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November 14, 2005

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.

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» Should I just create a "Maureen Dowd" category or what? from Pandagon
The debate about Dowd's article in the NY Times about men and women and sex rages on and has moved onto the debate about whether or not it's unfair to judge Dowd for being personal in her writing. The debate... [Read More]

» On Maureen Dowd, feminism, and sexism from The Moderate Voice
At Majikthise, my fellow Tufts grad Lindsay Beyerstein has a good response to the allegedly sexist criticism of Dowd's new book, Are Men Necessary?: "Far from m... [Read More]

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Thoughts from Lindsay Beyerstein: No doubt misogyny influenced some people's assessments. The more interesting question is whether the discussion itself is framed by underlying sexist or misogynist assumptions. Are we... [Read More]

» Getting approval while being unapprovable from Pandagon
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Comments

Dowd’s talents are more suited to writing movie or fashion reviews, not politics. I hope that doesn't sound sexist, because if she were a man I'd still say the same thing. Occasionally she has written some entertaining pieces, but so has Rex Reed, and I don’t give a damn about his political views either. Unfortunately most smart, opinionated women are unfairly viewed as "bitches", but this is one case where the moniker is appropriate. Her shallow attacks on Gore in 2000, including her dissemination of false information, are enough proof that she's a hack, even if she's able to string words together better than most. So her gender doesn't really matter to me; a bad editorial is a bad editorial no matter who wrote it. Of course I agree that it's wrong to make any sexist remarks to cut her down; comments like those are just another form of ad hominem attack. Besides, with her they're completely unnecessary. On the whole her political writings are shit, plain and simple.

Good essay.

But, let's cut to the chase. Most liberal dudes (and some women) dislike Dowd because Clinton-Lewinsky. I don't like her because she straddles between claiming herself a type of feminist norm and expressing disdain for the legacy of the feminist movement. (Or her perception of that legacy.)


In an ideal world, David Brooks would be dismissed as frivolous and self-absorbed, too.

And Atrios, at least does so.

And the reason that Katha Pollitt used personal experience to critique Dowd was because she was showing how easy it is to refute Dowd's personal anecdotes with her own. Because random personal anecdotes - like "a 26-year-old friend of mine" and “a Times reader named Ray Lewis” and " guy I know, talking about his bitter divorce" does not prove anything about men, women, feminism or the progress of feminism in the last 40 years. Dowd uses them in tandem with thoroughly debunked studies.

So Dowd's book - or at least the excerpt that I read from the magazine section - tells us nothing of value about serious issues, and everything about Dowd - and it reveals her as a shallow, frivolous person.

The real misogynists are the NYTimes, which operates its op-ed section like the original Smurf hive colony - a variety of males represent divergent traits - Brainy Smurf (Krugman), Dumbass Smurf (Tierney AND Brooks) and then you have Smurfette - Maureen Dowd. Smurfette exists to embody female traits. And Dowd is very similar to Smurfette - silly, vain, shallow and forever wearing high heels.

But the Times sees fit to hire a silly, vain, shallow, fashion-obsessed creature as its lone female columnist. Probably because although she makes a big deal of her "feminism" she doesn't actually ever challenge the male power structure, and in fact tacitly supports it through her promotion of evolutionary psychology explanations for the way the world works.

And don't forget that not long ago both Dowd and op-ed editor Gail Collins questioned whether women are capable or interested in writing op-ed colums - that's their explanation for why there are so few - not that men still run everything.

Fake feminists are perfect tools of the patriarchy.

Usually, we associate frivolity with gossip, fashion magazines, and giggling. But if we think about what frivolity is and why it's bad, we see that men are equally prone to this vice, but their behavior is much less likely to be labelled as frivolous. Frivolity is an excessive preoccupation and/or situationally inappropriate preoccupation with trivial stuff. 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.

