Yes, Maureen Dowd is necessary

You can love her or hate her, but you can't dismiss her -- or her inflammatory new book on gender politics.

Published November 8, 2005 1:00PM (EST)

Given all the fur that's already flown over New York Times Op-Ed columnist Maureen Dowd's new book, "Are Men Necessary? When Sexes Collide," a weary reader can be forgiven for thinking it has been out forever. But while it was excerpted in a much-maligned essay in the New York Times Magazine last weekend, it hits shelves Tuesday.

The Times piece did not do Dowd's book any favors by chopping it up as if it were a cutesy retro-chic dating manual and a cackling dismissal of feminism. In fact, Dowd's 338-page cultural analysis and memoir of sexual politics is a blistering critique of modern gender relations, dressed up in a pulpy cover and too many puns. She's asking some very uncomfortable questions of her male and female readers, and presenting some startling answers, including the winked-at implication that, as the title suggests, men may not be necessary anymore. Dowd has clearly touched a nerve. And you only touch a nerve by telling a truth.

The Times excerpt pissed off bloggers and Op-Ed columnists alike. Outrage was varied: Women ripped Dowd's casual claims about the death of feminism, along with her assertions about women who want men to pay for their dinners, who believe "The Rules," who take their husbands' names and consider "Mrs." a status symbol. She has been rightly criticized for her reliance on questionable trend stories, many from her own newspaper, about women who want to opt out of careers and men who marry their secretaries. Young women felt they'd been misrepresented as plastic husband-hunters; older women were furious with Dowd's portrayal of second-wave feminists as earnest and Birkenstock-shod. Blogger Catnip snapped at Dowd: "I know lots of smart, career-driven women who ... didn't have to act dumb and dress like a tart to 'catch' their husbands." Feministing's Jessica Valenti knocked her for the "assumption that feminism ended back in the day, [her] reliance on dubious studies, and ... [her] elitism," while elsewhere, ruffled writers like Katie Roiphe and Kathleen Parker squawked their defenses of what Dowd, in the book, terms "the weaker sex": men.

Clearly, Dowd has exposed herself to an enormous amount of vitriol. A recent New York magazine profile of the columnist opens with a description of the naked women decorating her home, and her friend Michiko Kakutani's suggestion that she paint clothes on them. The response she's received so far makes me want to paint clothes on her.

Far from being any kind of feminism-denier, Dowd, the only female Op-Ed columnist at the most powerful newspaper in the world, is the embodiment of its triumphs, and she knows it. What she has to say in this book is sometimes crass, often recycled from old columns, intermittently sloppy, consistently over-generalized and rooted too firmly in her own rarefied D.C.-N.Y. corridor of power. But just because Dowd's sphere is a privileged one doesn't mean her observations aren't both fascinating and true. And, as the blizzard of response demonstrates, Dowd has kicked off a conversation we are desperate to have.

In "Are Men Necessary?" Dowd lays into men and women, calling out their hypocrisies and weaknesses, and engaging in quite a few of her own. She covers dizzying territory; anyone hoping for a single thesis will come up empty-handed. Dowd insists she is not "peddling a theory or a slogan or a policy," rather presenting the "diligent notes ... of a fascinated observer of our gender perplexities."

Her notes cover dating anecdotes (her own and those of her friends), the weakening of the Y chromosome, a recent cultural embrace of frilly-aproned 1950s femininity, and the disappointment of learning that her hero Katharine Hepburn tamped down her vivid personality to please Spencer Tracy. Dowd bemoans the transformation of the female journalist into the female sex columnist ("from Tess Harding to Carrie Bradshaw ... is not progress") and marvels at the matriarchal communities of sex-happy bonobo primates. She argues that Hillary Clinton destroyed feminism, selling out her sisters by sticking with her "dissembling, thong-seeking, wife-betraying husband," and becoming a feminist icon in the process. She decries Botox yet spends $195 on anti-aging cream. Given Dowd's penchant for puns and the breadth of her subject matter, "Are Men Necessary?" sometimes reads like a Jerry Seinfeld routine: What is the deal with Bratz dolls?

Dowd often asks for her chastisement, refusing to fit anyone's model of how we should talk about men and women. She is out of control, yes, wondering if the "cow goo" being pumped into age-defying cosmetics will lead to half-bovine women, "pouty young Gotham beauties, sipping raspberry mojitos at Koi ... running around in circles trying to bite their tails," and "high-powered professional women in leather skirts and Holstein-patterned heels clickety-clak[ing] up to the pool at the Four Seasons restaurant ... slurping at it like a trough."

But gender constructions are Dowd's playthings: She also suggests that Donald Rumsfeld is menopausal and that Al Gore is "practically lactating." Dowd subverts gender stereotyping by treating it as a laugh riot; surely her giggling does not disqualify her feminism. In fact, however grating her tone, her willingness to enter this fray is exactly what feminism needs; she adds heat that will bring long-simmering, difficult conversations to a public boil.

