Monday, March 12, 2007

Is Substance Necessary? Naptime for Maureen Dowd...

For over a year now people have been asking me what I thought of Maureen Dowd’s book, “Are Men Necessary?” Mostly, I thought I didn’t much want to read it. Certainly not enough to spend thirty bucks on a hard cover copy. I finally broke down and picked it up last week though, when I noticed it was out in paperback,

Before I write about a book, I usually read it twice, at least. It seems only fair, to make sure my first impression wasn’t more about my having snagged the cozy corner table at the coffee shop the day I started it, or having finished it on the subway, sandwiched between two huge, stinky guys. It rarely changes much, but still, it’s what I’d want someone to do for me. So, for the sake of full disclosure, I think I should tell you up front that, in this case, I couldn’t put myself through it a second time.

People tend to assume I like Maureen Dowd’s writing. Maybe because she’s so successfully marketed herself as both a liberal and a feminist, despite in fact being, so far as I can tell, neither. Maybe just because she’s a woman. While the later is reason enough for me to really want to like her work, sadly, I don’t always get what I want.

I’d never given her much thought, until the 2000 presidential campaign season, when she made such a fuss over Al Gore’s having hired Naomi Wolf as a campaign consultant, and having talked to her about what he ought to wear, among other things. After eight years spent in the role of the supportive vice president, he was looking for advice from all quarters on how best to communicate to voters that he was ready to step out of the background and into the oval office. Even at the time, I thought that was one of the stupidest non-stories ever to emerge from a presidential campaign. In retrospect, it seems only more so. Does anyone really believe Giuliani doesn’t have a wardrobe consultant on the payroll, or that Hillary’s picking out all of those black pantsuits herself? I’m finding it incredibly difficult to resist the urge to be equally silly and petty, by wondering if Dowd’s real problem wasn’t that a member of the feminist punditocracy other than herself had made her way onto Gore’s staff.

My biggest problem with that story, and with much of Dowd’s writing for her column in New York Ties Op-Ed pages, is just how intellectually lazy it is. She’s got this amazing forum for her writing, and the best she can come up with is Al Gore’s earth tones, or more recently, Barak Obama’s “prettiness”? Seriously?

In an uncharacteristic burst of optimism, I had an idea that Dowd’s silliness might not be so annoying in this book as it is in her columns. After all, the title and introduction both led me to believe I was going to be getting her take on the conversation I’ve been having about men with my female friends for, oh, the last decade or so. It begins with someone asking, “What’s WRONG with him?” and quickly, seamlessly, transitions into “What’s wrong with THEM?” At this very moment, women are having this conversation all around you. On their cell phones, walking through Union Square, over lattes in the Starbucks at Astor Place, or via email in their cubicles at work. If you listen closely, you can probably hear it. Sometimes this conversation is boring as can be, sometimes sad, most often, far more interesting than the defective man in question. Certainly more interesting than trying to have it with the man in question. Ask a man, “What’s WRONG with you?” and he’ll answer, “What do you mean?” with an expression so sincerely, yet idiotically, blank, as to be your answer. So we talk amongst ourselves instead.

This is a subject that lends itself to silliness, one that doesn’t require the same kind of intellectual rigor as, say, covering a presidential campaign. My optimism wasn’t completely unfounded. Ask a man, “What’s WRONG with you?” and he’ll answer, “What do you mean?” with an expression so sincerely, yet idiotically, blank, as to be your answer. So we talk amongst ourselves instead.

She chooses, oddly enough, to begin her book by telling us just how politically lazy she was in seventies. She was all for the principles of feminism, but the aesthetics didn’t work for her. “I hated the dirty, unisex jeans and no-makeup look,” she tells us. And since she “thought the struggle for egalitarianism was a cinch,” she decided she might as well, “leave it to my earnest sisters in black turtlenecks and Birkenstocks. I figured there was plenty of time for me to get serious later.” I should have stopped reading right there, on page seven. Is there anything easier, less interesting, or less in line with feminist principles, than dismissing other women based on their fashion choices?

The book continues in a similar vein. There is a chapter about the Y chromosome, which has fallen upon some hard times, and another about the presidential candidates of 2000 and 2004, who were, of course, men. For the most part, though, it’s a disapproving and superficial dissection of modern American womanhood. From Dowd’s perspective, we’re lazy, we get too much plastic surgery, and we take too many anti-depressants. Clearly, that “struggle for egalitarianism” didn’t turn out quite as she’d expected.

Along the way Dowd repeatedly reminds us that feminism was supposed to mean or lead to something else entirely. But she doesn’t do much in the way of exploring how we got from there to here. The question the book kept calling to my mind was not, “Are Men Necessary?”, but that of whether feminism failed women, or women failed feminism. I kept expecting Dowd to go there, to allow her rants about paxil, botox, and marriage fantasies to gather some kind of cumulative weight, to go below the surface, and make a point. But she never did. Unless the point was to get to the nastiness with which she writes about Hillary Clinton at the end. I think that’s unlikely, but, unfortunately, I can’t honestly say it’s impossible.

After a chapter in which she characterizes both John Kerry and Al Gore as being somehow too feminine, Dowd ends her book with a Paris Hilton style attack on Hillary Clinton. She gossips, telling us that, “As one of her oldest confidantes put it, when asked if Hillary would ever hire back her nemesis Dick Morris to help with a presidential run: ‘Hillary would hire Hitler if she thought it could get her elected,’” to make sure we know Hillary’s too ambitious. But then she was, “strangely silent on poor Terry Schiavo… she meekly allowed Tom DeLay and Bill Frist to push for the shamefull and hypocritical legislation…” so we should know she’s too submissive, because, of course, Hillary could have singlehandedly kept the GOP majority out of Terry Schiavo’s hospital bed. Right. She operates with “a most manly kind of narcissistic survival skill,” yet would never have gotten anywhere without her husband. She’s “jangly,” whatever exactly that means, and of course, she didn’t learn how to dress herself until about 2000. It must be exhausting for Maureen Dowd, carrying such cognitive dissonance around in her head all the time.

So maybe the problem’s not that she’s too lazy to offer a substantial critique of Hillary Clinton, or anyone, or anything else. Maybe she’s just too tired. Maybe Maureen just needs a nice long nap.

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