Rewriting the Lives of Girls
As a first-time and often fumbling mother of a three-and-a-half-year-old girl, I’ve learned to recognize the waves of child-rearing fear mongering that often accompany the publication of a new parenting memoir.
Last year’s Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother by Amy Chua had everyone (or at least several major media outlets) wondering if we were strict enough with our kids. Journalists and bloggers asked with heavy concern, “Are American parents too lenient compared to their Chinese counterparts?” or “Does our supposedly lax parenting style account for China’s economic domination over America?” A couple of months ago, Pamela Druckerman published Bringing Up Bebe: One American Mother Discovers the Wisdom of French Parenting, a memoir about what we can learn from French parents who are apparently firmer about food, better at getting their children to play independently, and ultimately the happier for it. It’s hard to know what to do with these kinds of books. They are simultaneously seductive and alarming (Be stricter! Be meaner! Care less! But be firm about it!), and a seemingly quick fix for what, at times, can be the difficult day-to-day realities of raising a children.
In one sense, Caitlin Flanagan’s newest book, Girl Land, is a parenting handbook, and it occupies the all-too-familiar landscape of fear and worry that most American parents are encouraged to inhabit at least four or five times a day. In another sense, it’s an exploration of Flanagan’s own teenage self—her attempt, as she puts it in the first chapter of the book, to explain why “[e]very woman I’ve known describes her adolescence as the most psychologically intense period of her life” (3). In still another sense, it’s a loose history of American girlhood, through the lens of various rites of passage for girls. There are chapters on “Dating,” “Menstruation,” “Diaries,” “Sexual Initiation,” and “Proms.”
A well-published and awarding winning journalist and essayist, Flanagan is at her best when she’s re-examining an important text, cultural event, or experience from her own years as a teenager. And she considers many—Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret, Anne Frank’s Diary of a Young Girl, The Exorcist, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, Go Ask Alice, Patty Hearst’s kidnapping, Carrie (the movie, not the book), and Little House on the Prairie. These texts and events have a stronghold in the minds of many women who grew up in the seventies, and Flanagan reads them well, keeping in mind both her teenage self and the adult she has become. Of Judy Blume’s groundbreaking and controversial book, Forever, she argues, it “taught me and my generation how to have sex. This was sex the way girls wanted to read about it, the way they wanted to experience it: immersed in romance.” What I like best about these moments is the back and forth between the teenage girl and the adult woman, who is trying hard to make sense of her own difficult passage out of “girl land.” There’s immediacy too, in these passages—strength of imagery and a willingness to turn inward and reflect—that I find deeply engaging.
Consider the chapter “Dating,” where Flanagan recounts in harrowing detail her own near date rape at the hands of a Long Island boy who was “strong and powerful-looking and [who] didn’t say much.” Later, in the chapter “Menstruation,” she recalls the very shock of her own first period. She admits:
And then—on a Sunday morning, when my parents and I had tickets to see a matinee tickets to see a matinee performance of the San Francisco Ballet, three hours to be spent sitting on the crushed red velvet seats of the opera house—it came. And it was blood. Real blood. Rust brown once it dried, viscous and shiny when it was fresh.
These parts of the books make me realize that I’ve been wanting Flanagan to write a memoir of her childhood for years, or perhaps even a historical novel which draws upon her experiences as the daughter of a professor and a homemaker who grew up in counter-culture Berkeley when counter-culture meant something. But this book isn’t fully that memoir, and it’s certainly not a novel. Each chapter falls somewhere between article and essay, handbook and memoir. Ultimately, in spite of her close work with her own teenage texts (or perhaps, because of it), Flanagan ignores the complexity of what it means to be girl becoming a teenager becoming a woman, in favor of a narrative of fear and panic aimed to scare parents, teachers, and principals.
