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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
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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]

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Comments

Maureen Dowd is a cute, fey little honeybunny. This we must all admit.

She coulda been a contender, but chose instead to use her post at the Op-Ed page to say that she can't get dates because she is too fabulous for the men.

One, screw you. That theory is complete bullshit. She can't get dates because she is a devious, hypercritcal, manipulative a****le. We've heard that before from a certain type of Manhattan female--" all the men in Manhattan are afraid of me because I am too beautiful and sexy and great ". Well, just maybe you are not that beautiful or great or any of it. Maybe you're a hack who has blown her chance to do something important.

Maybe the men sense something about you, your heart and your character that they do not like. Maybe they don't want to be written about in catty books, right after your chapter on Michael Douglas and his post-coital bon mots with you. F*** you. Go buy a pint of Haagan-Dazs and a six pack of beer and watch tv.

And even if no man wants her, who gives a rat's anus? Its the men that have decided that Maureen Dowd is not necessary, but so what? What does that have to do with the price of WMD in Baghdad?

Reading this s**t in the Op-Ed page of the NY Times? Its for this that the NYT created an Op Ed page?

She's created this catty clique of Mean Girls at West 43rd Street that will back her to the hilt. And will set women journalists back about a billion years.

Bring back Jayson Blair.


In an ideal world, David Brooks would be dismissed as frivolous and self-absorbed, too.
Posted by Lindsay Beyerstein at 12:29 PM in Gender issues | Permalink ~~~

Sorry for obsessing about this thread. Too amusing.

-------

About bobo, Kinsley decimate him twice. (I couldn't find his Slate article where he deconstruct Brooks first book. that was extra hilarious) Anybody remember that?

------

Kinsley on Bobo's second book. The review is quiet brutal. I doubt Any of the big boys would be so cruel against Dowd.

http://query.nytimes.com/gst/fullpage.html?res=9C02EEDB1F3CF930A15756C0A9629C8B63

The Brooks sociological method has four components: fearless generalizing, clever coinage, jokes and shopping lists. In the April issue of Philadelphia Magazine, the journalist Sasha Issenberg nailed Brooks, a local boy, pretty hard on some of his generalizations. Checking out the assertions in a couple of magazine articles that were partly incorporated into this book, Issenberg reported that, contrary to Brooks, people in blue states (those that went Democratic in 2000) don't read more books than people in red (Republican) states. Nor do reds buy more items on QVC. ''When it comes to yardwork,'' Brooks had written, ''they have rider mowers; we have illegal aliens.'' Part of Brooks's charm is that he often includes himself (disingenuously, but that makes the gesture even grander) in groups he is mocking. But Issenberg reports that red states tend to have more illegal aliens than blue ones.

I gave up on Dowd during the anthrax panic (hysteria is actually a better word here but its etymology precludes its use in the present context, regardless of its common current meaning). Dowd did her level best to stoke the anthrax-fear in a series of inflammatory and inaccurate columns (among other things she called the anthrax bacillus a "virus"). Dowd could have provided a real service during that period, by doing some simple reporting. Instead she was in her own way reinforcing the same paradigm as Judith Miller's equally flawed "reporting" on WMDs.

Actually this is the one, the article where Kinsley deflate Bobo's ego.

http://query.nytimes.com/gst/fullpage.html?res=9C02EEDB1F3CF930A15756C0A9629C8B63&pagewanted=4

In his fondness for coining phrases and his show-off use of commercial brand names as shorthand for demographic nuances, Brooks clearly takes after the country's greatest living conservative social observer, Tom Wolfe. Like the factoid bubbles so skillfully burst in Philadelphia Magazine, the brand names are there as evidence that you're not talking through your hat. So the nuances had better be right. As far as I know, most of Brooks's are. As far as I know is not very far in some shopping areas. I must take his word about Corian countertops. But in the case of Trader Joe's, to which Brooks devotes a multipage riff, I feel more at home. And Brooks has failed to solve the mystery of this appealing but hard-to-define California-based food chain.

...


