Douchebag Decree: Caitlin Flanagan, our first Douchebag All-Star!


Sometimes a simple acknowledgment of douchery just isn't enough. Sometimes you have to step back and marvel at how consistent, how dedicated, how impressively shameless a person's commitment to being a total asshole is. And that's why Bitch has decided it's time to start recognizing those individuals as the All-Star douchebags they are. Practically, it just makes sense: We plan to be awarding Douchebag Decrees for many years to come, and there are some people it would just be easier to mention once, acknowledging that not only have they already amassed an impressive body of douchebaggery, they will surely keep it up for the foreseeable future.

It's in this spirit that we give a nod today to the lifetime douchechievements of Mrs. Caitlin Flanagan: author, columnist, wife, mother, professional scold, and 24-karat-gold douchebag. Flanagan has been honing her tirelessly contrarian standpoints on motherhood, work, abortion, teen girls, sexuality, adultery, and education in the pages of such august publications as The New Yorker and the Atlantic Monthly for almost a decade, and in that time has churned out dozens of stupendously specious, haughty, and intellectually dishonest (and sometimes plagiarized!) reviews and opinion pieces that offer little more than a window on the author's self-focused worldview. Herewith, some of her defining plays.

Feminists are ugly. And dangerous. And ugly! Flanagan, it must be said, knows how to write. Unfortunately, her characterizations of other women are generally crafted with all the subtlety of a junior-high burn book. Of Hillary Clinton, she writes, "Something freakish in her voice or inflection—you know what I mean—made me want to flee." Helen Gurley Brown is "pee-on-the-side-of-the-road white trash." And then there's this epic denunciation of Second Wave feminists, from her September 2009 Atlantic column "Sex and the Married Man," which holds Helen Gurley Brown responsible not only for John Edwards's future adultery, but also for plump secretaries with warts thinking, unforgivably, that they might deserve love and sex.

 [S]econd Wave feminism—with its endless reading lists and casually divorced breadwinners, its stridently unshaven armpits and Crock-Pots of greasy coq au vin -- was fine for the educated set, the B.A.-in-anthropology, little-bit-of-money-put-aside women who could get themselves master's degrees in library science, peel off the Playtex 18-Hour Living Girdle one last time and divest themselves of the whole maddening, saddening, 24-Hour Living Death of mid-century houswewifery. But the movement wasn't much of a starter for the young women of the steno set -- call them the Seven Thousand Sisters -- who barely made it all through 'Doctor Zhivago,' let alone 'The Second Sex,' and who, moreover, had no desire to go through life looking like Sasquatch and feeling angry all the time.

Also, feminism totally ruined the world. Here is a partial list of social ills wrought by feminism either alluded to or stated outright in Flanagan's essays: Adultery. Divorce. Frozen food. Pornography. The sexual exploitation of teen girls. (Not boys, because boys and men are almost never considered in Flanagan's work.) The current state of the Democratic Party. But based on the clownishly drawn portraits of feminists that attempt to pass for analysis in Flanagan's work, it's quite clear that she doesn't know any. Or, at least, any that would be willing to talk to her for the research she's not at all interested in doing anyway. As Hilary Frey pointed out in a 2004 deconstruction of Flanagan's boner for housewifery, "I'm quite certain that if the huge class of women Flanagan wants to accuse of being feminists were actually practicing members of the women's movement, we'd have universal day care, access to social services of all kinds for the immigrant women and children Flanagan purports to care about, and so much federally mandated family leave for mothers and fathers that home care for infants would be unnecessary."

But you know who really sucks? Working women. Back in 2004, Flanagan's Atlantic piece "How Serfdom Saved the Women's Movement" tsk-tsked the women who chased "fulfilling" full-time work and left the work of raising their children—the more important job, in her estimation—to domestic workers. However, rather than actually interview actual nannies for the piece claiming that nannies were bearing the brunt of feminism's selfish mandate to self-actualize, Flanagan employed only anecdotal evidence and rampant speculation, and when called on her lack of reporting, tried to claim that, really, the piece was a call for better working and living conditions for domestic workers. (Barbara Ehrenreich, thankfully, called shenanigans.)

