Tuesday, November 01, 2005

Mo to the D'oh

I already posted once about Maureen Dowd's latest lament on her single status, but now that my flare of disgust at Dowd's temerity in comparing herself to the incandescent Dorothy Parker has faded, I can take aim at the more substantive weaknesses of the piece, albeit in ranty fashion. (However, I will note that Ms. Parker was lonelier and less successful at love than Dowd, but she neither had the 1960s to blame nor allowed her heartache to get in the way of putting out incisive and witty writing. Dowd, by contrast, is a historically illiterate bore.)

Dowd's piece is superficially appealing, especially to the sort of highly educated single woman who's likely to read the New York Times for advice about her love life. It lays out a persuasive story that allows the reader to bask in the knowledge that she's been inexorably borne along the currents of twentieth century sexual revolution. None of the romantic disappointments we suffer are our own fault; even if we have become complacent in our enjoyment of the partial successes of women's liberation and failed to require more from men than acknowledgment of our legal equality, we are not to blame. No, Maureen Dowd, noted evolutionary psychologist, swoops in to save us with the knowledge that men's stubborn refusal to engage in relationships with their mental, social, and professional equals is hard wired. Something in the genes makes them gravitate toward non-threatening pink collar types who will never threaten their financial or intellectual supremacy, who will fulfill their fantasies of manly dominance by taking part in the economic equivalent of foot binding. What is a modern girl (note the infantilizing terminology) to do?

Beneficiary of the efforts of scruffy, unladylike feminists she derides with all the venom of an Ann Coulter, Dowd laments her failure to connect with antediluvian men who find her success and power threatening instead of celebrating her opportunities and scorning those who would find her sexier if she were weak. Unable to tear herself away from her high status job, but apparently unwilling to expand her dating circle beyond an incestuous Manhattan crowd (there's no talk here of dating down; Dowd ferociously embraces the gender stereotypes whose inverse numbers keep her alone and unwanted), she yearns for a simpler time, when somehow our culture was rife with crackling, sexy images of romances between equals even though men and women weren't equal at all.

Once she's singled out the sexual revolution as the reason she can't find a man, Dowd assembles a catalog of examples of retrogression as proof that we must shift inexorably back toward a less equal state of affairs, lest romantic love go the way of the men's platform shoe. She digs up a few sneaky New York women who admit to manipulating their men into thinking that they are the ones doing the chasing. There's also a brief attack on going Dutch; apparently equal pay for equal work can stay, but men should still pick up the dinner tab. It would be funny if it weren't so pathetic: women who make good salaries pretending to only have a bit of pin money so their dates can feel like good providers. "Paying is like opening a car door. It's nice." But what do these women do that's nice for their men? Is the mere act of gracing a man with your feminine presence supposed to be worth all this cash? If the reciprocal niceness involves puffing up the male ego with simulated weakness, all of these tricksy, false femmes may be in for a shock when they settle down in Stepford with Mr. Right.

Instead of challenging the dominant social paradigms like those nasty bra-burners who didn't wear makeup, Dowd argues for preservation and reinstitution of the "dating ritual," even if that means women perform an elaborate, deceitful Kabuki dance in order to procure a mate. Any impediment to romantic bliss (men's tendency to wed younger, nonthreatening women, a failure to commit) is viewed as inescapable biological destiny, not a socially constructed interlocking set of roles.

Dowd's evidence is impressive at first glance; she puts forth several examples of phenomena in support of her thesis that strong, smart women must degrade themselves for love. Unfortunately, many of these references are drastically oversimplified or have been comprehensively debunked. The British IQ study she cites looked at women of the WWII generation, if I recall; bluestockings do rather better these days. Similarly, her use of the recent article on Yale women becoming homemakers should be amusing to anyone who witnessed the vicious online dissection of its weaknesses. To claim that women are changing their names in greater numbers because they want to appeal to men with a taste for subjugation is interesting, but correlation does not prove causation.

It's hard to take Dowd seriously when she castigates young women for all being pretty in the same way and not caring about women's rights, but wants us to embrace the cultural trappings of yesteryear and the lying romantic strategies that our grandmothers used to trap a man into marriage. Does she really think we can put on the masks of the old power structure with no effects on the propensity of women to submit to male authority? Maybe Dowd can play roles with ease (she seems to advocate it in day-to-day male/female relations), but I fear that not everyone can, and that fewer still will distinguish between feigned male supremacy in romance and actual male supremacy in other spheres.

I'm sorry that Maureen Dowd hasn't yet found a man, but she's just another in a long line of doom-sayers. Isn't the old news chestnut, "if it bleeds, it leads?" Certainly the death of romance and the demise of hope for an entire generation of female readers will sell papers. Dowd's disjointed lament is the most-emailed article on the NY Times's website today. But extrapolating the experience of one self important and (if I may say) rather personally unappealing woman onto an entire class of American women is probably a bit much. (Women of a certain age must typically choose to maximize the appearance of one of two features: ass or face. Dowd has chosen ass.)

Like Dowd, I like being pretty. But I don't hate myself enough to pretend to be helpless, impoverished, and weak to get men to fall for me. All you get from that is a man who only wants you as long as he has someone to lord over. Love shouldn't keep you small.
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