Perplexed on the Op-Ed Page, Dowd Clings to Categories

Are Men Necessary? When Sexes Collide, by Maureen Dowd. Putnam, 352 pages, $25.95.

This past week, almost every female journalist alive (all 12 of them), as well as Howard Kurtz, face-masked Maureen Dowd and her new book, Are Men Necessary? When Sexes Collide. There have been profiles, reviews, links, excerpts, items and personal reminiscences of Ms. Dowd; most of them took care to note the flames on her head. Fiery redheaded flamethrower that she is, Ms. Dowd also miraculously timed a devastating Judy Miller column with the book’s release, sending Andrea Peyser into a tizzy and inspiring feline-on-feline fantasies for lads across the land (or across the five boroughs). It’s been MoDo’s month.

At this saturation point, it’s nearly impossible to separate Maureen Dowd, woman and columnist, from Maureen Dowd’s book on women and men. Or at least it’s hard to keep in mind that Are Men Necessary? isn’t the cry “Men won’t screw smart women—shout-out to my girls Michi and Alessandra!” scrawled over and over and over again.

The line that bloodthirsty critics have jumped on is “being a maid would have enhanced my chances with men.” It’s actually just a throwaway in a very odd, occasionally entertaining mish-mash of politics and sex, biology and Cosmopolitan-ology, gravity and wit, insight and carelessness.

Ms. Dowd begins, “I don’t understand men”—and despite the easy belief that she’s angry at them, the book remains true to that befuddlement. She discourses on dating and feminism, switches to the Bush administration’s feminized (read: catty) governing methods, segues to white men on TV, then to alpha women, Desperate Housewives and Enron, and back to alpha women who write newspaper columns. Suddenly, two lovely tributes: Katharine Graham and Mary McGrory.

She spirits us away from these grande dames to the gray, dingy halls of sex-chromosome researchers, who argue that men will soon become extinct in maybe 8,000 years (hence Are Men Necessary?)—which only rivals in tedium the whole theory that modern men are whores because of some biological, animal need to spread their seed, and women are faithful doormats because they’re just trying to get pregnant. Ms. Dowd writes about that too, as well as bonobo monkeys. I don’t understand why anyone finds this helpful (comforting?) in the age of Google-stalking and trans-Atlantic marriage, but maybe that’s my underdeveloped scientific lobe talking—I am a woman, after all.

A stopover passage on orgasms, Marilyn Monroe, etc., is very amusing. Interspersed are baroque speeches on love and sex from The New Republic’s literary editor, Leon Wieseltier. They’re kind of amazing. (“The simplifications of the Darwinists take all the fun out of promiscuity,” he muses, and probably sits down to write about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.) Then we’re flying off to Hearst Tower, women’s magazines, Helen Gurley Brown, men’s magazines, Ed Needham, the Catholic Church, Saudi Arabia, Barbie, plastic surgery, more plastic surgery, drugs and—thankfully!—politics.

What lingers, perhaps because the last section is the strongest, is the conclusion that even despite her rants on The Rules, this columnist is essential as a political writer in these dark times. One may wish she’d be more serious, but there’s no denying the significance of her polemics, the emotions aroused by her lacerating, mocking wordplay, or the secret pleasure readers take in a writer getting as worked up as they have after sludging through the anxiety of page 1 to what is by then the melancholy of the Op-Ed page.

She doesn’t have it easy: “I’m often asked how I can be so ‘mean’—a question Tom Friedman, who writes plenty of tough columns, doesn’t get.” Ms. Dowd isn’t attacked simply because she’s the only woman on the Op-Ed page, as she suggests—though I’m sure she’s treated differently in not-so-subtle, creepy ways. She’s attacked because her humor and vulnerability open her up to emotion-based criticism—some of it unfair, some of it unsurprising. When anyone bares herself so publicly, the public is going to feel hunky-dory about giving it right back.

And while women’s writing has trended toward the personal and self-absorbed, Ms. Dowd’s public airings of her private concerns in a serious publication are more jarring. She’s confused, not about Condi and Rummy and Iraq and North Korea, but about dating. She’s supposed to be the one who makes sense of things! readers grumble, blowing bubbles in their cold morning coffee.

So what exactly is she perplexed about? She claims that girlfriends have called to borrow her old copy of How to Catch and Hold a Man. (How old are these girlfriends?) She claims that in the 80’s, after feminism and all the failures of love that came with it, women realized they needed to brush up on their Scarlett O’Hara. She talks about a young friend who “tests” men on first dates. One chap says, “Now women are perfectly happy to be patronized.” “Girls are doing everything girls did prefeminism and post-feminism. No wonder everybody’s bumfuzzled,” Ms. Dowd writes.

Who’s she talking about? Is it forty- and fiftysomething women who are dating, such as herself? Or twentysomething women who are dating, such as some of her friends? Aren’t these two different generations? What’s bumfuzzling is that, though she’s attempted to make distinctions, she’s lumped together women raised with totally different expectations and ideals.

When she writes that a guy didn’t ask her out because he found her too intimidating, that’s perfectly believable. When she writes that young women play down that they went to Harvard, I find that surprising. Doesn’t elitism trump everything else these days? “Deep down, all men want the same thing: a virgin in a gingham dress,” some “famous man” tells her. I’m not sure many young men know what gingham is. What’s also disappointing is that Ms. Dowd doesn’t distinguish between intelligence and economic power. It’s convincing that a guy doesn’t want to make less than his partner, but it’s less persuasive that men wouldn’t ultimately want to be with someone they could actually talk to.

Generalizations, speculation … who knows? Not unlike the biological basis for bad relationships, all of this male-female analysis ultimately inspires a sort of anti-intellectualism well suited to the Bush years. Or at least a throwing up of hands. Because the real, deep, refreshingly gender-neutral stuff in Ms. Dowd’s book—narcissism as the cancer of our age, the idea that fear of intimacy comes down to a fear of infidelity—gets shoved aside for obvious cues and old barbs. Bachelorette-party T-shirts with “Mrs.” printed across the chest. Monica Lewinsky. Botox. Picking up the check.

Where is all of this—along with the “Modern Love” columns, He’s Just Not That Into You and much of chick lit—really getting us? The problem with Are Men Necessary? isn’t that Ms. Dowd didn’t do enough super-serious social research to get a coherent idea of the State of the Sexes. It’s that ultimately, because it feels better and reads funnier, what’s left are Men and Women, stick figures in their giant, glib, restrictive categories, with real humans and real ideas presumably somewhere else.

This entire over-generalized, gender-based-writing genre—massive enthusiastic stews of all-inclusive but aimless ideas—is exhausted, even if we keep looking to it for something illuminating. And so it makes sense that Ms. Dowd’s stunningly detailed passages about Mary McGrory and Katharine Graham so transcend those that are merely theoretical. McGrory and Graham were insecure and brazen, stylish and boyish, smart, kind, funny, shy, daring. They destroyed men, and were destroyed by them. They were like men, and unlike men. And vice versa.

In other words, McGrory and Graham possessed a whole bunch of particular qualities and flaws, even some that Ms. Dowd bemoaned in pages past. I don’t think she would dare to shove these dear friends into any category other than their very own. One wishes that the similarly complicated and venerable Maureen Dowd would always write about real people—stick to Hillary and Condi and Laura and Harriet—rather than phantom men and women, modern myths.

Suzy Hansen is a senior editor at The Observer. Perplexed on the Op-Ed Page, Dowd Clings to Categories