It's Flanagan's writing on this subject in particular that reveals the source of her conservative, often illogically backward-looking rhetoric. Simply put: Girlfriend's got mommy issues out the hoo-ha. In her debut piece as a staff writer for The New Yorker, Flanagan describes how her preteen world was rocked when her mother decided to return to working outside the home. Though she acknowledged that work made her mother happier—her "glooms and sulks," she wrote, disappearing with her exit from full-time homemaking—Flanagan never recovered, suffering debilitating fears at the time, and, clearly, still nursing psychic wounds today. In a 2006 essay, she snuffled that "At the time of my adolescence my mother was too distracted to give me everything I needed to turn out well." In a more recent one, she derides her mother's later-in-life volunteer work for Planned Parenthood, writing that she became one of those "kindly, kooky older ladies whose dedication to volunteering at Planned Parenthood bordered on the unseemly, given the distance between their age and their own need for the services provided." (You know, as opposed to the totally seemly project of being a 50-year-old writer obsessed with the sex lives of adolescents—see below for more on this.) Would such wounds be better dealt with via therapy than by lashing out at other women who choose to—and, in many more cases, have to—work? Yes, they would. However, if the elder Mrs. Flanagan (who sounds awesome) could rise from the grave and perhaps give her daughter a few good smacks with a bedroom slipper, that would be even better.

That is, unless those women work for me. It's a rare kind of asshole who can lecture other women about the importance of housewifery in one breath and brag about being far too good for quotidian domestic chores in the next. Caitlin Flanagan is that asshole. She proudly noted in the 2003 Atlantic essay "Housewife Confidential" that not only had she never changed a sheet, she was "far too educated and uppity to have knuckled down and learned anything about stain removal or knitting or stretching recipes." Singing the praises of her nanny, Paloma, in her 2006 essay collection To Hell With All That, she describes her method of dealing with a sick child. "'Paloma, Patrick is throwing up!' I would tell her, and she would literally run to his room, clean the sheets, change his pajamas, spread a clean towel on his pillow, feed him ice chips, sing to him. I would stand in the doorway, concerned, making funny faces at Patrick to cheer him up."

So while philosophically Flanagan believes that "when a mother works, something is lost," someone has to clean up the yucky fluids that Princess can't soil her tiny hands with. What kind of person proudly calls herself a stay-at-home mother, demonizes professional working women, yet employs other women, with their own children, to do the work she considers beneath her? I'll tell you: A dryer-fresh, lemon-scented douchebag.

What's that, you say? I'm a working woman? That's not what Phyllis Schlafly told me! Intellectual dishonesty is a hallmark of Flanagan's writing, and it's never more blatant (or more bizarre) than when she's explaining how what she does isn't "real" work. When an Elle interview asked her to break down exactly why she can't be considered a working mother, Flanagan delivered a version of "Who's On First" to writer Laurie Abraham.

"'Aren't you a working mother?' I ask.

"'All mothers are working mothers,' Flanagan replies.

"'Working mother outside the home, I mean.'

"'No, I'm never outside the home when I work,' she replies. (Geez, I fell right into that one.)

"'But you do have an office in the house? You're not typing in the kitchen, right?'

"'When the boys were really little I did. I sat at the kitchen table. I sat right there and worked.' And so on.

See, writing's just a hobby that she does on the side. You know, it's kind of like, oh, volunteering at a hospital. Or fundraising for the twins' school. Except, you know, with magazines like The New Yorker and The Atlantic. For lots and lots of money. Don't all traditional wives and mothers do that on the side?

