Having just read Maureen Dowd’s article in the New York Times [“What’s a Modern Girl to do?”] I have an immediate answer for her. The thing to do, Modern Girls, is don’t title your upcoming books Are Men Necessary: When Sexes Collide, and things like that.
In her very long article Dowd gives us a hatful of excuses for why she and her smart and successful girlfriends are still single, but none of them are near the mark. The number one reason they are single is that they title their books Are Men Necessary? etc. They are single because they are not nice people. It is that simple.
The Modern Girl is mean, and she reveals this meanness in everything she says and does, in every choice she makes, in every look she owns. I will address the numerous cracks in the Modern-Girl veneer in the same order that Dowd reveals them in the article.
On page 1, Dowd tells us that men like shiny things, like lots of hair on the head, and don’t like sarcasm. Well, in general, men do like lots of hair on the head, as do women. Women seem to prefer full hair, where men are more likely to be fascinated by length, but both sexes like hair. Hair is pretty and soft and nice to touch, and it is generally a plus. No one should find this odd, though women have a way of twisting anything to make men look shallow. Dowd might as well blame men for liking chocolate ice cream or puppies. As far as the other two items, however, Dowd is wrong. The kind of men that would be interested in women like her do not like shiny things on a woman. The kind of men that like shiny things on women are the kind of men that like Pam Anderson. These men are not the ones that would naturally be attracted to the brainy type. The kind of man who yearns for a tall sophisticated Irish lass, a Modern Maud Gonne, is not going to be impressed by cheap baubles. He is also not going to like a bunch of make-up and fakery, be it fake breasts or dye-jobs. So the ex-beaus she has fought with to keep her make-up and such were right and she is wrong. She is going against type and against nature to spoil her raw beauty with a bunch of products, and if she hasn’t figured that out after 50 years, maybe she deserves to be single. She would have been smarter to take it all as the ultimate compliment, which any fool can see that it is, but if she prefers to flaunt her independence by flying in the face of all reason, that is certainly her choice to make. It is no man’s fault, however.
Likewise concerning sarcasm. Smart men like a bit of sarcasm, as long as it is not directed at them. This is the line that the Modern Girl seems to be unable to draw. Men have been free to joke since the dawn of time, so maybe they have a better feel for these things. They know that they may be free to do anything, but if they want a person to like them, they should avoid certain freedoms, one of which is insulting that person. Men’s jokes are therefore created to be at anyone’s expense other than the lover. In my experience, clever women can’t be bothered to respect this line. Being clever is equivalent for them to being independent, so that being clever without insulting a man present is almost beside the point. Once again, this is no mark against the man. It does not require an “eggshell ego” to take offense when it is clearly intended. It would require a head of wood, which is not presumably the sort of head these smart women are seeking (no matter how full the hair is on it).
Dowd’s next stunning error is conflating flirting with playing hard to get. I agree with her that women need to relearn the art of flirting, which in my mind is just the art of being nice. But this is not in any way equivalent to playing hard to get. Women, though, cannot give up the idea of love as a game, and when they see that one trick is not working they must take up another. If abuse is (surprise) not working, they think that indifference will. I have a suggestion: try just being nice. If “be yourself” has no meaning, then make a game of it by trying to be some imaginary person who is nice. This imaginary person can be as smart as she likes; she can have useful information on every topic and a talent for every field; but she must be agreeable while telling her stories or performing her tricks. If that still does not help, think of it this way: a smart woman does not have to criticize her date, assume he is “just like all the rest”, make him jump through hoops, snap-judge him on his shoes, or judge him on a thousand other pre-set standards, most of which are arbitrary and meaningless. She does not have to talk about money, she does not have to talk about other men, she does not have to give out little cries for psycho-analysis, she does not have to talk about Sex and the City or Cosmo, she does not have to infer over and over that all the problems with the world are due to men and that women are superior in every way.
Dowd’s next mistake is assigning love of the chase to men. I have news for her—men do not like the chase. Think of the chase like shopping. Men do not like shopping. They like to run into the mall once a year, buy the first things they see, and get the hell out. It is women that like shopping and that like the chase. And why not? They are the ones being chased. It makes them feel important to be made a fuss over.
