Douchebag Decree: Caitlin Flanagan, our first Douchebag All-Star!
Sometimes a simple acknowledgment of douchery just isn’t enough. Sometimes you have to step back and marvel at how consistent, how dedicated, how impressively shameless a person’s commitment to being a total asshole is. And that’s why Bitch has decided it’s time to start recognizing those individuals as the All-Star douchebags they are. Practically, it just makes sense: We plan to be awarding Douchebag Decrees for many years to come, and there are some people it would just be easier to mention once, acknowledging that not only have they already amassed an impressive body of douchebaggery, they will surely keep it up for the foreseeable future.
It’s in this spirit that we give a nod today to the lifetime douchechievements of Mrs. Caitlin Flanagan: author, columnist, wife, mother, professional scold, and 24-karat-gold douchebag. Flanagan has been honing her tirelessly contrarian standpoints on motherhood, work, abortion, teen girls, sexuality, adultery, and education in the pages of such august publications as The New Yorker and the Atlantic Monthly for almost a decade, and in that time has churned out dozens of stupendously specious, haughty, and intellectually dishonest (and sometimes plagiarized!) reviews and opinion pieces that offer little more than a window on the author’s self-focused worldview. Herewith, some of her defining plays.
Feminists are ugly. And dangerous. And ugly! Flanagan, it must be said, knows how to write. Unfortunately, her characterizations of other women are generally crafted with all the subtlety of a junior-high burn book. Of Hillary Clinton, she writes, “Something freakish in her voice or inflection—you know what I mean—made me want to flee.” Helen Gurley Brown is “pee-on-the-side-of-the-road white trash.” And then there’s this epic denunciation of Second Wave feminists, from her September 2009 Atlantic column “Sex and the Married Man,” which holds Helen Gurley Brown responsible not only for John Edwards’s future adultery, but also for plump secretaries with warts thinking, unforgivably, that they might deserve love and sex.
[S]econd Wave feminism—with its endless reading lists and casually divorced breadwinners, its stridently unshaven armpits and Crock-Pots of greasy coq au vin -- was fine for the educated set, the B.A.-in-anthropology, little-bit-of-money-put-aside women who could get themselves master's degrees in library science, peel off the Playtex 18-Hour Living Girdle one last time and divest themselves of the whole maddening, saddening, 24-Hour Living Death of mid-century houswewifery. But the movement wasn't much of a starter for the young women of the steno set -- call them the Seven Thousand Sisters -- who barely made it all through 'Doctor Zhivago,' let alone 'The Second Sex,' and who, moreover, had no desire to go through life looking like Sasquatch and feeling angry all the time.
Also, feminism totally ruined the world. Here is a partial list of social ills wrought by feminism either alluded to or stated outright in Flanagan’s essays: Adultery. Divorce. Frozen food. Pornography. The sexual exploitation of teen girls. (Not boys, because boys and men are almost never considered in Flanagan’s work.) The current state of the Democratic Party. But based on the clownishly drawn portraits of feminists that attempt to pass for analysis in Flanagan’s work, it’s quite clear that she doesn’t know any. Or, at least, any that would be willing to talk to her for the research she’s not at all interested in doing anyway. As Hilary Frey pointed out in a 2004 deconstruction of Flanagan’s boner for housewifery, “I’m quite certain that if the huge class of women Flanagan wants to accuse of being feminists were actually practicing members of the women’s movement, we’d have universal day care, access to social services of all kinds for the immigrant women and children Flanagan purports to care about, and so much federally mandated family leave for mothers and fathers that home care for infants would be unnecessary.”
But you know who really sucks? Working women. Back in 2004, Flanagan’s Atlantic piece “How Serfdom Saved the Women’s Movement” tsk-tsked the women who chased “fulfilling” full-time work and left the work of raising their children—the more important job, in her estimation—to domestic workers. However, rather than actually interview actual nannies for the piece claiming that nannies were bearing the brunt of feminism’s selfish mandate to self-actualize, Flanagan employed only anecdotal evidence and rampant speculation, and when called on her lack of reporting, tried to claim that, really, the piece was a call for better working and living conditions for domestic workers. (Barbara Ehrenreich, thankfully, called shenanigans.)
It’s Flanagan’s writing on this subject in particular that reveals the source of her conservative, often illogically backward-looking rhetoric. Simply put: Girlfriend’s got mommy issues out the hoo-ha. In her debut piece as a staff writer for The New Yorker, Flanagan describes how her preteen world was rocked when her mother decided to return to working outside the home. Though she acknowledged that work made her mother happier—her “glooms and sulks,” she wrote, disappearing with her exit from full-time homemaking—Flanagan never recovered, suffering debilitating fears at the time, and, clearly, still nursing psychic wounds today. In a 2006 essay, she snuffled that “At the time of my adolescence my mother was too distracted to give me everything I needed to turn out well.” In a more recent one, she derides her mother’s later-in-life volunteer work for Planned Parenthood, writing that she became one of those “kindly, kooky older ladies whose dedication to volunteering at Planned Parenthood bordered on the unseemly, given the distance between their age and their own need for the services provided.” (You know, as opposed to the totally seemly project of being a 50-year-old writer obsessed with the sex lives of adolescents—see below for more on this.) Would such wounds be better dealt with via therapy than by lashing out at other women who choose to—and, in many more cases, have to—work? Yes, they would. However, if the elder Mrs. Flanagan (who sounds awesome) could rise from the grave and perhaps give her daughter a few good smacks with a bedroom slipper, that would be even better.
