The Battle For Planet Flanagan

by Maria Bustillos and David Roth

David: I need a haircut, Maria. I look like a duckling right now.

Maria: And a stiff drink, if you listened to that radio interview with Caitlin Flanagan, like we were supposed to. Evidently the women of America had calmed down too much since her last book, To Hell With All That, caused such a ruckus over what was widely perceived as the author’s throwback and essentialist anti-feminist ideology. So not content to get people in a stir with Atlantic Monthly and New Yorker appearances, she’s written a new one, Girl Land. Even the cover of which is pretty provoking.

All these moms are fine with their teen daughters going around giving blowjobs to pretty much whomever, she seems to think? “Servicing boys” she calls this. It is baffling.

David: Yeah, I couldn’t tell what crisis she was very certitudinously diagnosing and decrying, there. But the world she describes is certainly bleak and very much in-crisis. I just don’t know what or where that world is located. It’s like she’s been watching the Pirates franchise of porn films as documentaries. “Young kids, dressing like inexpensive pirates, having all these casual, athletic and oddly well-lit threesomes, and always with swords lying around. And because of feminism it’s politically incorrect to get mad about that.”

Maria: There was a rash of stories about a middle-school blowjob epidemic some years back, I remember. It seemed to many moms, shall I say, overblown.

David: Yeah, “rainbow parties!” If there wasn’t a “CSI: Miami” episode about it featuring buff 26-year-old teens, a shivering, clammy Tom Sizemore and some powdery moralizing from David Caruso, I owe you a Coke.

Maria: It reminded me of “wilding” in a way. Pure hysteria-baiting. Razor blades in the apples.

David: Total blowjob apple-blades. The new Satanism. So hot right now.

Maria: And then, right when you start thinking, eh, this is ridiculous, they find another actual monster with an actual dungeon on Halloween. There is a grain of plausibility to every paranoia.

David: It’s amazing how different Irin Carmon’s “it’s not always good, it’s not always bad” assessment of adolescence in that interview sounds from Flanagan’s DefCon4 Oral Sex Crisis vision of how young women live now.

Maria: Yes. But the bewilderment of Carmon did her no favors in this interview, much as I share it. Flanagan’s sangfroid is devastating in the face of the slightest doubt. Although her critique of Girl Land that ran in Salon was awesome.

David: Bewilderment is the rational response to confronting a Palinesque queen bee who writes so maddeningly well about Joan Didion. Have you read Ariel Levy’s Female Chauvinist Pigs?

Maria: A bit. Totally infuriating, I thought.

David: I like Levy a lot, and that to me seems a way more rigorous approach to whatever problem Flanagan believes she’s diagnosing. She seems to be actually working towards a diagnosis of specific unfairnesses and uglinesses, instead of working backwards from a sense of same, as Flanagan does.

Maria: Yes, that is true. She is less crazy, in a way. But in another way, equally crazy? Because no one woman knows how all other women should do life.

I mean please, leave enough oxygen in the room for someone to respond: look, you don’t care for thus and such a way of life, but it works fine for me.

David: So, at the risk of playing my total-toolish-sports-dude role too well, here: sisterhood is Levy’s big thing, and the erosion of it by a casually misogynist culture. Flanagan’s thing is telling other wealthy people why they are doing things wrong.

Maria: And yet Levy rejects so many of these alleged sisters.

Anyway, there was zero real “support” or “solidarity” between Carmon and Flanagan in this talk. Carmon was forced to defend herself rather than have a conversation, so she’s not to blame. But I suspect that Carmon doesn’t approve of the Flanagan approach either, not even for Flanagan.

David: But what should sisterhood look like? How do you teach that sort of basic human solidarity to a child? It seems like Flanagan’s idea — sequestration today, sequestration tomorrow, sequestration forever — is based around a fundamental wish to withdraw, which is kind of the opposite of that.

There is totally nothing wrong with cooing and fixing martinis. It’s only when you act as if that’s the only way women can or should relate to men.

Maria: Children already know it so much better than adults do, is the thing. Four- or five-year-olds tend to love and accept everyone instinctively. Unless someone is mean or hurts them. But puberty is bound to wreck that colorblind, gender-blind paradise no matter how “evolved” the adults are. I guess in the form of death-awareness and also the insecurities that go with sexual awareness. With the fear dawns the oppression. Then you start to unlearn.

