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 HuffingtonPost.com that people were paying more attention to Hurricane Rita than they were to her.