That is, unless those women work for me. It’s a rare kind of asshole who can lecture other women about the importance of housewifery in one breath and brag about being far too good for quotidian domestic chores in the next. Caitlin Flanagan is that asshole. She proudly noted in the 2003 Atlantic essay “Housewife Confidential” that not only had she never changed a sheet, she was “far too educated and uppity to have knuckled down and learned anything about stain removal or knitting or stretching recipes." Singing the praises of her nanny, Paloma, in her 2006 essay collection To Hell With All That, she describes her method of dealing with a sick child. "'Paloma, Patrick is throwing up!' I would tell her, and she would literally run to his room, clean the sheets, change his pajamas, spread a clean towel on his pillow, feed him ice chips, sing to him. I would stand in the doorway, concerned, making funny faces at Patrick to cheer him up.”
So while philosophically Flanagan believes that “when a mother works, something is lost,” someone has to clean up the yucky fluids that Princess can’t soil her tiny hands with. What kind of person proudly calls herself a stay-at-home mother, demonizes professional working women, yet employs other women, with their own children, to do the work she considers beneath her? I’ll tell you: A dryer-fresh, lemon-scented douchebag.
What’s that, you say? I’m a working woman? That’s not what Phyllis Schlafly told me! Intellectual dishonesty is a hallmark of Flanagan’s writing, and it’s never more blatant (or more bizarre) than when she’s explaining how what she does isn’t “real” work. When an Elle interview asked her to break down exactly why she can’t be considered a working mother, Flanagan delivered a version of “Who’s On First” to writer Laurie Abraham.
"'Aren't you a working mother?' I ask.
"'All mothers are working mothers,' Flanagan replies.
"'Working mother outside the home, I mean.'
"'No, I'm never outside the home when I work,' she replies. (Geez, I fell right into that one.)
"'But you do have an office in the house? You're not typing in the kitchen, right?'
"'When the boys were really little I did. I sat at the kitchen table. I sat right there and worked.' And so on.
See, writing’s just a hobby that she does on the side. You know, it’s kind of like, oh, volunteering at a hospital. Or fundraising for the twins’ school. Except, you know, with magazines like The New Yorker and The Atlantic. For lots and lots of money. Don’t all traditional wives and mothers do that on the side?
Hookup culture is damaging teen girls. If there’s one thing Flanagan can really type some words on, besides how she hates feminism and how her mommy abandoned her, it’s teen girls and blowjobs. She’s heard a lot of stuff about how teens these days are having hookups and orgies and rainbow parties all over the place. But since Flanagan is perpetually arrested in a time of crinolines and sock hops, when all teens were apparently eunuchs, the idea that girls might actually enjoy exploring their sexuality is both logistically inconvenient and philosophically abhorrent to her. Of course girls don’t yearn for sex! They don’t feel actual desire. They’re just going along with boys’ requests for hummers and sex parties and Rusty Trombones and all that, and we have to save them.
Plenty of fine folks have written succinctly on the many ways Flanagan gets it wrong when discussing girls and sexuality, from her reliance on the girls-want-love/boys-want-sex binary to the idea that the success of the Twilight franchise represents teen-girl revolt against casual hookups to her general lack of any kind of factual backup for her sweeping assertions. (It won’t surprise you to hear that she consults with no actual teen girls or boys on how they feel or why they do or don’t hook up for a variety of reasons. To say nothing of the entirely heteronormative assumptions in every one of her teen-sex screeds.) In her most recent teen-sex-obsessed Atlantic screed, “Love Actually,” Flanagan writes that a teen girl of today is “taught by her peer culture that hookups are what stolen, spin-the-bottle kisses were to girls a quarter century ago.” A quarter-century ago? You mean, like around when girls were passing around dog-eared copies of Forever and sneaking giddily into R-rated movies like The Last American Virgin and Fast Times at Ridgemont High, and later mimicking the characters practicing oral sex on carrots? That quarter-century ago? To Flanagan, “the past” will always equal “the 1950s and 60s.” That in itself doesn’t make her a douchebag. But the ongoing factual inaccuracy that results from her willful ignorance does.
Oh, also? School gardens are grassy little plots of evil! Flanagan’s January 2010 Atlantic piece called “Cultivating Failure” detonated an out-of-nowhere hate bomb in the direction of famed Berkeley chef Alice Waters and her Edible Schoolyard initiative. This, perhaps, was Flanagan’s breakout play of douchemongering, the one that allowed a whole new group of readers to gaze into the bright glow of her bile and wonder if she had lost her grip on reality, or was putting on an Ann Coulteresque show of grandstanding bluster, or was pissed because Waters seated her too close to the bathroom at Chez Panisse. The blog Garden Rant ruminated on her brand of context-free contrarianism, writing, “If the more politically correct moms in Flanagan’s neighborhood decided it was healthy for kids to be raised with pets, Flanagan would slaughter puppies on her front lawn just to prove them wrong.”
There you have it—a small sampling of stats from this first Douchebag All-Star. No douchebag can get it done all alone, of course, and Flanagan has had plenty of help. Obviously, there’s her nannies, her housekeeper, her “personal organizer,” her gardener, and her other household help. More important, there are the many prominent newspapers, magazines, and journals that have hired her to chum the waters of opinion with her irresistible antifeminist comment bait. After all, when you’re a journal of opinion that's only got one spot for “women’s issues,” why give it to someone who cares about actual women, rather than one who deals only with straw ones? So give it up for Flanagan. Her new book—on “the emotional life of pubescent girls,” God help us—is on its way, and whether it can top her spotless record of previous douchebaggery or not, she’ll always be a winner here.
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