [the] poisonous message” that “women exist merely to please men,” she sounds as out of touch as Ann Veronica’s father, like any square parent from time immemorial. I know that Flanagan is right about a lot of things, but I expect her to do more than express garden-variety shock and phone in some obvious recommendations for good parenting.
Ann Veronica belongs to a sequence of H.G. Wells’ novels known as the “prig novels,” novels wherein he battled the social mores of the day. Wells was wrong about a lot of things, Lodge tells us, and he was an asshole (when a young Rebecca West gives birth to his child, he complains that it takes away from their sex life). He did not always have, even, the courage of his convictions, which could be molded according to the direction of the prevailing public or private wind. Like Caitlin Flanagan, he made some questionable pronouncements. But his way of being a public intellectual, whether through the prediction of tanks or free love, his fierce investment in public life, his accurate reading of the present even as he sometimes inaccurately predicted the future, makes Girl Land, with its lack of analytical rigor, its prim pronouncements, its dated material, its wilful ignorance about the new landscape, look like weak sauce indeed.
Image Credit: Flickr/Hannah_Vdv