TCS Daily


Are Wives Necessary? Welcome to Hef's World

By James Pinkerton - November 28, 2005 12:00 AM

Maureen Dowd is the most prominent female columnist in the U.S. today. And yet now she has made a disheartening discovery: Prominence in newspapers is not the same as pre-eminence in the bookstore. Of course, a well-read woman, such as Dowd, should have known that the Cassandra character is never popular -- being right isn't being liked. And while there has been much bitchy "Dowdenfreude" about the relative failure of her new book, Are Men Necessary? When Sexes Collide, we should all understand that as the bell tolls for Dowd, it likely tolling for us as well -- for America, for the West.

Dowd's previous book, Bush World was merely a collection of columns, and yet it was a best-seller. But even though her new book has been massively promoted -- receiving lots of advertising, and an even more valuable glam spread in The New York Times magazine -- it has proved to be something of a flop, both critically and commercially.

Publisher's Weekly called it "slapdash." Even her own paper, The Times, gave it a negative review: Kathryn Harrison argued that Dowd's column-writing skill "does not enable her to produce a book-length exploration of a topic as complex as the relations between the sexes." And sales have been flat as well.

So why the verbal hostility? And the financial cold-shouldering? This reader, at least, found the book lively and enlightening. But at the same time, it's a little depressing. And if I feel that way, as a white male Republican, I suspect that Dowd's core audience of liberal females -- which is also the core book-buying constituency -- found Are Men Necessary? a lot more depressing. And it's hard, even for a Dowd, to sell a downer of a book. Her fans were perfectly happy to re-read her columns, in between the covers of Bush World, because skewering men -- in this instance, most notably, George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, and "Rummy" -- is the intellectual equivalent of "comfort food" for many women.

But in her new book, the author skewers herself and, by implication, much of her readership. Dowd, whose birth year, 1952, puts her in Baby Boomer "prime time," begins Are Men Necessary? on a personal, even autobiographical note, as she entwines her own life story around the existence of the opposite sex, like a tango dancer wrapping her leg around her dance partner. This entwining begins with her dedication: "For men. Friends and more, past, present, and future. You know who you are."

But then, after starting off with a tone of seemingly smug assurance, she displays a much different emotion on the actual first page -- self-doubt: "I don't understand men. I don't even understand what I don't understand about men." So which is it? Is Dowd a vamp, or a victim?

Both, it seems, but mostly the latter. Recalling her life in the '60s, when she was repulsed by scruffy "unisex" -- which is to say, the key feminist idea that men and women were the same, separated only by the superficial illusion of the "feminine mystique" -- Dowd writes of her own instinct for gender-specific role-modeling. Striving toward a Dorothy Parker-ish plateau, she recalls, "In the universe of Eros, I longed for style and wit."

Yet here comes the conundrum that vexed her then, and vexes her to this day. She knows that men and women have always been different, and yet she has never been able to deal with the political and cultural implications of that difference. As she remembers it, "I took the idealism and passion of the '60s for granted, simply assuming we were sailing toward perfect equality with men, a utopian world at home and at work" -- her point, today, being that "perfect equality" is an illusion.

In fact, she comes close to labeling the vision of perfect equality as nothing more than a perfect, as in complete, illusion:

"If Gloria Steinem had had a crystal ball and flashed forward to a 2005 filled with catfights and women scheming to trap men, snag the coveted 'Mrs.,' get cosmetic procedures to look like Playmate bombshells and dress, as Dave Chapelle says, like 'whores,' would the sister have even bothered to lead that bonfire of the bras?"

And Dowd's answer to that question is as hard as a cannon ball: "I think not." One can only imagine female customers, leafing through her book, frowning over these un-politically correct thoughts.

It's safe to say that many female bookstore habitu├ęs would rather be affirmed in their beliefs, not challenged. And there's still plenty of that. In the latest issue of The American Prospect, Linda Hirshman restates the old faith, "Feminism wasn't radical enough: It changed the workplace but it didn't change men." And who doubts that Hirshman, who recently retired from her teaching post at Brandeis University, could get a book contract to elaborate on those "empowering" thoughts?

For her part, Dowd thinks that feminism has a long life ahead of it -- or, more precisely, a long road: "In the year 102,005, or 10,002,005 at the latest, we'll finally have our fair share of female network anchors, female priests, female columnists, female Supreme Court justices, corrupt female CEOs and philandering female presidents." And then, as an extra zinger, she adds, "We'll run the world. In a manly way, of course." Such cynicism and pessimism practically pour from the pages of the book -- no wonder it's not selling.

