Questions for Maureen Dowd


November 4, 2005

Following an essay by Maureen Dowd in The Times Magazine, which was adapted from her new book, "Are Men Necessary: When Sexes Collide," the author and Op-Ed columnist answers reader questions on the past and future of feminism.

book cover to Are Men Necessary

Q. I was fortunate, at quite a young age — 23— to marry a man who was rather liberated and we stumbled along, figuring out the money, power, housework, jobs, sex, parenting and family stuff together. Our daughter is in college now, and the boys she meets seem terrified of the strong, opinionated and funny young woman she has become. She is discouraged and worries that she won't be able to secure a relationship like ours. After reading your article on modern relationships, I don't know whether to advise her to hold out for the last liberated guy. Or tell her that she may need to settle for less, and tone down her style a bit, too. And it would break my heart to do that. What would you recommend?

— Deborah Frandsen, Missoula, Mont.

 

A. I think when you settle for less than you deserve, you get less than you settled for. Your daughter clearly has high standards because she's had remarkable role models in you and your husband, and you've clearly created someone enchanting. She should not tone anything down. She should look for guys who celebrate and appreciate who she is, and not waste a lot of time on guys who don't. Just because a lot of men seem to prefer women who are awed by them, rather than ones who provide snap and crackle, doesn't mean there aren't plenty of men who like the snap and crackle, too. You just have to hunt for them.

 

Q. Doesn't it seem curious that this resurgence of the girlie girl and sex kitten seems to be running parallel to the great religious and political conservative movement engulfing us today? What are we doing wrong in letting the lessons some of us learned in that period go quietly by? Whether by folklore, story-telling, or by virtue of your upcoming book, shouldn't more be done to show the risky effects of insular dependence on the man in your life?

— Barbara P. Hageman, Brewster, Mass.

 

A. I recommend reading Ariel Levy's new book,"Female Chauvinist Pigs: Women and the Rise of Raunch Culture." It has a lot of interesting material linking the red state surge and the self-actualized sex kitten surge.

In my book, I make the point that we live in a society that is so derangingly sexualized, it's not a sexy society. You can't think about sex clearly if all you're thinking about is sex, whether it's an obsession over celibacy or nymphomania. America has always been conflicted about sex, its puritanical side clashing with its prurient side. But now, with the ascendance of the prudish religious right and the numbing oversexualization of commerce and culture, America seems positively bipolar about sex.

As Amazon.com began selling sex toys, a public radio station in Kentucky briefly canceled the venerable Garrison Keillor's show "The Writer's Almanac" a few months ago because he read a poem with the word "breast" in it. An art dealer in New York captured the schizoid insanity of the moment perfectly, confiding that he gets calls from wealthy private collectors in places like Texas saying that they don't want Rubens or Monet nudes because they have small children at home. They'd rather stick with impressionist landscapes and old Dutch masters. I agree that young women, like the Ivy Leaguers interviewed in a recent front-page story, may correctly assess that it was a grind for baby boomer women trying to have it all. But they seem oblivious to the perils of insular dependence on a man.

Q. Are the problems you describe more about the shallowness of the culture and its immature, narcissistic elements, and less about the role of men and women?

— Norman Chaleff, West Orange, N.J.

A. I would say both. I think baby boomers were a very narcissistic bunch compared to the self-deprecating and not so self-regarding Greatest Generation. And I think narcissism has trumped feminism. But I also think that men and women at the start of the sexual revolution envisioned a lot easier road, and more utopian world of equality, than this world of ours. Relations between the sexes are more muddled than ever.

 

Q. Do women ever marry down much?

— William G. O'Connell, Minneapolis

 

A. A lot of high-powered, high-earning women end up with men who put less focus on earning and ambition, and that makes for a happier, alpha-beta balance. But it's harder for women to duplicate the "staff siren" syndrome I write about, where men like to get involved with the young girls who are paid to revolve around them and make their lives easier. I've had fantastically smart and cute young male assistants, but never entertained any notion of marrying them.

 

Q. At the close of your piece, you imagine a 2030 where all of today's young women who've opted for hearth and home will wake up and find themselves deserted by husbands for younger babes. Is your opinion of men really this jaundiced? Have you not run across any men in your world devoted to their wives and their marriages? Have you ever considered the possibility that just maybe you're traveling in the wrong circles and hanging out with the wrong people? I'm not writing from a farm in the Midwest. I grew up in New York City and married a professional woman I look forward to being married to for the rest of my life.

