Are Men Necessary? When Sexes Collide
By Maureen Dowd
Putnam Adult , 352 pages, $25.95
In the opening pages of Are Men Necessary? When Sexes Collide, Maureen Dowd says that when it comes to sex and love she has "no answers," "no special wisdom," and that her book is "not a systematic inquiry of any kind." There is no index; nothing is footnoted. It is even hard to discern a theme, an argument, or a fact. So why read the book? Well, as Dowd, a celebrated New York Times columnist, explained to one interviewer, "It is supposed to be fun and it is supposed to create all these sexy conversations."
Many readers will find it silly rather than fun. The book is riddled with misinformation, inconsistency, and bad science reporting. Zsa Zsa Gabor's landmark How To Catch a Man, How to Keep a Man, How to Get Rid of a Man is a mine of scholarship and sober prose by comparison.
Are Men Necessary? is a loose collection of quips and coy disclosures woven together with anecdotes--mostly from the author's friends, family members, and sometimes from movies she has seen. Her topics include what men really want, the fate of feminism in the age of lap dancing, the perils of dating, and Washington sex scandals.
The journalist Michael Kinsley says of Dowd: "She wants to be Edith Wharton and she is." No, she is not. Dowd is a gifted quipster. Comparisons to Wharton are ludicrous. A more apt comparison is Dorothy Parker. But even that is a stretch. Dowd can be very funny with lasting injury. Al Gore never fully recovered from her remark during the 2000 election that he was so feminized "he was practically lactating." But in Are Men Necessary? the efforts at wit are not at that level. Commenting on the liposuction revolution, she says: "In the '50s, women vacuumed. Now women are vacuumed."
And then there are these--almost too awful to repeat.
- "...men and women have traveled from the big bang of the sexual revolution to the big busts of the Plastic Revolution."
- "We had the Belle Époque. Now we have the Botox Epoch."
Still, she nearly makes up for these lapses by conscientiously citing the genuinely inspired quips of others. For example, she reminds us that when Oscar Wilde first tasted ice cream he reputedly said, "What a pity this isn't a sin." And here is what her friend Leon Wieseltier, literary editor of The New Republic, has to say about Hillary Clinton: "She is like some hellish housewife who has seen something that she really, really wants and won't stop nagging you about it until finally you say, fine, take it, be goddamn president, just leave me alone. Except of course, in this case, you can't say be done with that, because what she craves is too important."
To the extent that Are Men Necessary? has a grand thesis, it is that feminism has been a colossal failure. Dowd says, "The triumph of feminism would last a nanosecond while the backlash lasted forty years." But Dowd gets this wrong. There are different schools of feminism. Some succeeded, others failed. It is certainly true that the "a woman-needs-a-man-like-a-fish-needs-a-bicycle" feminism that Gloria Steinem inspired did not last. (Though it had more than its 15 minutes of fame.) But there is a calmer and saner equality-of-opportunity feminism that has been an abiding success in the very decades Dowd claims feminism languished. Hasn't she noticed that American women are among the freest and most liberated in the world? Women are now approaching parity with men in law school, business school, and medical school. More women than men go to college.
Equality feminism, which goes back to Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony, has lasted far longer than a nanosecond. And try as they might, Susan Faludi, Naomi Wolf, and their like-minded sisters cannot point to a genuine backlash. What is Dowd's evidence for it?
For Dowd, the smoking gun is the "fact" that even in this new millennium, men prefer women who are less intelligent and less accomplished than themselves for mates. Feminism promised to change this state of affairs, says Dowd, but it failed. The smarter and more successful a woman is, the less her chances are for finding true love. In a rare lapse into empiricism, Dowd actually cites a 2005 study to support her argument:
"Researchers at four British universities indicated that smart men with demanding jobs would rather have old-fashioned wives, like their mums, than equals. The study found that a high IQ hampers a woman's chance to get married, while it is a plus for men. The prospect for marriage increased by 35 percent for guys for each 16-point increase in IQ; for women, there is a 40 percent drop for each 16-point rise."
What Dowd fails to mention is that the researchers at these four universities analyzed data gathered from men and women born in 1921. They are now in their 80s. This is a study about the marriage prospects of women who were looking for husbands during the Second World War--at least two decades before the second wave of feminism was even a ripple. Attitudes toward women and "mums" have changed. The researchers explicitly warn against making the sort of inference Dowd makes. But nothing can come between Dowd and her bons mots. "A man either wants a woman's IQ to exceed her body temperature or her body temperature to exceed her IQ. What they can't seem to bear is the combination of brains and fever."
