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Is the Atlantic Magazine Making Its Readers More Stupid?

The magazine is obsessed with the “you won’t believe this!” angle.

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One can’t say as much for Flanagan. Like many of her readers, I have a love-hate relationship with her writing. Flanagan is undeniably witty and, at times, quite sensitive. Many of her Atlantic pieces have been somewhat reworked and folded into two books, To Hell With All That: Loving and Loathing Our Inner Housewife and Girl Land. The latter focuses on the transition, in earlier decades and today, from preadolescence to young womanhood. As the mother of a 14-year-old girl, I found this passage clear-sighted and moving:

The teenager is entering new territory and her parents cannot accompany her on the journey. Mothers are desperate to be involved in this passage – they’ve made it themselves, of course, and they would do anything to steer their daughter the right way. It is frustrating beyond measure for them when a daughter screams, “You don’t understand, and you’ll never understand!” The mother stamps her foot in aggravation, but in this case the daughter is right: the mother doesn’t understand. She merely remembers, and memory is separate from experience.

But, as I am far from the first to point out, Flanagan is never content to stop with insight, or to label speculation as speculation; she must prescribe. Girl Land, which makes whistle-stops at “Dating,” “Menstruation,” “Sexual Initiation,” and “Proms,” put me into a panic for two full days. I told my husband we had to forbid our daughter to use her laptop in her room – because Flanagan said that the porn and networking sites she’d be stumbling across would teach her that society wants her to exhibit, sexualize, and degrade herself. The only things a girl should be doing alone in her room, Flanagan instructed, are daydreaming and writing in her diary. It took me another couple of days to re-realize (it’s not as if I hadn’t thought about all this before) that access to pornography and saturation in sexualized media images are realities the younger generation is going to have to come to terms with; banning teens’ private use of laptops will not stem the onslaught. By the way, Flanagan herself has only sons, not daughters, and although I am sure she is correct that Facebook extends the day of gossip and status jockeying for many girls, you have to know your own girl and her group. My daughter and her friends seem to use it almost exclusively as a forum for complimenting each other’s ever-changing hairstyles and passing on links to goofy videos.

What readers rightly object to in Flanagan’s work is that the occasional penetrating insight is more often than not blown up into a baseless and sweeping generalization, which in turn is used as an excuse for finger wagging. “Every little girl has spent hours factoring romance and boyfriends and sweetly dressed babies into her future” (from Girl Land). Well, actually, no. “Romance” seemed equally ersatz and commercial to me at eight, 13, and 17, and babies I didn’t imagine at all. Even if I was an outlier, my experience puts the lie to “every little girl.” The overarching premise of Girl Land is that the becoming-a-teen girl “is mourning the loss of her little girlhood, in a way that boys typically don’t mourn the loss of their childhoods.” This was clearly the case for Caitlin Flanagan, who is nearly exactly my age (she was born in 1961, I in 1963). It couldn’t have been farther from the truth for me. I was actually quite excited about puberty and its various distractions, and not at all sentimental about my cute-kitten posters or other features of my premenstrual existence. I’d have to poll my old friends and classmates to get a grip on whether I was unusual, but actually talking to other people is not something Flanagan herself ever bothers to do: she just knows. If she would pull a Loh and say: “Here I am – you decide!” there would be no issue; the problem is that Flanagan says, “Here you are.”