On ‘The Glory of Oprah’

This post isn’t about Oprah. It’s actually about Caitlin Flanagan, a contributing editor for The Atlantic who routinely sparks the ire of lefty sites. Slate explains why in this 2006 review of her book To Hell with All That:

 Flanagan enjoys condescending to her audience of entitled, educated mothers… The attitude is Olympian: “What few will admit—because it is painful, because it reveals the unpleasant truth that life presents a series of choices, each of which precludes a host of other attractive possibilities—is that whichever decision a woman makes, she will lose something of incalculable value.” Unless, that is, the woman is Caitlin Flanagan, in which case she can have things every which way and pay no price (in fact, earn top rates). Thanks in part to a husband with a big paycheck, she works cozily from home, on hand for her now preteen twin boys, and in command of a panoply of household help—from a full-time nanny at one point to a “personal organizer” and a gardener now. From her perch, privileged by the standards even of her professional-class readers, she scrutinizes the selfish pretensions and self-defeating contradictions that sprout like marigolds in affluent American mothers’ hearts and hearths.

Flanagan also wrote this infamous piece about Duke University, centering around the public release of an old-fashioned ‘fuck list,’ in which Duke graduate Karen Owen wittily grades her athletic conquests. Flanagan’s article was widely criticized for its lack of original reporting and overbearing moralizing.

Basically Flanagan is one of those weird conservative liberals.

She’s back to form in her latest article for The Atlantic, about Oprah Winfrey. It’s an absorbing read–of the many complaints lobbed at Flanagan over the years, bad writing has never been one of them–and Flanagan really drives home some crucial points about Oprah’s meteoric rise.

But I really wish Flanagan wouldn’t resort to such silly, overbearing generalizations about men and women. Enough with the pontificating already. Flanagan writes:

 There are certain things about women that men will never understand, in part because they have no interest in understanding them. They will never know how deeply we care about our houses—what a large role they play in our dreams for ourselves, how unhappy their shortcomings make us. Men think they understand the way our physical beauty—or lack of it, or assaults on it from age or extra weight—preys on our minds, but they don’t fully grasp the significance these things have for us. Nor can they understand the way physical comforts or simple luxuries—the fresh towel or the fat new cake of soap—can lift our spirits. And they will never know how much our lives are shaped around the fear of bad men and the harm they can bring us if we’re not careful, if we’re not banded together, if we’re not telling each other what to watch out for, what we’ve learned. We need each other’s counsel, and oftentimes it comes when we’re talking about other things, when we seem not to have much important on our minds at all.

What is this? Seriously? What is this bullshit that she weaves so eloquently? “They will never know how deeply we care about our houses?’ What the hell? Since when did caring about houses become a gendered experience? When did men become immune to physical comforts and luxuries?

It’s these sorts of blanket statements that make Flanagan so frustrating to read and frustrating to admire. There was much about this article to like, but this last paragraph killed it for me.


2 Comments on “On ‘The Glory of Oprah’”

  1. Tabbitha says:

    I think I would have quoted this excerpt from the article on Oprah:

    “The little girl with such high hopes for herself seemed to have come early to the end of the roat, but then-imagine this as your one bit of good fortune, your 10th grade miracle- the baby died, a few weeks after birth. It was her second chance, the sudden, glorious rebirth of the dream. It was a straight line, pretty much from there to Oprah’s success in school…”

    That sentiment should never have made it to press. Shame on you Atlantic. I’ve cancelled my subscription and I’m never reading your magazine again.

  2. Claire says:

    it’s funny how “conservative” is shorthand for “obnoxious” these days, and how often the misnomer works. But I wouldn’t call Flanagan “conservative” on the basis of the quotes above, mostly because my conservative friends would all take issue with them, terribly. “obnoxious,” yes; “conservative,” no.

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