- The Washington Times - Saturday, November 5, 2005

ARE MEN NECESSARY: WHEN SEXES COLLIDE

By Maureen Dowd

Putnam, $25.95, 338 pages

REVIEWED BY JEREMY LOTT

During the 1998 White House correspondents’ dinner, President Clinton was having a bit of fun with the assembled ink-stained wretches. Most of the jokes were only so-so. Clinton’s gag writers were never top notch and by that point in his administration, the normal second term exodus of staffers to gainful employment elsewhere was well underway. But the president did get a few laughs with fake headlines matched to names. Probably the best pairing was “Buddy Got What He Deserved,” by New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd.

The reference was to the Clintons’ chocolate Labrador, Buddy, getting neutered. Ms. Dowd was sitting in the audience and she was mortified. As fellow journalists laughed, she tells us, “I ducked down, praying the C-SPAN cameras were still on Paula Jones.” After, she worried to the male colleagues at her table that “Now everyone will think I’m a castrating [rhymes with] witch.” Their collective response was, “Now?”

In her new book “Are Men Necessary?: When Sexes Collide,” the incident leads to overanalysis. Ms. Dowd begins by citing Sigmund Freud’s observation that “humor is simply hostility masquerading as wit” and then frets and frets. She hadn’t even “wanted poor Buddy … to go under the knife.” She had simply used the dog as a way of getting at our “hound dog”-in-chief. And while the correspondents’ dinner remarks were “all in the service of satire, a cause I cherish,” she wondered how the joke would have turned if the scalpel was given over to fellow Times columnist Frank Rich.

You see, if a man “writes a scathing piece about some gaffe a politician has made, no one accuses him of hostility toward men,” she explains. However, if a woman were to pen “the same scathing piece, the politician or his male aides will often suggest that her criticism is a reflection of some deep psychological problem. She is bitter about men. She hates men. She needs to get … a better love life. She is hormonally grumpy” [elipsis in original].

That last line is probably a reference to her unfortunate nickname. Over the last several years, as the quality and tone of her column have declined some, several writers have started to call her the Times’ menopausal columnist. Ms. Dowd, still single at 51, has taken to complaining in print about former boyfriends and writing about how depressing the holidays are, as married women slave to cook and wait on their privileged, fat, oppressive husbands.

“Are men necessary?” is a question that Ms. Dowd repeats a few times in the book. It serves as a way of giving some thematic coherence to diverse subject matter: the war in Iraq, her inexplicable inability to land a wedding ring, Islamic radicalism, lads’ and women’s magazines, the Catholic Church, her riffs on the past and future of feminism and the latest genetic sex research. Much of the subject matter will be familiar to regular readers of her column, because the lady does believe in recycling.

In chapter four, “Why the Well-Hung Y Is Wilting, Even as the X Is Excelling,” she uses modern genetic research on sex and gender in animals and human beings to give her own theories about men and women more credibility. She begins by announcing that men are doomed as a gender. The Y chromosome is theoretically less resilient than the X and so, perhaps one hundred million years from now — poof! — there go all the male offspring of Ms. Dowd’s ex-boyfriends.

Nor is that an exaggeration. She cites novelist Norman Mailer’s fear that women will some day take over the world in a brutal coup, and keep only 100 male sex slaves for the purposes of reproduction. She puts that possibility to British genetics researcher Brian Sykes, who assures her, “You don’t even need the sex slaves. You just need their cells in a freezer.” His one caveat: “You’d have to have a very good electricity supply.”

And if men ceased to exist altogether? Well, not all species reproduce sexually and some early research shows that scientists might be able combine two eggs and produce a perfectly functional female, though it’s only been successful so far in mice. The Times columnist gets Mr. Sykes to envision, “a world without men,” where the Y chromosome would no longer be around to “enslave the feminine, the destructive spiral of greed and ambition fueled by sexual ambition diminishes and as a direct result the sickness of our planet eases. The world no longer reverberates to the sound of men’s clashing antlers and the grim repercussions of public and private warfare.”

Ms. Dowd takes these words very seriously, and consults other experts who debate the plausibility of the scenario. (The consensus: Yes, it’s possible. No, it’s not likely. And violence and warfare by women is not unheard of.) And, who knows? Maybe Mr. Sykes was being serious. But it sounds more to me like the Brit was flirting with her, and pulling her leg a bit. If I were to write about a future in which men did away with the need for women by freezing millions of eggs and selectively fertilizing them in labs, readers — male and female — would think I was more than a little bit off.

Here is this reader’s question: Should “Are Men Necessary?” have been written? Ms. Dowd comes up with some great one-liners but she’s not the most rigorous thinker and even her column of 800 words or so can seem a bit of a stretch. At over 300 pages, the book tries to make up for this weakness with several sections of selective memoir mixed in with political and social commentary. And the book is stylish, inside and out, with a beautiful lady-in-red on a subway car on the cover. But the blurry focus of the text is on those things that the author resents, and for that reason I doubt she’ll look back on this project with any sort of fondness.

Jeremy Lott is writing a book about hypocrisy.

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