How embarrassing is it to work at The New York Times these days? First, there’s Judy “Miss Run Amok” Miller. Now, op-ed columnist Maureen Dowd makes herself the laughingstock of the entire Internet with a lengthy screed in the New York Times Magazine titled, “What’s a Modern Girl to Do?” (A friend to whom I gave this link complained that as she read on, she could feel her blood pressure rising and her brain cells deteriorating, so click at your own risk.) The essay — excerpted from Dowd’s new book, Are Men Necessary? When Sexes Collide — can be summarized as follows: “When I was young, feminism was in the air and I thought I’d have it all. Well, here I am with a glamorous career and no man, because men are pigs and their fragile egos are threatened by smart powerful women like me and they want brainless bimbos, and young women are turning their backs on equality and embracing brainless bimbo-ism. Woe is us! Feminism was a lie!” Alsas, MoDo takes over 5,000 words to say it in the magazine, and 338 pages to say it in the book.
Dowd’s complaint about the state of modern male-female relations is so blatantly personal that it practically invites personal snipes, including a lot of unkind speculation about the real reasons Dowd isn’t married (she’s a ballbuster, she’s shallow and self-centered, etc.) Those interested in more about MoDo’s personal life can check out this cover story in New York magazine, where Leon Wieseltier is quoted as saying that Dowd is still single mainly because she has too much integrity to marry a man she doesn’t love, and the author of the article, Ariel Levy, suggests that she’s still single mainly because she has invented herself as a character in a novel and this character is an ageless single girl. Maybe. All I can say, as a single “girl” past 40, is that my single state has mostly to do with my own choices and very little to do with male piggery or fragile egos.
What about the more substantive — or, shall we say, less personal — aspect of Dowd’s article? As critics point out, the picture she paints of male-female relations today is based on sweeping generalizations, uncorroborated assertions, and observations made by friends of Maureen Dowd. Take, for instance, this already notorious passage:
A few years ago at a White House correspondents’ dinner, I met a very beautiful and successful actress. Within minutes, she blurted out: “I can’t believe I’m 46 and not married. Men only want to marry their personal assistants or P.R. women.”
I’d been noticing a trend along these lines, as famous and powerful men took up with young women whose job it was was to care for them and nurture them in some way: their secretaries, assistants, nannies, caterers, flight attendants, researchers and fact-checkers.
Because, as we all know, beautiful and successful actresses have so much trouble finding husbands. (Joan Collins snagged one at 69 — 32 years her junior.) MoDo’s most famous ex, Michael Douglas, is married to Catherine Zeta-Jones, who is admittedly much younger but quite a successful actress in her own right. As for those famous and powerful men who marry their girl Fridays, I can’t think of one, and Dowd is certainly no help. I can, however, think of high-status older men who have married accomplished women close to them in age (former Senator Howard Baker and former Senator Nancy Kassebaum, for instance).
A look at the weddings pages in Dowd’s own newspaper disproves her claims that professional success is near-fatal to women’s mating prospects. Take a look, and you’ll see a lot of brides with résumés that, in the world according to Dowd, would strike fear into the hearts of men. Quite a few of those brides are over 30, and even over 40. And when high-status men marry women with relatively low-paying jobs, it’s typically women in “genteel” professions that have some cultural prestige — teacher, writer, artist. For a more scientific analysis, check out this excellent article by Garance Franke-Ruta debunking Sylvia Ann Hewlett’s alarmist claims — cited by Dowd to support what one might charitably call her thesis — about high-achieving professional women’s poor prospects of marrying and having children. (Hat tip: Echidne.)
Of course, you could say that I’m making the same error as Dowd and focusing on the kind of people whose weddings are likely to be announced in the Times (other people don’t seem to exist in Dowd’s world, except for those maids and secretaries who could steal your man). Go ahead, say it. But the point is that even within this bubble universe of urban professionals, Dowd’s generalizations do not hold.
