Who you calling white trash?

In a new essay, Caitlin Flanagan rips into Helen Gurley Brown, the steno pool and adulterers

Published August 12, 2009 10:14AM (EDT)

Sigh. The September issue of the Atlantic is online once again and with it yet another vitriolic essay by our favorite antihero, the stay-at-home-mother-with-help, moral scold Caitlin Flanagan. Having worked her way through the mommy wars and the emotional lives of teenage girls (on which she is still, presumably, writing a book), Flanagan has seemed, as of late, particularly concerned with letting us all know that adultery is very, very bad.

This month brings more of the same: In case you were wondering, Caitlin Flanagan considers it a devilishly immoral act to steal another woman's husband. I'm not inclined to disagree -- nor do I have any personal investment in defending husband-stealing, having never had much interest in the practice myself. Her essay is a consideration of three books (Jennifer Scanlon's biography of Helen Gurley Brown, Helen Gurley Brown's "Sex and the Single Girl" and Elizabeth Edwards' autobiography, which reveals, among other things, the details of her husband's adulterous affair), all of which have long since been debated from almost every conceivable angle. So while I invite you to engage with Flanagan's essay and come to your own conclusions about her argument, today I would like to draw your attention to what Flanagan does best: the fine art of the literary insult. Love her or loathe her, friends and enemies alike, I would hazard, are united in their awe of Flanagan's great gift to recall the meanest girl on the junior high playground, to make one's head snap back and sputter, "Oh-no-she-didn't." Without ado, here are the greatest hits of this month's column.

Flanagan starts off with pitting the feminists who condescended to Gurley Brown against the ladies of the steno pool who lionized her. And it's hard to decide which group comes off worse:

[S]econd Wave feminism -- with it's 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.

OK, ladies: Choose your corner. Are you going to be the casually divorced Sasquatch pushing greasy coq au vin, or the poor chick who can't keep up with "Doctor Zhivago"? At first you might be lulled into thinking that Flanagan is just empathizing with the working-class women who felt left out by mainstream feminism. But don't get too comfortable! Here's what she has to say about Helen Gurley Brown:

The central tension of her work, and what has made it such a success, is that her ideas, launched at women who desire to gain or maintain a position in the middle-middle class emanate from the sort of person who gives that group the deepest and most reflexive shudder of all: pee-on-the-side-of-the-road white trash.

Somehow, the fact that women in Gurley Brown's family were known to pee on the side of the road led her to "embrace all aspects of the body, including the various functions and products of the alimentary tract." So that's why she was such a slut! But don't think there was anything glamorous about that! Far from being the "the newest glamour girls of our time," Flanagan imagines Gurley Brown's followers, the aforementioned "ladies of the steno pool," as follows: "Bertha in Accounting, with the hair on her chin; Dolores in Typing with the illegitimate son; Wanda the clerk, with the lift in one shoe." See? They may be after your husband, but don't worry: They aren't even pretty!

In the second part of her essay, Flanagan shifts gears completely and brings us to the funeral for a dead child. She writes:

I had known the boy well -- he had been a student at the school where I taught English -- but I hadn't loved him. In fact, I had never loved anyone yet, because I was years away from having a child of my own, and until you've done that you're just guessing about love, gesturing toward it, assuming it's the right name for a feeling you've had.

This is a low blow, even for her: Either you concede that mother love is the only kind that counts, or you are left pitting your own, different definition of love against the grief a woman feels at burying her child. And it recalls one of Flanagan's most famous lines: When she wrote of her own battle with cancer and concluded that her husband's kindness to her was a direct result of all her years of housewifery.

By now, Flanagan has us exactly where she wants us: contemplating the cruelty of a woman who would steal the husband of a woman who has both buried a child and battled cancer. Yes, it's the Rielle Hunter show, with hefty doses of venom all around. John Edwards is the guy who "has spent his life looking like a kid just on the verge of getting his first big boy haircut" while his wife, Elizabeth, is writing a tell-all in "a desperate attempt to protect her sweet, sad children from the influence of this erstwhile cokehead and present-day weasel after she has died."

I think I speak for most of us when I say that this particular affair and its fallout was one of the most unsettling in recent memory. But it's also a pretty extreme stand-in for the consequences of ordinary adultery and it seems diabolical to imply that this is the kind of thing Helen Gurley Brown had in mind when she urged single ladies to pursue sex, even if she didn't always keep a respectful distance from other women's husbands. But hey, implies Flanagan, what else do you expect from pee-on-the-side-of-the-road-white-trash?

By Amy Benfer

Amy Benfer is a freelance writer in Brooklyn, N.Y.

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Broadsheet Coupling Infidelity John Edwards Rielle Hunter