Lust, Actually

Caitlin Flanagan, whom I am coming to believe is a bit of a froot loop, or at least has a moderate case of fogey-dom, has landed in my mailbox again courtesy of the Atlantic. This month she is writing about how teenage girls “endure” hookup culture.

In approaching this article we first need to consider the fact that her perspective is heteronormative and her examples of wholesome teen culture are, well, stuff white people like. In short, she makes assumptions that teenage girls are sexually-oriented toward teenage boys and are under the thrall of girly pop culture romance baloney.

Further, Flanagan doesn’t really define hookup culture, which, fair enough, it’s been in the lexicon for a few years now and people generally know what it means. She does kind of talk around the idea of hookup culture, and an example that she gives is of a solo young woman participating in a locker room gang bang, which some people might consider a varsity-level “hookup” at any age.

So whether girls are either burned by hookup culture, or, like the plucky heroine of a Victorian-era romance novel, they manage to avoid some faceless boy skeeting in their eye through a combination of spunk (def. 1) and luck, they yearn towards romantic impossibilities. She cites the example of the High School Musical franchise and the music of Taylor Swift as where young girls are taking their cues about romance from. Girls want boyfriends, she claims. Girls want to be loved and they want a happy ending. I wonder if Flanagan is too old to remember that teenagers can identify bullshit pop culture constructs? Is it not possible that this treacly pap is being engineered to appeal to the parents of these girls, to assuage some of the pearl clutchery engendered by a media that tells them that their daughters are getting DPed by the lacrosse team?

Flanagan compares the youth of today to the previous generation. A girl is “taught by her peer culture that hookups are what stolen, spin-the-bottle kisses were to girls a quarter century ago. She is a little girl; she is a person as wise in the ways of sexual expression as an old woman.” O RLY, Flanagan. If you want to pull pop culture as a reflection of society, a quarter of a century ago Fast Times at Ridgemont High portrayed a 15-year-old girl having an abortion, and I don’t think the character got knocked up from playing spin-the-bottle, and I don’t think you can shove 1985 (or the 70s, or the 60s) into the same weird platonic-ideal youth culture box as people have done with the postwar period in the US.

Can anyone else see the giant elephant in the corner of this pile of malformed claims? Where are teenage boys in all this? They mostly exist in this article to deny love, and to use teenage girls as their sexual playthings. Do teenage boys not desire love and stable  and healthy relationships? Let’s say for a moment that all teenage boys do seek to take advantage of girls. Flanagan writes about all this exploitation as something that is kind of just magically “happening” to girls, which seems a little rape-culturey to me.

Then there is this, her closing paragraph: “There might seem something wan, even pitiable, about all these young girls pining for boyfriends instead of hookups. But the wishes of girls, you have to remember, have always been among the most powerful motivators in the lives of young men. They still are.” What is this, I don’t even. Did you suddenly hit your word limit, Flanagan? At the very least, this seems to contradict all her business about girls following the desires of boys, typified by statements like, “Is it any wonder that so many girls are binge-drinking and reporting, quite candidly, that this kind of drinking is a necessary part of their preparation for sexual activity?”

I should say that Flanagan’s viewpoint is not as blinkered as the points I’ve pulled out here. She does make some decent points about the very real contradictory expectations that adults (who are inured to these contradictions)  impose on the young, especially in regards to sexuality.

My biggest sticking point is that Flanagan portrays teenage girls as resigned participants in some kind of sexual vacuum (boys exist only to deny them love and to fuck them unpleasantly, and then run), having no apparent agency or sexual desires of their own. Again and again popular culture wants to portray the teenage girl as the innocent or the victim, or completely over the line as in her example of the slattern in the novel she cites in her article:

In Testimony, the sex party occurs at the fictional Avery Academy; Shreve imagines Siena, the girl at the center of the event, as a grifter, eager to exploit her new status as victim so that she can write a killer college essay about it, or perhaps even appear on Oprah.

Just like real humans, teenaged girls can like romance AND they can like fucking. They can enjoy these things together or separately. Ultimately, Flanagan’s article is yet another pointless rehash of myths and half-truths about teenage culture.

8 thoughts on “Lust, Actually

  1. You had me at “froot loop” (CF’s bizarre “school gardens = bad” article would have been the last thing I ever read by her, if I hadn’t wanted to fully enjoy what you had to write here), but I’m glad I stuck through the whole thing, because this “What is this, I don’t even. Did you suddenly hit your word limit, Flanagan?” was so fun to read. And the spunk joke. But I wish I hadn’t read the article, because the fact that I am now an old woman with a teen of my own doesn’t make this kind of “girls are like this and boys are like that” article sidle up to my teen self and find that it doesn’t fit her (or just about anybody she knows) any more than any other definition of “teen” did.

  2. Oh YES the school gardens article. I have a habit of not completely internalizing a writer’s name unless they are 100% hein out the gate, but I looked her up after this and was like, “Oh yes, STRIKE TWO.” I have been wondering if someone else titled her article, because it does not seem like a total match and I confess the title bumped up my blood pressure before I even started reading. You just know what is coming. And as I said, she is not totally non-nuanced.

  3. Another example of putting girls in a box and not letting them admit or even realize that they like sex and petting and all that slobbery stuff. It is ok to want a boyfriend, but not to play around or experiment. There are safer ways to do that and by denying the ligitmacy of wanting to do those things, we keep them in the closet, there is less planning and more last minute “oops, no condom? oh well.” Gah.

  4. You’re going to go see “Easy A” and write about it, right? I don’t know who else to trust.

  5. Malcolm McDowell plays the school Principal in “Easy A”! I must see, too. I love the word play in the title as it relates to The Scarlet Letter.

    I read the school garden = bad article, too, but with mixed feelings because I vacillate all around in my thoughts on school curricula being too soft/hard, yet I think any teacher could develop a curricula based on vegetables, plants, school gardens = fucking biology and botany.

    Re: Love, Actually – I’m curious what percentage of US teenage girls actually like the pop culture ‘touchstones’ that she references, especially the Twilightian, Taylor Swiftian, High School Musicalian, because the internet is so vast, I don’t think these references apply across as broad a spectrum anymore. They would seem desperately uncool and mass media vomit to my memories of what influenced me as teenager. Also, as you mentioned, where are the teenage males? And where is the masturbation for everyone?

  6. I am pretty old, so it was a long time ago when I started having sex as a young teen (early 1970s). And I started having sex because I wanted to know what sex was like. No one would tell me anything, so I became a spy, trying stuff out with no love involved. My first intercourse, my first receiving and giving of oral sex were with guys I had NO emotional attachment to, and that was fine by me. At the time it was cool with all parties involved. No big deal, just fooling around. We were smart enough to use condoms and we all had an ok time.

  7. Is it just me, or is there something almost prurient about the persistent wishing that teenage girls want only romance, but get sullied by that dirty hook-up culture? A fetishizing of a teen Pollyanna who probably doesn’t exist?

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