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To hell with… Caitlin Flanagan

jpozners Icon Posted by Jennifer L Pozner

April 20th, 2006

Caitlin Flanagan, the conservative antifeminist darling of The Atlantic and The New Yorker - and the bain of many smarter young writers’ existence - was the mockee of honor on last night’s Colbert Report (Stephen Colbert’s Comedy Central send-up of The O’Reilly Factor).

And whaddayaknow, the author of To Hell With All That: Loving and Loathing Our Inner Housewife totally missed the joke.

No matter what ridiculously derogatory, sexist statement Colbert threw at her as part of his “I’m more pompous and nonsensical than thou” shtick, Flanagan just nodded her head, smiled in that vacant, eerie Stepford way of hers, and agreed, countering with an even more ridiculous comment… that she fully believed.

A good friend has tried to get me to sell some version of “Pop Up Jenn” to Oxygen or Lifetime or Comedy Central. Here’s the premise: each week, I’d assemble the most ludicrous, sexist or misrepresentative clips from cable news debates, network nightly newscasts, reality TV shows and the like, and after each biased or inaccurate media moment, my head would pop onto the screen with a little thought bubble, a la VH-1’s “Pop Up Video,” offering quick factual rebuttals, bits of historical context and, of course, snarky commentary.

Great idea, but who has the time?

Instead, this blog will have to do. Here are some hastily transcribed transcript excerpts of Colbert’s Flanagan segment, interspersed with a bit of clarity from moi.

Colbert: Tell me about your book. Your book is called To Hell with All That: Loving and Loathing Your Inner Housewife. What are you loathing?

Flanagan: The original subtitle was “How feminism shortchanged a generation,” but the publisher said that wouldn’t sell so we have a softer title. But I think it’s the notion that feminism sold a lot of women out. They sold us a bill of goods and a lot of women unhappy because they’re not valued at home the way they once were.

Pop Up Jenn: Actually, there are two likely reasons why Flanagan’s original title was nixed: first, because any piece of pop cultural flotsam that uses the word “Housewife” right now gains instant interest as a piggyback off of ABC’s hit Desperate Housewives—and second, because the publisher probably knew that “How Feminism Shortchanged a Generation” made perfectly clear how closely the ideas in Flanagan’s book border on plagiarism, as tired retreads of so many similar volumes in the myopic “women’s rights advocates harm women” genre, including:

What Our Mothers Didn’t Tell Us: Why Happiness Alludes the Modern Woman by Independent Women’s Forum staffer Danielle Crittenden (2000)

The War Against Boys: How Misguided Feminism is Harming Our Young Men by right-wing-funded, error-prone author Christina Hoff Sommers (2000)

Who Stole Feminism? How Women Have Betrayed Women, also by Christina Hoff Sommers (1994)

The New Victorians: A Young Woman’s Challenge to the Old Feminist Order, Rene Denfeld (1994)

The Morning After: Sex, Fear and Feminism on Campus, Katie Roiphe (1993)

… and so on.

I’m not going to take the time today to go into a long, detailed analysis of the flaws in the simplistic notion that feminism – rather than continued discrimination, inequity and growing poverty – is responsible for women’s lack of contentedness in today’s America (for that, check out the debate between myself and Danielle Crittenden in the Feb. 22, 1999 issue of the conservative magazine Insight on the News — note that the debate begins with Crittenden’s piece; you have to click through the links at the bottom to get to my rebuttal).

Back to the Colbert transcript – here’s Flanagan noting that “date night” has helped to kill American women’s happiness:

Flanagan: Date night. You know, if my father told me as a girl that he was taking my mother out on Date Night, I would say, “I don’t want to know about that.” This idea that couples are so starved for sexuality that the husband has to go to the Olive Garden and see a Meg Ryan once a week just so he could get a little nookie, is a modern invention. The old wife understood that was just part of the day. There was no Olive Garden. There was just the nookie!

Pop Up Jenn: Lie back and think of the Queen, is it? I’m no fan of lackluster chain restaurants, or even Meg Ryan, but what Flanagan is really saying by attacking the notion of married couples taking time for themselves away from pressure of kids and home in order to cultivate and continue their mutual attraction, is that women should just “put out” (as Flanagan agreed earlier in the segment) whenever their husbands want, regardless of their own desires. That’s what she means by “The old wife understood that was just part of the day.” In that “part of the day,” sex was a “wifely duty,” not something to be savored, reveled in, enjoyed – an act of desire, which can be mutually satisfying (if both partners are into it) or lackluster (if one demands it and the other just goes through the motions as some sort of obligation)… or worse, painful and abusive (if, as was legally permissible in pre-feminist days, husbands raped wives who actively did not want to have sex).

Colbert: As someone who criticizes the modern feminist movement–

Flanagan: Vehemently!

Colbert: Vehemently. Let me ask you a question: Chicks — what’s the deal? What’s their problem? Why do they feel like they need to be self-actualized, have some destiny over their lives, have their own income - why can’t they just be pregnant, naked, in the kitchen?”

Flanagan: I like the pregnancy, I like the kitchen, but nudity and the kitchen are not a good mix. I’m safety first.

Flanagan has only a few moments of real humor in the segment, as with her “safety first” quip, but what’s almost more disturbing than the fact that she’s totally down with the barefoot and pregnant thing is the extremely loud hooting and cheering from the men in Colbert’s audience every time he asked some over the top question about women “putting out” or being naked and subservient – the former Daily Show contributor’s intention was to ridicule Flanagan’s regressive notions, but the deep-timber hooting of the audience were shudder-inducing.

