Sexual politics
In her new book, New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd sets aside affairs of state to examine the messy state of males and females

The Philadelphia Inquirer

November 22, 2005

By Art Carey

It’s simply not true that Maureen Dowd eats men for breakfast.

I know because I had breakfast with her recently at the Four Seasons Hotel in Manhattan, and she didn't even poke me with a fork.

Here’s what happened:

When the waitress came, Dowd ordered a sensible raspberry yogurt.

“I’m in the mood for something manly,” I said. So I ordered two eggs sunny-side up and a side of corned beef hash.

“That sounds really good,” Dowd said. “Can I switch to that, too?”

I knew then that Dowd was my kind of woman.

Her appetite also implies an answer to the momentous question she raises in the title of her much talked-about new book, Are Men Necessary? When Sexes Collide (G.P. Putnam's Sons).

In this cluster bomb between hard covers, Dowd, a Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist for the New York Times, offers a wide range of intelligence, presented with her trademark scathing wit, about the battle of the sexes, circa 2005.

Despite its provocative title, the message of Dowd’s book is disarmingly sympathetic: Men are in a muddle about how to be men; women are in a muddle about how to be women; and both sexes are in a muddle about how to date, mate and relate to each other in a “derangingly sexualized society” where self-absorption is the cause du jour and appearance counts more than character.

Many men today -- including some famous and powerful alpha types -- are intimidated by accomplished, successful women, she writes. In want of a companion who will revolve around them in awe, they hook up with “staff sirens” -- young women whose job it is “to care for them and nurture them in some way: their secretaries, assistants, nannies, caterers, flight attendants, researchers and fact-checkers.”

Other men, sensing they’re on the verge of extinction (thanks to a wilting Y chromosome), are adapting by becoming more feminized, turning into “over-therapied, over-sharing, over-emoting ‘emo-boys’ and metrosexuals who get facials and buy wrinkle cream and wear pink flowered shirts.”

“Any minute, I’m afraid guys might start asking me for Midol,” Dowd quips. “And yes, they talk about shopping. Even for shoes.”

No wonder then, Dowd says, that female hard-chargers and corporate climbers are finding it’s lonely at the top.

“It took women a few decades to realize that everything they were doing to advance themselves in the boardroom could be sabotaging their chances in the bedroom. . . . The aroma of male power is an aphrodisiac for women, but the perfume of female power is a turnoff for men.”

At the same time, she writes, plenty of other women are going retro, ditching the career grind for the comforts of home and hearth. Young women, appalled by the barren lives of their baby-boomer forerunners, scorn the quaint feminist custom of paying their way on dates. Ms. is passe. The coveted title is no longer CEO but MRS.

Seeking to compete with the va-voom girls favored by insecure alpha males, many women are striving for Barbie-doll figures with bowling-ball breasts and “Wisteria waists,” Dowd laments. They are plumping up their features with cow goo, erasing their wrinkles with Botox, learning to strip so they can release their inner slut, aspiring to be Maxim babes.

“Instead of changing the world, we are changing our faces,” Dowd proclaims.

Needless to say, this incendiary broadside and the “flame-haired flamethrower” who penned it have stirred some controversy.

On Slate.com, post-feminism poster girl Katie Roiphe slammed Dowd for her “penchant for provocative overstatement.”

“Her style evokes a brainier Candace Bushnell, whose oeuvre she frequently refers to, but it is given extra weightiness by her position at the Times,” Roiphe sniped. “As a member of the generation she is writing about, I think her sensationalism renders us unrecognizable.”

Meanwhile, Salon.com's Rebecca Traister praised Dowd for asking some “very uncomfortable questions” and providing some “startling answers.”

“What she has to say in this book is sometimes crass, often recycled from old columns, intermittently sloppy, consistently overgeneralized and rooted too firmly in her own rarefied D.C.-N.Y. corridor of power. But just because Dowd’s sphere is a privileged one doesn’t mean her observations aren’t both fascinating and true.”