Lindsay,

The above portion of your essay reminded me a lot of a passage in Virgina Woolf's A Room Of One's Own. I transcribe it below:

'And since a novel has this correspondence to real life, its values are to some extent those of real life. But it is obvious that the values of women differ very often from the values which have been made by the other sex; naturally, this is so. Yet it is the masculine values that prevail. Speaking crudely, football and sport are "important"; the worship of fashion, the buying of clothes "trivial." And these values are inevitably transferred from life to fiction. This is an important book, the critic assumes, because it deals with war. This is an insignificant book because it deals with the feelings of women in a drawing-room. A scene in a battlefield is more important than a scene in a shop - everywhere and much more subtly the difference of value persists.'

I think this question of value is at the heart of any double standard that exists between the sexes.

I don't believe I've ever read a word Dowd has written. Same's true of the other Times Columnists (except for blog excerpts) except for the retired Safire who I've had the misfortune of perusing a couple times. I do somehow get the sense from these discussions that Dowd is a pretty good writer. And that's how I image she should be read. Not as an adequate writer with interesting thoughts, like every other columnist in every other newspaper. But as a good writer, who's topics may vary in importance.

I think this is right on, and I think that Nancy's point about Dowd being Smurfette--and how the real sexism is that of the NYT--is exactly right. It's Dowd's position as token that really causes most of the damage.

I think that Maureen Dowd is no worse than Dave Barry in writing humorous, war-of-the-sexes type articles. Then again, Dave Barry's column isn't on the Op-Ed page of the Times. I am capable of deriving pleasure from reading a MoDo column. Not everything in life has to be Deep and Maningful and Edifying.

aha. not this old discussion again. It seems we really have take it inside out and blow it to pieces. I am putting my anarcho lit. hat.

--------

MADAME DE SAINT-ANGE: Eugénie, is there anything more ridiculous than to see a maiden of fifteen or sixteen consumed by tormenting desires until it pleases her parents? Better she be left her own mistress, and if she fall into vice? What of it? Woman's destiny is to be wanton, like the bitch, the she-wolf; she must belong to all who claim her. It must be an outrage to Nature to fetter women with the absurd ties of a solitary marriage. Fuck, Eugénie, fuck, my angel- your body is yours alone. Take pleasure in the golden years, that delicious memories may console and amuse your old age.

-Le Marquis de Sade's

BTW. this is MoDo's essay that started it. (is it even worth reading? anybody? lol. )

http://www.truthout.org/issues_05/103105WA.shtml

What's a Modern Girl to Do?
By Maureen Dowd
The New York Times

The luscious babes on the cover of Maxim were supposed to be men's fantasy guilty pleasures, after all, not their real life-affirming girlfriends.

Sunday 30 October 2005

"4. Rule of the tactical polyvalence of discourses

What is said about sex must not be analyzed simply as the surface of projection of these power mehcanism. Indeed, it is in discourse that power and knowledge joined together. And for this very reason, we must conceive discourse as a series of discontinuous segments whose tactical function is neither uniform nor stable. To be more precise, we must not imagine a world of discourse divided between accepted discourse and excluded discourse, or between dominant discourse and the sominated one; but as multiplicity of discursive elements that can come into play in various strategies. It is this distribution that we must reconstruct, with things siad and those concealed, the enunciations required and those forbidden, that it comprises; with variants and different effects-according to who is speaking, his position of power, the isntitutional context in which he happens to be situated- that it implies; and with the shits and reutilizations of identical formulas for contrary objectives that it also includes ... "

Michael Faucault, the history of sexuality

Sex as we know it is nothing but a minute and specialized definition of all the symbolic and sacrificial practices to which a body can open itself, no longer though nature, but through artifice, through the simulacrum, ...

--------

Sexuality is residual once it becomes a production of sexual relationship.

-Jean Baudrillard, Simulacra and simulation.

Julia Kristeva lecture on Feminine genius. (min 11:15, cultist ideal, transend 'mass feminism'. The search for differences. ie. MoDo is still stuck in second stage of feminism.)

http://www.tate.org.uk/onlineevents/archive/julia_kristeva/



Fuck, Eugénie, fuck, my angel- your body is yours alone. Take pleasure in the golden years, that delicious memories may console and amuse your old age.