Brooks calls this a ''pro-American insult,'' but it is alarmingly close to his own pro-American critique. And when he goes on to imagine his French intellectual ''posing like a great Gallic hunter'' next to a ''bon mot he has bagged on the American desert,'' the appalling truth becomes unavoidable.

David Brooks is not merely a liberal. He's French.

J'accuse.

Okay. If you're going to talk about Dowd and Feminism, might as well want to look at what she herself has to say outside of her columns, which are guaranteed to be exaggerated and distorted representations of her actual opinions, to whatever degree they connect at all: http://www.wnyc.org/shows/bl/episodes/11092005#segment53744 I'm not going to play back through it, but at the time, she thought that the rise of Feminism was an event that was permanent, it never occured to her that it would ever fade at all, or she would never have distanced herself from it.

The column everybody is loving to bash is to do three things: Exaggerate an already exaggerated, hyper-"feminine" definition of womanhood that seems to scare the hell out of her in how much it's taken hold, however much or little that may be. Seeing ten-year-olds running around in micro-minis, I think she has a point.

Two: It's a cautionary tale: It's a warning to those who think that feminism is a dead letter that they'd better revive it right quick. Read the last two paragraphs carefully. I really don't see how any one could without getting cold chills down their spine. I don't think that people with a grounding in Feminist Theory were her target audience, I believe it was for anyone who might be buying into the cultural scariness she exaggerates, even just a little.

Three: To get everyone TALKING about feminism as a real subject again, rather than as some ghost. How? Much the same way that Coke (accidentally or deliberately) got everyone saying how much they love Coke (whether they'd ever actually had it or not) by introducing New Coke: Through the very easy process of saying that the old thing (feminism) was gone, and in a way that other commentators did not have the combination of skill, motivation, personal experience, and delightful, underhanded viciousness that Ms. Dowd has.

I believe she did exactly what she intended to do with this article. But I seem to be strongly in the minority.

And no I don't think Feminism was/is gone, but it sure as hell has been reviled or ignored by/in the MSM for a long, long time.

Posted by: StealthBadger | November 14, 2005 at 11:44 PM

She doesn't do a serious philosophical inquiry to feminism.

(ie. she spends a great deal talking about attributes make up, clothing, dating, cosmo, pop cultures, cute activities/trend, bla bla)

instead of answering, what is the structure of feminine psyche, what is feminism in context of larger philosphical inquiry. The big question.


Nicely enunciated, elegant exposition packing punch and power penis people would envy.

If your life prospects depend on your looks, it's only natural to be preoccupied with your personal appearance.
This explanation should've occurred to me before, but it didn't. Thanks.

I failed to mention it in my first comment, but it is an excellent essay. You are also quite good at stringing words together, but unlike Ms. Dowd's works yours have depth and substance. Maybe Heretik is right, because this penis person envies your skills. :)

I failed to mention it in my first comment, but it is an excellent essay. You are also quite good at stringing words together, but unlike Ms. Dowd's works yours have depth and substance. Maybe Heretik is right, because this penis person envies your skills. :)

She doesn't do a serious philosophical inquiry to feminism.

(ie. she spends a great deal talking about attributes make up, clothing, dating, cosmo, pop cultures, cute activities/trend, bla bla)

instead of answering, what is the structure of feminine psyche, what is feminism in context of larger philosphical inquiry. The big question.

Posted by: Squashed Lemon | November 15, 2005 at 12:08 AM

So you mean as someone who at her best looks at popular culture, she talks about the unnaturalness of what people are spending billions of dollars to present as natural, rather than talking about Feminist theory (which has much of its roots in a critique of popular culture)?

Posted by: StealthBadger | November 15, 2005 at 07:59 AM

She posits that feminism 'boomerang' and doesn't achieve what it supposes to do. (liberate women? personal happiness? realization?) And then she brings out lots of trivial anecdote and some weak stats to back up her claim.

So is her book doing what it suppose to do? (shows that feminism fails?)

