The Magazine

Second Time Around

For columnist Maureen Dowd, recycling begins at the office.

Feb 6, 2006, Vol. 11, No. 20 • By CHARLOTTE ALLEN
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Are Men Necessary?

When Sexes Collide

by Maureen Dowd

Putnam Adult, 352 pp., $25.95

WHAT AMAZED ME AFTER I finished this book (it didn't take long) is how many reviewers actually took it seriously. They thought it was a genuine piece of social commentary on the topic Why Feminism Failed, along the lines of Susan Faludi's Backlash or Susan Douglas and Meredith Michaels's The Mommy Myth. So the reviewers typically launched into social commentary of their own, writing solemn mini-essays on various issues that they were certain Dowd had raised.

Here's Rebecca Traister in Salon: "Dowd's 338-page cultural analysis and memoir of sexual politics is a blistering critique of modern gender relations. . . . 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."

Here's Katie Roiphe, sounding like one of her own term papers at Princeton as she writes this mouthful in Slate: "Because the issues surrounding sexual politics are so emotionally charged, so laden with contradiction, so racked with ambivalence and irrationality, it is especially important not to neglect nuance. One of the failures of the feminist movement in the first place was a reliance on easy aphorisms, and the schematic worldview that such aphorisms implied. . . . Dowd herself criticizes the feminists of the 1970s for imagining a sea of identical, sexless women in navy blazers descending on the workplace."

Even the conservative Ross Douthat, reviewing for this magazine's online sister, felt constrained to pull his chin: "[I]t's worth at least suggesting, by way of counterpoint, that the world we inhabit isn't one in which the feminists have been backlashed into retreat for the last 40 years--it's a world where feminism won, at least insofar as it could, and the sexual confusion that so dismays Dowd is the unexpected consequence of its victory."

I had to ask: Did these people read the same book that I did? Are Men Necessary? isn't a treatise about "uncomfortable questions" or "nuance" or even "sexual confusion." It's a collection of Maureen Dowd's old columns for the New York Times. If you read Dowd regularly, or even only now and then (as I do--or did, before the Times electronically quarantined her in TimesSelect, which you have to pay for, and I'm too cheap), your overwhelming sense won't be that of a "blistering critique of modern gender relations," but of déjà vu all over again. Dowd says that men spurn smart, independent women like her because they prefer the company of housemaids and other subservient types to whom they can feel superior. Sorry, but I read that one in the Times last year, when the movie Spanglish came out. I can't quite swear on the Bible that there isn't a word in Are Men Necessary? that hasn't already seen print previously, but I think I'd be pretty close to the truth if I did.

Some of the apparently recycled columns are musty indeed, dating all the way back to 1995, when Dowd was promoted from the Times's Washington bureau to the op-ed page, and promptly wrote columns on such subjects as why there weren't more women news anchors, or pregnant women news anchors, on the Big Three networks. So she interviewed NBC's Brian Williams and asked him, "Are you an android?" I guess you could call such antics a blistering critique of modern gender relations, but my first thought was: Who watches Big Three network news anymore?

On the other hand, as if to show us that she actually does keep up, Dowd peppers her book with aperçus--or at least attempted witticisms--about events that happened only yesterday: the Larry Summers flap (the Harvard president "said women were not good at math"), the election of Pope Benedict ("the Vatican thought that what it needed to bring it into modernity was the oldest pontiff since the 18th century"), and her favorite target, George W. Bush's nomination of John Roberts, first as associate justice of the Supreme Court, and then as chief justice ("Only a man gets promoted before he gets the job").

Conspicuously missing from this roster of up-to-the-minuteness is Dowd's most famous quotation of 2005: her assertion that the "moral authority" of Crawford-camping photo-op mom Cindy Sheehan was "absolute." Of course, Sheehan's 15 minutes of fame expired abruptly after she complained on that people were paying more attention to Hurricane Rita than they were to her.

Nonetheless, fast-moving events have a way of rendering obsolete even Dowd's most determined effort to show she's on top of them. I had to chuckle when I read this paragraph on page 310: "There was a time when I would get furious and fire off an angry note if someone cast me in a catfight with a colleague. I assumed that catfights would fade as women progressed. They seemed so retro." Judith Miller, call your office. Or rather, your former office.

Furthermore, the task of stitching together dozens of 750-word Times columns into a cohesive book-length manuscript clearly proved too daunting for Dowd. Sometimes she uses the device of the truly awkward transition, as in this segue between male news anchors and the election of the pope: "It's interesting that media big shots are moving away from patriarchal, authoritarian voice-of-God figures, even as voice-of-God figures, such as the Catholic Church and elected officials, are building up their authoritarian patriarchies." (Don't even try to parse that sentence, much less figure out what it means.)

Elsewhere Dowd simply relies on typography--three centered asterisks followed by a fancily-set incipit to the next paragraph--to signal to her readers that she couldn't think of any logical way to link, for example, bonobo sex and male nipples, two topics that fall hard upon each other in Are Men Necessary?, giving the reader the impression that its author suffers from adult ADD. Even the book's subtitle, When Sexes Collide, is a non sequitur. (And shouldn't it be When the Sexes Collide?)

This is strange, because Dowd's acknowledgments contain a name-dropper's wish list of "infinitely creative and giving friends"--Leon Wieseltier, "Tom" Friedman, Michael Kinsley, Alec Baldwin, Chris Matthews, George Stephanopoulos, "Michi" Kakutani, Nora Ephron, Sally Quinn--without whom, she says, the book couldn't have been written. Couldn't one of those creative and giving souls--Leon or Michael or Michi or Nora--have sat down with Dowd and edited the darned thing for her?

The book's most disturbing aspect is its unsettling undertone of unspecified resentment at the male sex. What are we to make of a sentence such as this one: "Americans like to see women who wear the pants beaten up and humiliated"? Is this just another lame Dowd witticism? (Her examples are Martha Stewart, who, having been convicted of a felony, arguably deserved a little humiliation, and Hillary Clinton, who may well be the next president of the United States.) There are all those references in the book to the men who are "scared" of Dowd, who are "threatened by female power," who insinuate that she is "bitter about men." I'm in no position to ruminate about the love life of Maureen Dowd, age 52 and single (although astonishingly good-looking), but there is something disconcerting about a book that alternately harangues men to "snap out" of their "bollixed up" attitudes toward dating "high-achieving women" and titles one of its chapters "Why the Well-Hung Y Is Wilting Even As the X Is Excelling."

This is all too bad, because Maureen Dowd can be a sharp, entertaining, and even devastating writer when she wants to be--as in a reminiscence of the insufferably self-righteous Mary McGrory's habit of using the younger guests at her soirees as free hired help, or her skewering of the professional feminists who announced to a woman that they would be happy to service Bill Clinton on their knees because of his track record on abortion rights. And this recollection of sighting Monica Lewinsky at a Washington restaurant, where Dowd was dining with Time editor Michael Duffy, displays both genuinely funny, self-deprecating humor and a novelist's flair for dialogue and detail:

The strong jawline and wide smile turning down at the edges were familiar.

I am, after all, a trained observer.

"That girl looks a little like Monica," I told Duffy.

"It is Monica, stupid," he replied.

Maureen Dowd might be a silly social theorist and a downright dud at putting a book together, but she has a genuine future as a writer of chick-lit.

And won't someone please take the hint and find a date for this lovely and stylish redhead who never has a bad hair day? I suggest Frank Rich. Yes, he's a little grim, but he's on the Times staff, and he can't stand George W. Bush, either. See, Frank, you and Maureen already have something in common--so get on your cell phone now.

Charlotte Allen is the author, most recently, of The Human Christ.