Post Road Magazine #12

On the Dating Prospects of Feminist Daughters, or Dear Maureen

Manjula Martin

Dear Ms. Dowd:

I’m writing to thank you for your recent concern about modern girls. As one of them, I’d like to let you know that we are doing okay; in fact, we’re going to be just fine.

I’m a member of the generation of women you appear to be speaking of, or for, in your recent New York Times Magazine article “What’s a Modern Girl to Do?” (October 30, 2005; excerpted from the book Are Men Necessary? When Sexes Collide). I am, however, not a junior editor or a PR rep or a Harvard M.B.A. candidate; although I did spend my early twenties in New York, I’m now a San Franciscan, and in San Francisco, as you may have heard, we modern girls do things a little differently. When we vote for mayor, we choose between two young candidates, both of whom are pro-gay-marriage and anti-pro-life. We read McSweeney’s and Adbusters, not New York and AdWeek. We watch independent and documentary films along with our Katherine Hepburn and Bridget Jones fixes. We listen to you on “Fresh Air with Terri Gross,” but we also listen to underground rock bands you’ve probably never heard of. My friends and I are young, intellectual, and artistic-minded women between the ages of 25 and 35. We are overwhelmingly single, and most of us are struggling with the search for a partner. (I won’t say a husband, because many of us don’t want a husband. The same goes for children, by the way.) We are, much like the women whom you cite in your article, part of a very particular demographic: economically comfortable, well-educated, liberal, mainly white, straight, and urban. We were raised in the late 1970s, all over this country, but we grew into women in the late 1990s in the buildings and streets of New York, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Chicago. Our mothers were stay-at-home moms, hippies, nurses, small-business owners, daughters of doctors who became members of the SDS. They were divorced or married or abandoned or independent—all, in some way, true members of their generation: feminists. We don’t claim to represent all, or even many, young women in this country. But I think you might be interested in what we have to say.

Courtship

Since I was old enough to date, I’ve been told by male friends, coworkers, and lovers that men are intimidated by me. An intelligent and unafraid female with a thorough knowledge of traditionally boy-dominated territories such as music, books, film, and politics, I always assumed this was my fate: The smart single modern girl, doomed to a life of loneliness because no man wants a woman who is his intellectual or cultural equal (not to mention, God forbid, his superior). I, like you, am currently single. And like many women my age, I’ve met men through friends, work, on the internet, at bars, and randomly walking down the street, but lately nothing seems to stick. Men tend to hear about my extensive record collection or my intellectually satisfying, politically correct job or the novel I’m writing that actually sounds like it’s going to be good, and they don’t call again. This has been my experience more frequently than not—and, I gather, your experience as well: The Intimidation. I hear you, Ms. Dowd. I relate. We talk about it all the time, my sharp girlfriends and I. In fact, we are often so concerned with whether or not a man will choose us, as we are, smart and sassy, that we sometimes forget that we, too, are involved in choosing our mates.

You have bravely shared your own dating experiences in your article; I’ll share one of my own with you. I recently met a man, online, who was the embodiment of success in my particular demographic: an attractive, bespectacled, fashionable, well-read, guitar-playing designer who works for Google—Ms. Dowd, this is the modern-day San Francisco equivalent of meeting JFK Jr., before that whole George magazine thing. Oh, and he’s straight, too.

On our first date, the Google boy took my arm, like an old movie star, as we walked from the bar to the restaurant. He chose the wine, and paid the check, and even retrieved his car from a prime and rare parking spot just to drive me home across two neighborhoods. He touched me, made eye contact—all the usual first-date signs that things were going well. But then came The Moment. I was in the middle of eloquently and graciously pronouncing my informed opinion of one of his (and my) favorite musicians when he said to me, “Wow, you’re great. I have never met a girl who knows as much about music as you do.” And I, who have heard that a hundred times before and know that it never means I’m great for him, decided for once to be my true flippant self and replied, “Oh, that’s what all the boys tell me.” It was at that moment that I knew exactly how the date would, and did, end: In his car with me saying, “Thanks, I had a nice time,” and him saying, “Yeah. Uh. So. Give me a call if you want to, like, go see a band sometime or something,” and patting me on the leg as I unbuckled my seatbelt.

