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Dowd Now Brown Cow

Published: Dec 18, 2005
Modified: Dec 18, 2005 3:00 AM

More from Maureen? Forget it

By J. PEDER ZANE, Staff Writer

A sure sign of insanity is when you keep expecting a different result from the same circumstances. That's why Maureen Dowd drives me crazy.
I keep thinking of her as a Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist for The New York Times. I keep expecting her to display the insight and seriousness that has long distinguished that paper's celebrated writers.

Instead, Maureen Dowd is the Joan Rivers of American journalism: a catty gossipmonger whose stock in trade is not arresting ideas but glib putdowns.

There's no white in her one-tone world, just black. Clinton, Bush, Gore, Kerry, Cheney and all the other victims of her poison pen are simply objects of ridicule, attacked in highly personal terms. Where Andersen's little boy said that the emperor has no clothes, Dowd proclaims that everyone is naked.

American journalism has a proud tradition of balloon-busters, but Dowd is H.L. Mencken without the piercing observations, Dorothy Parker without the brilliant wit. Her prose is filled with moral indignation, yet her cheap shots lower the level of discourse that she wishes were higher, and her focus on personal peccadilloes trivializes the pressing matters of state she pretends to care about.

This is my problem, not Dowd's. I'm expecting too much from her. Think of her not as a leading pundit but a stand-up comic with the best gig in America and her work can hold your interest for a few minutes twice a week. She might even make you laugh before you reach the end of her column and all memory of her words vanishes. Poof!

However, that patience is much harder to sustain through the 338 pages of "Are Men Necessary? When Sexes Collide" (Putnam, $25.95), her book on modern womanhood. If you read it with absolutely no expectations, chugging along from one-liner to one-liner, you'll be mildly entertained. Some winners:

* "Survival of the fittest has been replaced by survival of the fakest."

* "We had the Belle Epoque. Now we have the Botox Epoch."

* "Our contemporary carnival of makeovers does not concern itself with virtue, only vanity. We have grown superficial even about surfaces."

Dowd can turn a phrase. It's the sentences and paragraphs that give her trouble. "Are Men Necessary" supposedly concerns the place of women in our post-feminist society. Dowd does not develop this theme through sustained argument but a series of barely connected riffs -- on genetics, plastic surgery, stay-at-home moms and, most of all, the problems Pulitzer Prize-winning columnists have in finding worthy dates.

In fairness, Dowd is not really a social critic, but a lazy reporter with a paltry range of sources. Most of her rants begin with an article from The New York Times or The Washington Post -- are they the only worthy publications in America? Then she quotes colleagues and others on these phenomena: "Campbell Robertson, a clever young reporter for the Times," or "Marc Santora, a 30-year-old New York Times reporter," or "Craig Bierko, who played one of Sarah Jessica Parker's boyfriends on 'Sex and the City.' " Then she caps it off by quoting the likes of Mary Richards, Ally McBeal, Christy Turlington or Chris Martin and his Coldplay lyrics. This approach is as tasty as a Snickers bar and just as nutritious.

You imagine Dowd living in a giant bubble -- remember that "Seinfeld" episode? -- a reporter who talks only to her friends and her television. That may explain why the information she shares is so wrongheaded and banal. Her main point is that modern women just want to be girls -- in fact, Dowd is a 53-year-old who refers to herself as a girl and describes her "crushes" on various men. Thus, the full-throttle embrace of Botox, the retreat from the workplace, the desire to be "Stepford Wives" with "glazed fembots."

Referencing her own singledom, she argues that a "high IQ hurts women's chances of getting married." When she can't cherry-pick a survey to support her dubious theories, she tells us, "I have some anecdotal evidence to back up my claims" or "An unscientific poll of my girlfriends [reveals] ... ."

Dowd's notions about the retreat from feminism are not dead wrong -- much better books, such as "Female Chauvinist Pigs" by Ariel Levy, make similar arguments. The problem is that Dowd never delves into the complexities of women's lives, or engages studies that contradict her assertions.

She shows little curiosity in exploring her most interesting material, as when she reports, "A friend of mine called nearly in tears the day she won a Pulitzer: 'Now,' she moaned, 'I'll never get a date.' " Her conclusions are usually cliches: "Women moving up still strive to marry up. Men moving up still tend to marry down."

Fair enough, but why? And what does that tell us?

Again, that's my problem, not hers. Still, I keep expecting more. I keep hoping more is on the way when she writes, "It seems unfathomable now. ... But there was a time, long ago and far away, when women didn't only talk about skin. They talked about books, plays and politics." Two pages later, Dowd shows her cards: "Reading the reams written about the Brad-and-Jen breakup, I found the most illuminating part to be about their hydration habits."

So here's my New Year's resolution: I vow to lighten up and take Maureen Dowd on her terms, always remembering that a girl's got to do what a girl's got to do.

Book review editor J. Peder Zane can be reached at 829-4773 or at
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