The argument is unnecessary, not the men

Sydney Morning Herald
January 30, 2006

Fun perhaps, but Maureen Dowd's recent book does little to advance feminism, writes Winnie Salamon.

BEFORE I read an extract from Maureen Dowd's new book, Are Men Necessary?, I hoped her stance was being exaggerated to sell copies, that no one would bother to make such a fuss over a book that argued that men are little more than walking-talking sperm banks destined for extinction thanks to modern science. I mean, how many angels can dance on the head of a pin?

But as I read on I was transported back to a Feminist Fictions course I took during my undergraduate years. In the tutorials we studied '70s sci-fi novels about entire planets occupied solely with women able to mate with themselves. It was the Stepford Wives in reverse. Most of us thought it was kind of funny, though there were always a couple who seemed taken by the idea of this women-only utopia.

To a twentysomething feminist who teaches media and communications to 19-year-olds, Dowd's argument seems just as dated as those kitschy futuristic novels.

I can just imagine the young women I teach rolling their eyes and declaring Dowd completely ridiculous, confirming their belief that feminism is the domain of nutbags who campaign for unisex toilets at university because they think separating men and women is sexist; or of baby boomer commentators such as Dowd who write entire books about how the world doesn't need men so long as women can reproduce on their own.

And I can just picture the young men struggling to get past Dowd's first paragraph. Not because they feel threatened by Dowd's premise, but because it seems so far-fetched, what's the point? Men may one day become extinct. Whatever.

At the same time, Dowd's book, to be released in Australia today, will probably be more significant than it should be. It will generate controversy and debate in a conversation that's not only becoming increasingly stagnant, but that's also considered irrelevant by an entire generation of women. Not only will Dowd's book receive attention because of her strong media profile and the controversial marketability of her argument: it will also be discussed and argued and pulled apart because feminism lost its spark a long time ago.

So maybe it does take someone like Dowd, with her ironically retro views, filled with clever catchphrases and quotes from scientists, to make feminism sexy again. Perhaps there is nowhere for feminist discussion to go but into some kind of pseudo-scientific debate that views the relationship between men and women as driven purely by reproduction. I hope not.

It seems a little depressing that we get so excited that it may be technically possible for women to reproduce without men, therefore making women a superior species, when we continue to live in a culture where women hold only 8.4 per cent of senior management positions and earn about $120 a week less than men.

So what if women can breed on their own? They are also the ones to put their careers on hold if they want to have a family and who spend half their lives with body image anxiety at least partially fuelled by media representations of what a woman is supposed to look like.

These issues are complicated. Women can vote, they can work, they can study. Legally, they are equal to men. It's not as simple as marching on the streets and fighting for equal opportunities when, technically, we have them. It's much easier to write books declaring women superior to men because of their newfound ability to reproduce on their own. It's much more fun to interview scientists who say things like, "The Y married up, the X married down."

Dowd is smart and stylish and sexy and successful. She's single and childless and fulfilled. But there are plenty of other women who are also smart and stylish and sexy and successful. They have a partner and children and are fulfilled. Feminism is not about one gender being superior to the other or about one lifestyle choice being better than another.

Feminism needs young women and men to jump on its bandwagon if we're to continue making positive changes that result in a more equal and just society. For this to happen, we need discussion that is meaningful and relevant, not merely controversial and extreme.

Feminism is supposed to improve people's lives in an emotional and practical way, and going on about how one gender is defunct because some scientists figured out how to clone a sheep is not the way to go about it.

Winnie Salamon teaches media and communications at Melbourne University.


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