I got home from one of those days in which I was dashing hither and yon doing work-related stuff and found what I really wanted to do was listen to Caitlin Flanagan fulminate in front of Tim Ashbrook and the ever-articulate Irin Carmon on On Point (WBUR). Basically, I listened to the episode so you don’t have to. Here’s are my “live blog” responses to the conversation.
Update: Irin’s own reflections on the interview, and Caitlin Flanagan’s concern trolling of Irin’s girlhood, can be found here.
1:57 – Caitlin Flanagan (CF): “Across time and culture there are certain things about [female adolescence] that are constant.” Wait, what? People making claims about anything being “constant” across time and culture is a huge red flag in my book. Especially when it’s something as historically situated as “adolescence” which, as historians of the family will tell you, is an invention of modernity.
2:48 – CF: “[Adolescence is an] emotionally exquisite experience.” For all girls? Fess up to the fact that you’re talking about yourself, not everyone. At least, I think she was talking about herself? It was confusing. The rose colored glasses were coming out big time here. And I speak as someone who was pretty happy with my life between the ages of twelve and twenty.
3:32 – But then she acknowledges that teenage/adolescent period is a twentieth century phenomenon. So she’s already contradicting her argument about things being constant “across time and culture.”
4:25 – CF is wishing to bring back “protective” mechanisms for girls. She keeps saying “girls” when she’s actually talking about teenagers. Children are not being discussed here.
4:48 – CF talks about how teenagers today are “steeped in pornography,” “sexting” and “hook-up” culture. She’s using the language of moral panic here, which is particularly interesting given the recent data which suggest that the people doing the most “sexting” aren’t teenagers, but adults.
5:46 – CF presents princess culture as innate girlhood, rather than culturally shaped. She should do her homework and read Peggy Orenstein’s book Cinderella Ate My Daughter (or listen to this 40 minute interview) about how princesses are being relentlessly marketed to girls.
6:29 – Tim Ashbrook (TA) uses the phrase “time immemorial.” Oh, Tom, please. She doesn’t need help universalizing this supposed phenomenon.
6:52 – Only six minutes in and I’m already hating the erasure of boys. What about boys who are “drawn to romance”? I knew boys who loved Austen novels and who were sweet and nurturing and interested in sustaining meaningful relationships (of sexual and non-sexual kinds) throughout adolescence. It makes me sick that the only way CF can picture cross-gender relationships is to sexualize them, and the only way she can contain those scary sexualized relationships is to require them to be “dating” relationships.
7:25 – CF: “All she’s thinking about is attracting the attention of other boys that she knows.” So … when teenage girls experiment with gender presentation and dressing up and sexuality, it’s all about male attention? What year is it again, and what rock have you been hiding under?
7:40 – CF: “She’s opened up to a world of sexual threat” … but not joy also? Developing sexuality is going to be entirely framed by fear and threat? “It’s almost not politically correct to admit that it is [threatening].” Oh kill me now. Seriously? The “politically correct” card is such a lame disclaimer to play. Way to make me stop taking anything you say after said disclaimer seriously.
8:05 – CF: “It has been through the ages” again with the universalizing. SO WRONG.
8:30 – TA asks what would be an ideal world [for "girls"] in CF’s eyes, and uses nice qualifiers. Specifically asks for her opinion, not as if she’s an expert. CF looking for “protection.”
9:20 – She keeps circling back to the Internet. Seriously. Like it’s this totally overwhelming thing we as human beings don’t mediate as users.
9:45 – Are girls not capable of making their own rooms a protected space? She keeps talking about how adults have to force their daughters into using their rooms as retreats, when shouldn’t the daughters themselves be making that call? My parents weren’t forcing me to spend hours and hours in my room reading novels and exchanging (totally private, emotionally intense) letters (and later emails) with my closest friends. Why do parents need to enforce this, if it’s what girls want? She doesn’t explain this disconnect.
10:08 – CF: “The school day is so intense for them” – girls specifically? And again, if adults are able to make this space for themselves, why can’t teenagers, if they need it. If CF walks away from “the Internet” when she’s overwhelmed, can’t she just model good self-care to her children?
10:48 – CF [about college students having mementos of childhood in their dorm rooms]: “Men in college don’t have that”? On what basis do you make this assertion?? Have you looked at any young man’s life recently? It makes me wonder how much you know about your own sons, because the men in my life are all over the treasured memories of their childhood. It’s equal-opportunity nostalgia in my own social circle.
