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Are men necessary?

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ARE MEN NECESSARY? When Sexes Collide

By Maureen Dowd

338 pages. $25.95. G.P. Putnam's Sons. Reviewed by Kathryn Harrison

Let's, for a moment, judge a book by its cover. One need not read Maureen Dowd's "Are Men Necessary?" to answer the question. The retro pulp fiction jacket features a bombshell in a clingy red dress strap-hanging under the leering gaze of her fellow subway riders, all male. For the use of this illustration, Dowd enthusiastically thanks the artist, Owen Smith, adding, "The girl in the red dress will always be my red badge of courage." Below such an image, the subtitle, "When Sexes Collide," seems both wish and prediction.

Crack open "Are Men Necessary?" and the author's first words are flirtatious: "For men. Friends and more, past, present and future. You know who you are." Those of us left out of the innuendo can assume that, beyond her dedicatees, men make up a hefty portion of her readership. Dowd, whose dead-clever aim and feisty delight in skewering politicians juiced up her reporting from The New York Times's Washington bureau, has produced a twice-weekly column for The Times's Op-Ed page for the last 10 years.

Having published those pertaining to G.W. and company as "Bushworld: Enter at Your Own Risk," she has now collected and expanded on her opinions about a topic that would appear to interest her at least as much as presidential shenanigans: the never-to-be- resolved sexual contest between men and women.

The title, "Are Men Necessary?," refers nominally to scientific speculation that the Y chromosome, which has been shedding genes over evolutionary time, may disappear within the next 10 million years, a hypothesis countered by newer studies showing that the Y of the human species has been stable for the past six million years. Neither development, of course, has any bearing on the coupling opportunities for humankind as we know it. But it is exactly this kind of "news" that offers Dowd a provocative snag, tweaked to advantage in her columns. Beyond science, "Are Men Necessary?" addresses the confusion of postfeminist dating, gender conflicts in the workplace, the media's disparate treatment of men and women, American culture's saturation with sexual imagery, its collective obsession with youth and appearances, the objectification of women by men and, finally, sex as "a tripwire in American history." For Dowd, who won a Pulitzer Prize in 1999 for her commentary on the Monica Lewinsky controversy and who has covered the fate of women politicians, this last topic has been more high wire than tripwire one on which she's cartwheeled through many a career, fashioning herself an attention-grabbing costume of sparkling jabs.

But what makes Dowd an exceptionally good columnist on the Op-Ed page her ability to compress and juxtapose, her incisiveness, her ear for hypocrisy and eye for the absurd does not enable her to produce a book-length exploration of a topic as complex as the relations between the sexes.

Consumed over a cup of coffee, 800 words provide Dowd the ideal length to call her readers' attention to the ephemera at hand that may reveal larger trends and developments. But smart remarks are reductive; not only do they not encourage deeper analysis, they stymie it.

Producing one of her trademark staccato repetitions for example, on cosmetic surgery: "We no longer have natural selection. We have unnatural selection. Survival of the fittest has been replaced by survival of the fakest. Biology used to be destiny. Now biology's a masquerade party" Dowd effectively dismisses a subject by virtue of proclamation. Does she let loose three arrows instead of one because she can't choose the cleverest among them? Typically, her formula is to articulate a thesis, punch it up with humor and then follow with anecdotal support or examples taken from TV shows, advertisements, overheard conversations. When a few hundred pages' worth of these observations are published in one book, they suffer the opposite of synergy, adding up to less than the sum of their parts. Energizing in small morning doses, the author's fast-talking spins on the spin can rear-end one another until the pileup exhausts a reader's patience. Polemics tend to ignore subtleties and contradictions, so one may be reluctant to grant Dowd the authority of a responsible guide to a territory as fraught as sexual politics. Her habit of deploying her mother as a narrative device in the attempt to give credence to the idea that she has affection and respect for someone, if not for the people she's undercutting in adjacent sentences? is reminiscent of Lieutenant Columbo's invoking his wife with the ulterior purpose of distracting and confusing the murderer he's trying to catch. Like most people who work hard at seeming to be naturally funny, Dowd comes across as someone who very much wants to be liked, even though she has problematically joined forces with those women who are "sabotaging their chances in the bedroom" by having high-powered careers. "A friend of mine called nearly in tears the day she won a Pulitzer," Dowd reports in a passage about men threatened by successful women. '"Now,' she moaned, 'I'll never get a date!'" Reading this, I can't help wondering if Dowd is that self-same "friend." After all, it's rare that she resists naming her friends, most of whom have names worth dropping.

Dowd's gift for memorably buoyant attacks ensures that she's quoted not only en route to work and around the water cooler but well into the dinner hour. But for a woman who says, quoting Carole Lombard, "I never forget that a woman's first job is to choose the right shade of lipstick," an award-winning acid tongue just may be a tragic flaw.

Kathryn Harrison is the author of the memoir "The Kiss" and, most recently, "Envy," a novel.

(C) 2005 International Herald Tribune. via ProQuest Information and Learning Company; All Rights Reserved

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