Get Rich or Sigh Trying
Getting Inside Maureen Dowd’s Manifesto About The Undeclared War Against Affluent American Women
Are men necessary? Unfortunately, yes. If they weren’t around, there would be no wars, no dirty politics, no discrimination, and, most importantly, Maureen Dowd wouldn’t have anything to say—about women. Dowd, famed New York Times columnist, society critic-at-large, and author of Are Men Necessary? When Sexes Collide, clearly enjoys making her many accurate observations about the not-so-fairer sex and his quirky counterpart. Not to pigeonhole or confuse her with some sort of man-hater, Dowd spends just as much time on women as she does on men—and the interactions between the two: “Whether or not American feminism will be defeated by American conservatism, it is incontrovertibly true that American feminism was trumped by American narcissism. . . . We’ve become a nation of Frankensteins, and our monster is us.” In an intrigued but disappointed tone, Dowd skewers the society we’ve become: Plastic surgery, dating, sex, and politics are the typical targets she dissects with apparent pleasure and coyness. But her ambiguous tone, oscillating between morose and hokey, leaves you a little baffled, loving her points but hating her voice and flippant attitude. Even so, Dowd sucks you in just the same.
Dowd’s main arguments focus on feminism’s goals and progresses undergoing perversion and regression—that “materialism has defeated feminism”; that men and women are living in some twisted world where women are getting weekly Botox to be facial-expression free while still lamenting men’s inability to respond to their emotional cues; and that we’ve come to be nearly schizophrenic when it comes to sex, “with the ascendance of the prudish religious right and the numbing oversexualization of commerce and culture, America seems positively bipolar about sex.”
You need to be pretty familiar with Dowd’s writing and voice to parse through her innumerous arguments here, as she buries her points within lines upon lines of the cheesy humor that she adores, making her smart-alecky quips downright annoying. Admittedly, the tone and style of her columns are what you expect in any book of hers, but it can still be a bit much when the usually light fare is turned into a full meal.
And, while Dowd’s points about the decline of feminism are truly worthy of applause, Necessary begs too many questions about her level of seriousness or who she’s really talking to. If you’re so inclined, you want to agree with her claims that the Republican Party has become highly hypocritical or that this president is a foolish war zealot, but as you begin to nod in agreement her silliness comes in and gives you pause. She spends too much time cloaking her well-founded points in her cutesy humor. Even though she loves to write somewhat tongue-in-cheek, her trite retorts weaken her stronger, clearer arguments with silly talk about what President Bush is wearing. Commenting on Dubya’s choice of wardrobe—“Have you ever noticed that, like a Cosmo girl, he’s always trying to wear clothes that are over the top sexy to work? Tight hottie jeans at the ranch, or that one memorable day he showed up on the aircraft carrier strutting in that Top Gun flight suit with the ejection harness between his legs?”—or comparing the tempers of Republican ne’er-do-wells with Lindsay Lohan (“The teenage terrors in Mean Girls had nothing on Tom Delay, Richard Perle, [or] Doug Feith.”) doesn’t make the politicians look bad so much as it makes Dowd sound as if she is a mean girl.
Her best observation—what the whole book should be about—lies quietly within the first 100 pages. Dowd quotes Ruth Franklin, the author of Perfect Madness: “‘It is more than a gulf of forty years that separates the existential crisis from the Moon Bounce. This isn’t a crisis of parenting. It’s a crisis of consumerism.’” What 90 percent of Dowd’s observations truly have to do with are the dilemmas of the upper class. While the battle of the sexes is always fodder for discussion—it is and always will be evolving, oscillating between progressive and degenerate—popular issues such as cosmetic surgery, young women popping pills to unwind before a date, and older women barely balancing careers and motherhood all share the common denominator of affluence, the economic means to worry over such daily luxuries.
The majority of women (and men) can’t afford the extravagance of Dowd’s quandaries, the fact of which leads you to assume Dowd has chosen exactly who she is writing to—friends and colleagues already familiar with her. And so she doesn’t have to be too serious, since they already know most of what she has to say—and they’ll appreciate her witty remarks, or at least pretend to. Why else would Dowd demur from discussing such equally pertinent, if not more so, issues as sexual assault, domestic violence, wage gaps (she includes a few light mentions), race, abortion (again, a few obvious retorts concerning a few obvious Supreme Court nominations), or other real-life matters that do concern, if not encompass, contemporary sexual politics.
Dowd’s feminism dilemmas are essentially, then, dilemmas of affluence. And while that might sound despicable, it certainly sells. Dowd’s Are Men Necessary? October 2005 excerpt in The New York Times Magazine was the most read article on the Times web site for the calendar year 2005, beating out articles covering such events as Hurricane Katrina and the Libby/Plame scandal. Nearly every imaginable media outlet has reviewed (albeit often unfavorably) her book, sometimes with Dowd participating in interviews or related forums. And all this attention serves Dowd’s point: We are a self-absorbed culture, obsessed with mostly all the wrong things.
After making overall head-on points, Dowd contradicts her entire tome when she quips, “We live in a society that is so derangingly sexualized, it’s not a sexy society. . . . The more we analyze it, medicate it, demystify it and deconstruct it, the more we make it the incessant subject of movies, music, magazines, novels, memoirs, TV shows, online female sexual dysfunction quizzes, the less clarity we attain.” Without a humble inclusion of herself, you can’t help but think, And what are you doing, Maureen? Perhaps she is implicitly acknowledging the hopelessness of writing about evergreen controversies such as sexism and political strife. So why not be ridiculous about it? Why not joke among friends? Perhaps Dowd has assigned herself the role of the alarming signifier, her book sounding the bell while simultaneously having the last word. Are Men Necessary? is certainly worth reading for its collection of perspectives on current trends in dating, drugs, and shopping, but certainly not for anything heavier than your average water-cooler fuss.