Sunday, February 12, 2012

Stepping Back in Time: Reviewing Caitlin Flanagan's Girl Land

The first I knew about Girl Land was a parody produced by Bitch magazine to mimic LOLcats. A series of cat photographs were overlaid with old-fashioned quotations about how girls should be. This sounded intriguing. First: here was a book about the history of girlhood. Second: feminists hated it.

Caitlin Flanagan’s Girl Land will not be released in Australia until April, but I bought an ebook and started reading on my laptop straight away. Part of the criticism levelled at Flanagan is that she has not talked to any actual girls in order to write her book. As I work on girlhood in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, I think a lot can be gained by understanding how girlhood was culturally constructed in the past and by comparing how these constructions have changed. A book on how girlhood has transformed in the United States from the 1920s could be extremely valuable, but, sadly, Flanagan has not fully exploited the potential of the histories of girlhood to help us think about contemporary girlhood.

It seems it is something a sport to tear the book to shreds, but I must join the chorus of critique, even if I did find some sections of the book illuminating. To begin with the obvious, the very title and concept of female adolescence as “Girl Land” is a bit twee, suggesting it is an almost “magical” state that is lost through sexual maturity. Boys don’t feel the same way, it seems. They don’t even care about their old toys, unlike girls who feel emotionally connected to them because they mourn the loss of their childhood. Flanagan must have watched Toy Story to gain this information.

One of the central premises of Girl Land is that a girl is “a creature designed for a richly lived interior life…in a way most boys are not” (6). This means that girls like to spend time alone in their room pondering, writing in diaries and reading. Flanagan hit a raw nerve when she jumped from this nostalgic idea of diaries with little metal locks and keys, to suggesting that girls should not have computers with access to the internet in their rooms.

I agree with Flanagan’s suggestion that how girls choose to record their interior lives has changed, and that through using the internet they both reflect “on their emotional lives" and "broadcast the ephemeral enthusiasms of their Girl Land" (61). Well, I don’t know about the “Girl Land” bit, but there is indeed pressure to keep up another kind of online identity, composed of Facebook photos, carefully worded profiles and suitably up-to-date references and memes. We have seen problems with cyberbullying, in that young people no longer come home and escape from schoolyard problems. Harassment can continue at any time of the week online via email or on social networks, or via text messages.

Yet Flanagan does not fully draw out what being part of the first generation raised from birth with computers and the internet is like. I’m quite amazed to see the kinds of websites girls now code and design in a way that I could not manage as an adult, as well as the online comics and stories they create. What might be the positive and empowering aspects of access to the internet for girls? Instead of considering the answer to this question, Flanagan recalls her own girlhood periods of respite in her bedroom in her “forest green tracksuit” (it sums up the lack of social pressure within the sanctuary of a girl’s bedroom) and suggests that the internet “violates” the sacred space of the room “and robs [girls] of the essential requirements of keeping a diary” (62).

I think this is where we find the launching pad for criticism to get ugly. Who says keeping a diary is essential to girlhood? Girls are writing blogs, making sophisticated compilations of images (some of which they have photographed themselves) on sites like tumblr, and keeping their thoughts on their own Facebook pages. If these are kinds of diaries, then it would have been useful to include more evidence about what the transformation from private to public actually means in terms of diaries. Do girls see it as a kind of “performance” as Flanagan argues (63)? And how different is it to “perform” some of the time, as she acknowledges they did in the halcyon days of the early twentieth century, versus “all the time”?

The fodder for ugliness continues in the chapter on dating, which argues that girls are extremely vulnerable to assault. This claim is borne out by Flanagan’s personal recollection of a boy who wouldn’t take no for an answer on a date until she began yelling and kicking. It is indeed true that many women are subject to sexual assault and that it is a serious and real issue for girls and women, especially in developing countries beyond the United States, which is Flanagan’s focus. Setting back the cause of feminism somewhat, Girl Land proclaims: “The father is the first line of defense between between a girl and the men who would exploit her sexually”(31). Flanagan describes the tradition of boys meeting fathers as serving as a kind of “warning” not to assault, and in her concluding section, in which she provides ham-fisted advice on how to raise today’s girls, she asserts that the number of single-mother households is to blame for an increase in date rape (132).

