[Paleopsych] NYTBR: (Dowd) 'Are Men Necessary?': See the Girl With the Red Dress On

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'Are Men Necessary?': See the Girl With the Red Dress On
New York Times Book Review, 5.11.13

When Sexes Collide.
By Maureen Dowd.
338 pp. G. P. Putnam's Sons. $25.95.


LET'S, for a moment, judge a book by its cover. One need not read
Maureen Dowd's "Are Men Necessary?" to answer the question. The retro
pulp-fiction jacket features a bombshell in a clingy red dress
strap-hanging under the leering gaze of her fellow subway riders, all
male. For the use of this illustration, Dowd enthusiastically thanks
the artist, Owen Smith, adding, "The girl in the red dress will always
be my red badge of courage." Below such an image, the subtitle, "When
Sexes Collide," seems both wish and prediction.

Crack open "Are Men Necessary?" and the author's first words are
flirtatious: "For men. Friends and more, past, present and future. You
know who you are." Those of us left out of the innuendo can assume
that, beyond her dedicatees, men make up a hefty portion of her
readership. Dowd, whose dead-clever aim and feisty delight in
skewering politicians juiced up her reporting from The New York
Times's Washington bureau, has produced a twice-weekly column for The
Times's Op-Ed page for the last 10 years. Having published those
pertaining to G. W. and company as "Bushworld: Enter at Your Own
Risk," she has now collected and expanded on her opinions about a
topic that would appear to interest her at least as much as
presidential shenanigans: the never-to-be-resolved sexual contest
between men and women.

The title, "Are Men Necessary?," refers nominally to scientific
speculation that the Y chromosome, which has been shedding genes over
evolutionary time, may disappear entirely within the next ten million
years, a hypothesis countered by newer studies showing that the Y of
the human species has been stable for the past six million years.
Neither development, of course, has any bearing on the coupling
opportunities for humankind as we know it. But it is exactly this kind
of "news" that offers Dowd a provocative snag, tweaked to advantage in
her columns. Her Cuisinart style of info processing and her embrace of
popular culture invite all manner of unexpected applications,
allowing, for example, a "Seinfeld" character to help us understand
the relative simplicity of males, whose sex is determined by only one
Y, as opposed to the female's two X's. "Maybe that 'Seinfeld' episode
is right," she muses, "where George Costanza tries to prove that man's
passions can all be fulfilled at the same time if he can watch a
hand-held TV while 'pleasuring' a woman while eating a pastrami on rye
with spicy mustard."

Beyond science, "Are Men Necessary?" addresses the confusion of
postfeminist dating, gender conflicts in the workplace, the media's
disparate treatment of men and women, American culture's saturation
with sexual imagery, our collective obsession with youth and
appearances, the objectification of women by men and, finally, sex as
"a tripwire in American history." For Dowd, who won a Pulitzer Prize
in 1999 for her commentary on Monica-gate and who has covered the fate
of women politicians from Geraldine Ferraro to Hillary Clinton, this
last topic has been more high wire than tripwire - one on which she's
cartwheeled through many a career, fashioning herself an
attention-grabbing costume of sparkling jabs.

But what makes Dowd an exceptionally good columnist on the Op-Ed page
- her ability to compress and juxtapose, her incisiveness, her ear for
hypocrisy and eye for the absurd - does not enable her to produce a
book-length exploration of a topic as complex as the relations between
the sexes. Consumed over a cup of coffee, 800 words provide Dowd the
ideal length to call her readers' attention to the ephemera at hand
that may reveal larger trends and developments. But smart remarks are
reductive and anti-ruminative; not only do they not encourage deeper
analysis, they stymie it.

Producing one of her trademark staccato repetitions - for example, on
cosmetic surgery: "We no longer have natural selection. We have
unnatural selection. Survival of the fittest has been replaced by
survival of the fakest. Biology used to be destiny. Now biology's a
masquerade party" - Dowd effectively dismisses a subject by virtue of
proclamation. Does she let loose three arrows instead of one because
she can't choose the cleverest among them? Typically, her formula is
to articulate a thesis, punch it up with humor and then follow with
anecdotal support or examples taken from TV shows, advertisements,
overheard conversations - all cultural detritus is fair game. Often
she quotes from reputable sources, CNN or The Times or a professional
journal like Science; more often she applies witty asides, snippy
comparisons ("Arabs put their women in veils. We put ours in the
stocks") and tabloid-style alliteration (e.g., "dazzling dames" and
"He mused that men are in a muddle").

When a few hundred pages' worth of these observations are published in
one book, they suffer the opposite of synergy, adding up to less than
the sum of their parts. Energizing in small morning doses, the
author's fast-talking spins on the spin can rear-end one another until
the pileup exhausts a reader's patience. Polemics tend to ignore
subtleties and contradictions, so one may be reluctant to grant Dowd
the authority of a responsible guide to a territory as fraught as
sexual politics. Her habit of deploying her mother as a narrative
device - in the attempt to give credence to the idea that she has
affection and respect for someone, if not for the people she's
undercutting in adjacent sentences? - is reminiscent of Lieutenant
Columbo's invoking his wife with the ulterior purpose of distracting
and confusing the murderer he's trying to catch. When Dowd claims
she's "shy and oversensitive," amid numerous references to her
hobnobbing with the powers that be, both political and cultural, it
seems manipulative.

LIKE most people who work hard at seeming to be naturally funny,
Maureen Dowd comes across as someone who very much wants to be liked,
even though she has problematically joined forces with those women who
are "sabotaging their chances in the bedroom" by having high-powered
careers. "A friend of mine called nearly in tears the day she won a
Pulitzer," Dowd reports in a passage about men threatened by
successful women. " 'Now,' she moaned, 'I'll never get a date!' "
Reading this, I can't help wondering if Dowd is that self-same
"friend." After all, it's rare that she resists naming her friends,
most of whom have names worth dropping: "my witty friend Frank Bruni,
the New York Times restaurant critic"; "my friend Leon Wieseltier";
"the current Cosmo editor, my friend Kate White"; "my late friend Art
Cooper, the editor of GQ for 20 years"; "my pal Craig Bierko"; et al.

Dowd's gift for memorably buoyant attacks ensures that she's quoted
not only en route to work and around the water cooler but well into
the dinner hour; they tend to bob to the mind's surface through the
daily tide of minutiae, providing ready conversational flotsam. But
for a woman who says, quoting Carole Lombard, "I never forget that a
woman's first job is to choose the right shade of lipstick," an
award-winning acid tongue just may be a tragic flaw.

Kathryn Harrison is the author of the memoir "The Kiss" and, most
recently, "Envy," a novel.

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