Dowd, femininity, and feminism
Just a few quick thoughts on the exchange between Scott Lemieux and Dr. B about whether the criticism of Maureen Dowd's "Are Men Necessary" is tinged with misogyny. It's impossible to know how individual critics arrived at the conclusion that Dowd's essay is an embarassing piece of self-indulgent hackery. No doubt misogyny influenced some people's assessments. The more interesting question is whether the discussion itself is framed by underlying sexist or mysogynist assumptions. Are we treating Dowd unfairly because she expresses herself in a stereotypically feminine way? I would argue that Dowd deserves the criticism she's getting, but that there are a lot of equally frivolous men in the media who are allowed to coast on sexism because the public is irrationally predisposed to see their contributions as serious and important.
Some stereotypically feminine characteristics deserve to be criticized, not because they're associated with women, but because they're intrinsically undesirable. Many of these have been unfairly or inaccurately associated with women because of sexism. Our concept of femininty didn't emerge from thin air. Traditional gender norms are the norms of sexist societies. A culture that subordinates women does so in part by building pernicious ideals into its gender roles. A system of oppression is going to be a lot more stable if you can convince everyone that the ideal woman is passive, docile, and parochial. As the early feminists observed, many stereotypically feminine traits were symptoms of being stifled and stunted by discrimination. If your life prospects depend on your looks, it's only natural to be preoccupied with your personal appearance. If manipulation is the only tool you've got, every job begins to look like an opportunity for feminine guile.
Even Maureen Dowd can spot double standards when she sees them. In a sexist society, men and women are often judged differently for displaying the same character trait. We're all familiar with double standards that attach to the same overt behavior. A woman who raises her voice in public will be judged differently than a man.
But the feminist critique goes even deeper than that. It's also important to ask how irrelevant gender stereotypes blind us to relevant similarities between superficially different behavior patterns. Who gets called frivolous, and what for? Usually, we associate frivolity with gossip, fashion magazines, and giggling. But if we think about what frivolity is and why it's bad, it's clear that men are equally prone to this vice. Frivolity is an excessive and/or situationally inappropriate preoccupation with amusing trivia. There's nothing inherently gendered about the concept. Yet, a guy is unlikely to be dismissed as frivolous if he's excessively preoccupied with poker, sports stats, or horse race politics.
Which brings us to Maureen Dowd. Far from making the personal political, Dowd made the political personal in a particularly self-absorbed way. She chose to set up her experience as if it were universal and to bolster her prejudices with spurious data and cherry-picked quotes.
It's not the personal content of Dowd's work that annoys her critics, per se. Katha Pollitt drew on her personal experiences to critique Dowd's column, but nobody piled on Pollitt for being frivolous or self-indulgent. Maureen Dowd's devastating attack on Judy Miller was also personal in the sense that Dowd discussed her relationship with Miller as a way to illustrate a larger point. That time, nobody complained that Dowd chose to write about office politics.
Feminists shouldn't be defending stereotypically female behavior just because feminity is unfairly discounted in general. As I've argued above, feminists are often the first to point out that sexism distorts our definitions of masculinity and femininity. Sexism makes us inconsistent in our judgements about behavior and character. It's true that certain attributes are systematically devalued because they are associated with femininity. However, we shouldn't give women a free pass to behave in ways we wouldn't approve of generally. In an ideal world, David Brooks would be dismissed as frivolous and self-absorbed, too.