To Hell With That Flanagan Book

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So today’s NYT has a review of Caitlin Flangan’s new anti-feminist screed, “To Hell With All That,” which was written by Pamela Paul, and entitled “Mother Superior.” The review is yet another installment of the NYT’s Lessons for Uppity Women. Here are two sequential sentences excerpted from the very first paragraph:

We are still waging war and wagging fingers over diapers and bed sheets. Caitlin Flanagan, a staff writer for The New Yorker, is right out there on the front line : and feeling the fire.

Now right away I am confused. Who is “we”? What is the premise of the “war” over “diapers and bedsheets” and who are the combatants besides Flanagan? What is Flanagan fighting for, exactly, and who is she fighting? How will the interested observer recognize when the war is over, and which side won?

Here’s what is known: Flanagan hired a full time nanny when her children were in diapers, and she has a housekeeper to handle the bedsheets (see e.g. this). But she writes essays promoting the view that other women should do as she says, not as she does, and handle their own messy chores. This writing pleases the men at certain magazines, so they publish her work.

Now back to Paul’s review. She explains that what “really bothers” Flanagan’s critics is that they “find themselves agreeing with much of what she writes.” Let’s think about that for a second. Paul seems to be suggesting that Flanagan’s critics revile her because she is correct, making them almost as hypocritical as Flanagan herself is. I suppose this is possible, but I’d like to see Paul proffer some minute shred of proof. It doesn’t come when Paul isolates what she views as Flanagan’s three “major points” as follows:

…that most women hate housework but want to be good at it anyway, that women say they want men to contribute an equal share in the domestic arena but don’t want to sleep with the kind of men who do, that married people should have sex…

So Flanagan thinks all women are hypocritical sexless freaks, and Paul thinks Flanagan’s critics agree but are too hypocritical say so. Sheesh. Then Paul says:

What makes Flanagan’s book original and vital is that she is a realist, willing to acknowledge the essential gray areas in too often polarized positions. As it stands, sensitivities are so attuned to the slightest insult of any one of women’s myriad work-life choices that Flanagan’s simplest observations : for example, when a woman works something is lost : are taken as an indictment of working women. Yet any working mother can see the truth in such a statement: time spent working = less time with children = something lost. What’s appalling is that pointing this out raises such ire.

Where to even begin with that mish-mash of obfuscation and intellectual dishonesty. Flanagan asserts that women who work deprive their children of time, so “something” is lost. Paul says any working mother can see the truth in that statement. But she fails to enlighten the reader about the nature of that “truth.” Is it also true that men who work deprive their children of time, so “something” is lost? And what about the things that are gained when women and men work? Like satisfaction, fulfillment, salaries that enable the purchase of diapers and bedsheets, and for a lucky few like Flanagan, money to pay people to change diapers and bedsheets?

The rest of the review is completely unhinged, ping-ponging between urging people to read the book for almost sadistic reasons (“…even dyed-in-the-wool Flanagan haters might enjoy reading her make fun of herself,”) and giving us reasons to avoid it altogether (“The book is somewhat repetitive, as if [Flanagan] assumes readers won’t bother to read straight through…). At the end she almost seems to suggest that Flanagan herself needs and wants a traditional wife to look after her. My conclusion? To hell with this book, as it seems to corrupt and confuse everyone it touchs.

–Ann Bartow

Update: If you want to read a more explicit takedown of Flanagan’s work, check out this post by Amanda Marcotte at Pandagon. Update #2: Echidne of the Snakes reviews the Paul review in greater detail here.

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