Thursday, November 03, 2005

MoDo's lament

How embarrassing is it to work at The New York Times these days? First, there's Judy "Miss Run Amok" Miller. Now, op-ed columnist Maureen Dowd makes herself the laughingstock of the entire Internet with a lengthy screed in the New York Times Magazine titled, "What's a Modern Girl to Do?" (A friend to whom I gave this link complained that as she read on, she could feel her blood pressure rising and her brain cells deteriorating, so click at your own risk.) The essay -- excerpted from Dowd's new book, Are Men Necessary? When Sexes Collide -- can be summarized as follows: "When I was young, feminism was in the air and I thought I'd have it all. Well, here I am with a glamorous career and no man, because men are pigs and their fragile egos are threatened by smart powerful women like me and they want brainless bimbos, and young women are turning their backs on equality and embracing brainless bimbo-ism. Woe is us! Feminism was a lie!" Alsas, MoDo takes over 5,000 words to say it in the magazine, and 338 pages to say it in the book.

Dowd's complaint about the state of modern male-female relations is so blatantly personal that it practically invites personal snipes, including a lot of unkind speculation about the real reasons Dowd isn't married (she's a ballbuster, she's shallow and self-centered, etc.) Those interested in more about MoDo's personal life can check out this cover story in New York magazine, where Leon Wieseltier is quoted as saying that Dowd is still single mainly because she has too much integrity to marry a man she doesn't love, and the author of the article, Ariel Levy, suggests that she's still single mainly because she has invented herself as a character in a novel and this character is an ageless single girl. Maybe. All I can say, as a single "girl" past 40, is that my single state has mostly to do with my own choices and very little to do with male piggery or fragile egos.

What about the more substantive -- or, shall we say, less personal -- aspect of Dowd's article? As critics point out, the picture she paints of male-female relations today is based on sweeping generalizations, uncorroborated assertions, and observations made by friends of Maureen Dowd. Take, for instance, this already notorious passage:

A few years ago at a White House correspondents' dinner, I met a very beautiful and successful actress. Within minutes, she blurted out: "I can't believe I'm 46 and not married. Men only want to marry their personal assistants or P.R. women."

I'd been noticing a trend along these lines, as famous and powerful men took up with young women whose job it was was to care for them and nurture them in some way: their secretaries, assistants, nannies, caterers, flight attendants, researchers and fact-checkers.

Because, as we all know, beautiful and successful actresses have so much trouble finding husbands. (Joan Collins snagged one at 69 -- 32 years her junior.) MoDo's most famous ex, Michael Douglas, is married to Catherine Zeta-Jones, who is admittedly much younger but quite a successful actress in her own right. As for those famous and powerful men who marry their girl Fridays, I can't think of one, and Dowd is certainly no help. I can, however, think of high-status older men who have married accomplished women close to them in age (former Senator Howard Baker and former Senator Nancy Kassebaum, for instance).

A look at the weddings pages in Dowd's own newspaper disproves her claims that professional success is near-fatal to women's mating prospects. Take a look, and you'll see a lot of brides with résumés that, in the world according to Dowd, would strike fear into the hearts of men. Quite a few of those brides are over 30, and even over 40. And when high-status men marry women with relatively low-paying jobs, it's typically women in "genteel" professions that have some cultural prestige -- teacher, writer, artist. For a more scientific analysis, check out this excellent article by Garance Franke-Ruta debunking Sylvia Ann Hewlett's alarmist claims -- cited by Dowd to support what one might charitably call her thesis -- about high-achieving professional women's poor prospects of marrying and having children. (Hat tip: Echidne.)

Of course, you could say that I'm making the same error as Dowd and focusing on the kind of people whose weddings are likely to be announced in the Times (other people don't seem to exist in Dowd's world, except for those maids and secretaries who could steal your man). Go ahead, say it. But the point is that even within this bubble universe of urban professionals, Dowd's generalizations do not hold.

Then there's this lovely tidbit:

Or, as Craig Bierko, a musical comedy star and actor who played one of Carrie's boyfriends on "Sex and the City," told me, "Deep down, beneath the bluster and machismo, men are simply afraid to say that what they're truly looking for in a woman is an intelligent, confident and dependable partner in life whom they can devote themselves to unconditionally until she's 40."
Well, Carrie's boyfriend is obviously an authority on the subject. But let's do a reality check. Most husbands over 40 don't leave their wives. In fact, twice as many wives over 40 leave their husbands as vice versa.

As for women supposedly turning their backs on careers and equality: Dowd's "evidence" comes principally from that much-criticized New York Times "study" of Ivy League women planning to be stay-at-home mothers. Every year, the Higher Education Research Institute at UCLA does a comprehensive survey of college freshmen around the country; as far as I know, the survey results offer no evidence of a growing desire on the part of female students to become homemakers. The only solid bit of data is that the percentage of women keeping their names after marriage has declined since 1990.