I chalked it up to The Intimidation. Again. I figured that he, like most men I’ve met lately, was looking for a girl eager to be taught, molded— fast to giggle and shrug when he explains the user interface mode of his latest design project, or sigh in ecstatic wonder at the expansive contents of his iPod. He wanted someone who could take recommendations, not give them. But boys like him don’t come around that often in this town, so I thought I’d just make sure: I called him the following week, in intentional violation of archaic don’t-pursue-him rules (which, yes, we do still pay occasional attention to) and he said, “I don’t think it’s going to work out.”

Intimidated successful man: 1.

Intimidating successful woman: zero.

Two months later, however, the Google boy emailed me to say he was single again and invite me to his housewarming party. I arrived at the party armed with a girlfriend. He opened the door, flashed that adorable smile, and promptly turned to welcome another guest. My friend and I wandered the party, absorbing the ambience of his home and his social circle. It looked like the man had gone out and bought the whole Restoration Hardware catalogue, mixed in a little Ikea, added a dash of genuine (and overpriced) mid-century modern, and called it a night. Room upon room was full, yet strangely void of personality. His home said, “Look at me! I have money and have bought Culture, but there is no representation of my actual taste or personality in my home.” His party guests didn’t say much more than that, either. The entire evening was an exercise in fashion without style, décor sans personality, social graces that are anything but graceful: a blank, boring, money-centric crowd mainly interested in talking about how lucky they are to be “in” on the second coming of the dot-com “revolution.” So we left. I never called the Google boy again.

Intimidated successful man: zero.

Intimidating successful woman: knows a zero when she sees one, stock options notwithstanding.

Power Dynamics

You see, Ms. Dowd, when it comes to modern girls and relationships, many of us don’t care that successful men are intimidated by us. Whether by positive or negative example, we modern girls learned from our mothers that it’s not just about what men want; it’s about what we want, and maybe we don’t want them. While it’s true that we experience The Intimidation with frustrating frequency, it’s also true that we are not, in these modern times, obligated or even inclined to choose a man who is scared of us. Even if the Google boy had not been intimidated by me, once I got close enough to his so-called successful world, with its personality-free accoutrements and denizens, I ran as fast I could—away. Maybe I’d rather be with a man who has real, values-inspired success. Thanks largely to previous generations of feminism, I have the luxury of measuring a man’s success by his passions, his community, his friends, and yes, his style— not by his paycheck or his educational pedigree. And I’m perfectly happy to not settle until I find a man who feels the same way. I’d rather be single than bored, and I’d rather marry “down” than be talked down to. If I have to wait around a little while for a man who doesn’t think in terms of marrying “up” or “down” at all, but rather thinks in terms of creating and tending to a strong, titillating relationship with someone considered his “match” in every way? I’ll wait. Even if he pumps gas for a living. And even if I’m contributing to alarmingly low birthrates in the process.

Statistically speaking, modern girls are indeed in trouble if, as you claim, men tend to marry “down” while women strive to marry “up.” But is that true? Who have you been hanging out with, Ms. Dowd? A PhD-candidate girlfriend of mine, who is in her mid-twenties, has been in a happy and equal partnership with a car mechanic for more than six years. I myself have dated men who are waiters, retail clerks, and manual laborers, and found with each of them more happiness and intellectual stimulation than with the lawyers, computer programmers, and business-owners I never moved past three dates with. A highly paid, Ivy League-educated male friend of mine recently told me that he wants to quit his job and be a stay-at-home dad. Another male friend, a successful rock musician with groupies coming out of his ears, recently called me to wail, “When will I meet a woman who has something to say?” In my circles, I don’t see women trying to marry up or men trending toward marrying down. I see people marrying whomever they happen to fall in love with. And that is the most feminist kind of marriage there is.

