Maureen Dowd begins her book Are Men Necessary? with a confession: “I don’t understand men.” If only she’d left it at that, we could simply add “men” to the long list of subjects into which she has no particular insight: history, psychology, philosophy, religion, economics, literature, art, constitutional law, international diplomacy, and several other topics upon she comments in her twice weekly column for the New York Times. But Dowd had to go and write a book about men and women, and Putnam had to go and publish it, and now it’s sitting on my desk, waiting to be reviewed, and I feel like Bugs Bunny, holding a freshly baked cherry pie, about to smash it into the face of the haughty but hapless magician Ala Bahma, thinking to myself: “If I dood it, I get a whippin’ . . . I dood it!”
Dowd claims her book “is not a systematic inquiry of any kind, or a handy little volume of sterling solutions to the American woman’s problems.” She insists she has “no special wisdom about redemption in matters of sex and love,” nor is she “peddling a theory or a slogan or a policy.” She concedes that she’s “as baffled as the next woman” and that her book “offers only the diligent notes . . . of a fascinated observer of our gender perplexities.” As is the custom with intellectual cowards, Dowd wants her ideas taken seriously; she just doesn’t want them judged according to traditional evidentiary and logical standards.
So be it.
If we read the book on Dowd’s own terms, the critical question therefore becomes whether her “diligent notes” add up to anything worthwhile. She argues in her first chapter, for example, that successful career women are having trouble finding suitable romantic partners because “the aroma of male power is an aphrodisiac for women, but the perfume of female power is a turnoff for men.” Much of Dowd’s support consists of direct quotes from her often-anonymous friends . . . friends who, by a remarkable coincidence, say precisely what Dowd needs them to say in order to keep her argument going, and who, by an even more remarkable coincidence, say it in precisely the diction and cadences of Dowd’s own prose. (Since Dowd’s experience figures so prominently throughout her book, allow me a personal aside here: Why are women so often drawn to grand, totalizing theories to make sense of their individual regrets? I’m roughly Dowd’s age and have never been married–a fact I account for not with an anthropological hypothesis but with the rather narrow observation that I’ve yet to find a supermodel PhD whose standards were low enough to have me.)
The problem with devoting a chapter to the notion that male power attracts women but female power repels men is twofold: In the first place, it’s mind-numbingly trite. How many sitcoms through the years, from The Honeymooners to The Simpsons, have run episodes in which the male lead feels threatened by the prospect of his girlfriend or wife outdoing him? And in the second place, it’s a grotesque oversimplification. How many straight single men in America would turn down a date with Angelina Jolie because she earns more than they do? Same question for Anna Kournikova, Amanda Peet, and Aisha Tyler. (And that’s just the A’s.) Clearly, a woman’s looks factor heavily into the equation of whether men are attracted to her. It’s not admirable. It’s not fair. It’s just the way things are. So what’s left of Dowd’s initial observation? Perhaps the more modest truth that while a woman’s power isn’t necessarily a turn-off for men, it’s not especially a turn on.
Is this a newsflash to any sentient adult?
But now the overriding silliness of Are Men Necessary? emerges. The minimal coherence of the first half of the book depends on Dowd reiterating, every 50 pages or so, her grand theme that men are intimidated and ultimately repelled by powerful women: “Men, apparently, learn early to protect their eggshell egos from high-achieving women” (p.53); “Many women are already afraid that, as they get more powerful, they get more scary, and this will repel men. Women are attracted to male power. Men are threatened by female power” (p.117). Along the way, she makes other breathless discoveries: “Women don’t want to be men–except in the way men often grow more attractive and powerful as they age. . . . And we’d like to be like men in the way they can look good in many different ways, whereas women are expected to endlessly replicate themselves at twenty-five. . . . “
Well, yes. Men have been hardwired by evolution to prize the appearance of youth in women because it connotes childbearing potential; women, by contrast, have been hardwired by evolution to prize the appearance of power because it connotes the ability to provide security for her offspring. Since there are more ways to appear powerful than to appear youthful, women tend to be more forgiving of men’s looks than men are of women’s looks. You read a passage like Dowd’s, and you wonder where she’s going with it. But then you realize, several pages later, that she wasn’t going anywhere. She’d already gotten there: That was her insight. The problem is not that it’s wrong; the problem is that it’s the kind of pronouncement a thirteen-year-old doing a book report finds eye opening. For whom, exactly, does Dowd think she’s writing?
