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April 10th, 2006

MoDo, What’s A Modern Guy To Do?

by Hannah Seligson

The string of phone calls starting coming in early that October morning. “Hannah, whatever you do, don’t read Maureen Dowd’s piece in The New York Times today. It’s going to depress you,” they all told me. With some trepidation, I picked up the magazine and read the article that would later become the subject of many emails, phone calls, articles, and arguments over the course of the next week. [Maureen Dowd’s New York Times Magazine piece, “What’s A Modern Girl to Do?” Published: October 30, 2005]

On first read, the article didn’t depress me as much as the warnings implied. There was, of course, the typical rhetoric of: “Men don’t like smart women and they just want to marry their secretaries.” But a few days later the studies that those statements were based on were largely debunked by the sleuthing of Caryl Rivers, a professor of journalism at Boston University and Rosalind Barnett, a senior scientist at the Women’s Studies Research Center at Brandeis University.

The study that Dowd quotes as her scientific basis?Ǭ for men’s aversion to smart women is based on a 2004 study by psychology researchers at the University of Michigan and the University of California Los Angeles. The study was done on a small sample of 120 male and 208 female undergraduates, mainly freshman. The males rated the desirability of a dating or marriage partner of a fictitious female, described as an immediate supervisor, a peer, or an assistant.

As Rivers and Barnett astutely point out in their Women’s eNews article, “Why Dowd Doesn’t Know What Men Really Want,” is: “Surprise, surprise! The freshman males preferred the subordinate over the peer and over the supervisor when it came to dating and mating. The study, however, was no barometer of adult male preferences. Rather, it reflected teen boys’ ambivalence about strong women.”

However, while Dowd’s interpretation of social science research might be a little shaky, she does tap into what women with aspirations of climbing the ladder do experience from time to time. As my friend Maya points out, “Men tune out when I tell them I’m in medical school and that I’m applying for my MBA.”?Ǭ Obviously, it’s a theory that has some merit, but certainly not as much as Dowd gives it.

What Dowd is saying speaks more about the crisis of masculinity than it does about the crisis of the feminist movement.

That’s what I found to be the real depressing thing–if not complete failure–of Dowd’s musing on the state of feminism and modern courting rituals. That is, her inability to diagnose the ailment she pinpoints so accurately: the crisis of masculinity.

For example, paying on a date, Dowd argues, is the last vestige that men have to demonstrate their manhood. She runs with this idea ever further saying: “Men prefer women who seem malleable and awed. Women who are critical present a threat to men because she will be critical of absolutely everything, even his manhood.” Well, if a smart, challenging woman is going to send an otherwise confident, capable man spiraling downward into a fit of self-doubt, then society needs to think about how we have raised a generation of such feeble men.

But what Dowd never says, at least explicitly, is that this isn’t a problem women should try to shoulder. It’s for this very reason, in my opinion, that it sent so many women into such a tizzy. Women took it as their problem that men were threatened by female success and power, instead of looking at it as a real crisis of masculinity.

Moreover, Dowd does no one a favor by paying so much lip-service to these losers who say things like: “You’ll never get married because you are a New York Times columnist.” Yes, of course, there are men out there threatened by successful women, but if we continue to talk about them, we give them an undeserved place in our social psyche.

Dowd makes the following observation after an illuminating lesson on female power from a top New York producer: “He had hit on a primal fear of single successful women: that the aroma of male power is an aphrodisiac for women, but the aroma of female power is a turnoff for men.” So there you have it. The statement was that was the locus of all the anxiety and depression that permeated cities throughout America, as women read that their female power is a turnoff to men.

Since Dowd offered up her personal anecdotes to postulate various theories about the current state of gender dynamics, I’ll do the same. To be fair, there are the occasional times when a friend of mine will lament that a man is threatened by her success, but that is the exception, not the rule. In fact, as I look around at my circle of urban, educated, twentysomething, aspiring females, Dowd’s assessment of gender dynamics just don’t resonate. No one I know says: “I can’t find or date or keep a boyfriend because I’m successful.” Again, to be fair, maybe this is something you only experience when you reach the level of a New York Times columnist, but I see many of my young, female friends on a trajectory that is leading to a career of that stature, and the men they date know that.

The other depressing thing about the Dowd piece was how willing women were to buy into her assessment of gender dynamics. Dowd makes it difficult to refute her assertions by quoting social science research (again, debunked and proven to be shaky) but still makes the following kinds of statements: “Men would rather marry their secretaries than their bosses and evolution may be to blame.”

The intended backlash of all of this is that women have consequently started worrying about the repercussions of being successful. It has spawned a cult of fear among young, aspiring women. This is not to say that Dowd, or anyone else, shouldn’t point out the uncomfortable truths about society, but it seems if we believe Dowd we are acquiescing to the idea that biology is destiny and that men are hard-wired to be repelled by independent women.

That’s why we need to be asking ourselves the more critical question: “What’s a Modern Guy to Do?” and start working on the real crisis. *

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