Hookup culture is damaging teen girls. If there's one thing Flanagan can really type some words on, besides how she hates feminism and how her mommy abandoned her, it's teen girls and blowjobs. She's heard a lot of stuff about how teens these days are having hookups and orgies and rainbow parties all over the place. But since Flanagan is perpetually arrested in a time of crinolines and sock hops, when all teens were apparently eunuchs, the idea that girls might actually enjoy exploring their sexuality is both logistically inconvenient and philosophically abhorrent to her. Of course girls don't yearn for sex! They don't feel actual desire. They're just going along with boys' requests for hummers and sex parties and Rusty Trombones and all that, and we have to save them.

Plenty of fine folks have written succinctly on the many ways Flanagan gets it wrong when discussing girls and sexuality, from her reliance on the girls-want-love/boys-want-sex binary to the idea that the success of the Twilight franchise represents teen-girl revolt against casual hookups to her general lack of any kind of factual backup for her sweeping assertions. (It won't surprise you to hear that she consults with no actual teen girls or boys on how they feel or why they do or don't hook up for a variety of reasons. To say nothing of the entirely heteronormative assumptions in every one of her teen-sex screeds.) In her most recent teen-sex-obsessed Atlantic screed, "Love Actually," Flanagan writes that a teen girl of today is "taught by her peer culture that hookups are what stolen, spin-the-bottle kisses were to girls a quarter century ago." A quarter-century ago? You mean, like around when girls were passing around dog-eared copies of Forever and sneaking giddily into R-rated movies like The Last American Virgin and Fast Times at Ridgemont High, and later mimicking the characters practicing oral sex on carrots? That quarter-century ago? To Flanagan, "the past" will always equal "the 1950s and 60s." That in itself doesn't make her a douchebag. But the ongoing factual inaccuracy that results from her willful ignorance does.

Oh, also? School gardens are grassy little plots of evil! Flanagan's January 2010 Atlantic piece called "Cultivating Failure" detonated an out-of-nowhere hate bomb in the direction of famed Berkeley chef Alice Waters and her Edible Schoolyard initiative. This, perhaps, was Flanagan's breakout play of douchemongering, the one that allowed a whole new group of readers to gaze into the bright glow of her bile and wonder if she had lost her grip on reality, or was putting on an Ann Coulteresque show of grandstanding bluster, or was pissed because Waters seated her too close to the bathroom at Chez Panisse. The blog Garden Rant ruminated on her brand of context-free contrarianism, writing, "If the more politically correct moms in Flanagan's neighborhood decided it was healthy for kids to be raised with pets, Flanagan would slaughter puppies on her front lawn just to prove them wrong."

There you have it—a small sampling of stats from this first Douchebag All-Star. No douchebag can get it done all alone, of course, and Flanagan has had plenty of help. Obviously, there's her nannies, her housekeeper, her "personal organizer," her gardener, and her other household help. More important, there are the many prominent newspapers, magazines, and journals that have hired her to chum the waters of opinion with her irresistible antifeminist comment bait. After all, when you're a journal of opinion that's only got one spot for "women's issues," why give it to someone who cares about actual women, rather than one who deals only with straw ones? So give it up for Flanagan. Her new book—on "the emotional life of pubescent girls," God help us—is on its way, and whether it can top her spotless record of previous douchebaggery or not, she'll always be a winner here.

by Andi Zeisler
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Andi Zeisler is the cofounder of Bitch Media and the author of We Were Feminists Once: From Riot Grrrl to CoverGirl®, the Buying and Selling of a Political Movement. You can find her on Twitter.

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21 Comments Have Been Posted

This is some kind of

This is some kind of bullshit!

Going through life looking like Sasquatch and angry all of the time? Goodness, I'm a feminist, I'm happy 23 out of 24 hours a day, I shave my legs, and everything else.

Sure, the early feminists in the 60s were rebelling against the perfect wife image, so they went to another extreme, but for Mrs whats-her-face to brand all feminists like that is just idiotic and immature.

And the way she speaks about working women, what a privileged white bitch. For some women, working isn't a choice. How nice it must be to be a privileged white bitch and not *have* to work.

And is she serious about how she felt when her mother returned to work? What a selfish prick! It seems as though Mrs Flanagan is incredibly selfish and self-righteous.

