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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]

» I *Heart* Oprah. And Bras. from Feministe
No, I really do. And now she celebrates 20 years. I like her because she seems normal; she isn't conventionally pretty (although I happen to think she's really gorgeous), she's outspoken and opinionated, and she seems unafraid to do things her own way.... [Read More]

» Your daily Dowd from dustbury.com
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
Jennifer Baumgardner has a critical essay up about Ariel Levy's much-discussed book Female Chauvinist Pigs where she addresses something that's been nagging me in all the press coverage I've seen about this book--it seems like the focus is on what... [Read More]

» Getting approval from Pandagon
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Comments

i'm sorry to tell you this, my dear Americans: when i was in the USA, i must admit i was shocked seeing all the feministic females running around with bizzare ideas. They were looking at me as if i were a table or chair or worse. if you know some French, there is a good word "ressentiment" to describe the way they were looking (in English perhaps "resentment" or smth). I was just thinking "poor American men (i mean males)".

ps. just in case i'm from Europe (not French, by the way). hey males, come here when you are pissed off with "the postmodern feministic movement".

Posted by: StealthBadger | November 15, 2005 at 05:02 PM

Dowd is putting forth an opinion. But it happens to be rather moldy, not well presented, annoying.

It doesn't frame the problem in new insightfull way IMO.

Will people talk about it? hey, this is the internet, say anything loud enough people will comment. But I don't think what dowd is doing worth huge chunk of thinking time. Somebody already say the problem in much succint way and solve it even.

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

It's only fair to note that he is dismissed in just such a way by many people.

For example, I've always called him the Maureen Dowd of the right. Though he doesn't seem to attack his own side that much.

Recently Dowd has gained attention with her new book, "Are Men Necessary? When Sexes Collide," which explores sexual politics in Washington and the media. Her lecture was entitled "Are Journalists Necessary?" - a play on the book's title. The book was not intended to be controversial, Dowd said.

"It was written in a very breezy way," she said.

Dowd, a self-described "technological cretin," spoke about the future of journalism and the role of Web blogs.

"I'm not worried about blogs taking over print journalism. If not for print journalism, what would bloggers have to blog about?" she asked.

She called President George Bush "the boy emperor W," and spoke about his attempt at "one-upping" his father in the history books through his involvement in Iraq. For Vice President Dick Cheney, whom she dubbed "Lord of the Underworld," Dowd condemned what she called his support for torture tactics and detainment camps.

After her remarks, Dowd was asked numerous questions about the controversy surrounding Judith Miller, The New York Times reporter who served jail time for refusing to reveal an anonymous source and recently left the newspaper. The New York Times is currently experiencing "Judy fatigue," she said, adding that Miller may end up with her own Fox talk show.

http://www.dailytexanonline.com/media/paper410/news/2005/11/17/TopStories/New-York.Times.Columnist.Speaks.At.Lbj-1108175.shtml?norewrite&sourcedomain=www.dailytexanonline.com

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