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Book Review: Are Men Necessary? by Maureen Dowd

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Maureen Dowd is searching for gender equality, truth in politics, and the perfect lipstick. She does not think the third thing takes away from the other two.  In Are Men Necessary? there are nine essays by the Pulitzer-winning columnist, each one taking a different path in the examination of feminism as the millennial odometer rolled over.

She finds she has to poke at feminism with a stick, to see if it's dead. 

Maybe we should have known that the story of women's progress would be more of a zigzag than a superhighway, that the triumph of feminism would last a nanosecond while the backlash lasted forty years.

The subject matter Dowd tackles is hardly revolutionary. She talks about Anita Hill and Monica Lewinsky, about double standards in gender relations and the increasing importance of women voters, about the Clintons, and about medical interventions chosen to achieve beauty and beatitude.

Dowd's writing is witty and political, with a hint of the personal, and I frequently found myself nodding in agreement. Unfortunately, almost just as often, I found myself shaking my head. I don't know if it's possible to write a book about feminism that manages to avoid the chick lit clichés, the home-cleaning product commercial characterizations of men, and references to Sex and the City.

When Dowd talks about women's ongoing desire to be taken care of — "The fem-freeloading doesn't change with marriage. Many professional women still want their husbands to pick up the checks at restaurants, pay the mortgage and get home by 6:30 to help with chores and kids." — she doesn't mention the chicken/egg of the situation, in that many men who claim they want professional women still expect them to do the dishes, vacuum, and put the kids to bed.

Likewise, Dowd, who received her Pulitzer for her Clinton coverage, paints a picture of a calculating, seductive Monica Lewinsky: 

The White House intern followed the old-fashioned prescription that men (and fish) are attracted by bright, shiny objects. She stationed herself, in flashy dresses and her trademark black beret, on rope lines and in the path of the presidential motorcade. She studied her prey's preferences in books and accessories, and even called an antiquarian bookstore in Annapolis, where the president had browsed, to see what he had lingered over. Told it was a book about American presidents, she bought it for him. Noting his Eurotrashy taste in clothes—those double-breasted, big-shouldered suits—she bought him an Ermenegildo Zegna tie.

Yet I was left wondering: do we know this was a calculated act? Wearing clothes favoured by the object of your affections, learning their interests so you can indulge them — these are the classics of wooing, of romance, of the kind of consideration that can make your other swoon.

There is a fine line between trying to please for pleasure's sake and manipulation, and I am not convinced that Lewinsky crossed it. Dowd, who I will admit was a more eagle-eyed observer of the affair, doesn't explain why I should believe otherwise. Later, Dowd tells the story of a Clinton adviser: 

The funniest part was when [Clinton strategist Dick] Morris tried to impress the two-hundred-dollar-an-hour hooker by showing her a draft of an Al Gore speech.

I found myself wondering why this was funny, whether it was a cheap play on a stereotype or something smarter than that. Is it circumstantially funny, as who thinks political speeches are good (paid) pre- or post-coital subjects? Or is it because Gore's speeches were not impressive to anyone? Or is the humour in the idea that a hooker would care about politics? Because if it's the third, it's a too-easy play on a stereotype.

Dowd isn't reluctant to call others to the task for hypocrisy or lazy thought. In several instances she dresses down the media for its treatment of feminism, women, and women's issues. In one of the more astute, soundbite-quality quips in the book, she compares treatment of Capitol Hill's scandalous women with the megalomania of the of the powers that be: 

Male critics accused Anita Hill and Monica Lewinsky of having erotomania —fantasizing that a man is in love with you. But isn't empire-mania — fantasizing that occupying a country will be a cakewalk — a more dangerous malady?

On a lighter note, Dowd discusses the cartoon vixen phenomenon: Why is it that Jessica Rabbit, Betty Boop, and even Betty and Veronica can cause a man to shift in his seat, yet Superman, Barney Rubble, and Shaggy leave women as cold as the skies between here and Krypton? 

I began to see the sick logic of it. Guys always asked, Veronica or Betty? (The quintessential pigtailed virgin/predatory whore, Mary Ann/Ginger, Jen/Angelina, sweet blonde/voluptuous brunette dichotomy has gained new life on hip cashmere hoodies and scarves at the L.A. boutique Kitson's that ask ARE YOU A VERONICA? or ARE YOU A BETTY?)

But you never hear girls musing, Archie or Reggie? Bart or Homer? And those dudes are not pictured on hip T-shirts at Kitson's

And yet, from here, the contemplation veers again into the territory of stereotypes:

For most guys, the more cartoonish the better. Perfect features, placid expressions, perfect bodies, no demands. (Maybe this yen is tied to men's attraction to childish female faces.)

While women find a wide array of men attractive for a wide array of reasons, men tend to be more predictable and visual in their responses. What men find sexy has hardly changed, despite a feminist revolution, except to grow more lactic and cartoonish.

These discussions of how inevitably primitive men are bother me. Maybe the science is true; maybe I should stop hoping that equality of the sexes means that, just as women aren't all only interested in snagging a man, men are able to think above the belt. Maybe the science proves me wrong. Maybe I am denying the true nature of evolution. Early in the book, Dowd herself recognizes that, sometimes, she casts a very wide net: 

I certainly understand if some men prefer to think of themselves as individuals and opt to wriggle out of one broad's broad generalizations.

But is that enough to forgive the familiar keening about men who won't commit? 

An unscientific poll of my girlfriends found that they would rather have a pill that could change a man's personality an hour after sex. A pill that ensures that he always calls the next day and never gets spooked.

A morning-after pill for men.

So Dowd, whose single status and relationships seem to invariably be mentioned in reviews (a trend I am not entirely comfortable with, but seem to be continuing, possibly inevitably given the title's wink-nudge to the issue), declares that a Viagra-like solution is needed for that kind of let-down. And yet, it is a very broad generalization, one that runs counter to my own experiences.

Not all men are users. Not all men get spooked. And women sometimes use men and sometimes bolt in the morning after. (I'll confess: I've been one.) These kinds of stereotypes perpetuate a Mars/Venus model of gender relations rather than any real understanding.

Yet Dowd's discussions of what happened to feminism are important. As she says in more than one place, the backlash has lasted longer than the feminist movement itself. Under these circumstances, "even if I felt like raising a ruckus about Boys Nation, who would care?"

Dowd is an astute political commentator, particularly when she is tackling the techniques that male politicians use to appeal to woman or the ways the rules are different for woman candidates: 

If a woman candidate said she would rely on the kindness of advisers to tell her what to do with the "East Timorians," or stumbled on the pronunciations of several global hot spots, as W. did, she would immediately be dismissed as a dizzy dame.

It's because of these observations, and because of Dowd's light touch with prose and her sense of humour, that I enjoyed Are Men Necessary? in spite of frequent moments of frustration. It certainly offered me plenty to think about, even if sometimes what I was puzzling was how to articulate my instinctive gnashing of teeth. Two later chapters, covering the beauty industry and Hilary Clinton, were particularly strong.

At her best, Dowd manages to smile and speak lightly as she offers dire warnings and righteous anger. It's exactly the tone you'd expect in a book you'd expect with a pulp-fiction dame on the cover.

The paperback edition of Are Men Necessary? will be released on October 3, 2006.

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  • I think it would be an event worthy of pay-per-view (especially if they were wearing high heels). Someone get Don King on the phone.