Two Girls, True and FalsePrint
By William Deresiewicz
What do girls want? Atlantic writer Caitlin Flanagan has made a cottage industry of telling us in no uncertain terms. Despite the hookup culture in which they’re supposedly forced to acquiesce, adolescent girls want “the Boyfriend Story … the gossamer-wrapped quest for true and perfect love.” Flanagan’s paradigmatic teenager–and every girl’s apparently identical in this respect–“wants to know that the boy she loves, and with whom she has shared her body, loves her and will put no other girl in her place.” Flanagan knows this because she’s listened to Taylor Swift and watched High School Musical and the Twilight series and Glee. Actually, she knew this already–it is the axiom she starts from–but such is the evidence she offers. The alternative to this storybook romanticism, in Flanagan’s view, is exemplified by “the kind of jaded, 40-something divorcées who wash ashore at day spas with their grizzled girlfriends and pollute the Quiet Room with their ceaseless cackling about the uselessness of men.”
Instead of the flotsam of popular culture (or her own wishful ideology), Flanagan would do better to consult the work of a true artist like Mary Gaitskill. In Two Girls, Fat and Thin, Gaitskill gives a picture of female adolescence that exposes Flanagan’s sentimentalizations for the propaganda they are. Gaitskill registers the romanticism, but she also registers everything it is conditioned and qualified by: the vanity, the cruelty, the self-dramatization, the self-delusion, the–and let’s go right ahead and use the word–lust. “Watley acquired the boy,” she writes of one young glamour girl. “He was easy to direct in the big scene in which modestly weeping Watley lost her virginity.” And so forth. Some of Gaitskill’s scenarios are extreme, but they possess the advantage of acknowledging the darkness that lies in all human hearts, even those of teenage girls. As for Flanagan, she fails to tell us what happens when the girl who loves the boy decides she loves some other boy instead, or feels like making out with her best friend’s brother, or her best friend’s boyfriend, or maybe just her best friend.
The irony of Flanagan’s position is that her Heaven and her Hell are really only different chapters of the same story. The fantasies she’s so intent to ratify and indulge lead not to fulfillment, but precisely to the Quiet Room at the day spa. Anyone who manages to carry the Twilight model of romantic relationships into a marriage is utterly doomed. Flanagan’s jaded divorcées are not the antitype of her innocent dreamers, they are the same type, 30 years on. That is how they got to be so jaded. Illusion leads to disillusionment, and thus to cynicism. The only chance at happiness–and it is still only a chance–is to steer for all you’re worth between the rocks of fantasy and the whirlpool of defeatism. Down that route, and that route only, lies an outcome that Flanagan has not succeeded in envisioning: the mature love of real adults.
William Deresiewicz is an essayist and critic. His book Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite and the Way to a Meaningful Life, which will be published in August, is based in part on his essays “The Disadvantages of an Elite Education” and “Solitude and Leadership.” To read all the posts from his weekly blog, “All Points,” click here.