This is not to say that Dowd is wrong about everything. While her portrayal of the modern dating/mating scene is not only socially narrow but caricatured beyond recognition, it contains important grains of truth. Many young people still harbor traditional or semi-traditional expectations about male and female roles in relationships -- expectations which work out fine for some people but, for others, can cause painful tensions and conflicts between old-fashioned and modern roles. Dowd does sort of acknowledge that women are just as responsible for these attitudes as men. Thus, by and large, successful and ambitious women still don't regard less successful, lower-earning men as "marriage material" (even though, as James Miller suggests at TechCentralStation, it would go a long way toward solving their career/family dilemma). Many stick to dating rituals that reflect the "male provider" role, though I'm not sure this is any more true today than it was 20 years ago.

The problem is, Dowd never really thinks through the implications of this. Her assumption seems to be that men with stereotypical expectations are villains, while women who buy into stereotypical expectations are victims -- treated with a lot of contempt and condescenscion, to be sure ("With no power or money or independence, they'll be mere domestic robots, lasering their legs and waxing their floors -- or vice versa"), but without the angry vitriol directed at men. But actually, many of the New Semi-traditionalists are not so much backsliding toward Stepford Wifehood as trying to have it both ways: the advantages of equality and traditional feminine perks. They fully expect equal opportunity in the workplace but also see it as their prerogative to be financially supported if they want to give up, suspend, or scale down their careers when they have families. (The same having-it-both-ways mindset is often reflected in discussions of who pays on dates. In 1993, New Woman magazine ran an article on this topic which quoted one woman as saying that some men were being stingy out of resentment against women's liberation: Since she wasn't going to play the subservient "Ultimate Woman," her boyfriend refused to be the "Ultimate Man" and pick up the check. It did not occur to this woman, evidently, that there was anything illogical about her complaint.) Nor does it ever occur to Dowd that these expectations subject men to their own set of pressures, as well.

In Slate, Katie Roiphe asks, in a mean but well-targeted tweak of Dowd's book title, "Is Maureen Dowd Necessary?" Her answer, obviously, is no, and I agree. As I slogged through MoDo's essay, I couldn't help thinking about the waste of magazine space and the fact that far better books about relations between the sexes in our confused time -- say, Peggy Orenstein's Flux: Women on Sex, Work, Love, Kids, and Life in a Half-Changed World, or Daphne Patai's Heterophobia: Sexual Harassment and the Future of Feminism -- have not received even a fraction of the attention.

I was also reminded of a passage from the novel Unnatural Death by the British mystery writer Dorothy Sayers, which like many of her books deals quite a bit with the feminist issues of the day. (The day was 1927.) One of the characters, the spirited elderly spinster Miss Climpson, is conversing with a silly young woman who has picked up some superficial "feminist" ideas and is carrying on about how insufferable men are. "My dear," replies Miss Climpson, "I am always very careful not to speak sneeringly about men -- even though they often deserve it, you know. But if I did, everybody would think I was an envious old maid, wouldn't they?"

Yes, that was a cheap shot. But Maureen Dowd makes it so hard to resist.


reader_iam said...

Bravo! Best I've seen on this topic yet ...

Cathy Young said...

Thanks. :)

Cathy Young said...

Thanks, Adrienne. But I do have my occasional bouts of modesty. ;)

An update or sequel? Perhaps. Writing books is a time-consuming affair with a fairly low payoff.

Anyway, I do appreciate the plug!

Anonymous said...

Great points.

successful and ambitious women still don't regard less successful, lower-earning men as "marriage material"

Without in any way excusing women looking for a sugar daddy, a couple of points on this one.

--Plenty of men also do not want to "marry up."

--Speaking from personal experience, not every man who claims he's OK with a higher-earning wife, or likes the idea of a "sugar mama", is telling the truth. Men, like women, have absorbed traditional roles, and for every woman who refuses to marry 'beneath' her, there's probably a man who expects his wife to do all the housework even though she works twice the hours he does.

Anonymous said...

Great post. Even before reading Dowd's piece, I thought, the best thing for feminism (and perhaps public discourse in general), would be for MoDo to retire from public life, or at least stop writing/opining.

Regarding one of the grains truth you extract from Dowd's article -- "Thus, by and large, successful and ambitious women still don't regard less successful, lower-earning men as "marriage material"" -- Anecdotally, as a 38 year-old bachelor in San Francisco, I generally find this to be true of most of the women I date. Although I pull down a decent , and steadily increasing salary as a corporate attorney, I have a few years to go until I'll be able to afford to afford a house. I think women want to have the option to stay home and raise kids while maintaining a good standard of living, which in the San Francisco area, with home prices starting close to $1M (and higher than average costs in other categories, like fuel, groceries, schools, etc.), means finding a guy with serious cash flow (essentially, a guy who's already "made it" or one with inherited wealth). The irony is, like anywhere else, the economy here only supports a certain percentage of these situations, which is one of the reasons there are so many single woman in San Francisco -- a phenomenon that has a lot less to do with the myth about how women can't find any straight guys in SF (they're here, they're just not all millionaires).

To your point, unlike Dowd, I don't play the blame game about my situation. As far as I can fathom, it's not personal, it's strictly business $$$$. I guess in the end, people would rather be alone, with a certain amount of security, than face the likelihood of having to struggle a bit. Unfortunately, I think this calculus becomes more acute the older you get.