Then there’s this lovely tidbit:
Or, as Craig Bierko, a musical comedy star and actor who played one of Carrie’s boyfriends on “Sex and the City,” told me, “Deep down, beneath the bluster and machismo, men are simply afraid to say that what they’re truly looking for in a woman is an intelligent, confident and dependable partner in life whom they can devote themselves to unconditionally until she’s 40.”
Well, Carrie’s boyfriend is obviously an authority on the subject. But let’s do a reality check. Most husbands over 40 don’t leave their wives. In fact, twice as many wives over 40 leave their husbands as vice versa.
As for women supposedly turning their backs on careers and equality: Dowd’s “evidence” comes principally from that much-criticized New York Times “study” of Ivy League women planning to be stay-at-home mothers. Every year, the Higher Education Research Institute at UCLA does a comprehensive survey of college freshmen around the country; as far as I know, the survey results offer no evidence of a growing desire on the part of female students to become homemakers. The only solid bit of data is that the percentage of women keeping their names after marriage has declined since 1990.
This is not to say that Dowd is wrong about everything. While her portrayal of the modern dating/mating scene is not only socially narrow but caricatured beyond recognition, it contains important grains of truth. Many young people still harbor traditional or semi-traditional expectations about male and female roles in relationships — expectations which work out fine for some people but, for others, can cause painful tensions and conflicts between old-fashioned and modern roles. Dowd does sort of acknowledge that women are just as responsible for these attitudes as men. Thus, by and large, successful and ambitious women still don’t regard less successful, lower-earning men as “marriage material” (even though, as James Miller suggests at TechCentralStation, it would go a long way toward solving their career/family dilemma). Many stick to dating rituals that reflect the “male provider” role, though I’m not sure this is any more true today than it was 20 years ago.
The problem is, Dowd never really thinks through the implications of this. Her assumption seems to be that men with stereotypical expectations are villains, while women who buy into stereotypical expectations are victims — treated with a lot of contempt and condescenscion, to be sure (“With no power or money or independence, they’ll be mere domestic robots, lasering their legs and waxing their floors — or vice versa”), but without the angry vitriol directed at men. But actually, many of the New Semi-traditionalists are not so much backsliding toward Stepford Wifehood as trying to have it both ways: the advantages of equality and traditional feminine perks. They fully expect equal opportunity in the workplace but also see it as their prerogative to be financially supported if they want to give up, suspend, or scale down their careers when they have families. (The same having-it-both-ways mindset is often reflected in discussions of who pays on dates. In 1993, New Woman magazine ran an article on this topic which quoted one woman as saying that some men were being stingy out of resentment against women’s liberation: Since she wasn’t going to play the subservient “Ultimate Woman,” her boyfriend refused to be the “Ultimate Man” and pick up the check. It did not occur to this woman, evidently, that there was anything illogical about her complaint.) Nor does it ever occur to Dowd that these expectations subject men to their own set of pressures, as well.
In Slate, Katie Roiphe asks, in a mean but well-targeted tweak of Dowd’s book title, “Is Maureen Dowd Necessary?” Her answer, obviously, is no, and I agree. As I slogged through MoDo’s essay, I couldn’t help thinking about the waste of magazine space and the fact that far better books about relations between the sexes in our confused time — say, Peggy Orenstein’s Flux: Women on Sex, Work, Love, Kids, and Life in a Half-Changed World, or Daphne Patai’s Heterophobia: Sexual Harassment and the Future of Feminism — have not received even a fraction of the attention.
I was also reminded of a passage from the novel Unnatural Death by the British mystery writer Dorothy Sayers, which like many of her books deals quite a bit with the feminist issues of the day. (The day was 1927.) One of the characters, the spirited elderly spinster Miss Climpson, is conversing with a silly young woman who has picked up some superficial “feminist” ideas and is carrying on about how insufferable men are. “My dear,” replies Miss Climpson, “I am always very careful not to speak sneeringly about men — even though they often deserve it, you know. But if I did, everybody would think I was an envious old maid, wouldn’t they?”
Yes, that was a cheap shot. But Maureen Dowd makes it so hard to resist.