It seems to me, she is projecting her own believes on top of weak supporting evidences. Secondly, current feminism project is nowhere near her level of inquiry. If her aims is to critically analyse feminism idea, then her book is 30 years too late. She is pointing out the paradox of applying de beauvoir idea at mass level.

lastly does a girl talking about other girl and what girls do, sprinkled with some feminism names makes it a feminism project? Does it advance the feminism project? or is it just a girl talk?

so... Maybe my approach is too cynical. But somebody show me the real point of that work, cause I fail to find it.

Hell even de Beauvoir made a warning about what Modo is talking. (some 60 years even)

http://www.marxists.org/reference/subject/philosophy/works/fr/debeauv4.htm

However this may be, there will be some to object that if such a world is possible it is not desirable. When woman is ‘the same’ as her male, life will lose its salt and spice. This argument, also, has lost its novelty: those interested in perpetuating present conditions are always in tears about the marvellous past that is about to disappear, without having so much as a smile for the young future. It is quite true that doing away with the slave trade meant death to the great plantations, magnificent with azaleas and camellias, it meant ruin to the whole refined Southern civilisation. In the attics of time rare old laces have joined the clear pure voices of the Sistine castrati, and there is a certain ‘feminine charm’ that is also on the way to the same dusty repository. I agree that he would be a barbarian indeed who failed to appreciate exquisite flowers, rare lace, the crystal-clear voice of the eunuch, and feminine charm.

When the ‘charming woman’ shows herself in all her splendour, she is a much more exalting object than the ‘idiotic paintings, over-doors, scenery, showman’s garish signs, popular reproductions’, that excited Rimbaud; adorned with the most modern artifices, beautified according to the newest techniques, she comes down from the remoteness of the ages, from Thebes, from Crete, from Chichén-Itzá; and she is also the totem set up deep in the African jungle; she is a helicopter and she is a bird; and there is this, the greatest wonder of all: under her tinted hair the forest murmur becomes a thought, and words issue from her breasts. Men stretch forth avid hands towards the marvel, but when they grasp it it is gone; the wife, the mistress, speak like everybody else through their mouths: their words are worth just what they are worth; their breasts also. Does such a fugitive miracle – and one so rare – justify us in perpetuating a situation that is baneful for both sexes? One can appreciate the beauty of flowers, the charm of women, and appreciate them at their true value; if these treasures cost blood or misery, they must be sacrificed.

But in truth this sacrifice seems to men a peculiarly heavy one; few of them really wish in their hearts for woman to succeed in making it; those among them who hold woman in contempt see in the sacrifice nothing for them to gain, those who cherish her see too much that they would lose. And it is true that the evolution now in progress threatens more than feminine charm alone: in beginning to exist for herself, woman will relinquish the function as double and mediator to which she owes her privileged place in the masculine universe; to man, caught between the silence of nature and the demanding presence of other free beings, a creature who is at once his like and a passive thing seems a great treasure. The guise in which he conceives his companion may be mythical, but the experiences for which she is the source or the pretext are none the less real: there are hardly any more precious, more intimate, more ardent. There is no denying that feminine dependence, inferiority, woe, give women their special character; assuredly woman’s autonomy, if it spares men many troubles, will also deny them many conveniences; assuredly there are certain forms of the sexual adventure which will be lost in the world of tomorrow. But this does not mean that love, happiness, poetry, dream, will be banished from it.


-------------

It is nonsense to assert that revelry, vice, ecstasy, passion, would become impossible if man and woman were equal in concrete matters; the contradictions that put the flesh in opposition to the spirit, the instant to time, the swoon of immanence to the challenge of transcendence, the absolute of pleasure to the nothingness of forgetting, will never be resolved; in sexuality will always be materialised the tension, the anguish, the joy, the frustration, and the triumph of existence. To emancipate woman is to refuse to confine her to the relations she bears to man, not to deny them to her; let her have her independent existence and she will continue none the less to exist for him also: mutually recognising each other as subject, each will yet remain for the other an other. The reciprocity of their relations will not do away with the miracles – desire, possession, love, dream, adventure – worked by the division of human beings into two separate categories; and the words that move us – giving, conquering, uniting – will not lose their meaning. On the contrary, when we abolish the slavery of half of humanity, together with the whole system of hypocrisy that it implies, then the ‘division’ of humanity will reveal its genuine significance and the human couple will find its true form. ‘The direct, natural, necessary relation of human creatures is the relation of man to woman,’ Marx has said. ‘The nature of this relation determines to what point man himself is to be considered as a generic being, as mankind; the relation of man to woman is the most natural relation of human being to human being. By it is shown, therefore, to what point the natural behaviour of man has become human or to what point the human being has become his natural being, to what point his human nature has become his nature.’