What troubles me most about the book is that Flanagan ignores an entire field of research on the lives of contemporary girls so that she can hammer home the same scary idea we’ve heard for years now. In chapter one, “Girl Land,” she warns, “[t]his is a terrible moment in which to be a thoughtful person or an introspective one, and so it is a terrible one in which to be a citizen of Girl Land.” In the chapters that follow, we learn that dating is dangerous, especially now that they are no father figures around; menstruation is bloody, gross, and scary; diaries were wonderful for girls, but they’ve been replaced by social media, so now everything is public and humiliating; sexual initiation “has become fraught with [far more] ugliness and threat than Judy Blume’s radical but sunny novel suggests; proms are expensive and dangerous; and finally, even though the whole girls-and-oral-sex panic of 2005 was manufactured and then over-blown by the media, we should keep worrying about it. What emerges then, is a dreamy polemic about an imaginary place called “Girl Land,” where if you are the parent of a daughter you must accept that no matter what you do, “you must also know this: [your daughter] will be changed.” According to Flanagan, girls are almost exclusively victims, consumers, and in need of protection. They are never empowered, capable of agency, producers, or activists. They do not have their own agendas or even voices. For a book that purports to tell us so much about the lives of girls in America, I was surprised that there is not a single contemporary teenage girl’s voice in it.
I am not naïve. I know that there is much to alarm us in the lives of teenage girls and teenagers in general. I worry often about what is in store for my own daughter as she enters public school and has access to the kinds of mainstream images and stories that devalue girls and debase their sense of self. And these images and stories are only part of the dangerous landscape that girls face. The current statistics on sexual violence against girls and women in this country, and on global trafficking are deeply sobering. And Flanagan’s advice for parents at the end of the book makes sense—know what’s out there on the internet, make sure your daughter has a positive male role model in her life, turn your daughter’s bedroom into a computer-free zone, and don’t be afraid to impose limits.
Ultimately, however, this book lacks the nuance and complexity I’ve come to expect when reading about girls. While I was reading Girl Land, I also happened to be reading Girls to the Front: The True Story of the Riot Grrrl Revolution by Sara Marcus. Through interviews, first-hand accounts, her own participation in the movement, and primary documents, Marcus reconstructs the history of a third-wave, feminist, DIY musical subculture. What’s interesting is that many of these bands’ female founders came from histories of sexual violence, but they had the agency, the intuition, and the community to make something valuable out of that violence. I recognize that many girls to do not have access to communities that might support them, but stories of empowerment like the one we see in Marcus’s book—or in any narrative of girl empowerment and activism—is largely missing from Flanagan’s work. There are other books that do a better job of this, that shows us how girls can be both victims and agents, and that gets at the ways in which girls can subvert texts and cultural forces that aim to harm them. A few come to mind such as Future Girl: Young Women in the 21st Century by Anita Harris, The Fire Next Time: Young Activists and the New Feminism edited by Vivien Labaton and Dawn Lundy Martin, and Rebel Girls by Jessica Taft. And for a book that gets at the nitty-gritty of helping our daughters navigate popular culture and merchandizing, while at the same time acknowledging their agency, I would suggest Sharon Lamb and Lyn Mikel Brown’s Packaging Girlhood: Rescuing Our Daughters from Marketers’ Schemes. These writers offer us what’s missing from Flanagan’s book—an exploration of girl agency and activism in spite of, alongside of, and in response to oppression, sexism, and violence.
These books, among many others, have helped me to understand that we should fear for girls, but we shouldn’t only fear for them. When we write about girls exclusively through a lens of fear, when we see them only as victims in need of protection and surveillance, we deny them a true and full history—one that accounts for their voices and experiences and artifacts. Girls regularly can and do speak up. They are activists and producers, and they have complicated relationships to the books and films and encounters with the world that adults often think are harming them. And we need not to forget that these relationships and experiences vary across ethnicities and economies, something that Flanagan troublingly ignores. Girl Land is a much more uneven place than she imagines it.
But then, there is no such thing as a Girl Land. It is a tempting dream that ultimately turns into a nightmare. There are instead overlapping landscapes and contested territories, but there is no one place where girls go to get lost and adults follow to rescue them. That would be far too easy, and not at all in keeping with the girl I was or any of the girls I know.
Carley Moore is poet, essayist, and novelist who lives in Brooklyn and teaches in the Liberal Studies Program at NYU. Her debut young adult novel, The Stalker Chronicles, came out this spring from Farrar, Straus, and Giroux. She is the Assistant Editor for Book Reviews at Writing in Public. You can find her blogging at: www.carleymoorewrites.com