Maureen Dowd of The New York Times, while turning herself into a caricature of Maureen Dowd, has lately pushed pop-culture references and amateur psychology to previously unimagined levels of absurdity. She began the process in the 1980s when she became a reporter in Washington, discovered that issues of government bored her and determined to get the politics out of politics.
Her strategy was to cast politicians in cultural fantasies. During the 1992 primaries she said that one now-forgotten Democrat was enacting a scene from Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid; later she said the same guy sounded like Daisy Buchanan in The Great Gatsby. That was also the year she called Hillary Clinton "Lady Macbeth in a black preppy headband."
In those days she provided relief from the relentlessly flat prose of the Times. But what the readers need now is relief from Dowd and her psychologizing. As her dislike for George W. Bush congeals into hatred, she imagines him simultaneously as the puppet of various father figures and the dependent son of mothering women.
This week the bookstores put on sale perhaps the least impressive work of her career, Are Men Necessary? When Sexes Collide (Putnam), a wretchedly written, poorly considered and cliche-ridden whine about the dubious effects of feminist victories on women's lives.
While her column has always been a cluttered garage-sale of famous names and jarring images, her book makes the column seem by comparison almost dour. On one page she finds a way to mention Oscar de la Renta, The Matrix, the gunfight at the O.K. Corral, Maverick, Kathleen Turner in Body Heat -- as well as Hillary Clinton and Condoleezza Rice.
"My thesis is that feminism is dead," Dowd says. "That it's been trumped by narcissism and materialism, which are much more important 'isms' in the 21st century." As a self-defined feminist, she feels betrayed. Apparently feminists of 25 years ago failed to mention that all social change brings surprising consequences. Titanic gains made by women in the professions have (Dowd believes) doomed them to failure in their private lives. She quotes a friend who won the Pulitzer and predicted it would keep her from getting dates. Dowd has never had trouble getting dates but, unmarried and childless at 53, she seems to blame her situation on historic forces and the pathetically timid preferences of men. She suggests at one point in the book that she would have had a better chance of getting married if she had been a maid.
These notions have appeared prominently in her column, usually when she's eagerly bought and passed on some outrageously distorted social science. Typically, Dowd finds a shred of evidence that supports her prejudice and ignores everything else.
Last March the Times reported on a study by two psychologists that seemed to say men prefer mates of lower achievement -- "Glass Ceilings at Altar as Well as Boardroom," said the headline. Dowd paraphrased this as "the more women achieve, the less desirable they are." Perhaps, she said, feminism had turned out to be a cruel hoax. Dowd depicted herself and other high-achieving women as pathetic losers.
But in this case the cruel hoax was the Times story. Only 120 males had participated in the study, all of them college students, most in first year; in other words, teenaged boys. More thorough research suggests a radically different conclusion. Valerie Oppenheimer, a sociologist at the University of California at Berkeley, has reviewed 80 surveys and decided that the more education a woman has, the more likely she is to marry. That wouldn't interest Dowd. She loves spreading ironic stories of despair and sexist oppression, even when the facts are fragmentary.
Long ago she discovered that she could be noticed if she said as little as possible as amusingly as possible. In her recent columns, and even more in her new book, she continues to say nothing but no longer amuses.