11:13 – CF: “There’s no more dating as we knew it” and therefore girls are totally at risk. Again, I wonder where is the trust that young women will make the world the way they want it? Where is the agency? Dating was somehow this magical land of unicorns and rainbows, and this new land of (allegedly) no dating is a nightmare that is being forced on girls? I think straight women might have had something to do with the evolution of hetero courtship?
11:57 – TA acknowledges “pushback” from feminists (thanks TA!), asks is this “just life” that you’re protecting girls from? Good question!
12:27 – CF talks like there’s only “two schools” for raising girls/children — either you’re totally controlling or totally permissive. Her language is one of moderation, as if she’s offering an alternative to all-or-nothing, as if she wants the gains of the feminist movement without the … well, it’s unclear what, but whatever it is, it’s BAD THINGS … but her word choices are all those of moral panic over SEX and girls and SEX.
12:41 – CF talks about “imperatives of male sexuality” which is such a total red flag to me. It’s gender essentialism and it’s bioreductive bullshit. As an example of the loaded language: girls are now “servicing boys”?! TA pushes back on her equation of “freedom” with “oral sex” (and oral sex that is about “servicing,” making it sound like sex is something girls do to comply with manly sexual urges when they’re forced to do so by this awful new freedom thing).
13:50 – I find myself wondering why CF things “support” for girls and young women equals “protection” and control?
15:00 – Again, she’s promulgating a very extreme duality here, despite her tone of moderation: either parents “protect” their girls by limiting their girls’ access to avenues of exploration, or they’re pushing their (unwilling?) daughters into having wild, meaningless sex with bestial boys.
15:39 – A call-in listener introduced as Vica observes that a “dichotomy has been set up” by Flanagan, and that as an Armenian immigrant who’s done cross-cultural research on women, she questions whether freedom is a bad thing. “I’ve had the freedom to explore,” she says, observing that her mother gave her the “same sorts of freedom that she now gives my little brothers.” She points to the risk of socializing women into fear, inferiority.
18:02 – Another listener, Caroline, starts out on a good note: “I’ve found it impossible to actually shield her… you have to talk to them about it.” She argues it’s important to find “talking opportunit[ies] with your daughter” … “you have to equip them” for going out into the world. Then, she describes going through her daughter’s computer history to check for porn access. What. The. Fuck. Invasion of privacy. Not okay.
20:41 – CF: “I think everything that Caroline said is fantastic” … says all parents should be asking their daughters “what are you going to require in a boy?” (God she’s so relentlessly heteronormative) … “[Boys will do whatever it takes to get access to female companionship and ultimately female sexuality." UM WHAT? FUCK YOU. If girls don't hold high expectations, "that's what you'll end up with." Basically, if partner mistreats you, it's all your fault for not demanding better treatment. Places girls in the role of the gatekeeper. She totally needs to hook up with got on a date with Iris Krasnow.
[Irin Carmon joins the program]
23:44 – Irin Carmon (IC): “We need to talk more about how we’re raising our boys and not have such a low opinion of them” … “there’s only so much you can protect girls” and so it’s important to model critiquing the culture, for both girls and boys.
25:04 – IC: “I don’t recognize the girl land CF describes” … Irin’s teenage years were a “fertile time” for her, recognizing that she was lucky to be in safe, supportive community of people. It was okay to talk about sex, to have Instant Messager in her room, etc.
26:17 – IC argues that the real question is “how do you create a dialogue around sexuality that’s about knowledge and not shame” — and how do we bring boys into that dialogue. I love her talking point here, and how it relentlessly calls attention to the fact that CF is relentlessly focused on policing girls’ lives, even as she places the main threat for girls on the shoulders of over-sexed boys.
26: 56 – CF: “I’m the last person to demonize boys” (you smarmy snake-oil saleswoman). Yet she goes right on to say that boys will “follow cues” that girls give them (what are they, pets?). ”Boys will be thrilled with hook up culture,” with “pornified culture.” Like, all boys? All boys are totally interested in sex the way it’s depicted in mainstream, mass-marketed porn? Why exactly do you think boys are “thrilled” with hook-up culture? Because they’re led by their dicks? And what their dicks want is access to pussy 24/7? Please check your research, listen to some actual boys and men (and the researchers who listen to those boys and men) and then we’ll talk. ‘Cause that’s not what I’m hearing. I happen to think men and boys are just as varied in their sexual desires as women, and that it’s irresponsible to start any sentence with “Boys will …” if it’s going to end with a generalization about sex or relationship desires.
28:04 – IC: “I feel like you’re conflating pornified culture with safe sex education.” AMEN.
