Maureen Dowd doesn’t read my column. I know this because in her new book, Are Men Necessary?, she uncritically cites virtually every fear-mongering, backlash-promoting study, survey, article and book I’ve debunked in this space. She falls for that 1986 Harvard-Yale study comparing women’s chances of marrying after 40 to the likelihood of being killed by a terrorist, and for the half-baked theories of Sylvia Ann Hewlett (ambitious women stay single or childless), Lisa Belkin (mothers give up their careers), Louise Story (even undergraduates understand this now) and other purveyors of the view that achievement and romance/family are incompatible for women. To be fair, Dowd apparently doesn’t read Susan Faludi or Susan Douglas either, or The American Prospect, Slate, Salon or even The New Republic, home of her friend Leon Wieseltier, much thanked for editorial help in her introduction–all of which have published persuasive critiques of these and other contributions to backlash lit. Still, it hurts. I read her, after all. We all do.
Are Men Necessary? is a Feminism Is Dead polemic, put through a Dowdian styleblender. Like her New York Times column, it’s funny and free-associative and not afraid of self-contradiction, full of one-liners and puns: Women who let men grab the check are “fem-freeloading” a “quid profiterole” (ouch). Like her column, too, it’s heavy on media fluff: silly trend stories, women’s magazine features and interviews with editors of same, dubious gender-difference studies. It’s annoying to read pronouncements about feminism based mostly on chats with her friends in the media about men, clothes, TV shows and Botox. Why not call up some people who actually do feminist work?
Dowd sees young women dashing back to the 1950s as fast as their Manolos will carry them: making a bestseller of The Rules, changing their names when they marry, obsessing about their looks. There were moments when I felt Dowd and I live on different planets–is pay inequity really now dismissively referred to as “girl money”? Are young women in search of boyfriends really “cultivating the venerable tricks of the trade: an absurdly charming little laugh, a pert toss of the head, an air of saucy triumph”? The young women I know–most of whom, contrary to stereotype, have no problem calling themselves feminists–are so far ahead of where I was at their age, so much more confident and multicompetent and worldly-wise, I only wish I could hire one to renegotiate my girl-money salary for me.
But glamorous gams, trademark dyed red hair and all, Dowd at least gets it that the problem today isn’t that old-school feminists once frowned on Barbie. She doesn’t applaud today’s retro/raunch gender politics as the return of sanity and fun. And it’s hard to deny that there’s a reality out there of which she gives a slapdash, cartoon, Style-section version. There is some truth to Dowd’s horrified depiction of the hypersexualized culture of “hotness” vividly described in Ariel Levy’s much-discussed polemic Female Chauvinist Pigs: Women and the Rise of Raunch Culture. (Dowd mentions a piece by Levy in her book; Levy’s lovestruck profile of Dowd–it mentions that red hair nine times!–made the cover of New York.) Eating disorders, breast implants, stripper chic, Queen for a Day weddings, the resurgence of “girl” and “chick”–it’s not a happy story.
But these troubling cultural trends aren’t the whole story either. How many young women flash their breasts for the camera or flog themselves academically all the way to the Ivy League merely to snag a rich husband? More than minor in women’s studies, volunteer for rape-crisis hotlines, have black belts in karate or PhDs in physics or raise Macedonian sheepdogs? Do we know that more women want the man to pay the bill than want to share it or, if that’s too mechanical, work out some other arrangement that feels equal? It’s a myth that my generation and Dowd’s were a unified band of sisters, forging ahead in our sneakers and power suits. By many measures young women today are far more independent than we were–more likely to finish college and have advanced degrees, to work in formerly all-male occupations, to have (or acknowledge having) lesbian sex, to refuse to suffer in silence rape, harassment, abuse. If we’re going by anecdotal evidence from our circles of friends, I know young women who’ve made the finals in the Intel science contest and worked on newspapers in Africa, who’ve had sperm-bank babies alone or with other women, who play rugby, make movies, write feminist/political/literary blogs, organize unions, raise money for poor women’s abortions.
“You’re always so glass-half-full in public,” my editor says at this point. “But in private you’re as down as Dowd.” Well, not quite that down. But yes, I thought we’d be further along by now. I feel for young women today–somehow, between the irony and the knowingness and the 24/7 bath in pop celebrity culture and its repulsive values, it can be harder for them than it was for us to call a sexist spade a spade. They’ve been bombarded from birth with consumerism and Republicanism and hyperindividualism, and told in every possible way that feminism is deeply uncool and unhot. Dowd is such a credulous audience for backlash propaganda it doesn’t occur to her that she is promoting, not reporting, the problem she describes. I’m amazed, actually, that feminism is still around, given the press it gets.
Dowd, for example, thinks feminism may be a “cruel hoax” because it keeps women single–men are scared of spunky, successful women. (In interviews Dowd denies she’s attributing her own unmated state to her fame and fabulousness, but that’s how she’s been read.) Well, some men definitely want the young compliant type. But–anecdotal evidence again–most women in my circle are paired, and we are all feminists and really, really great. Men hold a lot of cards in the mating game, but fewer than they used to, and women hold more than before. There has never been a better time in all world history to be a 53-year-old single woman looking for romance. Besides, as ferocious young Jessica Valenti put it over at Feministing.com, “Feminism isn’t a f***ing dating service.” Out of the mouths of babes.