College Quarterly
Summer 2006 - Volume 9 Number 3
Reviews Are Men Necessary? When Sexes Collide
Maureen Dowd
New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 2005

Reviewed by Howard A. Doughty

Maureen Dowd is an excellent political columnist for the New York Times. Incisive, alert and skilled in the use of language, she turns out fine little essays for the entertainment and edification of her many fans.

Used to covering a wide range of subjects, she seems to have been energized by the Bush administration and, although perhaps neither as systematic nor as savvy as her colleagues Thomas L. Friedman, Nicholas D. Kristof, Paul Krugman and Frank Rich (to say nothing of media critic Michael Massing), she does get in her share of zingers. Her forte, however, is definitely the short, concise and concentrated newspaper column.

In “Are Men Necessary,” Ms. Dowd rambles a bit. Her take on gender relations is not pretentious. She admits that she has “no answers.” She acknowledges that her book “is not a systematic inquiry of any kind, or a handy little volume of sterling suggestions to the American woman’s problems.” In an almost passive-aggressive manner, she floats the notions that she possesses no special wisdom, nor is she offering “a theory or a slogan or a policy.” She is, she says, “always as baffled as the next woman.”

This begs the question: “So, why write the book?”
The best she can do on her dust-jacket is to explain that she has placed between its covers “the diligent notes of a fascinated observer.”

As anyone who has done anthropological field research can attest, notes about the attitudes, beliefs and behaviours of members of exotic cultures, whether in far-away New Guinea or in suburban shopping malls, are normally a trifle messy. The real work of the ethnologist—even one exploring the peculiarities of successful New York men—begins when you get back home and try to sort your stuff out. This, alas, is a task Ms. Dowd seems content to leave to the reader.

She starts out well enough. She wonders about Gloria Steinem. She asks herself what might have happened if Ms. Steinem had been able to forecast the future and learn that 2005 would bring “catfights with women scheming to trap men, snag the coveted honorific ‘Mrs.,’ get cosmetic procedures to look like Playmate bombshells and dress, as Dave Chappelle says, like ‘whores’…” Would, she muses, “the sister have even bothered to lead the bonfire of the bras.” Apart from the fact that bra-burning was almost wholly urban mythological, her reach for hyperbole is certainly within our grasp.

In contemporary society, she astutely observes, “Hollywood’s remake of ‘The Stepford Wives’ stumbled because it was no longer satire but documentary.” Echoing Pogo in the mid-1950s, she concludes that America’s preoccupation with image and appearance has become pathological: “We’ve become a nation of Frankensteins, and our monster is us.”

For nine chapters we are treated to Ms. Dowd’s reflections on her early years as well as some desultory comments on movies and books about “man-trapping,” cultural icons and current events. As befits a witty and wide-awake woman, she includes plenty of charming anecdotes, quotations and observations about the state of male-female relations. Some are insightful, some are amusing and some are (un)intentionally infuriating. They range from e-mails from her unlimited inventory of friends and acquaintances to contrasts between the Taliban, the Vatican and Dick Cheney on the one hand and bonobos on the other.

The bonobos? For those unfamiliar with our primate cousins, these cheerful little chimps live, according to biologist Nancy Angier, in a society in which the sexes are relatively equal, with perhaps some “light” female dominance. They are not “obsessed with power and status” but are “consumed with Eros.” Sexual activity seems almost unrestricted and unrestrained and produces nothing but happy results. But before we have a chance to consider the joys of sex in bucolic bonoboland, Ms. Dowd is off on the next page to provide a few short paragraphs about an all-female community in Kenya, and then carries on to questions about female IQ and the problems of female careerism.

This frenetic pace continues through female preferences in television viewing, Harvard studies of women who keep their birth names in marriage, and the fate of late-night talk show hosts Conan O’Brien and Craig Kilbourn, to a line-up of celebrities and politicians each called upon for a snippet of wisdom or a trace of evidence to support an overall thesis that is never made explicit.

