Caitlin Flanagan and narrative fallacies in Girl Land

In “The King of Human Error,” Michael Lewis describes Daniel Kahneman’s brilliant work, which I’ve learned about slowly over the last few years, as I see him cited more and more but only recently have come to understand just how pervasive and deserved his influence has been; Kahneman’s latest book, Thinking, Fast and Slow, is the kind of brilliant summa that makes even writing a review difficult because it’s so good and contains so much material all in one place. In his essay, Lewis says that “The human mind is so wedded to stereotypes and so distracted by vivid descriptions that it will seize upon them, even when they defy logic, rather than upon truly relevant facts. Kahneman and Tversky called this logical error the ‘conjunction fallacy.'”

Caitlin Flanagan’s Girl Land is superficially interesting but can be accurately summarized as simply the conjunction fallacy in book form.

Then we need to be doubly dubious of narrative and narrative fallacies; when we hear things embedded in stories, we ought to be thinking about how those things might not be true, how we’re affected by anecdotes, and how our reasoning holds up under statistical and other kinds of analysis. I like stories, and almost all of us like stories, but too many of us appear to be unwilling to acknowledge that stories we tell may be inaccurate or misleading. Think of Tyler Cowen’s TED talk on this subject too.

In the Lewis article, Kahneman also says: “People say your childhood has a big influence on who you become [. . .] I’m not at all sure that’s true.” I’m not sure either. Flanagan and Freud think so; Bryan Caplan is more skeptical. I am leaning steadily more towards the Caplan / Kahneman uncertain worldview. I wish Flanagan would move in that direction too. She starts Girl Land by saying, “Every woman I’ve known describes her adolescence as the most psychologically intense period of her life.” Which is pretty damn depressing: most people spend their adolescence under their parents’ yoke, stuck in frequently pointless high school classes, and finishing it without accomplishing anything of note. That this state could be “the most psychologically intense” of not just a single person’s life, but of every woman’s life, is to demean the accomplishments and real achievements of adult women. It might be that having a schlong disqualifies me from entering this discussion, but see too the links at the end of this post—which go to female critics equally unimpressed with Girl Land.

I’m not even convinced Flanagan has a strong grasp of what women are really like—maybe “girl land” looks different on the inside, because from the outside I saw as a teenager very little of the subtlety and sensitivity and weakness Flanagan suggests girls have. Perhaps it’s there, but if so, it’s well-hidden; to me a lot of the book reads like female solipsism and navel-gazing, and very disconnected from how women and teenage girls actually behave. Flanagan decries “the sexually explicit music, the endless hard-core and even fetish pornography available twenty-four hours a day on the Internet [. . .]” while ignoring that most girls and women appear to like sexually explicit music; if they didn’t, they’d listen to something else and shun guys who like such music. But they don’t.

Since Flanagan’s chief method of research is anecdote, let me do the same: I’ve known plenty of women who like fetish pornography. She also says puzzling stuff like, “For generations, a girl alone in her room was understood to be doing important work.” What? Understood by whom? And what constitutes “important work” here? In Flanagan’s view, it isn’t developing a detailed knowledge of microbiology in the hopes of furthering human understanding; it’s writing a diary.

There are other howlers: Flanagan says that “they [girls] are forced—perhaps more now than at any other time—to experience sexuality on boys’ terms.” This ignores the power of the female “no”—in our society women are the ones who decide to say yes or no to sex. She misses how many girls and women are drawn to bad-boy alpha males; any time they want “to experience sexuality on [girls’] terms,” whatever that might mean, they’re welcome to. Flanagan doesn’t have a sense of agency or how individuals create society. She says that “the mass media in which so many girls are immersed today does not mean them well; it is driven by a set of priorities largely created by men and largely devoted to the exploitation of girls and young women.” But this only works if girls choose to participate in the forms of mass media Flanagan is describing. That they do, especially in an age of infinite cultural possibilities, indicates that girls like whatever this “mass media” is that “does not mean them well.”

I’m not the only one to have noticed this stuff. See also “What Caitlin Flanagan’s new book Girl Land gets wrong about girls.” And “Facts and the real world hardly exist in Caitlin Flanagan’s ‘Girl Land,’ where gauzy, phony nostalgia reigns:” “Flanagan works as a critic, was once a teacher and counselor at an elite private school, and is the mother of two boys, but somehow nothing has matched the intensity of that girlhood; it forms the only authentically compelling material here.” Which is pretty damn depressing, to have the most intense moments of one’s life happen, at, say, 15.

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