<<That is, unless those women work for me.>>

That whole paragraph... are you fucking kidding me? She chastises women for being working moms who have nannies, yet she is a working mom who has a nanny.

Ladies (and Gentlemen) I think we have found the World's Biggest Hypocrite.

The scary thing is, that while I think Ann Coulter is just in it for the money and is bullshitting (last I heard she was dating a man who was Jewish AND a Democrat!), this woman sounds serious.

I really hope someone intellectually bitch-slaps the hell out of her (but not physically, no matter how rotten a person is, hitting is never ok).

oh rainbow parties...

I love people who bring up rainbow parties. They're so horrified they never realize it's a recipe for bad fellatio.


Seriously. The fact that this idea got as much attention as it did tells me one thing and one thing only about the state of sex in this country: Dr. Phil has never had a proper blowjob.

Wow, what a douche bag!!

Wow, what a douche bag!! Keep it up, Bitch!

Thank you, Andi Zeisler!

Oh my gosh this is the funniest thing i have ever read here. I can't stop laughing. Feminists are responsible for frozen food?! Sometimes you just have to laugh or go insane, and Mrs. Flanagan's overindulged hypocritical rants are just hysterical. Thank you for writing this.

ha! I just finished reading

ha! I just finished reading Flanagan's latest piece for the Atlantic and thought, "there are so many problems with this, I don't even know what to object to first." (her implicit insistence that teen girl=heterosexual teen girl; her refusal to even explore the idea that perhaps teenage BOYS also want love instead of just sex; her dismissal of the work of two authors simply because they're young women and thus stupid; her fallacious comparison of a novel with a work of nonfiction ... and that's just off the top of my head)

and then I immediately wandered over here to Bitch and, AHA, I'm not alone! I'm not familiar with Flanagan but, after reading that piece about teen girls and "hookup culture," as well as this hilarious Douchebag Decree, I am confident in my distaste for her, to say the least. keep up the good work!


I just read her anti-school garden article (linked to in <a href=" post on Racialicious) and found myself thoroughly bewildered by her contrarianism, so thanks for this! I wasn't knowingly familiar with her other work. Her position in the aforementioned article is really strange, and I wasn't entirely sure of the spirit with which the Racialicious/Fat Nutritionist link was included--Flanagan seems to be decrying the "hand-wringers", because "Look, poor people totally have access to great food! I saw!" The local/organic food movement does at times gloss over issues pertaining to people who don't fit into the upper-middle-class white demographic, and in a way it's kind of interesting to think about how an emphasis on hands-on labor might look to parents in this community who want their children to be able to avoid such work (though this argument seems far less relevant in parts of the country where farm labor isn't as common, e.g., the South Bronx). Ultimately, though, this point's validity is hampered by the bitter, blind contrarianism and, like you said, lack of context.

Anyway, sorry to go a little off topic, but thanks for affirming my wariness!

Douchery, thy name is Caitlin Flanagan.

As an at-home parent who just thawed a Healthy Choice meal for lunch, I feel especially qualified to chime in with support for this Douchebag All Star award. The essence of CF is the constant celebration of her own particular brand of privilege, always obtained at the expense of someone else.

Amen to that!

I first heard of Flanagan a few years ago when she wrote an alarmist piece on teens and oral sex that conveniently ignored a key piece of the research she was "analyzing" -- girls were *receiving* oral sex from guys at approximately the same rate as they were giving it. (Her piece centered on how teen boys used teen girls for sex.) She's awful. Thanks for calling her out.

Oh Those Lips.

My what a big mouth she has. Seriously those lips are the length of the Mason-Dixon line. Who lied to her about pretty?