David: That, and I think the beginning of the idea that we are supposed to compete with one another. And the first (and way exaggerated) sense of what failure would mean in that regard. Eventually you learn to live with that balance of failing and succeeding, or at least that’s the idea.

At that age there’s this very real sense of NEVER RECOVERING from the time you barfed in art class.

David: What puzzles me about Flanagan is the same thing that baffles me about your Katie Roiphe types — I can’t figure out who she’s talking to, or whose fantasies these are, besides hers. There’s not a sense of actual engagement or concern.

Maria: She’s addressing that caller in the radio interview who goes, “I don’t allow the children to have Facebook.” Control freaks piquing themselves on their virtue. “Traditionalists.”

David: Ha. Nice demographic. Cool peers.

David: I sense her real audience is male magazine editors at The Atlantic. I sense that is her constituency. What Flanagan does is what The Atlantic does — gently provokes wealthy people. Because they are not putting a cartoon of Bernie Sanders kissing a hippie on the cover, or whatever Weekly Standard does, we assume The Atlantic is more forward thinking than it maybe is. I say all this as a subscriber, for whatever that’s worth.

Maria: I would expand that to include male anything. This “let me fix you a martini” cooing thing is undeniably seductive. And why not, indeed.

David: They’re delicious!

Maria: Also, there is totally nothing wrong with cooing and fixing martinis. It’s only when you act as if that’s the only way women can or should relate to men. Maybe you think men and women should be friends, equals. These aren’t even mutually exclusive strategies.

David: By all means fix your husband a martini, if you want.

Maria: PLEASE. He’s crazy! Mr. Flanagan, I mean, elsewhere known as Rob Hudnut, regarding whom more anon. He needs a martini at the very least.

David: He also has no idea how to do it himself. He just takes two pieces of wheat bread and pours gin on them. “My cocktail is defective, dear.”

Maria: Left to himself he would just dissolve into hysterical tears and starve, probably.

David: I have been meaning to talk to you about your husband and how bad he is at fixing drinks. Some Crystal Light, Egg Beaters and some Southern Comfort does not add up to an old fashioned.

David: (I am sure your actual husband is excellent at fixing drinks.)

Maria: He’s sobbing silently right now. Empty cocktail shaker in hand. I can see him from here.

David: Oh man, is he going to be okay?

Maria: Oh sure, there’s gin and bread downstairs in the kitchen.

David: Tell me what you think about Flanagan’s husband. Does he mean anything, besides he and his job as a Mattel executive being hilarious in the context of her Goddess of Scorn routine?

Maria: Rob Hudnut explains so much about Caitlin Flanagan. She is always going on about her husband, whom she lives but to serve. It emerges however that this man has to be completely off his rocker. Rob Hudnut is the executive producer of the animated Barbie DVD series, which has sold over 100 million copies, and he’s been in charge of it pretty much the whole time, apparently. He has a shared writing credit for the first computer-animated one, Barbie in The Nutcracker (2001).

For some unfathomable reason, nobody seems to have delved too far into the Hudnut oeuvre.

David: Well, it’s terrible. That’s a fathomable reason.

Maria: But we braved it anyway. Namely: Barbie: A Perfect Christmas, the twenty-second and most recent installment.

David: The Sims-in-leggings production values are good, I can report. But I watched a 15-minute YouTube chunk. You watched the whole thing.

Maria: Yes. And I came away with a much-altered sense of what life must be like chez Hudnut. Because as Flanagan tells it, she is tendin’ the hearth, and looking after the boys, and in comes Hudnut after a rough day, and she’s all attractive and available and yay, lord and master-ing, right? Dinner on the table, high heels on. Come hither!

David: Dude had a long day out there selling some fucking Dream Houses and Skipper dolls.

Maria: It’s far more than that. He also writes lyrics for these hallucinatory Barbie songs for girls on the DVDs, which is what I suspect slowly drove them both into a pink and frilly madness. “Get your sparkle on!” “Magic happens when you believe in yourself!”

Maria: In the Perfect Christmas one, the mystery snow lodge where Barbie et al. wind up is some kind of North Pole Wal-Mart distribution center. And all this, complete with hair-raising songs for “little girls” that make Justin Bieber look like Slipknot, is overseen, for the twenty-second time, by Caitlin Flanagan’s husband. Is it any wonder her concept of pretty much everything has gone clean off the rails?