I'm wondering what prompted the lecture on basic Feminist theory, but Dowd drops Betty Friedan's name in the last sentence, in the same way she implicitly nods to Gloria Steinem's examination of Playboy bunnies (at the time described as "the women every girl wants to be," if I recall correctly).

To be perfectly honest, I think this is one of Dowd's best pieces, precisely because it invokes feminism in a way that speaks of a tradition worth preserving - and doing so speaking from a point of view that is emotionally ambivalent about the changes that feminism (hell, being human and honest) demands, even while implicitly acknowledging them as necessary.

It is precicely this ambivalence which not only makes it human, it's drawing debate and argument, and inciting those who would defend feminism to speak up en masse. It's this voice that enables her to speak to those who currently buy into the extreme essentialist model of gender and plant a seed of doubt in a way that direct confrontation just can't achieve.

I think this rocks.

precisely because it invokes feminism in a way that speaks of a tradition worth preserving - and doing so speaking from a point of view that is emotionally ambivalent about the changes that feminism (hell, being human and honest) demands, ...

Posted by: StealthBadger | November 15, 2005 at 11:02 AM ~~~

what exactly is that 'feminism'?

Sorry, feeling snarky this morning. Bad Badger. -_-;

*digs out his copy of The Second Sex, promising himself to chill out and not bite people who aren't arguing with him*

Posted by: StealthBadger | November 15, 2005 at 11:13 AM

she is a bad agitprop for the cause if that's the point you are proposing. Plus if that is the goal, then ann coulter should get much more credit. At least she is genuinely outragous and has the tactical discourse skill to match. Completely unerving, but stirr up the pot for sure.

This is a good take on Dowd. I wrote about the excerpts from her book in October. If you are interested, go
here

Even in this less-than perfect world, David Brooks is dismissed as frivolous and self-absorbed, too. Just read a few political blogs and you will see how he is portrayed. He is weasly, insincere, and has a prevelence for tropism toward powerful men.

I don't give a damn about sexism. In fact, I think I'm in favor of it.

When I hear a woman talk the way this one does, I walk the other way.

Some crazy woman talking Marxism is always best avoided.

Don't you girls have something better to do? Aren't some dishes in need of washing?

Gene Lyons and DCMediaGirl both point out that it's rather rich for Dowd, who gravitates towards relationships with ultra-powerful men, to tweak Miller for doing the same thing.

And I've noticed that while Dowd loves to publicly proclaim that Sisterhood Is Wonderful, she's known for hating Hillary Clinton -- whose politics are identical to hers -- with a white-hot passion that cannot be explained by rational means. Dowd blows hot and cold on Bill, but Hillary reaps her undying, unflagging hatred.

Gene Lyons and DCMediaGirl both point out that it's rather rich for Dowd, who gravitates towards relationships with ultra-powerful men, to tweak Miller for doing the same thing.

And I've noticed that while Dowd loves to publicly proclaim that Sisterhood Is Wonderful, she's known for hating other powerful women, such as Judith Miller and Hillary Clinton.

Clinton's case is especially strange. Hillary's politics are identical to Dowd's, yet Dowd hates her with a white-hot passion that cannot be explained by rational means. Dowd merely blows passive-aggressively hot and cold on Bill, but Hillary reaps her undying, unflagging hatred.

Wow.