I was raised with the understanding that feminism meant more than having the same successes as men; feminism was, inherently, about redefining the terms of success—and, implicity, of power—itself. And in many ways it’s worked. Many women my age don’t want to live as equals in a man’s world: we want to make our world and our relationships work on different terms altogether. Current-day feminism no longer means saying no to children and marriage or acting like men in the boardroom. It means creating a culture and an economy and a society that works not on male terms, or female terms, or any set of Rules previously published, but rather on humanistic terms. In our relationships and in our careers, we value creativity, integrity, and strength—real, internal strength—over money or status or dating etiquette or whatever it happens to say beneath your name on your business card.

Women such as myself are not imitating men anymore (in fact, as you’ve suggested, we’re now intimidating them). We’re not using the old measures of success or virility or long-term stability to vet our future mates, and we’re looking for men who don’t use those measures either. You may remember a little thing called the dot-com bubble. In addition to changing the face of the economy, that era also changed the definition of success for many in our generation. Young, creative men and women were making millions running businesses on their own terms, without college degrees, wearing jeans to the office, having couches in the conference room. Don’t think we didn’t notice. We did, and we learned that there are ways of defining success that have nothing to do with the Ivy League or navy blue suits, just as there ways of being respected that have more to do with being an engaged and decent person than with who has the most employees or the most money or the best mid-century modern furniture.

Style Versus Substance

Perhaps at this point I should say that I deeply respect you and your work, Ms. Dowd. You are a role model for many young female writers and thinkers. We read the New York Times as well as Cosmopolitan and He’s Just Not That Into You. Despite what you may observe, many of us want to ingest intellectually substantial culture. We love you for your substance, for your witty one-liners, for pantsing the political world every week and taking a shortcut directly through the spin zone and telling it like it is. When I first saw that La Dowd had finally—finally!—tackled the state of feminism in the New York Times Magazine, I was thrilled. Then I opened the magazine, and I saw what I always see: more little tidbits about how hard it is to snag a man. What gives with all the lipstick talk? By penning what amounts to a trend article about the implications of dating etiquette for young women, you are suffering from the same symptoms you’ve harshly diagnosed in my generation: a willingness to spend thousands of words doing the op-ed equivalent of text-messaging about boys. I too can’t resist certain feminine weaknesses—a chick flick here, a man-bought dinner there. But that does not mean that I am undisturbed by the long-term social and political implications of the ongoing battle for the Supreme Court, or any of the other myriad terrifying obstacles threatening women today. We young women may, in your opinion, be frittering away our hard-earned rights while we’re shopping and sculpting our curves, but we do, in fact, know what those rights are—and we understand what it would mean to lose them. So please give us modern girls a little credit, Ms. Dowd; give our mothers, our teachers, our role models, and “outspoken” women like yourself a little credit. Please don’t give us the kind of reading materials that we’re already drowning in— don’t waste your precious front-of-book placement and your prodigious verbal skill on Bikramming and The Offer. We are listening and we are ready to be engaged. This isn’t “Sex and the City”; it’s our lives. Tell us something our televisions haven’t already told us.

In the first paragraph of your article, you identify your college-age lifestyle as consonant with that of the fictional Carrie Bradshaw (the implied character comparison being, I suppose, to Miranda, the shoulder-pad-wearing career woman, or Samantha, who beds and treats men the way that some men do women). At the time of the women’s movement, you were, you divulge, more interested in style and fun than sexism and freedom from it. Ms. Dowd, I am very sorry to inform you that, with this article, you’re still coming off like Carrie Bradshaw: still more interested in the stylish, outward trappings of female life than in the substance of female struggle. You have written a Carrie Bradshaw column, straight out of the unnecessary voiceover genre, coining witty-yet-vague new verbiage about relationships and spending more time talking about fashion than about what’s really going on in the world. I, perhaps because I’m a product of these times, have seen and practically memorized every episode of “Sex and the City,” and I can’t help but recognize the plot-arc similarities between your article and the oft-identified-with protagonist of that ubiquitous modern-girl television show.

