Any argument worth talking about these days has its starting point that we live in complex times. Strange then that this basic premise seems to have escaped the otherwise savvy and switched on Maureen Dowd when she wrote her book Are Men Necessary? Feminism matured when it stopped talking about “all women” but Dowd seems unaware that claims about “all men” are more likely to raise eyebrows or a yawn than the level of debate about how various women and men manage their lives.
The gist of her argument seems to be that due to the pesky “Y” chromosome, men like dumb, busty women and increasingly women like to be dumb and busty - a quaint term that seems to be back in vogue - so that they can get and keep a man. There’s something alarming about this argument, as though all feminism did was enable women to choose to be dumb and busty, whereas once upon a time the problem was that being dumb and busty was somehow forced upon women by men. But whichever angle you look at it, the situation, surely, is a little more complex than this.
It’s easy to be tart or bitchy about Dowd and her argument. Dowd has good looks, a great job, moves in powerful circles and according to her own reports, has had some pretty interesting “dates” in her time - another quaint term that still seems to be going strong where Dowd lives. You might want to ask, why can’t she just be happy with what she has? And isn’t she just a little bit greedy, you wonder. How much more does she want?
But the real genius of Dowd’s argument is that it turns her singleton status into a virtue, a testimony to the fact that she has not dumbed-down or inflated-up parts of her anatomy in order to get a man. Is it my fault, she seems to ask, that I’m naturally beautiful and intelligent and have a Pulitzer prize? It’s as if Dowd wants her sisters to rally round and assure her: it’s not her fault, it’s those dastardly men - again. There’s a kind of narcissism in this that reminds one of Chris Lilly’s brilliant character, J’aime, who asks her friends over just so they can tell her how fabulous she is.
The reason there’s so much fuss about her book is not that Dowd has touched a nerve, as someone from salon.com has suggested, but that it puts virtually everybody else offside and in an impossible position. Any woman who gets more dates than Dowd or is happily married is, according Dowd’s logic, either dumber than Dowd or dumber than their male partners. And then there are women who put up with being married to dumber men. All have somehow sold out in Dowd’s view, and people generally don’t take kindly to a “heads I win, tails you lose” argument, especially from one who can afford to be more generous.
Not many women are in a position to share Dowd’s pain of being single, beautiful, intelligent with a Pulitzer prize on their CV, but it’s a bit of a stretch to claim that any woman who can’t share her pain has dumbed down or inflated out.
Nor is Dowd’s presentation of self the whole problem. Ariel Levy, author of a book that questions whether the transformation of women from sex objects to willing sex objects is actually an achievement, described Dowd as “an unreconstructed fox”. There’s nothing wrong, per se, about intelligent women wearing three inch heels and glossy lipstick if they want to, and only the po-faced object to a bit of flirting. Playful subversion of stereotypes is amusing and fun. And it’s not still news to everyone that some women dress for their own pleasure, not men’s.
What doesn’t seem to have registered with Dowd is that some men find the Pamela Anderson, deep cleavage, slashed to thigh leopard skin style a turn-off. Dowd seems to want to damn an entire gender because some men do find this style irresistible and to want to deny that some women wear leopard skin and deep cleavage for the opportunity to say “in your dreams”.
Where has Dowd been while the complexities have multiplied? Perhaps moving in circles of unreconstructed men who still like their women dumb and busty for the illusion of power it gives them and are yet to experience the thrills and spills of relationships based on mutual respect and mutual attraction. Maybe she does need to get out more.
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