29:40 – TA questions CF about her argument that the shift from boy/girl dating (in her idealized past) to group activities (which makes it sound like group sex, but I think she means, like, people hanging out together in friendly ways?) hurts girls. What I’m struck by is that back in the very period she’s idealizing (the 50s!), adults were concerned about the very opposite trend. The worry back in the 50s and 60s was that teenagers were doing too much pairing off, when really they should be hanging out in groups and dating around before “going steady.” Really, I wish she’d done some basic research. Like, any research. At all. Into this period she’s supposedly harkening back to.
29:46 – CF on IC’s adolescent boyfriends: “They didn’t really treat her very well…” Oh. My. God. is she concern trolling!! Poor Irin apprently needs to be “treated nicely,” to “find a way that boys would treat her kindly.” It’s like we’re supposed to train boys like circus animals or something. Jesus H. Christ.
31:42 – IC (kicking ass, as usual): “Frankly, my adolescence was fine and so were some of the growing-up boys that I dated” … “I feel really okay … I feel fine about it because I was in a community of really supportive parents” … We’re not doing girls any favors “if we lock them up in their rooms without an internet connection.”
33:05 TA asks CF point-blank: “Is that really the measure of a good adolescence, if you had a boyfriend in high school?” THANK YOU TA.
33:25 – IC: our job is to help teenagers to be “resilient in the face of humans hurting each other.” Because sometimes people are shit even when we do everything right. Newsflash Ms. Flanagan! Women and girls (some of whom aren’t that kindly themselves) can’t domesticate the entire world and make sure no one ever, ever gets hurt by exuding perfect femininity. Or something.
34:55 – CF: “Talking about date rape is almost useless now because kids don’t go on conventional dates”??
35:20 – IC likes TA’s question about what makes a good adolescence: “I emerged feeling happy and connected and with healthy relationships” … and while she says “date rape” as a term is problematic, it’s because (duh) the qualifier makes it seem like there’s gradations of rate. “What we should be talking about is sexual violence” full stop.
36:32 – IC: “My job to actively critique and push back on” the assault on women’s rights. To ask “how do we send girls and boys out into the world … with the resilience to respond” to corrosive messages about what it means to be masculine and feminine, and to be in relationship with one another?
Again, I find myself wondering where, in Flanagan’s view of the world, is the trust that young people will know their own limits? Will grow and learn about themselves? Will say “no, I’ve had enough,” or “that’s not for me”? Why are parents depicted as the enforcers?
38:58 – CF: “If you’re in a marriage and you’re raising children that is the model they will follow.” Um … what about abusive families? What about kids who don’t want their parents’ marriage? What if a girl likes her dad, but actually wants a different sort of man as a sexual partner or … gasp! … a woman? Or both?
39: 35 – TA pushes back against CF’s characterization of IC’s childhood (THANK YOU). Again, CF uses loaded language like “unfettered” and “untrammeled” when talking about access to the Interwebs. “Parenting a teenager [is hard] … now we need to be as vigilant and hardworking as when they were toddlers.”
41:31 – CF: girls are asking “am I capable of being loving and loved by an adult man.” … um. hello? queer women? TA pushes back on the privilege bleeding all over this portrait of family life and CF places responsibility on the wife to keep marriage intact (I’m telling you: Flanagan needs to shack up with Krasnow and they can totally get off one one anothers’ view of wifely responsibility).
42:08 – IC: CF has “nostalgic ideas about family” … while she had a great two-parent home growing up, what “if one of my parents had happened to be abusive,” or “incarcerated”? “You’re setting up a value ‘what do nice girls do’” as if they can create that whole world around themselves. Yet often things happen to us that are beyond our direct control.
43:48 – CF is pretty clearly blaming women for marrying jerks, arguing that we engage in “magical thinking” about how easy marriage is, and become “self-defeating” (I’m telling you: Krasnow/Flanagan is all I can see now, and I totally wish I could erase that from my brain).
44:28 – TA: “I don’t know who’s describing [marriage] as a crap shoot …”. I love how he’s trying to be impartial, but is so clearly skeptical of Flanagan’s hyperbole.
45:06 – CF: “It’s a hardship to be raised without a father.” And … we’re out.
Yeah, I know. It was a little like shooting fish in a barrel. But I had a glass of wine and needed to unwind for an hour. No need to thank me :).
Thankfully, no actual adolescent girls were harmed in the making of this blog post. Or boys either. Or folks who haven’t decided what their gender is. I hope Flanagan’s sons find their own way in the world, and learn to make up their own minds about what it means to be a guy. ‘Cause frankly, their mother’s picture of manhood is depressing as hell.