Dowd has always been an equal-opportunity provocateur, winning a Pulitzer for her evisceration of the Clinton administration between flirtily poking the elder Bush with a stick and eating his son for breakfast. Though she writes that she fears being called a catfighter and a castrating bitch, she is not impeded by either. This makes her as useful a critic as any out there; if women are to have constructive conversations about what comes next, we need someone willing to tell us when we make wrong turns or double back on ourselves.

For too long women have felt uneasy about girl-on-girl conflicts. We are supposed to love and support each other; sisters who question sisters are no sisters at all. If women disagree, it gets fetishized as a hair-pull, something that Dowd knows all too well. (See Miller, Judith.) But some of the questions she dares to ask -- in her caricatured way -- are some of the most unpleasant on our plates: Is feminism dead? Do men have trouble with powerful women? Why, decades after a feminist movement that was supposed to liberate us from constrictive physical ideals, are women hacking up their faces and inflating their breasts?

Dowd writes that she never fit in with her second-wave feminist contemporaries. Now she's critiquing the generation that came after hers, and the effects, if not the impulse behind, more recent sex-positive feminism.

When Dowd quotes an Ivy League professor on the mysteries of undergraduate women who outperform their male peers every day in the classroom and then capitulate their power at night, not "even getting orgasms ... just servicing boys in dark corners," it's an observation that is surely unquantifiable and alarmist. But if it's true for some young women -- and if we're honest, we have to admit that it doesn't sound that implausible -- then we must find a way to address the contradictions of sex-positivity and sexual objectification. Feminism may not be dead, as the furious reaction to her words surely proves, but who can deny that there is truth to her ancillary assertion that it's been trumped by narcissism and materialism? We can kick and scream that she's generalizing about the return of conformist beauty standards, but we cannot deny that Paris Hilton and Jessica Simpson sell magazines.

Dowd notices that "pre-feminist" former Cosmopolitan editor Helen Gurley Brown and "post-feminist" Bust editor Debbie Stoller both refer to women as "girls," though in the L.A. Times interview that Dowd quotes, Stoller calls Cosmo "stuck in the Valley of the Dolls," and Brown tells Dowd that "to be a sex object is a wonderful thing, and you're to be pitied if you aren't one." Is the language of "girliness" liberating or regressive? Is it a matter of reclamation or subjugation? I don't know. Let's talk about it.

Dowd is a woman who is clearly curious about other women, from her late 97-year-old mother to tween and twentysomething friends. Worrying about all the people whom Dowd fails to represent will lead only to madness, as will focusing on the narrowness of her elite sphere. It's worth remembering that Dowd is the daughter of an Irish cop and the granddaughter of a maid. She's a card-carrying member of the cultural elite now, sure, as are her girlfriends, powerful colleagues like Michiko Kakutani and Alessandra Stanley. If anything, Dowd and the heady company she keeps offer a valuable window onto one story of American feminism: Here are a clutch of the most successful women in the country, and they, or at least their redheaded interlocutor, are telling us how gender looks to them. We shouldn't spend so much time poking easy holes in Dowd's generalizations that we fail to stop and think: "That's interesting. What does it tell us about the state of things?"

The New York profile, written by Ariel Levy, offers photos of Dowd with her mother -- who died this summer and who Levy writes was "the love of [Dowd's] life to date" -- with her Times colleagues, with presidents and their wives; there are two pictures of her exes, and four of her best female friends; there is Dowd in the lovely Georgetown house she occupies alone. It's a vision of what a modern female life can look like: defined as much by other women, work and real estate as it is by husbands or boyfriends.

Dowd's singleness weighs heavily on "Are Men Necessary," though she never offers an explicit rundown of her romantic history. The text is dotted with ex-boyfriends, fragmented memories of come-ons and rejections. She recounts brushes with sexual harassment -- a married editor who propositioned her upon offering her a job, some grody calls from Bob Packwood after he saw her in Esquire's "Women We Love" issue. She recalls her youthful movie-star fantasies of being Katharine Hepburn with Cary Grant, Ginger Rogers with Fred Astaire, Myrna Loy with William Powell. Her recollections make clear that as a young woman, Dowd never pictured herself a solo madcap diva absent a male foil. And yet here she is, at 53, never, as New York reports, having lived with a partner.

The most-attacked anecdote in her book is about a Broadway producer who predicted her eternal solitude because "if there's one thing men fear, it's a woman who uses her critical faculties. Would she be critical of absolutely everything, even his manhood?"

Why would Dowd even want such a fop? Does she think men are all this spineless? Is she saying that married women have chucked their critical faculties? I hope not, and I don't believe so. Dowd is just describing how her own experiences feed her worst fears. The fact that those fears are shared by her peers, such as the girlfriend who upon winning a Pulitzer cried that she'd never get a date again, suggests that they are not pulled from thin air.