To all of which, Dowd says, in effect, lighten up.

She’s not trying to be Margaret Mead or Kate Millett, or even Susan Faludi or Naomi Wolf. This is a book that is dedicated to men. Whose first sentence is a confession of incompetence: “I don’t understand men.” A book with no footnotes or index, and a vampy film-noir vixen on the cover. In other words, it’s a journalistic joke, a pop-soc scrapbook alive with alliteration, dripping with puns (she can’t help it; she’s Irish), the intellectual equivalent of pretzels and peanuts, designed to kick-start and fuel conversation at the bar.

“For the last 30 years, whenever I wasn’t tweaking men in politics, I tweaked them in romance,” Dowd tells me. “And so I just thought it would be really fun if I could pull together every interesting morsel about men and women that I’d ever learned and how they collide and cuddle and play, at work, in movies, in politics, in biology.

“I’m not saying, ‘Oh, men are awful’ or ‘Women haven't succeeded.’ I’m just saying things are still in a muddle and let’s talk about it and have some fun.”

The reaction, she says, has surprised her. “I thought men might be bristly because of the title, and it’s, like, women who are bristly. Men are, like, really into it. They’re e-mailing me and writing letters and wanting to discuss various things in this really interesting way . . . .”

Her affection for men is genuine, and charming. On television, she can seem hard, brittle and frosty; her natural reticence comes across sometimes as languid hauteur. But in person, once the words begin flowing, one on one, she’s warm and relaxed, funny and self-deprecating. Unlike some pundits, who are accustomed to having every utterance heeded, she listens and pays attention. She has melted many a heart, surely, with her unflinching gaze.

For a woman with such a high profile and bold persona (George W. nicknamed her “The Cobra”), she is surprisingly shy. “I could never do Internet dating,” she tells me. “I could never write a personal ad. It’s

making me blush even to think about it.”

Unfortunately for her, because of the subject matter of her book, much attention has focused on Dowd herself. “I hate it,” she says. “I’m just dying to crawl back into my secure, undisclosed location.”

For the record, Dowd , 53, lives in Georgetown, has never been married, and has never lived with a man. (“I come from a very conservative Irish Catholic family,” she explains. “I just never wanted my parents to feel bad.”) When the New York Times Magazine published an excerpt from her book a few weeks ago, she posed for an accompanying portrait, looking a bit lonely and sad, the last woman standing at a singles bar. (“I begged them not to print that. I’m happy whenever I’m on a zebra-skin barstool,” she says.)

In truth, her social life is rich and full. Contrary to one of the themes of her book, Dowd does not suffer from male inattention despite her lofty post and Pulitzer. “An utter and unreconstructed fox” is how New York magazine recently described her. “Men can't resist her.”

Dowd is, indeed, sexy and charming, and she knows how to flirt. But she is not, as the nuns would say, a walking “occasion of sin” in the mode of Pamela Anderson. She’s more akin to the parochial-school girl -- brainy, bookish and shy -- who patrolled the periphery, slyly watching and taking mental notes. The one who, every once in a while, would speak up, astonishing with a comment so skewering, delivered with a naughty, playful gleam in her eyes.

In other words, Dowd appeals to the sort of man who believes the most important sex organ is the brain.

“Are you available?” I ask.

“I am dating some people, but there’s no ring on my finger right now. I’m subscribing to the theory my mom called ‘safety in numbers.’”

“Still interested in marriage?”

“I would love to get married. I think being married would be really fun and I think I would be good at it, but I just haven’t met the one.”

“Maybe you’re looking in all the wrong places,” I suggest. “Maybe you need to go beyond the New York-Washington metroplex, get away from all those emo-boys and metrosexuals. What you need is a good retrosexual.”

“Oh, that’s definitely possible,” Dowd says, with a pealing laugh.

“My mom used to say men are good for heavy lifting. If they give this girl a martini and a foot rub, that could be good, too.”

© 2016 Art Carey. All rights reserved.