— Peter McFadden, Cold Spring, N.Y.

 

A. Yes, all the men in my family are devoted to their strong, professional wives and happily married, and many of my male friends. I was merely speculating on the possible perils for a pampered class of young women who yearn to go back to total economic and emotional dependence on men. It was just a nightmare fantasy of what could happen if women someday boomerang so far away from feminism, that they start totally revolving around men again, and give up all their own independence. A Philip K. Dick scenario.

 

Q. Why blame feminism for the fact that ignorant men prefer women who aren't as smart and successful? Why not blame the ignorant men? And why perpetuate this sad stereotype of single women waiting passively — and desperately — for men to pay attention to them?

— Ajitha Reddy, Chicago

 

A. You have to read the whole book. I don't think men who prefer women who aren't smart and successful are ignorant. A lot of men think it works better to hook up with women who want to revolve around them, and I can't argue with that. It's probably easier in many ways. I know plenty of single women who are having a great time.

 

Q. When your wife renounces books for catalogues, when she begins to idolize Blanche Dubois and starts going to Mass again . . . when your grad-school daughter says her mother is letting her mind go to waste, what is a husband to do? You build a modest career by avoiding the twin pitfalls of being boss and being bossed, then one day you look in the mirror and see Mike Doonesbury. Are we going back to the future or forward to the past?

— Chandler Thompson, Las Cruces, N.M.

 

A. That is my question exactly! I love your e-mail. Please read the whole book and get back to me with your thoughts.

 

Q. There are women in African countries who risk HIV/AIDS on a daily basis because they HAVE to have sex with their husbands, or else. There are women in Eastern Europe who see their tickets outta there on a train to work in a brothel in the West. And there are women in India who are burned to death in kitchen fires for letting down the in-laws. The point is, these women have still not gone through our 60's — they have not had a wave of feminism which would allow them to claim some very basic rights, much less the right to be C.E.O.

 

Maybe women in North America are moving on, and back to a place we aren't very comfortable with. But while that happens, from our positions of comfort, I think we owe women in other countries a voice.

— Christine McNab, Geneva, Switzerland

 

A. I agree.

 

Q. Who would you identify as positive role models today for women looking to stand on the shoulders of our feminist foremothers and build from that place rather than reject it? In other words, if you had your way, who would you like to see on the cover of magazines instead of Jessica Simpson?

— Amy Selwyn, London

 

A. I introduced Mary Robinson, the former president of Ireland and former U.N. commissioner for human rights, the other night at a Glamour Magazine Awards dinner. She was very impressive. She got 90 percent approval ratings in Ireland and led with moral authority in a country dominated by men, reflecting feminine grace and macho tenacity, always trying to unite society and heal divisions, reaching out to her political rivals, and reaching out to help the poor and suffering, and working for women's legal and reproductive rights. Mrs. Robinson is now running an international organization called Realizing Rights, trying to end extreme poverty and to move women's health to the top of the international agenda, to try to stop the gap between rich and poor, powerless and powerful, from getting bigger. It's fine to have beautiful women on the covers of magazines, but there are many ways to be beautiful, and I worry that America has lost a sense of that. Women used to demand equality; now they just demand Botox.

 

We need more covers like the Time Persons of the Year in 2002, featuring a trio of brave truthtellers — Sherron Watkins, who blew the whistle on the creeps at Enron; Coleen Rowley, who blew the whistle at the F.B.I. incompetence; and Cynthia Cooper, who blew the whistle on the Worldcom n'er do wells. Three grown-up Nancy Drews with guts.

 

Q. How hopeful are you that America will be an example of innovation and forward-thinking once again?

— Steven Henry, Miami, Fla.

 

A. We're in a dark ages now, with the government pulling science backward, and suffocating research on stem cells, and encouraging the idea that Intelligent Design is a legitimate alternative to evolution studies. This is a long way from JFK's New Frontier attitude. But I think most Americans like to be on the cutting edge of culture and science, and will want that reflected, sooner or later, in our leaders.

picture of Maureen Dowd with boxing gloves

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