Wednesday, November 09, 2005

Dowd: Gender Constructions as Playthings

Maureen Dowd's new book - Are Men Really Necessary? - has been blasted by conservatives and feminists alike. Oddly enough, the book hit the shelves only yesterday.

I admit it. I am a Maureen Dowd fan, though lately I've wondered if it was safe to admit it. Just kidding, sort of, but I was surprised at the loudness of the feminist critique. I've looked at quite a few MSM articles and blogger posts on the subject of Dowd's new book; the vast majority trashes the book and Dowd herself, and in very personal terms.

Dowd is certainly not the only feminist out there subverting gender stereotypes, but she is the only one doing it from the New York Times. (She's on a book tour this week, so no column today.)

Rebecca Traister at Salon has written the best piece, in my view, on the subject of Dowd's new book and the rather extreme reaction to the book and to the person. I've pasted some snippets below.

Yes, Maureen Dowd is necessary

You can love her or hate her, but you can't dismiss her -- or her inflammatory new book on gender politics.

Nov. 8, 2005 | Given all the fur that's already flown over New York Times Op-Ed columnist Maureen Dowd's new book, "Are Men Necessary? When Sexes Collide," a weary reader can be forgiven for thinking it has been out forever. But while it was excerpted in a much-maligned essay in the New York Times Magazine last weekend, it hits shelves Tuesday.

The Times piece did not do Dowd's book any favors by chopping it up as if it were a cutesy retro-chic dating manual and a cackling dismissal of feminism. In fact, Dowd's 338-page cultural analysis and memoir of sexual politics is a blistering critique of modern gender relations, dressed up in a pulpy cover and too many puns. She's asking some very uncomfortable questions of her male and female readers, and presenting some startling answers, including the winked-at implication that, as the title suggests, men may not be necessary anymore. Dowd has clearly touched a nerve. And you only touch a nerve by telling a truth.

The Times excerpt pissed off bloggers and Op-Ed columnists alike. Outrage was varied: Women ripped Dowd's casual claims about the death of feminism, along with her assertions about women who want men to pay for their dinners, who believe "The Rules," who take their husbands' names and consider "Mrs." a status symbol. She has been rightly criticized for her reliance on questionable trend stories, many from her own newspaper, about women who want to opt out of careers and men who marry their secretaries. Young women felt they'd been misrepresented as plastic husband-hunters; older women were furious with Dowd's portrayal of second-wave feminists as earnest and Birkenstock-shod. Blogger Catnip snapped at Dowd: "I know lots of smart, career-driven women who ... didn't have to act dumb and dress like a tart to 'catch' their husbands." Feministing's Jessica Valenti knocked her for the "assumption that feminism ended back in the day, [her] reliance on dubious studies, and ... [her] elitism," while elsewhere, ruffled writers like Katie Roiphe and Kathleen Parker squawked their defenses of what Dowd, in the book, terms "the weaker sex": men.

In "Are Men Necessary?" Dowd lays into men and women, calling out their hypocrisies and weaknesses, and engaging in quite a few of her own. She covers dizzying territory; anyone hoping for a single thesis will come up empty-handed. Dowd insists she is not "peddling a theory or a slogan or a policy," rather presenting the "diligent notes ... of a fascinated observer of our gender perplexities."

But gender constructions are Dowd's playthings: She also suggests that Donald Rumsfeld is menopausal and that Al Gore is "practically lactating." Dowd subverts gender stereotyping by treating it as a laugh riot; surely her giggling does not disqualify her feminism. In fact, however grating her tone, her willingness to enter this fray is exactly what feminism needs; she adds heat that will bring long-simmering, difficult conversations to a public boil.

Who can deny that in some ways feminism has been trumped by narcissism and materialism?

Dowd is a woman who is clearly curious about other women, from her late 97-year-old mother to tween and twentysomething friends. Worrying about all the people whom Dowd fails to represent will lead only to madness, as will focusing on the narrowness of her elite sphere. It's worth remembering that Dowd is the daughter of an Irish cop and the granddaughter of a maid. She's a card-carrying member of the cultural elite now, sure, as are her girlfriends, powerful colleagues like Michiko Kakutani and Alessandra Stanley. If anything, Dowd and the heady company she keeps offer a valuable window onto one story of American feminism: Here are a clutch of the most successful women in the country, and they, or at least their redheaded interlocutor, are telling us how gender looks to them. We shouldn't spend so much time poking easy holes in Dowd's generalizations that we fail to stop and think: "That's interesting. What does it tell us about the state of things?"

Dowd doesn't hate men at all. She's just flummoxed by them

In her syndicated column, Kathleen Parker blamed Dowd for her man trouble, claiming, "Men haven't turned away from smart, successful women because they're smart and successful. More likely they've turned away because the feminist movement that encouraged women to be smart and successful also encouraged them to be hostile and demeaning to men." In Slate, Katie Roiphe joined Parker in pathologizing Dowd's status, insinuating that her singleness has nothing to do with men being threatened by her but with some unspeakable internal flaw. "Could there possibly be another reason that the attractive, successful Dowd has not settled down?" she asked. (I'm not sure what particular ailment Roiphe is suggesting Dowd suffers from -- Frigidity? Lesbianism? Narcissism? -- but it's probably not very nice.) Roiphe's criticism is a fair, if tautological one: The problem in not finding a mate is that ... you don't find a mate. Two parties fail to mesh; you're one of them.

But critics like Roiphe and Parker doth protest a bit too much. Against what? Maureen Dowd's single status? Her claim (backed up by Sorkin, who tells New York that Dowd was "more independent than [he] would like") that men are intimidated by her and that that may be one reason why she has not settled with a partner? If so, they are confusing critical observation with hostility in a way that suggests they are leery about any woman who does not subscribe to the notion that men are the central and governing force of women's lives. There is something terrifying in the realization that Dowd appears not to agree with Margo Channing that without a bed-mate she is "not a woman."

For thousands of years, heterosexual mating has been rooted in the fact that women have needed men: for reproduction, for financial support, and, Dowd quotes her mom as proclaiming, for "heavy lifting." Now, even as Dowd jokes that feminism's success lasted a nanosecond and frets about women who "no longer want to become the men they wanted to marry," the life that she's living is a veritable revolution, one so profound and nerve-jangling that Dowd skirts it with humor. We point out her flaws so that her situation cannot, must not, exemplify a new norm: Women really don't need men anymore.

Read the whole thing..