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Slip Sliding Away

Maureen Dowd's Are Men Necessary? stirs up stagnant feminist movement

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Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times op-ed columnist Maureen Dowd has made her views on the boy's club of George Bush, Karl Rove and Dick Cheney well-known. But it turns out Dowd has a bone to pick with men outside the Beltway, too. Maybe the whole gender.

Her recently published tome on sexual politics, Are Men Necessary? When Sexes Collide, finds copious evidence that rather than gender relations progressing, they are regressing.

In Dowd's view of today's skewed sexual playing field, college girls hide their intelligence behind tight tank tops and featherbrained behavior while professional women follow "The Rules" and act passive to appeal to men. And when they get older, instead of reveling in experience and age, women begin frantically buying wrinkle creams and scheduling plastic surgery.

Using her own single status at age 53 as evidence, Dowd has seen signs that such unseemly female behavior and overinvestment in beauty is just a response to a cruel fact: Men would prefer to marry underlings like their secretaries and personal assistants rather than opinionated, accomplished women like herself.

In general, women have become too busy trying to please men to bother with "failed" social movements like feminism, says Dowd. From the controversy Dowd's book has generated, it looks like it may be high time for a revival.

"I think what's great is she's treating sexual politics," says Alyssa Abkowitz, a reporter at Creative Loafing who, like Dowd, has often explored her own experiences on the dating scene in her writing. "I think that might be one of Dowd's most brilliant moves, [releasing it] ... in a time when this is not what people want."

An excerpt from the book published in the New York Times magazine suggested as much. The article generated countless irate letters to the editor, but also responses suggesting Dowd had opened an unhealed wound.

Previous decades have seen a fluctuating national EKG of feminism: shoulder-pad feminism in the '80s; "do-me" and riot grrrl feminism in the '90s; the feminist "empowerment" of sex work, stripping and burlesque in recent years. But we now appear to be in the doldrums of feminism.

There are no best-selling books such as Naomi Wolf's 1991 Beauty Myth or Susan Faludi's 1992 Backlash to keep feminist ideas circulating in the culture. Important anti-pornography activist Andrea Dworkin is dead. And losing abortion rights seems less pressing to American women than catching the next episode of "Desperate Housewives."

Every aspect of the '60s and '70s, from roller boogie to Farrah hair, has been resurrected but no one appears to care much anymore about the retro notion of the "women's movement." Yet all the "issues" of equality we are supposed to have gotten past, Dowd reminds us, still linger.

Many critics say Dowd's argument for cultural backsliding into 1950s patterns of female dependency and passivity may be largely anecdotal, but the observations of her literati friends are largely echoed by local women.

Veronika Duerr, a 24-year-old production associate at the Shakespeare Tavern, has seen her own contemporaries retreat to a 1950s idea of marriage as the soothing answer to life's difficulties.

"A lot of the girls I know grew up with their fathers and mothers taking care of them. Then when they got out of college, they had parents who bought their apartments and paid their rent." Many, says Duerr, end up believing marriage will be their next post-Daddy safety net.

"I've heard several of my friends say, 'I want to work for a couple of years and then find someone and settle down,'" says Abkowitz of some of her Emory classmates. "It shocked me. 'You're already thinking about that, as a 23-year-old?'"

Tracy Martin, 45, has one foot in the corporate world and one in the local film and theater scene. She has already been married, had her children, and considers herself past some of the pitfalls of the dating world that Dowd describes.

"Do I think men are necessary? Absolutely. I love men. I don't hate men."

But for Martin, whose day job at an industrial manufacturing company is a reminder that the corporate world is "a boy's club," Dowd's book is a reminder that full equality has yet to be achieved.

Rather than fighting it, women seem to be throwing in the towel, as in the phenomenon Dowd recounts of Ivy League overachievers who drop out of the corporate world to have babies.

"Women got to this level and thought, 'Well, if this is what it's about, I don't really want it. I can have it, but I don't want this," observes Martin.

"Sex and the City," Bridget Jones and the bimbette culture of Paris Hilton and Jessica Simpson bolster Dowd's argument that women have begun favoring Botox, fake breasts and diamonds over more important battles.

Dowd may bait the hook with her provocative query Are Men Necessary?, but it is largely women, perhaps including herself, who she really takes to task.

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