These are the girls Flanagan wants to see more of, according to Girl Land, her new book. Diary-scribbling “dreamers” with soft toys on the bed. Stepford Girls.

David: In every sentence, a voice can be heard commanding, “To a frilly-ass canopy bed, go.”

David: Goof on Hudnut all you like, he’s making enough to keep her in twin sets, nannies, personal organizers and cask-aged sanctimony.

Maria: I know, I know! So here is a quote from Flanagan in in The Atlantic, because she doesn’t want men to be “more feminine”. “I might be quietly thrilled if my husband decided to forgo his weekly tennis game so that he could alphabetize the spices and scrub the lazy Susan, but I would hardly consider it an erotic gesture.”

David: What a turn-off. Bitch move, Hudnut!

Maria: IRL he is not alphabetizing spices, though: he is producing Barbie Mariposa and her Butterfly Fairy Friends.

David: “In a minute, I just need to finish writing the lyrics to this song ‘To Be A Princess.’ Then I am going to TEAR THAT AZZ UP.”

(Sorry to type that)

Maria: Ack.

Maria: Here is a quote from Variety:

“We are great believers in the power of little girls,” says Rob Hudnut, Mattel executive producer. “We believe they deserve the best entertainment that we can give them. […]

Illustrating the painstaking nature of the production, Hudnut recalls, “It was the job for six months of one ‘Nutcracker’ animator to keep Barbie’s dress from going over her head. The company has made a serious financial investment in ensuring these movies are the quality that girls deserve.”

David: That actually arrives unpacked, doesn’t it.

Maria: Barbie’s skirt, stubbornly floating over her head! Both Hudnuts trying frantically to keep the damn thing down.

David: When so much is trying to lift it up, up, up.

Maria: Barbie’s pink marabou slippers are to blame for much of this, maybe. Plus, the lady is very good-looking.

Flanagan I mean, not Barbie. And in no way disinclined to play the MILF card, as her 2006 appearance on “The Colbert Report” demonstrates so harrowingly.

David: Not at all! She’s “using her influence” to get what she wants from boys, or whatever. Which is their undivided attention/hornball obeisance, and which is how she suggests young women empower themselves in general. But what else, do you think, does she really want?

Maria: It’s difficult to avoid the impression that the marabou slippers and levitating skirt are playing an, erm, seminal role.

David: Naw, dude, don’t type that.

Maria: Maybe she can only relate to men as The Opposite Sex; that happens to a lot of beautiful women, I think.

David: Certainly the amount of dude-flattery — the “let me get that for you, baby, you had a hard day doing whatever it is you do in that big office” that’s implied in her whole shtick — seems for that audience, as opposed to her notional sisters.

Maria: I was impressed at how she got even Colbert thinking about her Chamber of Secrets during this interview, from 2006. She is totally smirking. I don’t think I have ever seen anyone play Colbert like that.

David: It’s funny, watching older — by which I mean younger — Colbert. He’s more commanding, now. But she’s also awfully persuasive. Pearls, winks and straight white teeth. She’s funny, too. And good at flirting!

Maria: She is AWESOME at flirting.

Maria: Okay, the other funny thing is, her dad was an academic, at Berkeley. And Flanagan has written about being a Democrat. So.

David: Oh, she’s no Democrat. Has she really said that?

Maria: Yes, she wrote about it for Time in a piece called “We’re Here, We’re Square, Get Used To It.”

David: I’m not buying that. She’s a Rockefeller Republican down to her underdrawers. Oh lord, her endless issues with The Feminists. She is always enraging them, simply by being right.

Maria: The really toxic thing about Flanagan is that 2% of her criticism of feminists is valuable and useful. And she poisons that 2% to the point where it becomes difficult to discuss.

He also has no idea how to do it himself. He just takes two pieces of wheat bread and pours gin on them. “My cocktail is defective, dear.”

David: What’s correct is inaudible over the sound of her just beating the shit out of her strawmen, though, at least to me. It also scans so much weirder when you hear it aloud, as in the radio bit. Her “some people think” caricature/formulations are maddening in print, but when you hear someone saying those words out loud, it’s so jarring.

David: “Oh, I don’t know that fathers are terribly important in raising a child. And look, if my daughter wants to give some blowjobs on the bus or whatever, then that’s her journey, I guess. I am mostly into keeping a healthy diet, personally.” That is the person she’s debating. That’s not a person, Caitlin!

Maria: Yup.