Both you and Carrie begin with genuine enough theses. Carrie asks, “Can women have sex like men have sex?”; you ask, essentially, “Did feminism fail?”—and then, for six seasons, or six pages, you both go on to talk about dating and boys and outfits and yoga. Carrie ends up married, to the successful man who treated her rather badly years ago, causing some longtime viewers to doubt her merit as an iconic “new woman,” but nonetheless wish they could trade places with her. You end up writing a trend-centric article in the pages of a powerful media outlet, causing longtime (young, female) readers to doubt your merit as a living feminist role model. Women my age are talking about your article, and most of us are wondering: is La Dowd even more conflicted than we are? Why does she rail about feminism failing, and then voice concern over women not being able to catch husbands? And, more importantly, why is she declaring our generation ignorant, essentially blaming us for her inability to come up with some trace evidence that the feminist movement was indeed worthwhile?

In addition to the alleged lack of feminist awareness in my peers that you are so concerned about in your article, one striking difference between our current generation of young women and previous ones is the uncanny meta-cultural and media awareness we possess. Thanks to the “T.M.I.” age—the ability to Google our blind dates, watch 24-hour news streams, blog our working lives as they occur, and see behind the façade of entertainment through the magic of reality television—modern girls are not blind to the complexities and contradictions of our world. We are inundated, daily, through a variety of media, with the transparency of both the system and the revolution. And we’ve ingested a vast many grains of salt along with our MTV and our blogs and our podcasts. So we ask your understanding if we seem a little less idealistic than the first feminists were. Forgive us if we don’t think there’s going to be a revolution (or at least not the same revolution that our foremothers called for). Forgive us, and then thank your lucky stars that we young women have mastered ADD-paced cultural absorption and multitasking, because we are uniquely qualified to filter through all the static of this modern age and, hopefully, come up with the next approach—our own, new kind of feminist “revolution.”

Magazine Women

Don’t get me wrong, Ms. Dowd—I do indeed share your concern over Maxim and Cosmo girls and other disconcerting incidences of “retro raunch.” But frankly, I’m tired of hearing about it. I don’t want to read about one more shocked discovery of Hook-Up Parties or Stripper Med-Students or Friends With Benefits—or another feature in the Sunday Styles section about friends with benefits who throw hookup parties where stripper med-students perform. Because for every girl who Goes Wild (and every publication that wildly goes after the played-out “sexy” story, every time), there are legions of young women starting their own businesses, running their own publications, writing about what it’s really like to be a member of our modern society. So let’s talk more about, and with, the women who are involved in running or founding the magazines BUST, Zoetrope: All-Story, and The Believer, the sex-positive businesses Good Vibrations and Nerve.com, the (admittedly old-school-feminist leaning) journal BITCH, and the blogs feministing.com and Wonkette, to name just a highly visible few. What are they up to? And I don’t mean, do they refer to women as “girls” or as “ladies”—I mean, really, what are they up to?

All that sexy-thin, retro-raunch stuff, worrisome though it may be, seems to me to speak more to the current general backwards march of our political climate than it does to the specific, experiential progress of feminism—a topic you know plenty about, and which I wish you had spent a little more time addressing than your own dating dilemmas. Your focus on the negative aspects of our youth culture betrays what looks suspiciously to me like a lack of trust. You yourself are a famously drop-deadgorgeous woman, as the newspapers and magazines that eagerly publish your sexy author photograph attest to, but anyone who has actually read you would be laughed out of the room for suggesting you aren’t highly intelligent, aware, and deeply involved in encouraging change in this country’s political landscape. And yet you chastise women of my generation for displaying any outward signs of the same disingenuity you enjoy. You wear fishnet stockings and live a liberated, independent lifestyle; are we not allowed to do the same?

I am genuinely disturbed when I see my teenage half-sisters’ bedroom walls plastered with pictures of the cast of “The O.C.” and Kiera Knightley’s impossibly pre-pubescent physique and ripped-out makeup tip pages from TeenPeople magazine, just as I’m worried that my best friend (who recently changed her name when she married at age 27) is pregnant and may not return to her career after her child is born. But ultimately I trust the women of my generation and the feminist values with which we were raised. I know that my sisters look up to me and my non-leg-shaving, school-teaching stepmother much more than they look up to Lindsay Lohan. I know that my pregnant best friend is in fact the strongest and most self-actualized woman I have ever had the privilege to love and learn from. And I know that for every hour I myself spend wishing I could lose that last five pounds or watching “America’s Next Top Model” or wondering why he’s Just Not That Into Me—and there are many—I spent much more of my time and my intellect creating and thinking and analyzing and generally succeeding at being a truly liberated modern woman.