Now, it is true, some men like making a fuss over a woman, but this is not the same as the chase. You get to make a fuss over a woman only after it is clear that the attraction goes both ways. The fuss I am talking about is pampering, not dating. Trying to schedule a date or buying gifts alone or outgunning other boyfriends or listening to first-date talk is not fun. It is a chore on the level of doing the dishes or going to the dentist. Guys put up with it only to get past it as fast as possible. Women will say the same thing applies to what I have called pampering. It lasts a couple of weeks at most, and is usually defined mostly by sex. I fear that for many men this is a charge founded on fact. But for other men, it is not true. Going shopping with a woman, for instance, is only a chore if you are there for your money. If you get to choose some of the things that are bought, and it is all done with grace, then there is nothing better. It becomes a part of pampering, like backrubs and baths and so on.
All this is to say that men do not love the chase, but they are wary of sex that is too easy. In this, they aren’t any different from women. If you are being made to wait as a test or because the woman is confused, then that can be annoying. On the other hand, if you hop in the bed on the first date, then that can be scary. How many other men has she hopped into bed with on the first date? Commonsense. Not “the way men think” but the way thinking people think. Smart, nice people wait until they know eachother before they have sex, since people who have sex with strangers are sluts. No one not pathologically in love with danger wants to have a relationship with a slut, of either sex.
What this means is that almost all dating rules are useless except this one: give the guy the benefit of the doubt. Don’t throw him into some hole and make him dig himself out. Let him make his own mistakes. Make some attempt to put a good spin on whatever happens, unless it is clearly beyond the pale. If he doesn’t offer to pay, maybe it is because he doesn’t want to offend you, since you are so important and independent and all-powerful. Seeing that the rules change every week, maybe he is carrying a slightly outdated feminist manifesto. If you are going to judge him by rules, at least give him a copy beforehand. Otherwise it is just a cruel set-up.
This last point brings me to where the Modern Girl has lost it completely. Where she has thought herself out of a man. On the one hand she does not want a milquetoast—she wants a man who is sexually exciting. True, we see a lot of confused Modern Girls with milquetoasts—the guys walking six steps behind and staying very quiet. But Modern Girls like Maureen Dowd are at least honest enough, or have enough self-respect, to aim higher, even if it means being alone. She does not want a milquetoast. But she also will not forgive a man for telling her the truth. That truth is that all the various manifestoes and rulebooks are absurd, and what is more, offensive. If she does not have to live by my rules, I sure as hell don’t have to live by hers.
The Modern Girl can dish it out but she cannot take it. She wants to argue but she cannot stand losing. She wants the luxury of being the pre-defined winner. If the Modern Girl will write you off for a mistake in paying the bill or a mistake over some political allegiance, you can imagine your chances if you stand up for yourself on the central issue. If you demand that you are still as equal as she is, come what may, the sky falls and the worldwide warning to all girls is sent out over the airwaves. You will be lucky to ever have a date again.
This is an inconvenience to the man, but it puts the Modern Girl in a pickle too. She has ostracized all real men by pre-categorizing them. If they disagree with her in any substantive way, they are far right cranks, even if they voted for Nader or go to Chomsky lectures. So she gets her pick of the milquetoasts, has to fight her friends for the best of the milquetoasts, and ends up complaining about the milquetoasts in high-profile print. Her analogue in the UK, Fay Weldon, has asked why “All Englishmen are Women.” They aren’t of course, not even the most liberal of them. But the ones who don’t run screaming from the presence of Dowd or Weldon are only the milquetoasts. The men worth dating have long since been driven off by the titles of their books and articles, or before that by the subject matter of all their offensive conversations.
Dowd proves this once again with her claim that “the key to staying cool in the courtship rituals is B&I, girls say—Busy and Important.” I have only one question in response, “Do you, Modern Girl, like it when a man is Busy and Important?” Maybe in the abstract, since it is a sign of power. But not day-to-day. If a man treats you as if he is busy and important, it is just T&A—Terribly Annoying. Well, the same thing works in reverse. If a woman is too busy and important to return my calls, then she can date a lesser man. Even the gods must treat eachother with courtesy and good manners. If they are interested, they must act interested. If they don’t, they are just phonies—fake gods in plated sandals.
But the Modern Girl has no manners. She may be well educated but she is ill-bred. She doesn’t have to be thoughtful or polite, or even adhere to the basic rules of dating like calling you if she has to break an appointment. She has been so spoiled by her beauty and intelligence, and by the interest of so many men in her late teens and twenties, that by the time she is thirty she is intolerable. Dating a successful Modern Girl over thirty is like dating a snake or a dragon.
The fundamental problem is that no matter what this week’s manifesto happens to be, women are getting all their information from other women. Every month is a different diagnosis, but no one ever seems to arrive at the idea of asking the patient how he feels. Or, to put it in even more provocative terms, what we have is the client arriving at the brothel and being told by a long line of ever-changing madams what sort of girl he needs or desires. These days even the most bottom-line madam never thinks to ask the John.
