Former high school teacher turned New Yorker staff writer Caitlin Flanagan dissects the harrowing world of female adolescence in her second book Girl Land.
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Weaving her own recollections of adolescence with on-the-ground research and history, Flanagan’s portrait of this transitional period in a girl’s life is a fascinating study of how society itself has changed—and not always for the better.
Flanagan recently spoke with us about the pitfalls of modern feminism, what’s bad about the Internet and why your teenage daughter might be off sulking in her bedroom.
You’re looking at milestones of female adolescence here. Were there any aspects of this period that have changed so drastically it surprised you?
Almost everything! Look at menstruation. I’m 50, and it was maybe a few years before I was born that it was still considered dangerous. It’s a bittersweet feeling, the closer you are to giving life, the closer you are to potentially leaving your own. There’s still a sense that it’s a time of profound reckoning in the life of the girl. With boys, [puberty] comes with pleasure and sexuality. With girls, it’s blood.
We try to rush girls through things, and I feel sad and conflicted about that. The only positive is that girls’ reproductive health is not nearly as dangerous as it once was. But we’ve failed to give girls the quiet and space to figure out what that all means to them, like we once did.
Are there other things that haven’t much changed at all?
What hasn’t changed is the enduring desire of girl to withdraw during this time, to withdraw into herself, into her room. Parents might be used to having a daughter who was such a chatterbox, their constant companion. It’s during this period that she retreats, goes into her bedroom and closes the door. That’s very constant. There’s an understanding that this is a profound and scary change for her in a way that it’s not for a boy. For girls, this period really affects the way they live, ends part of their lives. It’s really different for boys.
Do you think that things have changed for boys in a similar manner? That their rites of passage have transformed in such a striking way?
Life’s gotten a lot easier for boys. Ironically, what’s made it a lot easier for them was done in the name of misguided feminism.
You’re a vehement critic of modern feminism. You’ve said that “it’s shortchanged a generation of women.” How so?
The big thing I see on college campuses is that a lot of girls—the brightest and most capable who fought for admission at top schools, earned it on their own merits and have huge altruistic goals—are uncomfortable with a normal part of their lives. They’re drinking to blackout with the intention of hooking up, going out and having extremely sexual encounters with boys they don’t know, or hardly know, that they barely remember the next day.
When I’ve talked to young women about their experiences, they often say, “It’s empowering, it’s our right, we can be as free as the guys get to be.” If having this kind of semi-anonymous sex is part of the freedom that these girls earned from previous generations, there’s something wrong with that.
Pornography, for example. Women watch it too. But the images you see on the screen don’t have anything remotely to do with the sexual response of women. Body parts are slammed together, the prerogative of the sexual desire is built around the male desire. How can that be anything that’s part of feminism?
So how do parents address the challenges their daughters face?
I’ve suggested that there should be no Internet in the girl’s bedroom. And somehow it’s become the most controversial thing I’ve said! Whether it’s a smartphone or a laptop, Internet in the girl’s bedroom is a bad idea.
It’s not just the extreme images. A girl needs a break, to come home at the end of the school day and just tune out. School is a lot more complicated and dramatic for girls than it is for boys. Their social lives are much more complex. They need a break after that, to be accepted on their own terms. They need space where they don’t have be pretty, don’t have to have the guy or sit at the right lunch table, where they can put their stupid old sweatpants and their retainer.
That smartphone, that Facebook, that Twitter doesn’t allow that—it’s coming in all the time, and it’s extremely anxiety provoking. It’s hard enough for adults to tune out, but terrible for adolescent girls. Parents give them these things, they have the right to say when and where and how they’re going to be used. They’ll have to deal with the fight that comes along with that. But it’s in their daughter’s best interest to draw boundaries, to have a least one space outside of that.