David: I guess she’d change blowjobs-on-the-bus to “servicing boys.” Which is 100,000% grosser. Such a simultaneously technocratic and telling word choice.

Maria: She has boys; it’s like why doesn’t she talk about teaching them to make friends with girls and respect them and talk to them like they are peers?

David: For someone who is impressively exacting with her language and general public performance, it’s amazing how lazy she gets when that part of the boy/girl binary comes up. Her men are just these helpless appetite-driven erection-beasts, waiting to be directed, influenced. Which, you know, guilty as charged, but also you are raising sons and that’s what you think they’re destined to be?

Maria: Her own role in raising boys doesn’t just get short shrift, it is weirdly, entirely absent.

David: There’s a bit that Heather Havrilesky quotes in her BookForum review of Flanagan’s book, where CF mentions it like some sort of slam dunk.

David: “Well, I have boys.” QED like a motherfucker.

Maria: That review was great, I thought. But I don’t exactly disagree with the helpless boner thing, actually.

David: It’d make me more angry if it wasn’t half true. And I suppose her bit about the male of the species responding to direction — that is, her argument that we’re more inclined to be good when it’s clear that we must be — is good, too, insofar as it’s mostly accurate. But men do not exist outside the culture, either.

Maria: In my posse of moms, they are so keen to try to influence their sons to be kind, to think about the consequences of their actions. For a good reason, which is that you will be a happier person and your life will be better if you control your appetites. A unisex message. And you can have real love and friendship if you honor the differences honestly, patiently. And you don’t just grab.

David: Boys learn that by participating in the culture the same as girls do. There are people who take, in kindergarten and in finance and wherever else. You learn in life to identify those people and avoid them, is the hope. I always blame the cheapening tendencies of the everything-is-the-market worldview for all this. Mostly because I am a parody of myself.

Maria: Haha, though “the market” is just another way of saying, “never learned not to grab, despite multiple attempts to hammer this lesson into your thick skull from kindergarten through age fifty-seven.”

David: Yes, it is. But the kind of sour paranoia and other-denying acquisitiveness — the sense that getting equals taking — in our popular culture all seems to me to spring from the same thing. That being the ubiquito-market’s constant, demeaning competition, which is the opposite of a basic, respect-based solidarity grounded in the recognition of our shared and intrinsic human worth. There’s a place to compete, it can be fun and useful, but there’s something terribly bleak about hearing “I’m not here to make friends,” over and over, when that is mostly what we are HERE, as in on earth, to do.

David: And believing that is the sort of thing that both comes from and reinforces a fear of the rest of the world, which you can’t control. No wonder Flanagan wants to Rapunzel girls into their bedrooms. Look at what she thinks the world is like.

Maria: If you haven’t figured out this self-evident truth, though, you are thrown back on the sugar-coating of the Us and Them materialist purgatory that is Barbie: A Perfect Christmas.

David: And you’re terrified of everyone.

Maria: Especially middle-school boys!

Maria: Wagging their insistent erections everywhere.

David: Porn! It’s everywhere, they’re sending it to your homes, baked into loaves of bread. Feminists! Telling you it’s wrong to get mixed up in your daughters’ lives. Dog the Bounty Hunter! In general. That last one is mostly me, but I’d want to lock all that out, too.

Maria: And you might not be able to! If you turn on Facebook, fetishists leap right out onto your canopy bed! With erections!

David: Always with the erections.

Maria: That need servicing, and pronto!

David: “Servicing.” Like you’re getting your tires rotated.

Maria: In her New Yorker piece about visiting Hawaii Flanagan goes on this thing about “an empty tube of ‘personal feminine lubricant’” floating over to them in the pool.

David: What a beautiful image for her world.

Maria: The planet Flanagan is a sordid, scary and, thankfully, distant planet.

David: She is only trying to enjoy this luxury vacation in some posh locale — where the food, frankly, is not as good as she’d expected or whatever — but somehow, always, there is some Astroglide bobbing in her direction. Is no place safe?

Maria: NO! But really yes!

Maria: Also: I have girls!

David: QED, motherfucker.

Maria Bustillos is the author of Dorkismo and Act Like a Gentleman, Think Like a Woman.

David Roth writes “The Mercy Rule” column at Vice, co-writes the Wall Street Journal’s Daily Fix, and is one of the founders of The Classical. He also has his own little website. And he tweets inanities!