Caitlin Flanagan has scores of enemies. With each piece she pens, the college counselor-turned-social critic incites waves of online ire. Her essays on marriage, family, and modern women have earned her nicknames across the blogosphere. Salon.com calls her “our favorite antihero.’’ On Slate’s Double X blog, she’s referred to as a “working mother scourge.’’ A Jezebel post describes one of Flanagan’s essays in the Atlantic - in which she argues that a Duke University graduate’s ratings of her sexual exploits with athletes constitutes a kind of cautionary tale - as “so breathtakingly offensive and condescending that it arguably sets a new bar for the genre.’’
Flanagan’s new book, “Girl Land,’’ looks at how the coming-of-age experience of girls has changed over the decades and argues for greater parental protection and involvement. The title phrase gets repeated four-dozen times throughout and becomes the first clue that something is amiss. Yes, her take will upset readers, but this time it’s more likely to earn eye rolls than blood thirst. “Becoming a woman,’’ writes Flanagan in her introduction, “is an act partly of nature and partly of self-invention; Girl Land is the place and time in which all of this is worked out.’’ Though she sprinkles the first pages with geographically inflected figurative language - “traditional milestones,’’ “the passage . . . into womanhood,’’ “the ever-shifting landscape of today’s youth culture.’’ It remains unclear why Flanagan insists on framing her topic in spatial terms at all. Adolescence is not a place. That she stresses again and again that it is does not prove insightful; the shoehorned construction just doesn’t make any sense.
If you’ve followed Flanagan’s career over the past few years - either with sincere interest or mocking anger - you’ll recognize a lot of the material in “Girl Land’’ from the Atlantic, where Flanagan is a contributing editor. It’s not uncommon for books, especially nonfiction, to be a repository for past magazine pieces, but it is uncommon for a book to select from a single publication. “Girl Land’’ reads like a lucky book deal: full of requisite sociological pegs; the bulk having already been written, as shown by the illogically ordered chapters, ranging vastly in specificity and even significance (“Sexual Initiation’’ follows “Diaries’’; “Proms’’ comes just before “Moral Panics.’’)
It can feel as though Flanagan is egging us on, eager to play the hated schoolmarm. She selects outliers from contemporary culture (rap lyrics, provocative young adult novels) and then presents them as representative of the way we live now. The book is flush with foolish rhetorical questions (“In primitive cultures they take girls away for a month to get used to the idea [of her menarche]. Why just a month? Why not a decade? Why not forever?’’ ), and Flanagan cannot help herself from patronizing her own subjects with clinical, but meaningless sentences (“Girls are powerfully drawn to the popular culture of their age, which they find mesmerizing and enticing’’).
It is a pity that Flanagan does not do more close reading of archival material; it is not only her greatest skill but also a distinct pleasure of much nonfiction. Flanagan’s most concentrated historical effort occurs in the chapter about dating, which is the book’s best. She pulls telling quotes from novels aimed at adolescent girls and presents us with delightful primary sources, like a midcentury ad for Baltimore’s “Twixteen Shop,’’ a boutique “Where the Particular Needs of Miss Fourteen-to-Twenty Are Carefully Studied and Intelligently Provided For.’’ She also culls decades’ worth of dating guidebooks, parsing them for now-obsolete conventions, and concluding that most perform the rhetorical feat of disguising “quiet safety mechanisms’’ as points of etiquette.
It might seem like an unserious insight, but if “Girl Land’’ had more of them, it would be a more serious book. It’s no surprise that Flanagan’s most grounded work occurs in the archives. Having to explain artifacts from the past prevents her from doing the kind of thinking and writing that makes her critics so angry - elitism veiled as moral code and relentless prescriptivism. But dissenters will find enough points of contention to keep them riled up. “Girl Land,’’ after all, ends with a five-point list of instructions.
Alice Gregory is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in New York magazine, The Poetry Foundation, NPR.org, and The New York Observer. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.