Dowd, Where's My Country?

In her new book, Maureen Dowd aims to explore the 'spectacle of gender in America.' But Dowd's America is like none that most of us have seen.
Almost two weeks ago, the New York Times Sunday magazine published an excerpt from op-ed columnist Maureen Dowd's new book, Are Men Necessary?. The excerpt itself was a long-winded lament over the current state of gender relations amongst a very specific group of people -- Dowd, her best friends and the powerful men they date. It contained a slew of complaints which you've probably heard before if you watch Sex and the City or spend a lot of time hanging out with movie stars, senators and CEOs: men like 'em young and adoring; smart women are intimidating; if you win a Pulitzer you'll never catch a husband; Botox and boob jobs are everywhere; and good lord, what is up with Jessica Simpson?

Media justice was swift and severe. The female blogosphere played slice and dice with Dowd's easy assertions (a particularly choice slam, from Wonkette's married and, arguably, rather successful Ana Marie Cox: "Thank God we aren't as smart as she is or else we'd never have found a husband") and the comments sections of any blog that dared mention her name buzzed with the raised hackles of men and women (but mostly women) who bristled at Dowd's apparent inability to see beyond her own very narrow world.

It seemed that the title should really have been: "Are Rich And Powerful Men Necessary To Rich And Powerful Women?" To which the only appropriate answer, for anyone outside Dowd's narrow niche is, who cares?

Still, there was some hope that the book itself would have more to offer. By lifting her title from James Thurber's humorous book, Is Sex Necessary? there is no doubt that she was trying be controversial; that she was trying to be funny; and that as a Pulitzer prize-winning columnist and at times delightfully sharp-edged observer of the personalities behind scandals dating as far back as the Anita Hill-Clarence Thomas hearings, she is in a position to tell us something meaningful about the way gender relations play out today.

Dowd herself says that people shouldn't take her so seriously. Defending the book, which was finally released on Tuesday, she told Newsweek, "I am not trying to write a social polemic, just tell a funny story about my own experience."

Nice try. If Dowd had made good on this claim, Are Men Necessary? could have been wonderful. Both professionally and personally, she travels in circles most of us do not have access to, and since the folks in those circles happen to control the country, we need to understand how they think. And there are certainly thought-provoking passages here: an awkward encounter with Monica Lewinsky after having lambasted her in print several times over; enduring a humiliating pass while applying for a job; her confusion in Saudi Arabia when she found herself meekly giving in to the order that she stop and cover herself immediately. In that same scene she describes Christiane Amanpour wiping the floor with two Saudi Arabian men who are trying to move her to another side of the cafeteria; it's a moment almost worth the price of purchase.

But all disclaimers to the contrary, Dowd is doing much more than just describing her personal experience. Both in the narrative and on the back-flap copy, she describes herself as "a fascinated observer of our gender perplexities," dedicated to exploring the "spectacle of gender in America." There is an intended social polemic at work here; she believes she has something to say that will be relevant to all of us, otherwise, who would buy the book? Yet "we" includes only her people, and her observations are based on her fascination with her own universe: the aforementioned glossy magazine editors, movie stars and political aides.

And by addressing weightier issues, notably the condition of women in the Arab world and sexual harassment in the workplace, this only makes the claim that she's "just making observations" even more disingenuous. Dowd extrapolates from these concerns to a much more ambitious project -- the death of the women's movement. In this so-called non-polemic, she accuses Hillary Clinton of killing feminism, suggests that if Gloria Steinem could have predicted the future she'd never have burned a bra to begin with, and says today's women would rather be wives than workers.

It's a polemic all right, informed -- or misinformed -- by an a-historical and class-blind view of the world. Dowd conveniently forgets that the feminist movement did not begin with a group of discontented Westchester housewives who wanted to use their Brandeis degrees outside the family room. Feminism began with the struggle for financial equality and a voice; the right to vote, the right to own land, the right to earn an income.

Money and a voice: Something most of the women Dowd chooses to focus on already have. Feminism is most certainly an unfinished project, but to suggest the project is either over or failed because these women confused their right to the pursuit of happiness with a right to happiness itself is much more than unnecessary; it's destructive and embarrassing.

The real spectacle of gender in America includes the struggles over family health care, abortion rights, financial parity, the availability of day care for working parents, the condition of public schools and unionization for undocumented aliens (all those "maids" Dowd thinks might steal the eligible bachelors). But Dowd doesn't care much about these details. They're not sexy, after all. Instead she worries about ... dating and primping.

When writing about plastic surgery and vanity, Dowd is eloquent on the ways in which the cult of narcissism has ensnared women but totally ignores the fact that men have proven as susceptible to the human perfectibility ethos as women -- the fastest growing group of Americans lining up for plastic surgery are not women but men. It turns out narcissism, at least, is an equal opportunity employer.

But again, Is Men Necessary? is not exactly meant to address what we have in common. Even Dowd's acknowledgements section is segregated: a long list of men first, a long list of women second. By the time she gets around to what we are used to thinking of as her forte -- skewering politicians -- we are already exhausted. And we want more from her than easy name-calling. The failures of the Bush White House cannot be addressed by calling the president a "Cosmo girl," and perhaps there are more interesting ways of describing the Tom Delays, Richard Perles and Douglas Feiths of the current administration than a "Mean Girls" reference or trivializing Cheney's grip on the world as "mood swings."

These cheeky apercus have been Dowd's strength since she first started writing her op-ed column in 1995. But the very unneccessary Are Men Necessary?, makes even her prior columns seem like shtick, reported from the junior high school dance of her imagination: Boys on one side, girls on the other, an infinite stretch of hardwood floor in-between, and no one's having any fun.
Sheerly Avni is a San Francisco-based writer.
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