Every generation confronts the poses and attitudes that define the era, and supplies the ammunition required to keep the war between the sexes going. Flappers learned to drink and smoke in public, just like men. This was liberation that lasted, but nevertheless requires constant reinvention. The Charleston, with swinging arms and crazy legs, morphed into cozy cheek-to-cheek slow dancing to Sinatra, strings and brass.
The Sexual Revolution, abetted by the Pill and feminism, brought rage to sex; men and women remained opposites while attracting each other. They learned to overcome hostilities to take advantage of new possibilities. They worked out some of the kinks through rock and roll. Burning bras was both angry gesture and sexy signal. Women felt freer, and men felt freer with them. But that had a downside, too.
In the postfeminist world of today, buttons and bows are back, but more women have careers, leaving aggressive posture at the office to indulge laid-back behavior when the sun goes down. Not always an easy transformation.
No matter where a woman finds herself on the timeline of gender politics, the key word, as any social Darwinian could tell you, is "adaptation." We're not exactly hard-wired for the social changes. So men and women trapped in transition, looking for a mate to survive among the fittest, take casualties. The political implications of all this can be enormous, too, as any pol trying to figure out ways to exploit the gender gap could tell you.
Maureen Dowd, the tart of The New York Times op-ed page, reveals herself to be one of the walking wounded in her new book, "Are Men Necessary?" Hers is an Ideology of One. Beneath the wit, the intelligence, the brittle one-liners, the insights, you can hear the voice of a little girl crying in the night. She's a lot like the character Margo Channing in "All About Eve," played by Bette Davis, whom Mo loves to hate and quote.
"Funny thing about a woman's career - the things you drop on the way up the ladder so you can move faster," muses Margo Channing. "Nothing is any good unless you can look up just before dinner or turn around in bed and there he is. Without that you're not a woman. You're something with a French provincial office or a book full of clippings, but you're not a woman." In spite of herself, Maureen bears witness to the truism even as she pins the blame on men. She believes, devoutly, that she has been rejected because men won't marry a powerful woman.
As photographed for The New York Times Sunday magazine, Ms. Dowd wears red shoes as a badge of courage, but she's tormented when she looks around at the terrible aimlessness and arbitrariness of the bodies strewn on the field of sexual warfare. She draws on pithy allusions from movies and poetry, which she shoots like scattershot. But it's the peek into her personal life, from interviews and publicity as well as several choice anecdotes, that suggests she's really writing a postmodern lament of love.
She could have called her book "The Love Song of Maureen Dowd." Like T.S. Eliot's J. Alfred Prufrock, she can't understand how she got to this "tedious argument of insidious intent," which boils down to why, at 53, she's a childless spinster. Instead of asking, "Do I dare?" she asks, "Why didn't I?" Instead of measuring her life in coffee spoons, she pays it out in cold column inches. She counts the most sophisticated men and women of stage, screen and video as her friends, who "come and go/Talking of Michelangelo." But they can't answer exactly what went wrong with her love life, either.
Like so many authors, Ms. Dowd suggests that universal experiences grow from the acorns of her life and from those she has interviewed. But no great oaks here. The scientific research that answers the central question that men will eventually be irrelevant, or at the very least demoted to a nice but not really necessary second sex, is cleverly engaged but runs aground deep into the shallows. She's especially retro quoting Norman Mailer's jape that women have never needed a lot of men to perpetuate the species: " . . . all women needed were about a hundred semen slaves that they could milk every day . . . and they could keep the race going. So they don't need us."
She concludes that she has no conclusions. She has no answers for women (or men, either), only questions. She asks for no sympathy, but in the end remains a middle-aged female Prufrock, who could have written: "I am no prophet -- and here's no great matter."