The fate of the Dowd book recalls the similar fate of author Sylvia Ann Hewlett's 2002 work, Creating a Life: Professional Women and the Quest for Children, which received enormous publicity and yet also, as it were, laid an egg in the bookstores. In the words of one contemporary chronicler:

"Hewlett theorized that many women in the upper ranks of the workforce who delay having children to focus on careers are devastated when they cannot get pregnant -- even with fertility treatments -- once they reach their 40s. Hewlett and the book were featured on 'Oprah,' '60 Minutes,' and the cover of Time. The publicity, however, didn't translate into sales, and the book collected dust on store shelves." [emphasis added]

Of course, there's no need to cry too much for Dowd. This disappointment notwithstanding, she's still rich and powerful. And while she might not be married -- a major theme of the book is her spinsterhood -- who doubts that plenty of men would rush to marry her? Admittedly, those men of the Maureen-marrying kind might not be older and richer and taller than she, but who of us in this world gets everything we want?

Indeed, one might suspect that Dowd is getting close to exactly what she wants. She is the best-known and best-paid "sob sister" in America today. If not everything she writes turns into gold, her words are still worth their weight in silver, and that's plenty lucrative.

So when she writes, in her opening, "I don't even understand what I don't understand about men" -- don't believe her. In fact, she understands men full well. In her book, she cites her own mother as a lifelong authority on males; she recalls the late Peggy Dowd telling her, "Women can stand on the Empire State Building and scream to the heavens that they are equal to men and liberated, but until they have the same anatomy, it's a lie." Indeed, going further, the elder Dowd observed of modern times, "It's more of a man's world than ever. Men can eat their cake in unlimited bakeries."

And by "bakery," Maureen's mom meant the cookie factory, a.k.a the cheesecake factory. That is, contemporary society, in which men and women wheel and deal themselves sexually -- although as Dowd would be the first to profess in print, the most successful sex-wheelers are men.

We might, for example, consider Hugh Hefner, who founded Playboy magazine the year after Dowd was born, back in 1953. More than any other individual, Hefner changed the name of the game, from patriarchy to anarchy. Bygone institutions such as chaste courtship, followed by marriage, might have oppressed women in various ways, but they oppressed men, too -- or at least men felt oppressed by the need to get married before they could have sex.

"Hef" helped to change all that, not only making sexy pictures readily available, but through the articles -- honest! -- in the magazine, too. Beginning in 1962, he began publishing "The Playboy Philosophy," which captured, and then accelerated, the budding libertinism in the culture. As Hefner wrote of the "playboy" ideal:

"He can be many things, providing he possesses a certain point of view. He must see life not as a vale of tears but as a happy time; he must take joy in his work, without regarding it as the end and all of living; he must be an alert man, an aware man, a man of taste, a man sensitive to pleasure, a man who -- without acquiring the stigma of the voluptuary or dilettante -- can live life to the hilt. This is the sort of man we mean when we use the word playboy."

Those were heady years, indeed, for the young and the restless, when The Pill was becoming common, when a semi-Rat Packer President sat in the White House, when Lenny Bruce shocked and stunned the squares, even as liberal lawyers sought to expand one-narrow definitions of "privacy" to include anything that consenting adults might wish to consent to.

But of course, "consenting adult" has proven to be a synonym for "cookie," or "cheesecake" -- which Hefnerians love to graze upon, without having to stick around and stake a legal and binding claim. Women were liberated from the need to get married, but in a different way, men were liberated from the need to get married, too.

So now we return to the year 2005, to the publication of Are Men Necessary? A more pertinent question would be, "Are wives necessary?" -- and the answer, according to both the twice-divorced Hefner and the never-married Dowd, would seem to be "no."

Yet there are two striking differences between Hef and Dowd, the second more serious than the first.

First, the Playboy Mogul publicly exults in his singleness, bragging about all his many conquests, even as he nears 80 -- while for her part, Dowd publicly laments her aloneness. OK, but that's changeable, one might say. Hefner is almost dead, while there's plenty of time for Dowd to get married.

But the second difference between Hugh and Maureen can't be changed. And that is this: Hefner, by his two ex-wives, has four children -- two of them he fathered when he was in his 60s -- while Dowd, who will turn 54 in January, has none. She can get married, she can even adopt -- but absent some miraculous medicine, she can't have children of her own.