This is the pattern of the book. Banality follows banality follows banality–after which Dowd steps back and declares her conclusions merely tentative. It’s as though she’s so desperate not to go out on a limb, she winds up hugging the trunk of the tree. Imagine Christopher Hitchens saying, Well, I could be wrong, but it seems to me that certain aspects of Western Culture seem to be upsetting certain segments of the Muslim population.
According to Dowd, men’s fear of powerful, independent women has led to the eclipse of iconic feminist characters like Mary Richards and Murphy Brown–who’ve been replaced in prime time by “postfeminist fictional heroines,” like Carrie Bradshaw, Ally McBeal, and the desperate housewives of Wisteria Lane, “a gaggle of neurotic, insecure, man-crazy women indulging, variously, in too many cocktails, cigarettes, pills, shoes, kinky sex and bad affairs.” The retrograde message is ironic, Dowd argues, because in real life it’s “male temperament and illogic that are causing alarm.” She cites the “world class catfights” between Colin Powell and Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld’s “hot flashes over ‘Old Europe,’” Cheney’s “hormonal mood swings” and Paul Wolfowitz’s “feline grooming practices”; she calls Karl Rove “a devious little gossip.”
Is it possible Dowd actually believes that stretching a metaphor constitutes a logical analysis–that by labeling the Cabinet-level wrangling, temper tantrums, and classified leaking of Bush-administration officials “mud wrestling,” “diva fits,” and “gossipmongering,” she has fastened onto a sea change in male politicians’ behavior? Couldn’t the feminizing tropes be as easily applied to the generation of Adams, Jefferson, and Madison? Wasn’t Hamilton-Burr the ultimate catfight?
The second half of Dowd’s book consists of a series of rambling, over-generalized, hyper-familiar meditations on the causes and consequences of men being threatened by women’s power. Because men fear powerful women, they’re drawn to women who appear brainless and submissive; because powerful women fear they’re losing their sex appeal, they’re abandoning the ideals of feminism and downplaying their accomplishments; because female politicians seek power, male-dominated institutions are lining up against them; because religion is patriarchal, it continues to be an instrument to deprive women of power. Each of these ideas contains an element of truth, ranging from a smidgeon to a dollop, but haven’t de Beauvoir, Friedan, and Steinem already bled this vein pretty dry?
Perhaps the most intriguing section of the entire book comes in a chapter summarizing the latest biological evidence that the Y chromosome, the seat of male-pattern behavior and masculinity itself, is evaporating from the evolutionary picture, that the human race might be hurtling towards a future in which men go the way of dodo birds. But even here Dowd’s attempt to lasso this information into her larger theme forces her into the ludicrous suggestion that men somehow sense the inevitability of their collective decline and are individually reacting to the prospect even now. With advances in cloning technology, the “Y populace” is terrified “that science would cause nature to return to its original, feminine state and men would fade from view.”
Yep, she’s put her finger right on the pulse of the male psyche.
Most disappointing of all, from the standpoint of Dowd’s legions of fans, is that the book is littered with excruciatingly bad sentences. On a mentor of hers: “It was a truth universally acknowledged, as her idol Jane Austen wrote, that nobody could write with the sense and sensibility, the luminous prose and legendary reporting, of [Mary] McGrory.” On the film Mr. and Mrs. Smith: “Interestingly, that movie was described as retro because of its salty battle of wits between two peppery lovers.”
Such passages remind us that Dowd has never been more than an inside-the-Beltway version of Erma Bombeck–a comparison I make with reluctance only because it doesn’t do justice to Bombeck’s sanity and good humor. Dowd, after all, was at the top of her game during the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal. Why? Because for those fleeting months, which resulted in her 1999 Pulitzer Prize, Dowd was no longer holding forth on politics per se–a conceptual realm in which she’s so out of her depth she should be wearing a snorkel at the keyboard. Rather, she was writing about naughty boys and naughty girls, about pee pees and hoo hoos.
In the final analysis, Are Men Necessary? is an important book not for what it actually says but for what it inadvertently reveals about the caliber of mind currently occupying the prime intellectual real estate of the op-ed page of the Times.