The Modern Girl is a pragmatist about most things, but she will take anyone’s advice before she will ask a man. Take clothes, for instance. She will wear the sluttiest thing imaginable if some guru at some magazine assures it will turn on the guys. Anonymous designers, unknown labels, meretricious advertisers, gay men who look down their noses at the preferences of straights, all are consulted and admired. The Modern Girl would sooner consult the starcharts or the entrails of geese than ask her lover what he would like to see her in. If he said a flower dress and sandals she would have to kill him.
We have reached the point now, after years of dealing with such aggressive madams, that the John is so confused he no longer can speak his own mind. He goes to the room he is assigned and tries to put a good face on it. And women wonder why viagra is necessary for these men.
Dowd is interviewing all the wrong people. She isn’t really “interviewing” anyone of course; she is just collecting scattershot data that seems at first glance to support her prejudice. Look at whom Dowd quotes about “what men want?” Helen Fisher, a Rutgers anthropologist, for one, among a slate of other professional (and one supposes, single) women. The Modern Girl appears incapable of doing her research. Any truly practical woman, or good reporter, would just ask the man she was with what he wanted, and then do it. Or not do it. But then at least she would know. She could then write an article as an enlightened secondhand source. She could never be a primary source, like I am, but at least she would not have to appear in public as a mystic, basing all her statements on hersay (a typo, but I like it) and gossip.
Dowd, after telling us outright that she doesn’t get dates because she is too successful, then gives us this insightful gem, “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.” No Maureen, only the mean stuff is sabotaging your chances in the bedroom. The self-centered stuff like reminding us how successful you are, the aggressively offensive stuff like titling books “Are Men Necessary…?” The photographs of you looking mean and scary, sitting there smugly daring someone to make a peep. You don’t look like a whole lot of fun.
And you don’t seem to have any excuse for it. If I were posing for a photo to accompany a similar article, I would have to pose in a tiger’s costume to keep from being eaten alive. If I had written a book called “Are Women Necessary?” I would need considerably more life insurance (of course I would never have been published in the first place, or landed a position at the Times). But you have a free pass. No one is attacking you for being a women. Just the opposite. Only someone who had been given the ultimate benefit of the doubt could publish such a book or such an article. In your position I would be defending myself, as I am in this letter. But not you. You are firing the first shot. You are attacking all men, as men. If you are looking tigerish, it is only because you are fascinated by the pose.
Here’s another funny one. Dowd tells us this story: “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.’” Again, Dowd reminds us she is at the White House—charming that. But she apparently does not consider the possibility that the actress is single because she is pathetic. The sort of person who blurts out at a public gathering, to someone she has just met, something so gloriously and transparently neurotic is just the sort of person you’d expect to be single. In fact, she is just the sort of person you would expect to be a successful actress, and just the sort of person you’d expect to soon be at Betty Ford. Of course Dowd ignores all of this. If men want to marry young pretty idiots instead of aging pretty idiots, she needs to pretend to find this odd.
Here is the next thing we are supposed to hold against men: “Men think that women with important jobs are more likely to cheat on them.” Yes, so? These men are right. Just as women think that men with important jobs are more likely to cheat on them, and are correct in thinking it. You can hardly blame men (or women) for being right about a statistic. Not all powerful men or women cheat, but they do have more opportunities. This is no reason to draw a negative conclusion about the men and a positive one about the women. Women date and marry the powerful men anyway, Dowd tells us, expecting us to envy and hate the powerful men and feel sorry for the women, I guess, since they get cheated on. But I could easily turn the tables and say that this is a sign of the stupidity or shallowness of the women who do it, since they either ignore the obvious facts or they just want the money. If men do not as often date the powerful women, maybe it is not because they are emasculated by the idea. Maybe it is because they are not so gullible or not so transparently avaricious.
Dowd claims that “men marrying down” causes the glut of unmarried professional women. But could it be that these women are unmarried because they have never said yes to a proposal? Could it be that they have insulted and scorned and ignored any man that might have had the potential of asking? Could it be that they have pasted too many bumper stickers like this on their cars over the years: “a woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle.”
That is the Modern Girl sense of humor in a nutshell right there. Men like whimsy and nonsense and at worst, fart jokes. See Dave Barry for contemporary male humor in most of its phases. But women like crushing cruelty, very broadly aimed. And they apparently like it best when it is as false as possible. For they think that while we are transparent to them, they are completely opaque to us. They therefore are not embarrassed to continue to quote such “jokes” and to stand around and snigger about them. They imagine they have earned the right to be so crass, insensitive, and deluded. Maybe they have. They have also earned the right to be single. They should enjoy it with a bit more zest.
