Maureen Dowd’s penchant for provocative overstatement has found its most recent outlet in a much talked about excerpt of her new book, Are Men Necessary?, in the New York Times Magazine. In it she bemoans a perceived return of 1950s values and courtship rituals and portrays a younger generation of women as grasping, shallow housewife wannabes and “yummy mommies.” In the most inflammatory and intriguing passages, she claims that men are put off by women in power, that they prefer the women who serve them—maids, masseuses, and secretaries—to their equals. She attributes the fact that she is unmarried to her powerful position as an op-ed columnist at the New York Times. Then she notes her own family history of domestic service and concludes that “being a maid would have enhanced my chances with men.”
Is this dark view of sexual politics a little extreme? If it is, it shouldn’t be surprising. Dowd pushes every statement to its most exaggerated form; her column occupies a space somewhere in between the other columns on the New York Times op-ed page and the political cartoons that sometimes run there. She is, at her best, a brilliant caricaturist of the political scene, turning each presidency into vivid farce. As a caricaturist, she has a fondness for punchy one-liners strung together, and for the one-sentence paragraph: “Survival of the fittest has been replaced by survival of the fakest”; “We had the Belle Epoque. Now we have the Botox Epoch”; and “As a species is it possible that men are ever so last century?” Her style evokes a brainier Candace Bushnell, whose oeuvre she frequently refers to, but it is given extra weightiness by her position at the Times.
Like the crude, sexist men she lampoons, Dowd is extremely fond of clever stereotyping. But this strategy is better-suited to satirizing a real person (say, President Bush) than it is to offering insights into the already cartoonish “war” between the sexes. In Are Men Necessary? she gravitates toward quotes like this: “Deep down all men want the same thing: a virgin in a gingham dress,” or “if there’s one thing men fear it’s a woman who uses her critical faculties.” To support these generalizations, Dowd relies on the faux journalism of women’s magazines. She cobbles together anecdotal evidence from people she encounters. The formula is basically this: “Carrie, a 29-year-old publicist, says … ” And from Carrie’s experience she extrapolates to the universal. The problem with this approach is that one could go out and find a 29-year-old publicist who would say the opposite. It would be one thing if Dowd were writing pure, straightforward polemic, ranting against the people she feels the need to rant against. But Dowd is pretending to cover cultural trends with journalistic accuracy, and it is this pretense that gives her arguments a shoddy feel.
Much of what Dowd observes in the piece is true—the nostalgic passion for the 1950s, the increasing number of educated women opting to be housewives or change their names when they marry, the success of books like TheRules. And yet, somehow, the alarmist portrait she draws of female life feels skewed. As a member of the generation she is writing about, I think her sensationalism renders us unrecognizable. She seems to believe that we are all obsessed with beauty, we all want to efface our personalities to ensnare a man, we all want to stay home and take care of him.
In fact, Dowd’s most compelling example of this rarefied, lonely demographic of woman too successful for love is herself. As Dowd would have it, men simply find her intelligence, her status, her wit too daunting. (A friend called her up to complain that her Pulitzer Prize would make it impossible for her to get a date.) But is it possible that there is something else at play? In a recent New York profile, the writer reports: “she is an utter and unreconstructed fox. Something that nearly every person I spoke to about her mentioned, unprompted, is that men can’t resist her.” The piece further describes the wide variety of men Dowd has been involved with, ranging from movie stars, to important editors, to creators of television dramas. And they have apparently all been attracted to her, even though she is not in a service profession, or a maid, or a virgin in a gingham dress. One imagines that her intelligence, her sharpness, her sarcasm may even have interested these men. Could there possibly be another reason that the attractive, successful Dowd has not settled down? Something that is not in the zeitgeist, or the political climate, but some ineffable quality of her own psychology? It would seem wrong to raise this question about a woman writer, and in fact about any writer, but Dowd uses her experience with men as template for her theories so often, and marshals her failure to marry as evidence so frequently, that she herself raises the question in her reader’s mind.
One of Dowd’s many admirers extravagantly compared her to Edith Wharton. But Wharton was among the first female writers to write about the single woman’s ambivalence toward marriage. What is maddening about Dowd’s book—and the excerpt in the Times Magazine—is that she does not develop her ideas, that she does not push beneath the surface. One wishes that, instead of devoting herself to zinginess, to ripostes and one-liners, she would use her threatening intelligence to unearth the deeper complexities of her subject. Is there something about the generation of women who came of age in the late 1960s—in male-dominated universities and workplaces—that finds its own power problematic? Why is it that so many women are taking refuge in outdated visions of femininity?
I don’t mean to suggest that there is something inherently wrong with using one’s own life in political writing. But one should use it honestly, rigorously, complicatedly, like critics such as Mary McCarthy, Rebecca West, Joan Didion, or Andrew Sullivan. Because the issues surrounding sexual politics are so emotionally charged, so laden with contradiction, so racked with ambivalence and irrationality, it is especially important not to neglect nuance. One of the failures of the feminist movement in the first place was a reliance on easy aphorisms, and the schematic worldview that such aphorisms implied. The famous line, “A woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle” did not prove to be a constructive or realistic contribution to the feminist cause. Replacing one set of rigid gender stereotypes with another did not allow women the full range of their desires and ended up sabotaging the movement. Dowd herself criticizes the feminists of the 1970s for imagining a sea of identical, sexless women in navy blazers descending on the workplace. Though she appears to be arguing for a new, more rigorous feminism, she is guilty of precisely the same intellectual fault—starting with the catchy, meaningless title of her book, Are Men Necessary?, Dowd’s aphorisms, amusing and pithy in the morning paper along with a cup of coffee, are precisely what the conversation about sexual politics does not need.