In her provocative new book, Maureen Dowd slyly implies that men are not necessary — at least when the man is Bill Clinton, and his...

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“Are Men Necessary? When Sexes Collide”
by Maureen Dowd
G.P. Putnam’s Sons,
338 pp., $25.95

In her provocative new book, Maureen Dowd slyly implies that men are not necessary — at least when the man is Bill Clinton, and his spouse is a U.S. senator with presidential aspirations.

In “Are Men Necessary?,” Dowd, the incomparable columnist for The New York Times, has delivered a dazzling assortment of facts, personal stories and overheard conversations about the perplexities and inanities of the post-feminist gender divide.

She fumes. She muses. She reminisces. One chapter can read like gossip, both intimate and profane, and the next like a learned but captivating lecture on biological explanations of modern dating. Her sources are impressively varied, from men at her gym, to movies and TV shows, to famous friends at The Times.

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At the heart of Dowd’s discussion are the confusing and often contradictory impressions men and women have about each other. “The fewer the barriers,” she writes, “the more muddied the waters.”

Women have gained more sexual freedom and assertiveness, but many have reverted to pre-feminist expectations that men should pay for dinner on dates and be the breadwinners in marriage. More women are taking their husband’s names and staying at home. At the same time, smart, upwardly mobile women find it difficult to meet equal male partners. Successful men are “marrying down,” intimidated by highly educated professional women. When one of Dowd’s friends won the Pulitzer, she wailed, “Now I’ll never get a date!”

The feminist movement has inverted. Writes Dowd of the tarty fashions favored by today’s young women: “It took only a few decades to create a brazen new world where the highest ideal is to acknowledge your inner slut. I am woman, see me strip.”

Her observations turn to current, mostly female obsessions with plastic surgery, Botox and a pricey skin treatment called Fraxeling. Women want to look younger and aspire to the same impossible standard of beauty: a smooth face, fat lips, a thin waist and big breasts. “Instead of broadening the choices of how to look good, we have only broadened the ways we try to look alike,” Dowd writes.

The only woman opinion writer for The Times, Dowd is also the most feared. The current President Bush has nicknamed her “The Cobra,” and Bill Clinton, who was mercilessly flayed in Dowd’s columns in the 1990s, once implied (only partly in jest) that she was bent on castration. Here, she dishes plenty of juicy inside-the-Beltway morsels and devotes a chapter to the political sex scandals of the past 20 years and their unintended consequences in altering public attitudes: Gary Hart’s philandering, the incendiary Clarence Thomas-Anita Hill hearings and, of course, Bill and Monica.

It all makes for sensational reading that sometimes doesn’t quite hold together. Dowd excels at the 800-word sprint in her twice weekly column. Even so, her diversions are never dull (like the paean to her journalism heroines Katharine Graham and Mary McGrory).

And though she professes not to understand men, she provides strong evidence to the contrary, while mining the foibles and inscrutability of both sexes.