The exact same point can be made about Dowd’s mention of Harvard Business School as the kiss of death for female graduates and a big sexual calling card for male graduates. Again, I would think this to be a strong signal about both the men and women involved, but Dowd prefers to blame the men and pity the women. Dowd seems to be criticizing men for not being golddiggers in the same numbers as women. She doesn’t appear to find the young women chasing male HBS graduates around to be sleazy, or appear to find it at all shallow that the female graduates expect their degree to buy them dates. She is only concerned that it isn’t.
And then there is all the talk of Cosmo. Men don’t read, edit, or care anything about such magazines. If women do, I think they should take credit for the content. But that is entirely too logical for the Modern Girl. Despite the loose talk of freedom and independence, it is apparently believed that all the actions of women are scripted and corrupted by little invisible men. If women are returning to a Stepford Wife conformity, it can have nothing to do with their choices. If they haven’t figured out how to be successful and nice at the same time, it is not their fault. If men don’t want to marry aging mean scary ladies, then something must be wrong with the universe. Women should have been free to get as unappealing as possible and still have sex, dates and marriage on demand. After all, men seem to get this. How do men get this? They buy sex, dates, and marriage from really stupid greedy women. Nothing is stopping you from that, Maureen. Plenty of men who fit that description, especially in New York City.
After all this, what is perhaps most shocking and disturbing is to see a supposedly upper-class Modern Girl like Maureen Dowd quoting all these trashy sources. Why do have to hear about Jessica Simpson and Pam Anderson and Sex and the City and Maxim and Cosmo? It is almost as bad as having to hear Camille Paglia talk about Madonna. You can’t even find a humanities major at Vassar or Princeton or Amherst who will quote Jane Austen or Sappho to you anymore. The Modern Girl, at all levels, is almost completely without charm, which is precisely why Bill Maher is asking her to shut up. She strives to look and act like the gum-smacking graduate of Topeka Beauty College. Even Gwyneth Paltrow only looks good in Emma; the rest of the time she is in costume from the Royal Tennenbaums, smoking herself hoarse and otherwise ruining her great beauty by fast degrees. It is the same everywhere: the fashions are awful, the hairstyles worse, the conversation garish and loud and uninformed. Men did not ask for it to be this way. Women are impressing only other women, we suppose, and we cannot fathom it.
Strangely, through all this, it is I who am the more hopeful for the future of feminism. Dowd sees only another round of backsliding. But I believe that present failures are only personal failures. Not all smart women are "Modern Girls", for one thing. If Modern Girls of the type I have critiqued above haven’t found a way to be successful and tolerable, it is not because it is genetically or socially impossible. It is only because the leading feminists have so far made bad choices and correctable errors. They have fragged their allies and shot themselves in the foot over and over. They have misdefined a limited political battle for an all-out war of the sexes—a war that cannot be won by either side. They have adopted many of the worst traits of their opponents and have lost sight of the true masculine virtues. Rather than change the face of corrupt politics or big business, they have only corrupted themselves and made both fields bigger. Sex, policed now by women, is a grimmer place than it was fifty years ago, and it was no picnic fifty years ago. We have graduated from an aging Puritanism to a glittering neuroticism, trading one sordid concept for another. Women have been pretty much free to re-invent a lost naturalism in sex or a happy home and office, and this is all they have come up with. An exponential increase in insensitivity, predatory action, false body images, and selfishness. The sins of men have not been mitigated, they have been augmented. We now have two sexes adept at being mean and selfish, and who take great pride in it. Our politics has weaned the last residue of kindness and innocence from us. If we could only make our children equally intolerable, all charm would have fled the world. Wait, we already did that. How about puppies?
Things are very very bad. Dowd is right in one respect: when one of the sexes is a Modern Girl, the sexes no longer meet, they collide. But men do not want it this way. We do not want to fight, we do not want to chase rude and thoughtless women, we do not want to have to defend ourselves at all hours or lay down and take the constant abuse. We want long soft hair and backrubs and chocolate ice cream and puppies and well-mannered children and flower gardens—all the things you used to want. We do not want to go back to the past to get them. We do not want all the responsibility or all the credit, all the votes or all upper-level jobs. But even the most liberal of us want to go back or go forward—to do something else than what we are doing now. The tiger outfits are hot and stifling. They take it out of you after a while.
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