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Who’s Lonely Now?


The first clue – like you need one – that something’s seriously wrong with Maureen Dowd’s piece in Sunday’s New York Times Magazine is the title, “What’s a Modern Girl to Do?”
Mo, honey, you’re over 50. You’re not a girl. You haven’t been one for quite some time. And, by your own confession, your idea of modern romance dates to about 1935, some 10 years before you were born.
No offense, Mo, but as an Irish-Catholic raised in Washington, D.C, you are an unusual creature to speak for the “girls” of the 21st Century. You are a woman who really has lived at a time and in a place where it is possible to think that femininity was best, and perhaps only expressed well, in the movies of the 1930s. Of course, everyone was drunk (just count the cocktails in the Nick and Nora movies).
It’s understandable. That sort of romantic hindsight was encouraged in the face of all that distasteful overt feminine sexuality displayed in the 1970s and 1980s. That feminism stuff – and the strident dyke-y trapping that came with it – upset authority figures. It upended their view of how the world should work – men in charge, women doing their bidding – and replaced it with an awkward set of compromises: Men make more money so women choose to do their bidding.
The photo accompanying the story only underscores the distance between Dowd and her putative subject: The women’s movement. It manages three wildly out-of-date “bad girl” ploys: An attractive woman alone at a bar, an attractive woman wearing fancy red shoes and an attractive woman alone at a bar wearing red shoes and fishnet stockings.
I know Mormon girls who dress like that. For church. These days, red shoes are, to paraphrase Freud, just a pair of kicks, not a sign of sexual availability. I’m amazed we don’t get a look at Dowd’s pierced ears or an ankle bracelet, two other signs of what her late mother might have euphemistically called “cheap.”
These are cosmetic issues. There’s actually some interesting territory to cover here. Too bad it’s in the wrong hands. Dowd thinks that by writing about herself and her dissatisfaction in having made it to the top of her industry and finding herself still single, she can explore the short-comings of the feminist movement. Well, she can. But it’s not that interesting.
If Dowd had started her pretty-much first person take on the state of Modern American Womanhood in the aisle of, say, Good Vibrations, trying to work out why a cadre of women have decided to elevate feminine sexual experience to some kind of wacky cult that needs lots of equipment (not to mention lube) I’d have a lot more sympathy for her. That, it seems to me is a kind of feminist intimidation tactic – legitimized, by the way, by Sex and the City’s Samantha – that really gets in the way of honest discourse. But for the right sort of girl, it can also be a nice way of leveling the field. There’s interesting stuff going on here – just ask Dan Savage – and a feminist perspective might have been a good place to start talking about it.
If Dowd had perhaps taken a shot at trying to work out the tattooed Suicide Girls thing, I’d have been interested, too. I mean look, nuns with no hair to girls with…uh, oh, nevermind. Maybe if Mo, the ultra-protected nice Irish girl – had taken a look at the porn industry and what impact its aesthetics were having on modern culture (Brazilian, anyone? Boob jobs?) and relations between the sexes, I might have gotten interested.
Those are the symptoms of our modern cultural divide, not who pays the check and if he really means it.

But no, Mo doesn’t do porn, wax or sex for that matter. In a world of on-line hook-ups and sex chat, and Friendster, she’s still trying to figure out who’s paying for dinner. Like all sex takes place at night after a good meal.
If Dowd really were trying to come to grips with one of the problems that modern women who are trying to manage that line between the sexual, the sensual, the professional, the personal, the serious and the sexy then, well, then maybe Mo, honey, we could talk. Because all this other stuff – Brazilians and porn, vibrators and dildos, leather and lace – has a lot more to do with the choices that the girls and boys who are growing up in the wake of the feminism and sexual freedom that we embraced have to face. And we – you – do us no service by ignoring them or dismissing them as pornographic or outrageous. They’re not. There more a product of feminism and changing expectations for sex-stereotyping than “Mrs.” and “girl money.” And most folks know that. They think your world is quaint, Mo. And it’s not just ’cause you “only” wear vintage.
In fact, one of the things that really hurts the feminist cause – particularly – comes from Maureen Dowd and her buttoned-up Ferragamo-wearing sisters in the political elite.
Those “girls” spent a lot of time sneering at the young, attractive
Monica Lewinsky and her affair with President Clinton. Dowd led the chorus that condemned Lewinsky, a real girl young enough to be her daughter, for Lewinsky’s open and honest account of her sexuality and her relationship with President Clinton. In exchange for embracing the promise of the women’s movement, Lewinsky got branded as stupid and whorish. And she got that brand from a woman who benefited from the very system that Lewinsky had the nerve to embrace for the conduct of her personal life.
In sneering at young women – not just Lewinsky but the whole passel of young girls who have deliberately and happily chosen to become wives, mothers, girlfriends – Dowd does all women a disservice. She ridicules them for not being like her. Well, Mo, honey, who can blame them? You’re clearly not very happy with the way things have turned out, now are you?
Implicitly, Dowd’s making a sad and naive statement about what she believes and why she believes it. How come, she wants to know, feminist theory wasn’t borne out in the real world? Why didn’t men rise up and embrace this new level of intelligent, well-read, smart-mouthed challenging women? What’s all this sex talk and how do we make it go away?
Because Mo, there are always girls who – as A.S. Byatt pointed out years ago, in fiction and in essays – will be happily recruited to the status quo. It’s safer there. Your contempt for the ones who don’t choose your road – the hard lonely one that’s very serious and very earnest and, honestly, even by your own account, not very much fun – isn’t recruiting anyone. In fact, it’s having the opposite effect.
I’d love to say that I’ve enjoyed the encouragement and company of the few women I know in the news business, Mo. But the truth is that I haven’t. None of us have. The Mo Dowds of this world pulled the ladder up behind them and laughed at the girls who came after. And now, oh now, the “modern” girls don’t know what to do as they watch the men they went to college with consort with young things in thongs and Leboutins, Brazilians and boob jobs and ask, why, oh why is it so lonely at the top?

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