Y'all keep having fun with this, but I think y'all are missing something. Her job is to get people to do exactly what she's gotten us to do, and gotten people to do dozens and dozens of times: talk about whatever she's written about, and engage the text she's thrown out there to the wolves. On the Internet, Maureen Dowd would be what is called a "troll." A very gifted and expressive one, as well as one that grabs some valid issues, but fundamentally, a troll. She has an excellent grasp of irony, any world-class troll must - and as far as I can tell, she doesn't use her privileged place to get anyone killed. I can forgive her most of her excesses, and from a literary standpoint find a great deal to admire about her.

But make no mistake, an opinion columnist is only secondarily a shaper of opinion; words can be construed in too many different ways once they've left the author's mind for something as small as an opinion piece to have a reliable or predictable effect. They are shapers and inciters of discussion.

Maureen Dowd wanted us to talk about the relationship between a decline in active interest in feminism and the rise of the current ultra-commodified image of femininity being pasted over women that were her age during the late 60's (Commodification is nothing if not an efficient recycler, this image is a retread from the 50's, with an updated wardrobe). She got what she wanted.

She regrets not being involved in Feminism movement during her youth. She's said that flat out. This column acts as a cautionary tale, almost in the form of an allegory, to others who might make a similar decision. I'm wondering if the fact that it's not couched in carefully considered and structured jargon is why it's being taken apart. Granted, if it were poetry, it would read like doggerel; this takes nothing away from its message, or the dramatic impact this piece of writing has had. She's no Shakespeare, but there's an important lesson from his style of writing: Shakespeare's work had its impact precisely because it was popular trash, and because it was written to be performed in public, and have the cheers and jeers (and ocassional rotten fruit or vegetable) of the crowd hurled at it.

If you're going to excoriate her writing as cutesy, shallow, conflicted, or trivial, then consider that she's found a way to get millions of people talking about what she wants them to talk about (if occasionally getting them too riled up and talking about her instead), and found a voice that she's comfortable with putting up in front of the active attention and criticism of millions of people. Millions of some of the most emotionally messed-up people on the face of the planet (that would be us, folks). That's a hell of a thing.

Dowd as a person, I have no opinion on. Speculating on the personal relationships of people you don't know is an exercise in futility, especially when most of these people (especially politicians) are only known to us as artificial media images. Dowd as a writer, well, I wish I had her skill at evoking both an emotional and logical response in the reader, let alone her technical skill. I think this column grabbed people who were comfortable and shook them up a little, as well as eliciting a response from those who are educated, angry, and intimately familiar with the many-headed hydra she offers a very narrow, momentary glimpse of one part of. The one place she can be said to have failed is by getting too many people angry at her, and talking about her instead of the subject matter (which, from a marketing perspective may or may not be a failure, depending on how well the book sells).

Truthfully? I'm still wondering what everyone's so upset about with her, when two cheerleaders who may or may not have been making out in the bathroom and causing a ruckus, but Kobe Bryant gets charged with rape and keeps on playing, and the news about it is all the salivating, voyeuristic trash you'd expect (Google north carolina cheerleaders arrest if you're interested, I don't reccommend it). I think Dowd made some good points. I also encourage you to re-read the last two paragraphs of that piece, from the dramatic tonal and phrasing shift, as well as what is practically an entirely different writing style, I'm guessing the entire rest of the piece exists to set the reader up for that. Apparently she lost a lot of people along the way.

With that, I bid y'all good day, these asbestos undies are a little itchy.

ER. Last paragraph definitely needed some help. -_-;

Truthfully? I'm still wondering what everyone's so upset about with her, when two cheerleaders who may or may not have been making out in the bathroom and causing a ruckus have lost their jobs, been arrested, and plastered all over the media, but Kobe Bryant gets charged with rape and keeps on playing, and the news about it is all the salivating, voyeuristic trash you'd expect (Google north carolina cheerleaders arrest if you're interested, I don't reccommend it). I think Dowd made some good points. I also encourage you to re-read the last two paragraphs of that piece, from the dramatic tonal and phrasing shift, as well as what is practically an entirely different writing style, I'm guessing the entire rest of the piece exists to set the reader up for that. Apparently she lost a lot of people along the way.

(Not defending the cheerleaders I wasn't there and don't know what exactly happened. Just pointing out the all-too-typical ironies.)

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