All that can be confidently said is that Maureen Dowd is attentive to the mass media, her innumerable “pals,” pop idols and political disappointments. She seems to think that the nomination of Geraldine Ferraro was the apex of feminism, and that the presidential campaign of Hillary Clinton may betoken its final demise. In fact, she distances herself from “the feminists” who allegedly used Anita Hill as “just a pawn,” and who shamelessly “slimed” Monika Lewinsky. She disdains both the “feminist liberal lynch mob” that sought the scalps of Clarence Thomas and Bob Packwood and the “reactionary lynch mob” that put “prissy” Kenneth Starr up against Bill Clinton, the “timid, tortured Lothario.” After a while, this gets a bit tedious.

Perhaps it is just my patriarchal, logocentric, hegemonic soul showing, but I am tempted to imagine that Ms. Dowd’s approach reflects her personal version of post-feminist femininity. She often sounds like former Liberal leadership candidate Carolyn Bennett. When she dropped out of the race and tossed her support to Bob Rae, she said that Mr. Rae had the same views about leadership that she and, she implied, many women do. He did not want to dominate discussion; he was there to listen and to learn. She said that to her and to Mr. Rae, leadership was to be found at the centre of a circle, not at the top of a pyramid. Such pleasant thoughts seem hilariously unrelated to the actions of the Mr. Rae that I have encountered but, that aside, it does seem symptomatic of the state of many women’s thinking today.

For Maureen Dowd, what Gloria Steinem called “everyday rebellions” are really out of the question. Reality is redefined in terms of image. Ms. Dowd is preoccupied with the semiotics of sisterhood, and not much concerned with immigrant, working-class, women of colour or, for that matter, anyone else who might be unfamiliar with art galleries, editorial meetings and haute couture. This is not to say that Ms. Dowd is any sort of political reactionary, but her liberalism is certainly not mired in the common concerns of any proletariat worthy of the name.

Much of the last chapter concerns Monika and Hillary. She talks mainly about lifestyle and how lifestyle is read in politics and the popular press. She becomes distressed when people are rude.

Part way through, Maureen Dowd casts a passing glance at the literal title of the book, as she fleetingly addresses the decline of the Y chromosome as compared to the now dominant X chromosome. “Size matters,” says Ms. Dowd, as she quotes a British professor of genetics to the effect that men are wilting away and a British government science advisor who speculates that in about 125,000 years men will be completely sterile. If Simone de Beauvoir were writing “The Second Sex” today, she says, she would be emphasizing biology. This issue consumes just three sequential pages and Ms. Dowd is off again discussing female cruelty at Guantánamo and Abu Ghraib, the sexual behaviour of sea slugs and more entertainments including the film “Dr. Strangelove” and the Seinfeld television series.

Somewhere, I fear, the point (if there was one) is lost. “Are Men Necessary?” is a thick collection of disconnected thoughts and impressions which might have been made into an admirable book if only someone had organized the ducks and put them all in a row.

Of course, the book would then have more obviously revealed its essential bias. The ideas and experiences that are included leave little room for the lives of working women (apart from actresses and other highly paid professionals). The preoccupations of the people who are featured in the pages of “People” magazine are on display, not those of the people who read it.

By the end, I was much more impressed with the life of Gloria Steinem than with the friends of Maureen Dowd. And, I think I have the answer to the question of whether Ms. Steinem would have bothered to start “Ms.” Magazine and to undertake all the other work that she did for the sake of women and men. Of course, she would have. And the results—the popularity of Paris Hilton and the ditziness of the “Desperate Housewives” notwithstanding—have borne out the value of her commitment.

Maureen Dowd should write a column about it.


Howard A. Doughty teaches in the Faculty of Applied Arts and Health Sciences at Seneca College in King City, Ontario. He can be reached at howard.doughty@senecac.on.ca

Reviews

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2006 - The College Quarterly, Seneca College of Applied Arts and Technology