Anyone who is as deluded as this pathological liar, deserves to be elected Lady Jock Itch, because a douchebag would never help with cleaning up this intellectually smutty thing.

sharon olds' ode to a douchebag

Dear Brilliant Douchebag columnists at While this decree and all your previous ones are a. hilarious b. brilliant c. on the money and d. all of the above, check out Sharon Olds' poem "Douche bag ode" -- which begins "when I hear the young refer to someone as a douche bag, I want to say you may have never seen a douche bag" and ends "and lo, you are a night clearing in which a fountain of Aphrodite leaps up and cascades down, making her music, her brine sea chanty, her sparkling douche bag song." She's not praising douche bags by any means, but I wouldn't want such brilliant words to be associated with any of these winners of yours!

Once a Douchebag, always a Douchebag

While I cannot claim to have wasted my life reading all of Caitlin's rants, I have read enough to realize that the high school girl which I knew 30 years ago hasn't changed at all.. Still arrogant and clueless, yet inexplicably able to earn a paycheck by exploiting these wonderful character attributes. The only benefit I can see to her ridiculous essays is that they have enabled others who are actually intelligent and observant to populate blogs like this with wise commentary -0 as well as completely justifiable derision and disgust!

Thank you for

Thank you for douche-slapping Flanagan—the woman's made my skin crawl ever since she was featured in a Newsweek article on "innovators" (WTF, Newsweek?!) a few years ago.

For entirely selfish reasons, though, I wish she had a different name. I have the same first name and a very similar last name to her, so I have to do a double take whenever I see her name. I hope she doesn't become so entrenched in the pop-sociology world that when I start to kick ass and take names in sociological/linguistic research after college, people don't confuse me with her. :(

(I meant that people WOULD

(I meant that people WOULD confuse me with her. Sorry for the confusing sentence!)

Thank you thank you thank

Thank you thank you thank you thank you......After listening to this: (which is not completely without merit), which was my first encounter with Flanagan, I needed a dose of Bitch and was basically praying that I would find this exact article after listening to her! I am SOOOOOO glad I am not the only feminist totally horrified by her. Douchebag doesn't begin to describe it.

How could I be so wrong?

Two salient background facts about me: my daughter is 14 and I'm writing a YA novel about a pregnant teenager who has an abortion. I read CF's column, <i>Love, Actually</i>, in the Atlantic, and thought I'd discovered someone who really made sense because much of what she said resonated with me; CF and I are the same age. I was trolling for a way to contact her with a follow-up question when I came across your site and this article. As I was reading I became more and more horrified at how wrong I apparently was. By the time I finished reading all the comments I felt like a fool.

The scary part is not discovering that I'm not a critical reader. The scary part is that I consider myself a smart, educated, liberal woman, and I was bamboozled. How can we blame others who have not had my advantages for being even less critical? Feeling foolish but happy to have discovered your site.

No worries

Judy, don't beat yourself up; I hardly think it's foolish to not be able to discern a person's ideological standings from one column, and I wasn't sure of who she was either. At this point, Flanagan seems to be less of a notorious antifeminist writer than K. Roiphe or Paglia, which just makes <i>Bitch</i>'s pointing out her douchery all the more essential.

Flanagan on...fictional suffragettes?

So funny...I was just looking through my old notes from college, and as it turns out, I was introduced to the weird politics of Flanagan earlier than I realized! Amongst other media reception of Disney's <i>Mary Poppins</i> film -- yeah, it's a long story -- we read her comments on the film in <i>The New Yorker</i>, which includes an out-of-nowhere statement that Ms. Banks' suffragette persona showed that she thought giving her kids a bad nanny was "more terrifying to the maternal soul than infidelity or financial reversal.” I was entirely confused as to her meaning-- financial REVERSAL? like nannies being too expensive? and how is infidelity relevant? -- but in the context of her career, it's pretty clear: working for women's rights instead of being a stay-at-home mom will emasculate your husband from his breadwinner role and force him to cheat on you! How silly of me. I guess I just didn't understand the etiquette of the "maternal soul."

What a horrible childhood

What a horrible childhood she must have had. Mommy went back to work and wasn't there waiting for her to come home all day while she went to high school. What an insult to people who actually went through hard things as children.

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