18 December 2006

Caitlin Flanagan

Shataina over at Dragon Lady Flame has been reading David Brooks, and apparently doesn't know to look for the hidden knife when reading him. It seems that Brooks is impressed that anti-feminist upper class mommy—and sometime highbrow magazine writer—Caitlin Flanagan is so very, very concerned about “how nice girls got so casual about oral sex.”


That little quote is the subtitle of her essay “Are You There God? It's Me, Monica,” running in The Atlantic Monthly, the magazine for bookish American liberals that isn't Harper's. (Yeah, I read both, like you couldn't guess.) I didn't happen to read the article at the time, but now we all can because The Atlantic is publishing it free on the web For A Limited Time Only thanks to Mr Brooks.

You can see the magic of Ms Flanagan's writing right there in that crafty, crafty, crafty title and subtitle. She is, undoubtedly, a very talented writer. Dig how much she does in just sixteen words. A prim retro-'50s sensibility of good and bad girls, hipness to contemporary pop culture, and a wink to it all being (of course!) Bill Clinton's fault ... and by proxy, how the left in general is corrupting our civilization with sex, sex, sex.

Shaitana puts her finger right on the core deception of Ms Flanagan's essay—and of all her work. Yeah, there's some unwholesome stuff going on around sex and gender in America. But Shaitana tells us, quite rightly, that a lot of our sexual culture is much more affirming of women's needs than Ms Flanagan seems to think, and both the good and the bad are part of the case for feminism ... not, as Ms Flanagan tries to tell us, the case against it.

Whatever she claims, Flanagan isn't really concerned with finding girls a sexually healthy, happy attitude. She's scared of the changes to our sexual culture, terrified “that we are raising children in a kind of post-apocalyptic landscape”.

Ms Flanagan isn't alone in worrying about this, mind you. Rush Limbaugh is likewise concerned about oral sex, and Mr Limbaugh and Ms Flanagan are hardly surprising bedfellows—if you'll forgive the disturbing image—because, as Amanda Marcotte at Padagon reminds us, the vast right wing conspiracy is engaged in a War on Fucking. We might chuckle, but as I've argued before, it's actually serious business.

Now it turns out that I didn't read the Atlantic essay, in large part because I learned my lesson about Ms Flanagan a while back, when her book was getting a lot of play in the media and Left Blogistan. I got most of the way through a post about her then, but it sat unfinished in my drafts folder.

I had just recently done a post about the irony gap between Red and Blue America, and then found Shakespeare's Sister asking:

What terrifyingly airless irony-free zone are these women coming from?

She was talking about Ms Flanagan, who had just published her book To Hell With All That: Loving and Loathing Our Inner Housewife. Ms Flanagan was fond of observing that the publisher nixed her original intended subtitle, “How Feminism Shortchanged a Generation.”

Soror Shakespeare asked her question because, whaddaya know, she saw a conflict between a woman making a handsome living writing articles and a book (under her own name, no less) and an opposition to the feminism that made it possible for her to be taken seriously as a writer and thinker in the first place.

I suspect Ms Flanagan of a more serious irony impairment than even that.

My hero Stephen Colbert did an interview with her on The Colbert Report which truly defies belief.

Many of my readers are TV-free, so let me offer a reminder that The Colbert Report is a parody of a conservative cable news magazine show, and host Stephen Colbert portrays a parody of a smug know-nothing conservative pseudojournalist. But even if you didn't know that, I probably wouldn't need to tell you because anyone who would read my blog is familiar, dare I say intimate, with the concept of irony, and thus will spot Colbert's game in a moment.

Ms Flanagan's manufacturers at the Stepford Cybernetics Works, however, seem to be unable to program this concept into her. It appears to simply not register on her that Colbert is mocking her with irony. As Jennifer Pozner at WIMN's Voices describes, with amazement:

No matter what ridiculously derogatory, sexist statement Colbert threw at her as part of his “I’m more pompous and nonsensical than thou” shtick, Flanagan just nodded her head, smiled in that vacant, eerie Stepford way of hers, and agreed, countering with an even more ridiculous comment... that she fully believed.

Maybe she's mocking him back with an extra level of non-ironic irony, pretending not to see what's going on? It doesn't look that way to me. But you be the judge.

I found the video via Bitch, Pd.D., who slips in a snarky, irresistable, disconcerting observation. And that led me to a spate of Flanagan debunking on the web. I recommend a visit to Echidne of the Snakes who gets right at the heart of Flanagan's hypocracy, Scott Lemieux at Lawyers, Guns, and Money and Zuzu at Feministe who demolish Ms Flanagan's “I didn't leave the Democrats, they left me” rap, or Amanda Marcotte at Pandagon who manages to drop in a few wry references to Cyndi Lauper and Zelda Fitzgerald while excoriating Ms Flanagan. I know I'm linking a lot, today, but all of them are worth the time.


Dragon Lady Flame revisits the question, realize that she misunderstood Ms Flanagan at first—and this misunderstanding reflects, in fact, a victory for feminism.

Flanagan is mostly concerned with the fact that girls who give unrequited blowjobs are not being “protected” in return—they don't get relationships out of the deal. It blew my mind that I didn't see that little cultural angle to what she wrote, and it also, oddly, cheered me up. Because sure, it's unfortunate that some girls aren't getting their oral sex returned—but the fact that they aren't necessarily getting a relationship out of it is also an indicator that women are no longer culturally expected to trade sex for that “protection”!

Irin Carmon at Salon: The Creepy Condescension of Caitlin Flanagan

I'd gone into said debate with the idea of maybe seeing the good in her, or at least seeking a thoughtful discussion of where we diverged and why. That's where I really went wrong.


Shataina said...

I considered that maybe Brooks wasn't taking Flanagan seriously, but I spotted no trace of irony in his recommendation ... maybe he's too subtle for me.

Thanks for the Colbert ref. I can't wait to watch it.

Jonathan Korman said...

No, Brooks is quite serious. He and Flanagan are in the same business -- selling conservative ways of talking about kulturkamph to liberal readers.

You'll note that he's tricked me and folks like me into talking about Red and Blue America, which ultimately reinforces his narrative of the difference between the two.

Hecate said...

I've tried really hard to ignore Ms. Flanagan, but you got my to click the link to the video. Now that is truly scary. I don't think that she really believes any of it; she's just found a "niche" that lets her sell books. At least that's what I'm going to tell myself because it's too early in the day for me to start drinking.