Salvaging Maureen Dowd

Mar 02, 2006 |Lauren Winner

Perhaps surprisingly, sharp-eyed, sharp-tongued Dowd has a few things to say about men and women that are worth our attention.  

Maureen Dowd, feisty New York Times columnist who has made a name for herself castigating presidents and wondering why most prominent political pundits are men, has recently released her second book, the cheekily-titled Are Men Necessary?

It would be easy enough to criticize the book on all sorts of grounds: Dowd's view of sex, for example, is clearly right in line with Hollywood's, and thus not in line at all with Christian teaching.

Indeed, I admit that I picked up Dowd's book expecting that I wouldn't find much congenial, or even thought-provoking, inside the covers.

I was wrong (as I usually am when governed by pride and know-it-all-ness).

Sure, there were passages, long passages, I found neither congenial nor thought-provoking, but silly or sad.

But sharp-eyed, sharp-tongued Dowd has a few things to say about men and women that are worth our attention. So, here are a few of my thoughts that Are Men Necessary? provoked.

Early on in the book, Dowd discusses the recent trend towards stay-at-home mothering. She cites the following datum: 68 percent of 3,000 recently-surveyed married and single women said they would "ditch work if they could afford to."

Why is this surprising? This stat, I suspect, has very little to do with motherhood, very little to do with the wellbeing of children, indeed very little to do with gender roles. It has to do with the drudgery of most jobs. Unless you have a job that you are absolutely passionate about — and most people don't — you would of course prefer not to devote 40 or 50 hours a week to said job, children or no children. Most folks who are cogs in the corporate wheel are working because of the paycheck. And most of us, if given the option, would at the very least love to cut back. Even most men, especially fathers, would choose to reduce the number of hours they log at the office a week. I happen to love my work — love it, love it — but in a perfect world might I choose to do a little less of it? Sure. Or at least choose to be choosing to do all that I do, rather than doing a good chunk of what I do because I need to pay for health insurance.

Actually, whether there really is a mass movement of moms turning their backs on white-collar jobs and devoting themselves to full-time mothering is unclear. The buzz about this new "trend" began in 2003 when Lisa Belkin wrote a story in The New York Times about eight — eight! — women who traded in their corporate suits for time at home once they'd had babies.

Insofar as there is such a trend, Christians usually applaud, of course. Reading Dowd's discussion of the new stay-at-home-momism reminded me of something we ought to bear in mind while applauding. It's impossible to talk about this trend without talking about money. Who was Lisa Belkin profiling? Women with MBAs or JDs who are married to men with MBAs or JDs; couples, in other words, who can live very nicely on one salary.

There are two reasons, really, to remember the class privilege involved in choosing to stay at home. First, middle-class-Americans' understanding of how much money we need is insane. Lots of middle-class couples insist they need two incomes, when, in reality, they could choose to get by on less, but they are prioritizing instead the second car, the meals at restaurants, the fancier house, the private school tuition — and, in all fairness, the freedom from having to worry about every dime they spend, an anxiety that sometimes plagues families with only one income.

But we Christians — we who so often encourage married couples to think about scaling back to one income so a parent can stay at home — need to remember the flip side as well. Many moms work not because they want to buy fancy cars, but because they simply have to work to get by. Single moms, for example, don't have the luxury of quitting their jobs and staying at home. And even married moms in working-class families may find it painfully difficult to pay rent and provide food without that second income. Look around your office and ask yourself if the cleaning crew or the cafeteria workers wouldn't love to quit their jobs if they could afford to. You bet they would.

Dowd also has some fascinating observations to make about pop culture. She lambastes the fluffy content of most women's magazines, like Cosmo. Why do these magazines insist on prose pitched at an eighth-grade reading level? Why do they seem to assume that women only want to read about sex and clothes? Men's mags, too, have "dumbed down." Once upon a time, GQ was known for its great journalism and top-notch fiction. Now it has gone the way of Maxim, appealing to men below the belts, not above the ears.

What are the consequences of this turn in men's magazines? Among other things, it means that problems we have thought were women's problems — obsessive attempts to obtain the unattainable bods of cover models, for example — will more and more plague men as well, as men increasingly take their cues about appearance and behavior from glossy magazines that discuss little other than body-building and orgasms.

Finally, Dowd's discussion of the larger narratives our surrounding culture gives us for women's lives is worthy of our attention. Dowd describes a landscape in which "feminism has been replaced by narcissism." Regardless of what one thinks of feminism (and what I think of it depends on what a given interlocutor means by the term), one ought to deplore the message that both pop culture and profitable corporations now univocally send women — your worth is based on your looks. "Millions of American women from their twenties to their eighties are erasing their faces, and freezing their features," writes Dowd, "... by shooting up with the pretty poison Botox, a botulism neurotoxin that paralyzes muscles — the same strain of neurotoxin that is classified as a WMD." Dowd quotes a high-powered publicist in New York who asked, rhetorically "'Who has the time to have kids?' Just taking care of [one's] looks is a full-time job." Equally disturbing, "The fastest growing segment for plastic surgery is teens."

Can we not do better than this? Is it really life-giving, not to mention biblical, to define women's worth by their looks? And is the church complicit in this obsession with appearance? I wondered the other day, as I looked around church at all the perfectly styled Beautiful People. Is it good stewardship to spend an hour in front of the mirror every morning?

I had a few girlfriends over recently, and asked them about this: what do we think about our looks? What do we hear from our surrounding society about our faces and hips and waistlines? And do we hear anything different from our churches?

Unanimously, predictably, we were all dissatisfied with our hair, our lips, our skin, our cheekbones. A sampling of what I heard from my friends: "I'm 26 and not married and all the men at church are dating cute young women a few years younger, and I have to compete with their wardrobes and makeup or I won't ever get married." "I'm worried about my husband losing interest." "I feel pressure to be beautiful." "I don't think I'll be noticed at work if I'm not noticed foremost for my looks." One woman went home and emailed our group a quotation from a Christian self-help book she'd recently read. The quotation explained that she needed to maximize her looks to be an effective witness for Christ.

Can't we, the body of Christ, do better than this obsession with looks? For example, could we instead robustly proclaim that our worth is defined by the Cross, not by how wrinkle-free our skin is?

I, for one, am stunned to note that I have such well-defined crow's feet, and I'm not yet 30. My glasses obscure them, but they're there.

But maybe instead of spending 10 minutes at night slathering my face with age-defying eye cream, mortality-defying skin care products, I could devote those minutes to remembering that Jesus probably had a few wrinkles by the time he died; or remembering that I don't need creams and lotions to ward off mortality. For the greater, grander promises of Resurrection should allow me to settle into these wrinkles with quiet confidence that, Botox or no, the wrinkles won't get the final say.

Copyright 2006 Lauren Winner. All rights reserved.

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