Girls Just Want to Have Fun


MoDo is everywhere: looking sultry on the cover of New York, posing in slinky stockings and red heels inside the Times magazine, and appearing on the cover of Are Men Necessary? as a flame-haired bombshell in a clingy crimson dress and matching pumps, coolly reading a hardcover on the subway as the men around her stare. OK, the last one is a pulp-noir illustration, but it clearly alludes to Maureen Dowd’s persona.

I can’t imagine Thomas Friedman lending himself to such treatment, but Dowd has conjured a public image that blends Lauren Bacall and Dorothy Parker. Our most influential female newspaper columnist, Dowd comes off like a brainy vamp who cuts power brokers down to size with serrated satire. So many women were disappointed by the Times magazine excerpt from her new book, in which this media provocateur coyly dispensed bedraggled platitudes about the war of the sexes.

AMN? reads like a glib, déjà vu compendium of every Newsweek-style pop-science zeitgeist piece of the last 15 years. Apparently women these days play hard to get and comfort themselves with cosmetic surgery; they wait too long to have babies or drop out of the workforce too soon to be moms. Men are becoming more feminized, their Y chromosomes are deteriorating, and yet they still shun powerful women in favor of hooking up with underlings. Unlike Susan Faludi’s Backlash, another book that trawled through floods of media info, there’s little sense that Dowd has processed it all into a real argument. And things that sparkle in short-form columns become tiresome when repeated over hundreds of pages, like Dowd’s habit of substituting wordplay for reasoning. In a passage on female employees who called Enron on its ethical lapses, for instance, she offers this zippy but content-free observation: “Once women were pleased when men whistled at them. Now men are displeased when women blow whistles on them.” Call it the Dowd flip, a sassy reversal that evaporates on close contemplation.

Part of the problem is that Dowd’s own gender politics are confused. She repeatedly announces that she was both too cool and too attached to being “feminine” to take part in the feminist revolution of the ’60s and ’70s. “I was more of a fun-loving (if chaste) Carrie Bradshaw,” she writes of her college years. Hating the “unisex jeans and no-makeup look,” Dowd left the struggle for social change “to my earnest sisters in black turtlenecks and Birkenstocks.” First she reduces the hugely diverse women’s movement to the most hackneyed stereotype: humorless, saggy-boobed ranters who wanted to be just like men. Then she disses contemporary young women for not heeding the very same feminist revolution that Dowd considered too dowdy to join.

Back in her youth, it never occurred to her that progress could be rolled back—”that women would move from . . . denouncing Barbie to remaking themselves as Barbie.” Despairing that the revolutionary thrust of second-wave feminism has given way to “a brazen new world where the highest ideal is to acknowledge your inner slut,” she notes that while there’s a dearth of women op-ed columnists, the number of female sex columnists is steadily growing. Dowd’s book and the surrounding hype embody the ambivalence even the smartest, savviest women sometimes feel about themselves, feminism, and beauty culture—nobody wants to come off as a hairy-legged party pooper; it’s so much more acceptable to camouflage critiques with spiky puns and plunging necklines.

In Female Chauvinist Pigs, Ariel Levy (who, not incidentally, penned New York‘s Dowd profile) discusses this dilemma, boldly taking on what she dubs “raunch culture”—the pornification of American women, who mistake sexual display for empowerment. Levy reminds us that female pleasure and autonomy (orgasms, reproductive freedom, etc.) were key to second-wave feminism, before it shattered into sex-positive and anti-porn camps. By the late ’90s, sex positivity had morphed into something that looked awfully retrograde. Levy noticed educated female friends celebrating porn stars and strip clubs and found women working in central roles at places like Maxim and Girls Gone Wild. Energy that once might’ve gone into political engagement was funneled into hypersexual personae; raunch equated with liberation.

“Women had come so far, I learned, we no longer needed to worry about objectification or misogyny,” Levy writes acidly. “Instead, it was time for us to join the frat party of pop culture, where men had been enjoying themselves all along.” She is quick to demolish the idea that the new female sauciness has much to do with women seizing pleasure, instead framing it as a grim, joyless form of competition and status seeking. Levy’s teen girl interviewees compete to “dress the skankiest” in school, perform random blowjobs, and sometimes broadcast their exploits online to get attention, even though they might not feel sexual stirrings yet.

Both Dowd and Levy give short shrift to the young women who still find themselves tangled up in the feminist backlash. Neither book mentions the ’90s riot grrrl bands and zines, a thrilling outburst in which girls probed what it might mean for a woman to be conscious, powerful, sexually adventurous, and pop culturally attuned. While Dowd looks at gender relations through the misty lens of 1940s cinema (back when femme fatales talked tough and flirted mightily), Levy sketches a bleaker (though supposedly hotter) contemporary landscape in which there’s no middle ground between being priggish and piggish. If only we could dance in the space between those two poles.