Dowd cites movies like Spanglish and Maid in Manhattan, where successful males fall in love with maids as proof that she is right. "How odd," says Dowd, "to find out now that being a maid would have enhanced my chances with men." But what is truly odd is that Dowd managed to overlook decades of research that show that men and women seek mates very like themselves in appearance, social class, education, and IQ. It is called "assortative mating." The IQs of married couples tend to be nearly as close as those of siblings. Furthermore, the tendency for an intelligent man to find a mate with a similar intelligence has intensified in the past few decades as the sexes have become more integrated. A recent article in Demography suggests that "because of decreases in the sex segregation of work and leisure activities, [there is now] greater symmetry in partner choice."
Princess Leia and the Pulitzer Winner
Dowd seems never to have called any demographers to ask about contemporary trends in partner choices. Whom did she consult? "I asked the actress and writer Carrie Fisher, who has dated both older men and younger movie stars and movie stars' staffers, about the trend."
Dowd's friends and acquaintances are also a key source for her second large claim. Feminism was supposed to free women from being sex objects, but now, says Dowd, we have created a "brazen new world where the highest ideal is to acknowledge your inner slut... We have a society where women of all ages are striving to become self-actualized sex kittens." Dowd does not blame patriarchy, the male hegemony, the beauty myth, or any of the favored suspects for this state of affairs. She blames women themselves! "Women have traveled an arc from fighting objectification to seeking it."
But can anyone walk through a typical shopping mall or airport and conclude that we have become a nation of sex kittens? Dowd badly overstates her case. As further evidence of the failure of feminism, Dowd notes that "Hollywood actresses now work out by taking pole-dancing classes." How many of them? And are they representative of American women at large? Dowd never explains.
To support her sex-kitten thesis, she cites the authority of another friend--someone who "has been teaching classes in the Ivy League for the last few years." He gave her a full report on the sex lives of the girls in his classes. During the day, he says, they are powerful liberated females who surpass the males academically. But late at night, they become passive, joyless sex objects. According to this professor, the girls go out "wearing very tight tank tops that show their nipples and cleavage and very short skirts that show their underpants--if they are wearing any." At first the boys are intimidated by the sexual power of the girls. But as the night wears on, the girls get drunk and sloppy, and slowly, the boys take over. By 3:00 A.M., "the girls are pathetically giving guys blow jobs. These girls aren't even getting orgasms; they're just servicing the boys in dark corners."
Even if this little story is more than the lurid fantasy of a frustrated middle-aged college professor, the idea that it could serve as evidence of a national trend is absurd. Dowd not only believes everything this professor tells her, she seems to think that it reveals pervasive sexist injustice. For the record, a 2005 National Center for Health Statistics study of sexual behavior of 18 and 19-year-olds, found that males and females give and receive oral sex in exactly the same rates. (This was a government-funded study. I kid you not.) Here is what one of the researchers told the New York Times: "We expected, based on anecdotal evidence, that girls might be more likely to give oral sex and boys more likely to receive it, but we didn't find that at all. There is more gender equality that we expected.")
Dowd Has Her Seasons
Still, Dowd's book has hidden virtue. Hard-line feminists despise it. Why? Because Dowd firmly believes that men and women are basically different. She disdains feminist efforts to deny or diminish the difference and she has no patience for the new feminized male eager to share his feelings. "Any minute, I'm afraid guys might start asking me for Midol." Such comments do not endear her to those she refers to as "earnest sisters in turtlenecks and Birkenstocks;" nor does she win points with the sisterhood when she refers to Clarence Thomas's accusers as "a feminist lynch mob."
Conservatives forget that Dowd can be amusing when she is on your side. Yes, it is tedious to read her columns when she carries on about Rummy, Wolfie, and the Bushies. But here is what she says about Hillary Clinton in the last chapter of the book: "The onetime frizzy-haired hippie chick is now channeling her inner Midwest Goldwater Girl. She knows a female candidate would never get away with having love beads in her jewelry box... The jangly Hillary Rodham Clinton rebranded herself into the more clubbable HILLARY!... She has a talent for morphing that puts Madonna to shame."
Dowd once dubbed Hillary Clinton "Lady Macbeth in a black preppy headband." Her fluffy, under-researched book may not be necessary. But should there be a Hillary candidacy, Dowd herself will surely be fun to have around.
Christina Hoff Sommers is a resident scholar at AEI.