Revenant said...

I think that a woman's success has little to do, one way or the other, with her sex appeal to most men. It has quite a bit to do with men's sex appeal to women. Research seems to support this, and it is consistent with what we would expect from evolution, given that women historically needed more support from others than men did (due to the whole pregnancy thing).

So I think you're right that women are, on average, less willing to "settle" for less-successful men than men are for less-successful women.

Cathy Young said...

Thanks everyone. Still working on deadline so this is going to have to be very short for now --

mythago, I agree that some men want to "have it both ways too" (e.g., they want/expect their wife to share the burden of breadwinning but don't want to share the burden of domestic labor) -- one thing that really irritates me about Warren Farrell, for instance, is his refusal to acknowledge that.

It's all complicated by the fact that some people defend their traditional expectations in terms of deferring to what they believe the other person's expectations will be. A friend of mine, then an editor at a major publishing house in New York, once told me that he met a woman at a party and considered asking her out until he found out she was a surgeon at one of NYC's top hospitals, probably making 4-5 times as much as he did. He assured me that it didn't bother him (and knowing him, I think he was telling the truth), but he was sure that she wouldn't give him the time of the day. Likewise, I've heard women say that they would never go out with a man who earned much less than they did because they were convinced that his ego would never withstand the relationship.

(Would be nice if we gave each other a chance to not live down to the stereotypes, no?)


I think that a woman's success has little to do, one way or the other, with her sex appeal to most men.I think that a woman's success has little to do, one way or the other, with her sex appeal to most men. It has quite a bit to do with men's sex appeal to women.

I agree there's a tendency in that direction, but don't agree with this as an absolute generalization. Look at my Joan Collins example: do you think that a non-high-status 69-year-old female, even with very good looks, would find herself a 37-year-old husband? I can think of other examples as well.

Revenant said...

I agree there's a tendency in that direction, but don't agree with this as an absolute generalization.

I didn't mean to sound like all women care about the status and success of their potential mate. I meant it in the "men are taller than women" sense -- true for the average, even though tall women and short men do exist.

I'm not sure that a 69-year-old woman is a good example, though. I don't know of any studies that have examined this area, but I wouldn't be surprised if the "marry a good provider" instinct was tied to the ability to bear children, and faded post-menopause. There are good examples from among younger women, though (Britney Spears leaps to mind -- yeesh).

Cathy Young said...

revenant -- sorry if I didn't make myself clear. What I meant is that Joan Collins's ability, at 69, to attract a much younger man had something to do with her status and success. And I don't mean simply that her husband is necessarily a golddigger. I think fame and status can be an aphrodisiac for both sexes.

By the way, didn't Chris Hitchens once write an article about how a lot of British guys, regardless of politics, had a Margaret Thatcher fetish in the Thatcher years?

Cathy Young said...

My goodness, I haven't heard the Colin Farrell story. However, while composing my MoDo post I did a Google search for older woman/younger man couples in Hollywood, and was shocked to find out that Ralph Fiennes is in a long-term relationship with an actress nearly 20 years his senior, Francesca Annis -- whom he first met when she played his mother in Hamlet! (Weirder yet, I saw that production.)

Anonymous said...

Would be nice if we gave each other a chance to not live down to the stereotypes, no?

I agree. I don't know your friend, but I wonder if he were engaging in another type of mental game people play--rejecting a potential mate before taking a chance on them. You don't have to worry if the beautiful surgeon will blow you off if you decide, first, that she has some low-grade reason she wouldn't be interested.

Anonymous said...

My two cents:

1. I disagree with MoDo because I believe a man does want someone they can talk to, someone they can trust, someone they can share their lives with. The woman doesn't even have to be beautiful according to cultural conventions. She just has to be beautiful to him, and that beauty can take on many forms. What a man doesn't want is a pain in the ass, and that I think is MoDo's real problem.

2. MoDo's article is part of a recent trend of feminist scholarship founded on this authorial attitude: "I'm smart. My friends are smart. We went to Brearly and Yale. We live in New York, for God's sake. Who wouldn't want to be like us? So of course I can make sweeping generalizations about how all women think, regardless of class, religion, locale, aspirations, et al., because we think for everyone."

Revenant said...

You call that a *recent* trend, angry young man? I think that attitude has been around for a while in feminism, actually.

I don't think there's any need to single out feminists in particular. Self-identified "elites" have been singing the "things are going bad and its those damned proles' fault" song since at *least* the days of the Roman Empire.

Anonymous said...

MoDo's article is part of a recent trend of feminist scholarship founded on this authorial attitude

It's neither recent nor exclusively feminist.

Cathy Young said...

angry young man -- as others have noted, I don't think this trend is peculiar to feminism. Though I do think that because feminism deals so much with personal issues, it may be more prone to this kind of writing than, say, discussions of foreign policy.

I should add that anti-feminists (Danielle Crittenden, Wendy Shalit) use it all the time too -- "I know a lot of women who feel that feminism has made them miserable and we ought to return to old-fashioned truths about men and women, therefore that's how women feel en masse."

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