17 February 2012
I haven’t had time to read more than a handful of Flanagan’s essays yet, but a simple Google search reveals that she has all the right enemies.
I conclude she must be doing something right.
Flanagan is a former school teacher and writer, with two books to her credit—To Hell with All That: Loving and Loathing Our Inner Housewife (Little, Brown, 2006) and Girl Land (Reagan Arthur Books, 2012)—as well as a past gig as a staff writer for The New Yorker and a present one as a columnist for The Atlantic.
Why is Flanagan so unpopular among her sisters on the left? Because she has the audacity to defend a traditional conception of marriage as both morally right and psychologically healthy and fulfilling for women.
Nearly all the attacks on her stress that she is affluent and can afford to hire people to help her with the housework. In the eyes of her critics, this fact disqualifies her from being an authentic housewife.
But Flanagan does not deny that economic realities force many women into the labor market. Nor, obviously, is she unacquainted with the fact that women have intellectual lives or that they need to express themselves creatively.
On the contrary, she is quite up-front about the ways in which she is conflicted about the part of her that is consumed with worldly ambition and the part that is ineluctably attracted to homemaking. But, then, perhaps her feminist critics are unacquainted with ambivalence.
More than anything else, Flanagan seems interested in the fact that women and men are different in significant ways, and that the traditional conception of marriage, which was built upon the biological complementarity of the sexes, is something we jettison at our peril. Her subject—and it is a vast one—is essentially the cultural shift that made it fashionable to deny this obvious truth.
The best piece of hers I’ve read so far is on this precise theme. It’s called “Sex and the Married Man,” and it is a coruscating meditation, by turns hilarious and heart-rending, on the historical path we have followed from “Father Knows Best” to “Sex and the City” (my terms of reference, not hers), via the life and work of Helen Gurley Brown, as refracted through the lens of Elizabeth Edwards.
Here is a jewel from an Atlantic essay (collected in her first book) with the titillating title, “The Wifely Duty“:
The reason abortion rights hold such a sanctified position in American political life is that they are a critical component of the yuppie program for maximum personal sexual pleasure. But let these inebriates of nooky enter marriage, a state in which ongoing sexuality often has as much to do with old-fashioned notions of obligation and commitment as it does with the immediate satisfaction of intense physical desire, and they grow as cool and limp as yesterday’s Cobb salad.
But underneath the humor, there is always a moral seriousness. Flanagan’s greatest originality lies in the fact that she is giving a vernacular and essentially secular voice to ideas that we are used to hearing expressed in religious language.
The ideas are simple ones, but no less powerful for that.
Marriage is a solemn commitment. It is for better or for worse. It is until death do us part. It is not hedged about with conditions—prenups, flings, affairs, trading up, trading down, growing apart, or moving on.
Only in the unconditional giving of a man to a woman in the eyes of their community, and vice versa, can the fallen human estate approach to the condition of authentic love.
The secular-liberal commentariat hates Caitlin Flanagan because she represents a real danger to their media hegemony. And the reason why she represents such a danger to them is because she is so fluent in their own discourse.
She is a renegade—an apostate—for whom the worst anathemas and the most painful tortures are always reserved.
The place where Flanagan’s cultural fluency shows itself to best effect is in her stunning appearance on the Colbert Report. It must be one of the few times when Stephen Colbert has been so thoroughly beaten at his own game on the air.
Flanagan achieved this triumph through a combination of cleverness, understanding what the game was all about, and the gift of not taking herself too seriously.
Now, if we only had a male Caitlin Flanagan, who could do for fathers and husbands what she is so capably doing for mothers and wives . . .