In the final chapter of Girl Land, Caitlin Flanagan's 1920s-to-now investigation into the all-consuming, elusive and occasionally excruciating universe of the teenage girl, the author makes a significant, though not altogether shocking, confession: She has sons, not daughters.
Of course, this doesn't automatically disqualify her from astute observation, but it could explain why her rendering of the territory in question seems as in touch with the average American teenager as an episode of Gossip Girl.
In theory, the book is must-read material, or at the very least brimming with chardonnay-soaked, book-club-debate potential: Flanagan, a contrarian author and social critic known best for her championing of the American housewife and trashing of myriad feminist ideals (think June Cleaver meets Ann Coulter lite), shifts her focus away from mommy in the kitchen (the subject of her 2006 treatise, To Hell With All That) and heads upstairs, behind the perennially shut bedroom door of the family's most mercurial and certainly most mysterious member, the adolescent daughter who, if you buy into Flanagan's take, hasn't changed much since she was darning her bobby socks and deciding which poodle skirt to wear to the dance.
In the introduction, Flanagan states her agenda: to examine "the great and unchanging questions of Girl Land, as they are asked and answered in the ever-shifting landscape of today's youth culture," and then all but abandons the notion for most of the first six chapters (in total, there are only eight).
In Chapter 2, Flanagan takes us into the world of dating, a term that we learn came about almost a full century ago, in 1914, and ushered in an era of "parking," "petting" and, yes, "snuggle pupping." (Starting to feel like this is far from a modern mother's handbook yet?)
She shares her own horrifying 1960s-era high-school dating experience involving a boy and unwanted sexual advances that could have been disastrous had she not reacted with vocal and physical outrage, but then stamps out any shot at reader empathy by establishing her present-day self as an unrelatable puritan: "Why in the world would I, a slight sixteen-year-old girl, have ever though it was a sensible and safe thing to go first to an empty house [her own family home, FYI]and then to a deserted beach with a boy I hardly knew, whom my parents had never met?"
To be clear, the boy in question went to her high school and she had known him casually for most of the school year. This is not to play down the incident (a brush with potential date rape is obviously scary and potentially scarring to a women of any age or era), but to point out that Flanagan's criticism of her teenage self borders on blame-the-victim mentality.
Her solution to dating dangers is the proverbial shotgun-wielding father who treats his daughter's potential suitors to the old "you hurt her and I'll kill you" refrain (if a father is not available, Flanagan suggests a close family friend or uncle). This feels irrelevant to modern-day realities, where many girls have dabbled, if not dived head-first, into sex acts before a date even occurs.
Chapters on menstruation ("the first eviction notice from little girlhood"), prom ("bittersweet and emotionally overwrought") and diaries ("a private, protected space for a girl to explore an emerging self … as she faces the task of leaving Girl Land behind") feel equally Seventeen-magazine-fabricated, which, not coincidentally, proves to be one of Flanagan's most frequent source materials.
A chapter on Sexual Initiation is more compelling, though it fails to say anything succinct about what it means for a girl to become sexually active (perhaps because even with the widest brushstrokes, this experience differs greatly depending on age and emotional well-being). And besides, who needs original research when you can simply retell era-defining teen lit like Go Ask Alice (the despondent girl's bible) and Judy Bloom's Forever (soft-core porn for the teenage masses)?
In the chapter on Moral Panics, Flanagan finally focuses on the semi-recent past, 2001, a time when an "oral sex epidemic" – heralded by Oprah and her fire-and-brimstone-breathing henchman, Dr. Phil – was sweeping the nation. Flanagan both debunks and confirms the presumed rampancy of teenage promiscuity: Rainbow Parties (where boys line up with their pants down and girls in various shades of lipstick service them) are apparently the creation of an overzealous teen-lit industry, but "the sandwich" (where a single female is penetrated by four males at the same time) is all too real.
What is the reader to surmise? Flanagan, for one, is "horrified by the changes that have taken place in the common culture over the past thirty years," pointing out that the "it takes a village" mentality is a joke "because the village is now so polluted and so desolate of … moral values that my job as a mother is not to rely on the village, but to protect my children from it."
In the epilogue, she lays out facile and naive guidelines for how to protect your young daughters from the cesspool that awaits them. Most important, she says, is not allowing an Internet connection in the bedroom – a good suggestions though the she forgets or (more likely) willfully ignores the fact that most kids today, with their smartphones, tablets and various other gadgets, have more than one mode of communication with the Web.
Besides the obvious (porn, peer scrutiny and the bullying on social-media sites – a phenomenon on which Flanagan finally touches, if far too briefly), she says a young girl needs a Web-free bedroom because her room is her sanctuary – a place where she will withdraw from the world to "inhabit a secret emotional life" and satisfy "her most elemental psychological needs – to be undisturbed while she works out the big questions."
I'm not buying it, unless one of these questions is, "How slutty is too slutty to post on Facebook?"
Courtney Shea is a Toronto writer who has never been to a rainbow party and thinks sandwiches should involve two slices of bread.