Colbert: Do you see a time when women and men’s roles were properly defined?

Flanagan: That I do.

Colbert: Take me back to the golden age. Turn on the Way-Back machine.

Flanagan: Turn on the Way Back machine! Well, in my house, it’s the “Today machine.” But for you and perhaps for the audience, it’s the Way Back machine. The husband goes off to work – the wife has important valuable work and nobody outs her down for it, people think that it’s really important to raise children. And feminists always talk about a time when motherhood is valued, motherhood WAS valued!

Colbert: Give me a time period. When did this actually happen?

Flanagan: This is in the misty, hazy, never really happened time period that I’m trying to sell my book on, but let’s just call it the 50s and 60s.

Colbert: OK, you’re saying misty , hazy, never really happened, but I’ve seen that black and white TV. It happened at some point, right?

Flanagan: I saw it, too. But there’s some questioning, like, did they really go to the moon, or was that just a tape? Some people feel Leave It To Beaver–fictional. I don’t really know.

Pop Up Jenn: Since Flanagan exhibited so little facial expression throughout the episode – she looked as if she were on Valium or some other “mother’s little helper” so popular during that “misty, hazy, never really happened” time she so longs for – it’s hard to tell if she intended this statement to be funny. No matter, because it’s unintentionally true: at no time in American history was Leave It To Beaver an accurate representation of the lives of middle class women – the cleaning and cooking, certainly, but the total fulfillment and joy in being treated socially and legally as a second class citizen? Pure television.

Colbert: I think we should go further back. Let’s go back to the feudal system. All right?… I mean, there was a time when my wife, if she wasn’t giving it up, I could say “She’s crazy, lock her away.”

Flanagan: If I was your wife and I wasn’t giving it up, I would be crazy!

Pop Up Jenn: Here, more fervent hooting from the frat boys in Colbert’s audience… but Colbert himself looked disconcerted at the fact that no matter how obnoxious and misogynistic his statements were, Flanagan smiled that Zanax smile of hers and agreed.

Colbert: Those were the golden days. In this hazy, misty time you’re talking about I could have you lobotomized just by saying she’s unbalanced. Right? Those are the days you’re talking about, right?

Flanagan: Absolutely!

Colbert: When women who needed money had to depend upon their husbands because even if their relationships weren’t good, they weren’t independent. This is the golden age you’re talking about, right?

Flanagan: Yes! It’s the eternal golden age, really.

Colbert: So, better for women to be dependent upon their husbands no matter what the situation is.

Flanagan: Well, certainly you press the point when you put it that way, but -

Colbert: I’m trying to press the point.

Flanagan: And you’ll not find any refutation from me. More or less, you’re on target there.

Colbert: Really!

Flanagan: Yeah.

Colbert: (after a brief pause at his guest’s inanity): You are a perfect woman.

Pop Up Jenn: What can I say here that you, wise reader, would not already have thought about a woman who agrees that it’s OK for a husband to attempt to lobotomize his wife simply because he isn’t getting as much sex as he wants?

Colbert: Um… you stay home with your kids?

Flanagan: Well… I write for the New Yorker magazine from my home after driving my children to school, and then before I pick them up I turn off the computer and I pick them up and I make the family dinner…

Colbert: You live here in New York?

Flanagan: No, I live in Los Angeles.

Colbert: But you write for The New Yorker.

Flanagan: I do.

Colbert: That’s the way Upper West Side?

Flanagan: I think even the New Yorker feels, a certain kind of woman, they’ll search the country for her.

Pop Up Jenn: Two things:

A. Flanagan’s proscription against work for women despite being a working woman herself is a classic antifeminist bait and switch: these women build high-profile careers and rake in robust incomes by telling other women they should do without their own incomes and that ambition beyond the home will ruin their and their children’s lives. Shades of Danielle Crittenden, who argued in What Our Mother’s Didn’t Tell Us that women who have jobs or even maintain their maiden names after marriage are damaging their children, their marriages and their country – even while Crittenden herself had not taken her husband’s name, and worked as a staffer of a prominent anti-feminist advocacy organization.

B. Sadly, Flanagan was 100% right about one thing: though dozens of research studies and reports document women’s systemic underrepresentation as op-ed and column writers in mainstream newspapers and magazines, those few women who do manage to break through as opinion leaders are often that “certain kind of woman” who can allow male editors to kill two birds with one stone: increase women’s bylines so that their numbers won’t look entirely homogenous, while at the same time bashing feminists and the movement for gender justice.

Who is that “certain kind of woman”? She’s Caitlin Flanagan… but she’s also staunch anti-feminist writers Kathleen Parker, Ann Coulter, Naomi Schaefer Riley, Amy Holmes, Christina Hoff Sommers, and many others like her with regular writing gigs in the nation’s leading newspapers and magazines. And she has far fewer staunch feminist counterparts with regular opinion-leading writing gigs in mainstream media, aside from Ellen Goodman and Molly Ivins. (Writers like Katha Pollitt, after all, are housed at independent left publications.)

Colbert: I’m thinking of writing a companion book to yours. Yours is called To Hell With All That: Loving and Loathing Our Inner Housewife. What if I wrote a book that said Fuck this partnership shit, I’m the husband. Would you help me sell that?

Flanagan: My editor’s right over there - I’m sure she’d be open to it.

Pop Up Jenn: Sadly, in today’s publishing market, I’m sure she would. Bookstores could shelve it next to The War Against Men (Richard T. Hise), The Rantings of a Single Male: Losing Patience with Feminism, Political Correctness… and Basically Everything (Thomas Ellis) and just about any book by Warren Farrell.

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