In one passage, she considers sending a guy a package of books from A-Z that will teach him more about her. Dithering about the messages that texts like "The Taming of the Shrew," "The House of Mirth" and "Be Honest -- You're Just Not That Into Him Either" might transmit, she concludes that it would be "the height of presumption to expect someone to devote that many hours to fathoming someone else's psyche." Dowd's self-defeating decision that no man could be that interested in her is followed immediately by defensive humor: "What guy would drag himself away from ESPN's 'SportsCenter' to read 'Sense and Sensibility'?" It's in moments like this that her bravado betrays her vulnerability and it becomes clear -- for anyone who hasn't heard that she's dated successful guys like "West Wing" creator Aaron Sorkin, actor Michael Douglas, office mate John Tierney, and (as she half-acknowledged in New York) former Times chief Howell Raines -- that Maureen Dowd doesn't hate men at all. Shes just flummoxed by them.

One of the book's most telling through-lines is the series of fictional pronouncements about singleness that have lodged in Dowd's brain: Kristin Davis' "Sex and the City" wail "I've been dating since I was 15! I'm exhausted. Where is he?" and Holly Hunter's lament in "Broadcast News," "I'm beginning to repel the people I'm trying to attract." Then there's Bette Davis' disquieting disquisition as Margo Channing in "All About Eve," the one that begins, "Funny thing about a woman's career -- the things you drop on the way up the ladder so you can move faster," and ends, "Nothing is any good unless you can look up just before dinner or turn around in bed and there he is. Without that you're not a woman. You're something with a French provincial office or a book full of clippings, but you're not a woman."

In her syndicated column, Kathleen Parker blamed Dowd for her man trouble, claiming, "Men haven't turned away from smart, successful women because they're smart and successful. More likely they've turned away because the feminist movement that encouraged women to be smart and successful also encouraged them to be hostile and demeaning to men." In Slate, Katie Roiphe joined Parker in pathologizing Dowd's status, insinuating that her singleness has nothing to do with men being threatened by her but with some unspeakable internal flaw. "Could there possibly be another reason that the attractive, successful Dowd has not settled down?" she asked. (I'm not sure what particular ailment Roiphe is suggesting Dowd suffers from -- Frigidity? Lesbianism? Narcissism? -- but it's probably not very nice.) Roiphe's criticism is a fair, if tautological one: The problem in not finding a mate is that ... you don't find a mate. Two parties fail to mesh; you're one of them.

But critics like Roiphe and Parker doth protest a bit too much. Against what? Maureen Dowd's single status? Her claim (backed up by Sorkin, who tells New York that Dowd was "more independent than [he] would like") that men are intimidated by her and that that may be one reason why she has not settled with a partner? If so, they are confusing critical observation with hostility in a way that suggests they are leery about any woman who does not subscribe to the notion that men are the central and governing force of women's lives. There is something terrifying in the realization that Dowd appears not to agree with Margo Channing that without a bed-mate she is "not a woman."

For thousands of years, heterosexual mating has been rooted in the fact that women have needed men: for reproduction, for financial support, and, Dowd quotes her mom as proclaiming, for "heavy lifting." Now, even as Dowd jokes that feminism's success lasted a nanosecond and frets about women who "no longer want to become the men they wanted to marry," the life that she's living is a veritable revolution, one so profound and nerve-jangling that Dowd skirts it with humor. We point out her flaws so that her situation cannot, must not, exemplify a new norm: Women really don't need men anymore.

That doesn't mean that many of us don't want them. But we don't need them, and to absorb that -- not just as a slogan but as a reality that shakes up all our assumptions -- is uncharted territory for both sexes. All of Dowd's bawdy satirizing pads this book; her tongue is so firmly in her cheek that it's hard to tell what she's saying. It reads like a symptom of ambivalence and confusion: Am I really saying men aren't necessary? Do I really think that's true? It suggests that she is wrestling with her own unease about conditions for which she has no solid models. According to her friend Leon Wieseltier, Dowd has "never found a man she loves enough to marry," a luxury that previous generations of women have not enjoyed. She tells Levy that when her dying mother wondered aloud whether her daughter would ever settle down, her response was: "Not everybody gets everything." It's a powerful assessment, both in its admission of desire and in its sparse, unemotional truth. It says that a husband might be a perk, but not a baseline requirement for fulfillment.

But look at what Dowd has gotten. Look at this life: the house, the friends, the exes, the job, the Pulitzer, her siblings and nieces and her relationship with her mother. It's such a full, rich life. And that's OK, right? Well? Is it? I don't know, and what "Are Men Necessary?" tells me is that Dowd doesn't either.

By Rebecca Traister

Rebecca Traister writes for Salon. She is the author of "Big Girls Don't Cry: The Election that Changed Everything for American Women" (Free Press). Follow @rtraister on Twitter.

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