Thus we come to the fundamental asymmetry of the sexes: Thanks in no small part to Hefner's philosophizing, men can fool around and then have kids pretty much whenever they want -- as such late-December fathers as Norman Lear and the late Tony Randall have demonstrated.

And yet while men changed the laws, and the customs, to suit their specific needs such as virility enhancement, women have made no similarly powerful change in areas that affect them specifically, such as fertility enhancement. That is, if women had gotten together and decided that it was as important to extend the age of female fertility as it was for men to have access to Viagra, one can only assume that medical science would have made that change -- science is like that. But women, who outnumber men, both in terms of population and at the ballot box, never organized themselves to demand such a fertility breakthrough. Yes, such a breakthrough is coming, but only slowly. It will get here long after Hefner, Lear, Randall & Co. have enjoyed a wide choice of erectile dysfunction pills.

This was no accident. A half century ago, Hefner created the world he would want to live in. So after he created his system, the rest of us, including Maureen Dowd, have been living in it. And in that system, Hefnerians can have their cake and eat it, too. They can play in the "bakery," for practically as long as they want, and still take home some permanent goodies, if they wish to. Women such as Maureen Dowd -- or, from a much different perspective, Linda Hirshman -- can rail against this system, but they do seem to be trapped within it.

How did this happen? How did men get the better of women when it was women, forty years ago, who thought they were going to be liberated from men?

The best explanation, interestingly enough, comes from a woman -- but a very different kind of woman than either Dowd or Hirshman.

Camille Paglia, in her 1990 book, Sexual Personae: Art and Decadence from Nefertiti to Emily Dickinson, traced the origins of male domination to its, er, root. It all starts with the penis, this avowed lesbian wrote. From their very beginning, boys are able to aim, to fire -- even, depending on the climate, to write in the snow. And from this primal mental training, boys-to-men get in the habit of articulating things, framing things, blueprinting things and, above all, building things. As Paglia observes, "Construction is a sublime male poetry," from before the pyramids, all the way down to the present day. By contrast, "If civilization had been left in female hands we would still be living in grass huts."

So that's the big difference between men and women, according to Paglia: Men design grand things, women live inside those grand designs. Does this "division of gender-labor" subordinate women? Does it put men on top? In a word, yes. But it's Paglia making the assertion, not me -- so any hate mail should be directed to her.

And as Paglia further explains, such architecture is not confined to the physical world: In the realm of the intellectual, and even the theological, the overwhelming number of "architects" are men. So just as past patriarchs designed a world of family order, so a new crop of patriarchs, led by radicals such as Hefner, redesigned the world into non-family disorder -- every man and woman for him or herself. And it seems as if men such as Hefner won, big time; certainly a rueful Dowd would nod in defeated agreement.

OK, so in the latest battle in the endless war of the sexes, the men have won, again. But is this hormonal horseplay -- estrogen vs. testosterone -- a serious issue for society as a whole to worry about? Should TCS readers care whether Maureen Dowd is a Miss or a Mrs.?

Well, the answer is yes -- as long as children are still closely linked to marriage, as long as children are linked to social survival. As I have argued here in the past, the wisdom "demography is destiny" is being proven yet again in early 21st century America. And while this particular instance of destiny-shift might be good news for Red State Republicans, at least in the short run, the effect of the longer-term trend, for the US and for the West, is potentially deadly.

So what's needed is some new and better architecture. In the past, as Paglia shows, men have led the way in architecture. Now it's time for some additional leadership; social incentives need to be shifted so that women are encouraged to have more children. Since women vote, these encouragements need to be in the form of carrots, not sticks. Because, of course, the biggest stick -- the looming Death of the West -- should speak loudly to all of us.

Death. Death of the species. That's the ultimate gist of Dowd's Cassandra-like cry. And while, as noted, her dire-straitsing is too gloomy to be confronted head on, thanks to the intervention of Paglia -- who would seem to show that women make the most constructive critics -- there's hope that post-Hefnerian architects will undo the damage of the Hefnerians.

Because, in the end, the Hefs, dominant as they might be, aren't that smart. They created an architecture that guaranteed pleasure for themselves, but they wrought no guarantee for the long-term survival of their nouveaux value system -- because women, such as Dowd, who have been Hefnerized, are unlikely to have many children. Many of the brightest and most educated women have, in effect, gone on strike, baby-making-wise. And yet until such time as a Playboy-ized economy can run entirely on clones and robots, the future of America will still depend on men and women coming together for procreation. Which is to say, both men and women are necessary.

And Camille Paglia will be there to bless this unequal equality.

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