And the Future. . .

While modern women are, as you suspect, somewhat caught up in the particular popular and social trends of the moment, we are also hard at work figuring out how we, as feminists, fit into this moment. You speak honestly about the constraints and conformity you felt were emblematic of the “old” feminism. Keeping that in mind, might I suggest that taking post-post-post feminists to task for all our little vagaries is perhaps not the best way to drive your message home to us? Ms. Dowd, we are young, and when you deem new feminists un-feminist because of our penchant for sexy lingerie, we only hear what you heard back in the ’60s: an older generation complaining about Those Crazy Kids and not allowing a younger generation their own chance at self-discovery. In your essay, you speak of feminism as though it was something that has been declared “done.” We accomplished it; we finished; we declared women equal, and now, oops, has it failed? Of course we’re not done, Ms. Dowd; we haven’t even slowed down. We’re just doing things differently than your generation did, backed with the knowledge of what you learned, which was backed with the knowledge of what your mothers learned, all the way back to Mother Jones, and Eve, and whoever. Social evolution ain’t over until Mother Nature sings. Give us a few decades, or cultural trends, and we’ll make you something you just might like.

In the meantime, please take a closer look at today’s young women. This is what freedom looks like: it’s messy. It’s conflicted. It’s not immune to the world in which it thrives, not removed from political swings rightward or pop-culture zeitgeists or ignorance. Letting people make their own choices doesn’t necessarily—or ever—guarantee they’ll make the right choices. Feminism doesn’t guarantee that every woman will reject marrying, having children, being dangerously thin, or getting taken out to dinner. Put in terms you might relate to: it’s similar to the way in which freedom of speech is inclusive of the freedom of jackasses and bigots to speak out, as well as the freedom of smart, snarky opinion columnists to rant about dating dilemmas and the right of political reporters with questionable motivations and ethics to go to jail for refusing to reveal their sources.

This is what your generation of women, what feminism, has done for us: we will do whatever we damn well please. We will dump cute, up-andcoming Jimmy Stewart and go back to washed-up, intelligent Cary Grant because Grant can hold his own in an argument with us. We will embrace our inner Donna Reed, or our inner Angelina Jolie, or our inner Maureen Dowd, if that’s the direction our hearts and souls and intellects tell us is right for us. We will do everything Fred Astaire does, but backwards and in Manolo Blahniks; we will decide to do nothing Fred does, and walk right next to him in Converse sneakers, or maybe make like Garbo and ask only to be Left Alone. We’ll look up to Veronica Mars or Marissa Cooper, Britney Spears or Kim Gordon, Carrie Bradshaw, Samantha Jones, Madeleine Albright, Condi Rice. We will be all those archetypes, separately, or at the same time, or one after another. And we can. So thanks for that. Really.

And we deeply appreciate your concern, and we even appreciate your somewhat annoying PR frenzy. We appreciate your efforts to instigate this still-relevant conversation over morning coffee, on lunch breaks, in locker rooms, living rooms, bars, subway cars, and corner offices. But don’t you worry your pretty red head about us, Ms. Dowd. We’re out here. We can handle it. And we’re doing alright, thanks for asking. We’re finding it, the One and the Many and the Retro and the Next, for ourselves. It is, as you fear, a zigzag progression. But who are we to say, how are we to know, exactly when it’s done, when we’ve achieved it? Well, like my mother—and like other mothers, for hundreds of years past and, apparently, 8,000 years into the future—always said: when you find it, you’ll know.

Respectfully yours, Ms. Manjula Martin San Francisco, CA

Manjula Martin is a San Francisco–based writer, editor, and rocker. When she’s not penning screeds, she’s working on her first novel, a memoir thinly veiled as fiction. More of her writing can be found on her blog, www.scenesfromthenext.blogspot.com.

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