-Le Marquis de Sade's

Who the fuck takes advice on anything from a rapist who preyed on servants and prostitutes?

http://www.slate.com/id/93951/


Not everything in life has to be Deep and Maningful and Edifying.

How about Not Full of Shit? Or is that too much to ask of a NYTimes columnist?

still stuck in second stage of feminism

Is feminism like Grief or something?

Who the fuck takes advice on anything from a rapist who preyed on servants and prostitutes?

http://www.slate.com/id/93951/

Posted by: Nancy | November 14, 2005 at 05:50 PM

It's not the 'fucking advice'. It's the point of view. The relationship of self and desire. (yes I know the story is in the context of male manipulating female for his own desire. But he does have a fucking point.)

Is feminism like Grief or something?

Posted by: Horatio | November 14, 2005 at 05:54 PM

no phase of movement.

1. the mass emancipation. (woman sufferage, right to exist as political entity)

2. ontological equality. (woman and man are the same, but different)

3. struggle of difference. (instead of 'what are you?' women seek to answer the question 'who are you?')

final note:

I think we are asking the wrong question about this Modo craptacular work. The question we should ask: Is this the product that feminism movement produce out of the 60's? in one of the most important media institution in the country? Isn't it an indictment of movement failure? After all those societal invesment and stuggle, all we got is whiney overgrown girl rehashing sophomore sociology project.

WTF?

what exactly is it? Is it peculiar of NYTimes institution? or is this a general malaise in the movement?

incidentally, the Kristeva link is a video feed. The button play button is obscure, maybe that's why people missed the content. (it's not the text)

direct link to real player here:

http://www.tate.org.uk/onlineevents/archive/julia_kristeva/kristeva.ram

link repost
http://www.tate.org.uk/onlineevents/archive/julia_kristeva/

I'm 3/4rds through the book and my biggest gripe with the book is that she doesn't follow through on the title of the book: are men necessary? There is very little man bashing in there and a whole lot of finger wagging at women who aren't cool enough for her.

There is very little man bashing in there and a whole lot of finger wagging at women who aren't cool enough for her.
Posted by: Laura | November 14, 2005 at 06:36 PM ~~~

but wouldn't it be terribly ironic to say man is not necessary, then 'bash' man which by definition an action needing an to exist? then yer back into the problem of needing to define moral quality through other being.

typo:

*An action needing an object

"Usually, we associate frivolity with gossip, fashion magazines, and giggling." (Lindsay)

I guess I'm used to liberal or feminist company. When I hear the word frivolous, I don't think of gossip, fashion, and giggling, or anything like that. I think of myself. Or to use a better known example, does anyone consider Hillary Clinton more frivolous than Bill Clinton? Maybe there are major and minor stereotypes.

It's Dowd's position as token that really causes most of the damage.
Posted by: bitchphd | November 14, 2005 at 03:01 PM ~~~

She is not exactly a dumb player. If she is a 'token, she would have been gone long time ago. Even now she is still sticking around. NYTimes obviously gives her what she wants. (money, access, publication world) You think craptacular book like that gonna get published is she is just a smurfette from some obscure university? no way.

If I have to say, she is just a whiny bitch doing a mediocre work. Seriously now... anybody can do 20 second google and produce more coherent thought on general state of women and larger society. She is wasting paper.

(PS. whew. I think I just broke the bad word filter. mwahahahaaaa... )

O mistress majikthise, the greatest of blogger in the whole wide world... wait, just this blog, since majik is the admin...

:p

Can we have a final essay to close this Modo debacle (aka. book ad. meme) and move on to more interesting topic?

Every single points Modo is bringing up, even the big thesis, has been pointed out some 20 years ago. Solutions have been proposed and talked about. Book has been written. Included the existentialist angst and dissonance of being raises from second phase of feminism movement... bla bla.

If I have to make an analysis, this is just a commercial product. a book. a mediocre at it too. It doesn't expand knowledge or offer new insight beyond repackaging old idea to make few bucks. A 20 seconds google would have answer all her 'resarch'.

Save the mass from being dupe by publication industry please... save humanity.

:p

okay that was wee bit too bombastic. but you got the point.

*sneaker and wonder off aimlessly*

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