And it doesn’t get any better in the chapter on menstruation. Critics have seized on Flanagan’s claims that today’s girls “anticipate menstruation with excitement, as a marker of the coming glamour of the teen years” (34). Now, not that my own memories are any better evidence than Flanagan’s, but I was absolutely mortified by menarche, as I was not yet eleven, and there were very few girls who had their period in grade six. After a younger child found a used pad or tampon in one of the toilet cubicles, a special toilet was designated with a sanitary bin inside and a sign on the door that read “Grade 6 and 7 girls only”. This meant that anyone who went inside had their period. No one ever went inside that toilet in front of anyone else. As far as I know no girl ever used it. It was not a marker of pride or joy twenty years ago, but who is to say that today’s girls are not connecting painful cramping and stained underpants with boyfriends and romance as Flanagan contends?

Nevertheless, the menstruation chapter does highlight some of the achievements of the book in re-telling the social history of American girls. Girl Land provides a fascinating description of the evolution of sanitary products and how their marketing became entwined with the new world of teens in advertisements such as "The Story of Menstruation", which was funded by Kotex and animated by Disney. Sections in the dating chapter that draw together historical books and pamphlets of dating advice for girls, as well as parenting manuals, are entertaining and revealing.

However, it is just one problematic aspect of Girl Land that sources such as G. Stanley Hall’s Adolescence, Flanagan’s own memories of girlhood, The Diary of Anne Frank and fictions such as Judy Blume’s Are You There God, It’s Me Margaret? and, I kid you not, The Exorcist are treated as equivalent sources of evidence. Each of the eras considered in Girl Land ought to be grounded in a broader sense of what concepts of girlhood were like and how it was evolving in relation to social and cultural norms. More recent history suffers the worst fate by allowing Blume and the possessed Regan to explain the transition between bobby soxers and Team Edward.

The prom chapter also offers something worth the attention of girls' studies scholars, not only in the form of quotations from early guides to hosting proms, but in the actual analysis of prom that Flanagan offers up. Prom had its origins in the 1920s, and was in some ways directed by girls in a manner that debutante balls were not, but also, Flanagan argues, prom allowed parents to reel in the liberation the girls and women had fought for in the previous decade, specifically during the war. Flanagan is not sufficiently anti-feminist to deny the socially conservative origins of prom in its adult intervention into girls’ romantic life and the return of adult supervision and formal protocols of restraint. It is also useful to consider how little prom has changed, as Flanagan argues, in that superficially the traditions of boys turning up on the front porch with a corsage in hand and the strict pronouncements on how girls and boys may interact at prom remain in place. Nevertheless, Flanagan suggests that what has changed is the after-party ritual at which “Pimps and Hos” is supposedly the usual theme. Flanagan explains that this produces a contradiction: “Girls have intentionally combined two events, one composed of traditions that suggest a very formal way of being a teenager, and one composed of behaviors that suggest the exact opposite” (110).

I don’t disagree with the idea that girls and women are increasingly barraged with competing images and ideals of how to be. But many of the causes Flanagan identities for these contradictory ideals and proposed solutions for making girls’ lives better are devoid of any solid foundation. The popular media definitely encourages an “increasingly sexualized teen culture”, but Flanagan inexplicably blames rap music in particular (123), and, subsequently, the mainstreaming of pornography. She is not simple enough in her thinking to fall for the moral panics over “rainbow parties” and “oral sex crazes”, instead measuring her assessment to note “a major shift in modern sexual habits and expectations” (118). I came away from Girl Land without an understanding of what this shift entails and what it means for girls, apart from a sense that mothers and fathers need to rally to protect their children “in a kind of postapocalyptic landscape…from pornography and violent entertainment” (125).

In all this, girls are victims and girls should be, and are, afraid. Girls suffer a greater emotional drain during adolescence because “they are forced to confront the sexual attention of men” (45) while “men and boys are not as likely to be wounded, emotionally and spiritually, by early sexual experience, or by sexual experience entered into without romantic commitment” (123). It is disappointing that a woman who has spent significant time reading through many historical advice manuals to girls and parents could not see how her own claims reproduce sexist ideas about girls. Much like Bettina Arndt’s article in the Age today that argues men cannot help staring at breasts, Flanagan also reproduces sexist ideas about men.


Anonymous said...

Thanks for a great, balanced review. I saw a few blurbs for the book, but I don't really want to read another book that presents girls as victims. Not to mention one that uses The Exorcist as evidence!

Michelle Smith said...

Thanks so much, "doc", for your comments. I do strive to be balanced. I could see how the book would infuriate many people but mostly felt a bit sorry about the missed opportunity for a really great history of girlhood. I don't mind popular histories, and I'm reading an enjoyable one now on the women behind Nancy Drew, but this book isn't even a good popular history.